My sweetheart and I have chronic wanderlust. So after five months of staying home, we’d developed serious cabin fever and began to wonder about the logistics of taking a holiday during a pandemic. Could it be done safely? Where could we go? Could we even do anything once we got there?
With no chance of an international escape, we decided to set our sights on somewhere closer to home. As California transplants, the Sunshine State is full of exciting new destinations for us, and we settled on the Florida Keys. Key West is a day’s drive from Sarasota and possesses a unique history, beautiful architecture, a solid assortment of ghost stories and, most importantly, plenty of outdoor activities.
For lodging, we opted to book an Airbnb one block away from Old Town’s Duval Street. This gave us the luxury of having a central place to cool down (sans mask) during the sweltering afternoon hours. It also provided a full kitchen, so we had the option of preparing our own food if we wanted to. The self-check-in reduces exposure, although we missed saying hello to our hosts; part of the fun of travel is meeting new people.
Upon arriving in Key West, it was immediately apparent that the city is making efforts to promote safety practices such as mandatory mask-wearing in public spaces and social distancing. There are billboards, signs in store windows and sidewalk banners that remind people to mask up and wash their hands. Businesses are also taking proactive safety measures, including limiting the number of guests in stores and putting up plexiglass dividers at checkouts.
Many of the shopkeepers and tour guides we spoke to agreed that this was a rare opportunity to visit the Keys without hordes of other tourists. It was most apparent during our snorkeling trip with Fury Water Adventures. Because they’ve reduced the number of guests on each tour to allow for social distancing, boats feel less cramped. Though we brought our own gear, the crew carefully explained their sanitation methods for both equipment and for the boat itself. It was certainly unusual to be wearing a bikini and a face mask, but it was well worth it for a morning swim with nurse sharks.
Though we were hesitant to spend too much time in indoor spaces, museums such as the famous Hemingway Home were open and experiencing less foot traffic. We poked our head into the Fort East Martello Museum to say hello to the notorious haunted doll Robert and his pet lion Leo. Being virtually the only ones poking around the old fort definitely added to the haunted feeling.
Shops along Duval Street were also open for business and after repeatedly window-browsing the wares at Key West Pottery, we found ourselves with some beautiful ceramic souvenirs.
Mostly, though, we just walked around and enjoyed being out of the house. Virtually any street in Old Key West is stunning, with classic conch-style cottages and grand estates featuring sweeping verandas and decorative shutters. There are retro theater marquees, lush landscapes, historical markers and the spooky Key West cemetery to take in when you're just strolling around.
Now for the big question. Did we dare eat out?
Yes. After nearly half a year of cooking our own meals, we wanted to eat restaurant cuisine and drink a beer on draft. Fortunately, Key West offers plenty of open-air dining, with room to eat while remaining appropriately distanced from others. It was strange, of course, to be waited on by masked servers and have a temperature gun pointed at our foreheads before being shown to our table. However, I appreciate the attention to safety for both guests and staff.
Bars that don’t serve food are closed, which meant we couldn’t visit famed establishments like Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s. However, it’s still possible to enjoy a pint in the beer garden at First Flight Brewery or grab a daiquiri at Fogarty’s Flying Monkey Saloon to sip on while you wander down to the southernmost point. (I highly recommend the Miami Vice flavor.)
It was rejuvenating to have an adventure, although the experience was bittersweet. Missing famed attractions, wearing admittedly uncomfortable masks, feeling isolated from others and perpetually dousing yourself in hand sanitizer does take away from the escapism of travel. However, we did get to see new sights, learn more about Florida history, try delicious Cuban cuisine and help support local businesses during a crisis, which all felt pretty great.