By Steve Pike
To many first-timers to Key West, and even frequent visitors, the Conch Republic is all about Duval Street, Mallory Square, Captain Tony’s Saloon, and Sloppy Joe’s Bar. No doubt each has contributed to Key West’s fame (and infamy), but the island has a lot more to share in terms of history and culture.
Where to begin? A good place is Havana Cabana (www.HavanaCabanaKeyWestHotel.com), a 106 room hotel that celebrates Key West’s Cuban heritage, as well as providing colorful island vibes. Located on Roosevelt Avenue, just a 15-minute shuttle ride from Mallory Square, Havana Cabana is a great headquarters for everything Key West. There’s plenty to do on-site, from splashing in the island’s largest freshwater pool, to grabbing a Cuban sandwich, perhaps the best in Key West, at Floridita food truck near the pool and bar area. Oh, and Mojitos Pool Bar, open after hours, serves 25 versions of Cuba’s legendary rum cocktail.
Havana Cabana also has scooters to rent, a fun way to explore Key West, and a concierge who can set up anything from dinners to deep sea fishing. Previously known as The Inn at Key West, the hotel opened this past April after a complete renovation following Hurricane Irma, including the Cuban-themed artwork in the lobby and each guest room. All guest rooms have a pool or gulf view with a lanai or balcony.
“There is a lot of history between Key West and Cuba,’’ said Havana Cabana’s General Manager, Mark Vose. “There are a lot of Key West families that still have relatives in Cuba, so we wanted to tie that in. Nowhere else on Key West will you find a hotel that tries to bring those two cultures together.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in the popularity of the hotel. Our repeat customers, we have a lot of them, are ecstatic about the property and the locals are talking a lot about it.’’
In Key West, there’s always something to talk about and some place to explore. The best way to begin exploring Key West is to ride on the Conch Train (www.ConchTourTrain.com). It’s a 90-minute tour of the island that takes guests to more than 130 sites, including President Harry Truman’s Southern White House (www.TrumanLittleWhiteHouse.com), the marker at the Southernmost point in the U.S. (only 90 miles from Cuba) and Ernest Hemingway’s house (www.HemingwayHome.com). The Spanish Colonial-style house is kept as it was when Papa and his wife, Pilar, lived in it in the 1930s. Tours are available of the home and grounds (complete with the famed “six-toed cats”).
Don’t worry about missing your ride. The Conch Train makes a few stops along its journey, so passengers can get off to explore and then re-board another train to continue the ride. There is no better way to get familiar with Key West.
Hemingway’s likeness and spirit are all over Key West. Did somebody say “spirit?’’ Located in an old brick building only a few blocks off Duval Street, Papa’s Pilar Rum Distillery (www.PapasPilar.com), Hemingway Rum Company, offers daily guided tours of the rum-making process and yes, even a few samples of its Pilar Blonde and Dark rums after each tour. Papa would be proud.
What’s a good rum without a good cigar? Rodriguez Cigar Factory (www.RodriguezCigarsKeyWest.com), has been making hand rolled cigars in Key West for more than 30 years. The Series 84 cigars are regarded as among the finest in the world. The company has a terrific humidor room and co-owner, Danny Difabio, whose grandfather immigrated from Cuba, might even roll you a stogie.
For those who don’t want to fight the Mallory Square crowds for a legendary Key West sunset, hop the ferry for a 10-minute ride to Sunset Key for dinner at Latitudes (www.SunsetKeyCottages.com/Key-West-Restaurants/Latitudes). Make sure to get an outside table for the best sunset view while enjoying the restaurant’s outstanding steak and seafood menu.
So, enjoy a night, a few days, or a week in Key West. The Havana Cabana will make you feel right at home.