Key West is a truly friendly place. One of those rare places, in fact, where you might be a stranger when you arrive on vacation, but you certainly won’t be one when you reluctantly depart. (That is, if you DO depart. Some people, like me, come down for a brief “escape from the real world” and never leave!)
I have a simple theory about the reason for that friendliness: people who live on this tiny coral island, with its funky hotspots and century-old architecture and lively creative community, do so because they CHOOSE to — choose to embrace the offbeat, wonderful, close-to-nature lifestyle and make it their own. And when you’re where you choose to live, your contentment spills over into a good-natured, genuine friendliness.
While it’s easy to make Key West friends virtually anywhere, from the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor to the aisles of Fausto’s Food Palace, some potential friends are well worth seeking out in their own surroundings. Here, spotlighted in a few sentences each, are four of them.
Will Soto: Widely known as one of the guiding spirits behind Key West’s famous nightly sunset celebration in Mallory Square, tightrope walker Will Soto has lived on the island for decades. In fact, he’s a guy who took the art of street performing to new heights! Will’s blend of comic patter and daredevil wire-walking makes him a favorite with crowds at the festival-like gathering. Most evenings — unless the wind is too strong for safety — he can be seen balanced high above his audience, silhouetted against the setting sun.
Peter Anderson: Peter came to Key West in 1985 and in 1990 was appointed the first Secretary General of the Florida Keys’ alter ego, the Conch Republic — sometimes called “the world’s first fifth-world nation” and “a sovereign state of mind.” An author, event coordinator, raconteur, and self-described “debonair devil-may-care dude,” he has represented the Conch Republic on diplomatic missions to Europe and the Caribbean, and at then-President Clinton’s 1994 Summit of the Americas. Coordinator of the annual 10-day Conch Republic Independence Celebration, he ably carries out the republic’s philosophy of “mitigating world tension through the exercise of humor.”
Nance Frank: Nance operates the Gallery on Greene, a unique and colorful enclave of contemporary fine art on Key West’s Greene Street. The gallery offers an extensive collection of locals’ art — including lighthearted paintings by the late Pulitzer Prize-winner and island resident Jeff MacNelly, and the late Cuban-American folk artist Mario Sanchez, whose vibrant painted woodcarvings depict the Key West of his early 1900s boyhood. (FYI, Nance has written books interpreting Mario’s engaging and often slyly humorous artwork.) Also a master sailor, Nance captained the U.S. Women’s Challenge in the Whitbread Round the World Race, and was the first woman skipper of the classic Newport-Bermuda Race and Soviet/U.S. Women’s Sailing Summit.
Buddy Owen: A Conch (Key West native), Buddy is a true local character. He’s the proprietor of B.O.’s Fish Wagon, a tiny, old-fashioned thatched-roof restaurant that looks like something out of “Robinson Crusoe” or “Survivor.” Its funky atmosphere and weathered tables are uniquely Key West, and Buddy himself is a terrific observer of the island’s rhythms and life. His emporium’s specialties include fabulous fresh fish sandwiches (ask him about how the infamous Square Grouper sandwich got its name — trust me, it’s quite a tale!).
Of course, the more time you spend in Key West, the more intriguing people you’ll get to know. Like Jimmy Weekley, a beloved former mayor (and current city commissioner) who can usually be found behind the meat counter at Fausto’s, his family’s grocery store. Or Julie McEnroe, a special event planner and self-proclaimed “wench at heart” who lives aboard the magnificent Schooner Wolf built by her husband. Or Sushi, the elegant drag queen who has become internationally famous for her New Year’s Eve “guest shots” on CNN.
But don’t take my word for it. Make plans now to head for Key West — and discover for yourself an island full of warmhearted, quirky, creative and genuinely welcoming “friends you haven’t met yet.”