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Traveler's Diary

Toasting the Sun, Fun in Key West

March 09, 1986|HORACE SUTTON | Sutton is editor of Signature magazine.

KEY WEST, Fla. — They hate to see the evening sun go down in this toasty tip of the U.S.A. So they make a big celebration every day just before the orange ball drops into the Gulf of Mexico.

As if the sky weren't sufficiently aflame, there are fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, juggling unicycle-riders and one-man and one-woman bands. Hawkers sell Cuban coffee to go with Key lime tarts. "Put a little tart in your life," says the come-on sign.

On her bike the cookie lady weaves in and around the crowd. "Buy one and we both can eat," she implores. Gazo, the street magician, advertises that he comes to the piers directly from Covent Garden, London, England.

Earrings in Style

Earrings are popular, especially with males who wear one on a lobe, never a pair. You can buy a "muscle T-shirt" cut to display your muscles, have your photo taken with Poncho the Parrot--with your camera $1, with their Polaroid $3.50.

While all this is afoot on the piers, flocks of birds fly in the reddening sky, oblivious to the high jinks on the dock, and sailboats and yachts skim the blue waters on the way to tie up at the wharves.

The nearest lodging to the Mallory sunsets is Pier House at the end of Duval Street. The pool is sequestered in a garden and a small beach borders the sea. At the Pier House restaurant the menu is displayed on blackboards and Pete's Raw Bar serves up stone crabs, smoked seafood and shellfish. Havana Docks, looking out to the tableau of tiny islands, boats and dipping and wheeling sea gulls, comes alive at night with a band for dancing.

Key West's newest hotel is a fantasy of Victorian and Bahamian architecture called the Reach. Austin Laber, who built it, calls it his "adult dream." He named it the Reach because he looked it up in the dictionary and came away with the definition: "A pause in an unfinished journey." It doesn't say that in my dictionary, but I shall not argue with him.

What Laber has put together is a hotel with dozens of stylish attractions, parquet floors, carved wooden balconies, a bar-restaurant that is pale pink and white with delicate blue trim, inviting and cool. A second dining room on an upper floor has parquet floors and an open deck where, when the warm breezes blow, parties of four to six can dine within grillwork gazebos.

The menu is a fantasy itself, yellowtail and Caribbean vegetables wrapped in a banana leaf, a "school of Key West shrimp" on tomato-colored fetuccine with red caviar, ravioli stuffed with stone crab, angel hair potatoes served with seafood sausage.

If that isn't enough to stem the ravenous appetite, the Reach maintains a specialty food shop with everything on hand from baguettes to bagels. Grab a pickup lunch and retire to the hotel's library stocked with paperbacks of Key West authors, Hemingway to Tennessee Williams.

The 150 rooms (at $265 a day) come with a wet bar, a new TV set on a pedestal, a coffee maker that goes from coffee beans to a steaming cup on a timer. Japanese kimonos hang in the closet for lolling about one's quarters.

Seaside Suites

Old-style Key West lives on in the Casa Marina, a hotel built by Florida developer Henry Flagler and revived by Marriott. Sitting on the edge of the sea on the Atlantic side, Casa Marina is a welter of wicker and lattice work. The 250 rooms ($250 single or double with an ocean-front balcony until April 12) are being supplemented with the addition of 60 new suites.

Sunday brunch is a main event here, with everything from a baron of beef to sushi. But at Henry's, the prime restaurant, they blacken the yellowtail or bake it in parchment with purple basil.

Off the reservation one can dine northern Italian style at Antonia's on Duval Street--they make pasta in the window--in certain style at the Buttery or downright middle-class Cuban at La Lechonara in the Habana Plaza shopping center at 3100 Flagler.

The byword at Lechonara is "a moment on the lips, forever on the hips."

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