A great bed and breakfast will make you feel like a regular guest, even if it is your first time. While in Key West we stayed at the Frances Street Bottle Inn, and from the moment we arrived, I knew we would love our time there.
The Bottle Inn was built in 1863, and throughout it’s colorful history it has been a private residence, a general store, a Presbyterian church, a boarding house, and a TV show set. It underwent historical restoration in 1994. The key to our room, the Veranda Suite, was simply clothes-pinned to the mailbox in anticipation of our arrival. The Veranda Suite had a large balcony shaded by an ancient Royal Poinciana tree and complete with a wicker chaise, perfect for afternoon napping.
Mark, our ever-gracious host at the Bottle Inn, helped us to feel completely at home. He was attentive to detail, but not overbearing—there and not there. The overall vibe of the Inn was as laid back as Key West can be, and the Bottle Inn’s hospitality was a big contributor to our happiness at Mile Zero. Thank you Mark.
The Frances Street Bottle Inn is far enough away from the hustle of Key West to retain that quiet neighborhood feeling, but close enough to walk there when you want to wade into the sea-side carnival of Duval Street and Mallory Square.
Key West is a neighborhood village filed with interesting details. Real estate is scarce, so front yards are tiny and lush white-picketed gardens, full of orchids and palms of every variety. As you walk the quiet streets you hear the calming gurgle of courtyard fountains, the quiet click-click-click of passing bicycles, and the simultaneous buzz of cicadas and scooters.
Citizens of the Conch Republic share their island with tourists, but also with the ever-present roosters, which they seem to revere, and the six-toed descendents of Hemingway’s cats. You can turn a corner in a Key West neighborhood, peek over a low wall into someone’s front yard, and see a perfect example of Conch humor and creativity. Whimsical folk art exists aside examples of beautiful tropical architecture and design. The attention to detail is charming and refreshing. After early morning walks in the neighborhood around the Bottle Inn, I returned sweaty from the humid summer air and smiling from each new discovery.
A big part of our visits to Key West revolve around some of the more interesting offshore excursions you can find there. A few years ago we took the Yankee Freedom, a high-speed ferry to historic Fort Jefferson, (you can read about that trip in my article Daydreams and Dostoevsky), but this year we booked a day trip with Danger Charters, and we have no regrets whatsoever. Mark, our host at the Bottle Inn, told us that the trip we were about to take with Danger was voted the best in Key West and number two in all of North America. He wasn’t exaggerating.
Our day with Danger Charters would take place aboard the Sarah, a beautiful sixty-five foot Chesapeake Bay skipjack with a moveable centerboard. This allows the Sarah to sail into waters a shallow as three feet, perfect for a snorkeling trip. The weather that day was too calm for sailing, but perfect for lake-calm snorkeling in the protected waters off Key West.
The Sarah motored out of the harbor with eighteen passengers and three crew: Christian, the skipper, and Jan and Janet, the Sarah’s sun-blond and smiling crewmates. Parasail tours passed us right and left, but soon we were on our own and headed off west toward low and distant mangrove islands. We were completely impressed with the hospitality and care the crew took with all of us. They patiently waited on us hand and foot, serving up delicious food along with an education about our destination, some Key West history, and the ocean wildlife we might see there.
We snorkeled the shallow waters of a marine preserve, remarkable because of the docile nature of the creatures we found there. More than fifteen Giant Southern stingrays shared the warm water with Nurse sharks and assorted tropical reef fish. Thanks to the sharp eyes of crewmate Janet, we were able to see a loggerhead turtle underwater and up close as it crushed a conch shell to get the animal inside. It was an amazing sight.
The Sarah took us to a shallow sandbar after lunch, where we relaxed in clear waist deep water, miles from shore and under a blue sky. The only waves disturbing the surface were from a few passing boats, and when the crew called us back, we were all reluctant to leave.
After a short distance the Sarah crew launched two-person kayaks, pulling them from the cabin below us like clowns getting out of a miniature circus car. We had no idea there could be so many kayaks on board, enough for everyone. A short paddle around a small island gave us a close-up view of Herons and Egrets wading in the grassy shallows. Crewmate Jan shared her extensive knowledge of mangrove species as well as a detailed and swampy show-and-tell of the upside-down jellyfish Casseopia, which “farms” algae on its body in order to benefit from the photosynthetic energy.
A distant waterspout watched over us as we climbed out of our kayaks and back aboard the Sarah. Hemingway would have approved.
On the return trip to Key West, while we all rested and reflected on an incredible day, while we began to give in to the slight disappointment that comes with the end of an adventure, the crew passed out peanut butter cookies. Perfect. A little sugar to sweeten the end of our day. Small details add up to make even bigger memories.
August 11th, 2012