I had a lovely 5 day vacation over the Thanksgiving weekend in Key West, Florida. For those unfamiliar, it is a relatively small coral island that is closer to Havana than Miami, at the end of the Florida Keys, and at the end of highway US1. It's a lovely place that suffers from nice weather 10 months out of the year (the other 2 can be very hot and humid), has a great reef for snorkeling and diving, a lot of history, fantastic restaurants, and many museums and art galleries. The local population is very diverse culturally and politically, and most seem to get along. Their survival depends largely on the tourist industry. There are cruise ships most days of the week, filling up the area of lower Duval Street and tourist haunts such as Sloppy Joe's Bar, Ernest Hemingway's House, and the Southernmost Point in the continental US. There are trolley tours, the famous Conch Train and any kind of tour you can imagine.
I tend to go there for the more quiet side of the island, as well as visiting the many friends I have made there over the years. Deep sea fishing is awesome off the lower and middle Keys, with many boat captains offering competitive half and full day excursions. There's a seaplane as well as a ferry that goes to the Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles west of Key West, with it's amazing 19th century era Fort Jefferson.
The bar scene us unsurpassed, with everything from the falling down wreck of my favorite Schooner Warf Bar at the Key West bight harbor to dive clip joints on lower Duval St. to more classy wine bars further from the
Well you get my drift, Key West is a tourist town, and with that you get to meet a lot of different types of travelers. I've never cared much for the cruise ship passengers. They are usually in town for 4~6 hours, and tend to push their way to the usual tourist traps, and end up having a crappy burger at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurant and gift shop. I avoid that part of town when the cruisies are in town, especially if a Disney boat and its stroller brigades take siege on the town.
This past weekend I noticed a lot of European travelers in town, mostly from Germany and France. The lovely guesthouse where I was fortunate enough to be staying seemed to be largely occupied by folks from abroad. The good here is that these tourists spend a lot of money. They eat out, buy lots of stuff, like to party, and explore the place. The bad is that Europeans are notoriously horrible tippers, when they bother to tip at all; this in an economy where waiters, bartenders, trolley drivers, and tour guides live largely off of tips.
Needless to say, workers in the tourist and food/drink business cringe when a group of Germans, British or French show up. They know that on a $200 bill, they may get a $5 tip, if they get anything at all.
Occasionally I get the chance to play tourist guide and good Samaritan. While having breakfast on the front porch of the guesthouse where I was staying, I met a very nice young couple traveling from Japan. They had a million questions, and I'm always happy to help as much as I can. Unfortunately, the young lady spoke no English, and her husband spoke only a bit, so it took a lot of patience to answer questions, and get them where they wanted to go. I ended up showing them around for about a half day, introducing them to Cuban coffee, a number of landmarks that are off the beaten tourist track, and finally put them on a Trolley Tour, while gently reminding them to tip generously. I came back to my room later that day with a nice bottle of wine waiting me and a nice note thanking me for the nice day out. This is the good part about going on vacation.
I've seen a bit of the ugly over the years, with one incident that could only be classified as grand larceny. A number of years ago, I was having a drink and some appetizers at a very nice restaurant near the cruise ship docks, and in came a very large group of foreign tourists, obviously from a boat. They ran up a bill of over $500, and essentially skipped out on the bill. They all started leaving a couple at a time, and finally the table emptied, and all that was on the table besides food scraps was a $100 bill. The server was on the hook for the other $400 because she is responsible for the check. Not only did she get stiffed on a tip, she had her wages docked. Of course the boat people were long gone and scattered, so no chance of finding them
That incident may be an extreme one, but it is part of the ugly that goes on in a tourist town. It's a tough place to live and work, and folks like me who go there a couple times a year for a vacation don't often get to see just how hard folks there work, often for not much money, in a very expensive town. I've developed a great deal of admiration for those who stick it out, live and work there and operate business there, against very hard conditions at times.
Key West and the Florida Keys remain one of my favorite places in the world, and perhaps one day I'll retire there. There seem to be a lot of older folks who work part time, manage to enjoy the place and make ends meet. Still living in a tourist town sure does have it's good, bad and ugly sides. I'm only scratching the surface here, without even getting into the local politics, the bubba system, and ruthless backstabbing that goes on amongst certain tour companies.
I can recommend to anyone who likes the water, history, good food, relaxation, and truly friendly people in a tropical environment, while staying within the safety of the US. Come on down, bring a smile, a good attitude, and you will have a ball. I guarantee it!
UPDATE: I leave you with local musician Michael McCloud performing Schooner Warf Bar Dog, taped by my friend Joe, a retired cameraman and videographer of "Parrots Eye Video":