23 August 2018
KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Imagine a subtropical island paradise in the continental United States with an atmosphere that is equal parts exotic, eccentric and enticing. A destination where rainbow flags fly proudly at homes and businesses. A place where wildly colorful and fragrant flowers — royal poinciana, hibiscus and bougainvillea — frame historic homes that once sheltered gay and lesbian literary legends including Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill.
Imagine a Florida Keys island where year-round temperatures average 77.8 degrees Fahrenheit. A destination where more than 300,000 LGBTQ travelers visit each year.
The place is Key West, at the tip of the Florida Keys coral archipelago, 159 miles southwest of Miami by road. Two turquoise-hued bodies of water — the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico — surround this scenic 2-by-4-mile island.
Key West’s accommodations are appealing and diverse, with choices ranging from luxury hotels to historic inns and quaint bed-and-breakfasts that are either LGBTQ-oriented or all-welcome. With small-town friendliness that embraces all, Key West is widely acclaimed as an international destination.
First settled in the early 1800s, the island was a renegade seaport, home to Caribbean pirates and Prohibition-era rumrunners. Authors Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, perhaps the town’s most famous residents, arrived in the 1930s and ’40s and helped establish the rich cultural community that still draws writers and artists today.
Famed for its live-and-let-live atmosphere, Key West consistently is ranked as a top LGBTQ resort destination. Many visitors who self-identify as LGBTQ say they feel more at ease on the inviting island than anywhere else in the world.
Even the city’s political arena reflects this easygoing, free-spirited attitude. Key West was the first city in the United States to elect an openly gay mayor, and the rainbow flag is displayed beside the American flag outside City Hall and in city commission chambers.
The official Key West city motto, One Human Family, proclaims equality and acceptance for all people and is recognized throughout the world. Monroe County, encompassing the entire Florida Keys island chain, also adopted One Human Family as its official unifying motto.
Today, Key West has a gay police chief and many other gay or lesbian elected and appointed officials. One Human Family bumper stickers can be seen on public vehicles such as police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.
Key West’s architectural heritage is as enticing as the island’s natural beauty. Lovingly restored Victorian frame houses with wraparound verandas often are flanked by charming cottages. The island’s historic district, with more than 3,000 wooden structures, is considered the largest predominantly wooden designated historic quarter in the United States.
Famed Duval Street, Key West’s main thoroughfare, stretches from the Atlantic to the gulf and features thriving art and photography galleries, tropical boutiques, shops and restaurants. LGBTQ nightlife centers around Duval’s “Pink Triangle” district with lively bars, drag shows and entertainment.
Rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker’s famed 1.25-mile-long Key West flag made history on Duval Street as the world’s longest symbol of gay pride in 2003. More than 2,000 people joined to unfurl the flag when it debuted at that year’s Pride celebration.
Key West also is home to a city-sponsored AIDS Memorial, where visitors can gather for reflection at the White Street Pier beside the Atlantic Ocean. Other scenic outdoor reflection spots include Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and the Key West Garden Club’s headquarters at West Martello Tower, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Along the harbor front, a nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square draws visitors and residents of all ages to applaud colorful street performers and browse local artisans’ wares while watching the sun sink below a watery horizon. Many hope to glimpse the green flash, an optical phenomenon in which part of the setting sun suddenly and briefly appears to change color.
As appealing as the island itself are the waters that surround it. Just 7 miles offshore lies the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef, offering unparalleled diving and snorkeling.
For LGBTQ visitors, the relaxing and warmly accepting destination of Key West is a place to be honest and open. It’s a place to make new lifelong friends, dress up or dress down, play from dawn to dusk, party into the wee morning hours or simply luxuriate in laziness.
In fact, the subtropical island of Key West — easily accessible but exotically alluring — is an LGBTQ vacation venue unlike any other.
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/gay, fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
Gay Key West Visitor Center: gaykeywestfl.com, 305-294-4603 or 1-800-535-7797
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