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Darrell Huckaby - 02/18/09

KEY WEST - When it comes to no-holds-barred hedonism I can never decide who takes the prize; Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Duval Street in Key West - but I intend to continue visiting each location until I reach a definitive conclusion.

My lovely wife, Lisa, and I spent Valentine's Day weekend here in the Southernmost City, a stone's throw from the zero mile marker on US I. And what a weekend it was. If you haven't visited the Florida Keys you owe it to yourself to do so, and there is something special about being here, basking in the 70- and even 80-degree temperatures when it's cold and rainy back home. Or just cold.

Heck, it doesn't even have to be all that cold.

So what's to do in Key West? The better question would be, what's not to do? If you can think of it, you can do it. And if you don't want to do anything at all but sit and contemplate the meaning of life, it's a great place for doing that, too. And Duval Street is people-watching heaven.

One day we rented scooters - I mean the kind with motors and a little horn to beep when you are afraid people might not get out of your way. Now renting scooters might not seem like a big deal to a lot of folks, but you have to understand - Lisa and I are bicycle people. We have been known to ride bikes 20 or 30 miles a day on "vacation" and go to bed sore and wake up even sorer. We had always looked down our noses at people zipping along on motorized vehicles, considering them to be spoiled and lazy.

We didn't know what we had been missing for the past 30 years or so. I may never ride a bicycle again! We rented our vehicles for four hours at first but were having so much fun we extended the rental to two days - and even then I had to pry Lisa's hands off the accelerator and force her to turn it in.

We went all over the island - zipping in and out of quaint little neighborhoods, down along the marina and over to Smather's Beach, through Zachary Taylor State Park and even up and down the Duval Street strip - over and over and over. I felt like I was 16 again with a brand new driver's license.

There is fun in the sun in Key West, too, of course. The beaches aren't so broad and sandy as those along the mainland of Florida or South Carolina's Grand Strand - but we found a couple of spots where the water was an indescribable shade of turquoise and the sun was warm and inviting - so inviting that some of the ladies around us decided that swimsuit tops were overrated. Lisa was not one of those ladies, by the way.

One day we took a boat over to the Dry Tortugas - a tiny island chain about 70 miles west of Key West and 60 miles north of Havana. Ponce De Leon happened upon the Tortugas in 1513 and the U.S. Army built a fort there in the 1840s. Now it is a great place to lie around in the sun or do a little snorkeling - and there are several species of birds that nest there and nowhere else in the United States.

Go figure.

You like history? Key West is the site of Harry Truman's Little White House and it is open to the public every day - for a fee, of course. Literature? Ernest Hemingway's most productive years as a writer were spent on Key West and his house, like Truman's, is available to tour. There are also numerous art galleries and museums - including a couple that have tons of real treasure salvaged from shipwrecks during the days the pirates roamed the warm waters surrounding the keys.

"Yo, ho, ho" and all of that stuff.

And the sunsets really are spectacular.

Did I mention food? Fresh local seafood at every turn. Conch fritters - a local delicacy - Florida lobsters, shrimp, grouper - broiled, fried, blackened - you name it, you can get it. And we did. Trust me, we did. Somebody call Belk and tell Miss Emma that I'll be coming in for larger sized trousers next week.

Of course, the heart and soul of Key West, for most younger visitors - and I am rapidly approaching the age when almost every visitor is younger than I - is Duval Street, which is lined on either side with restaurants, stores that range from the mundane to the magnificent, and dozens and dozens of watering holes where live music spills out onto the street at all hours of the day and deep into the night. Some are famous - like Sloppy Joes and Captain Tony's and the Irish Kevin's and the Hogsbreath Saloon - and others merely infamous, like the Bull and Whistle and Garden of Eden complex. You don't have to partake to enjoy the clubs. Like I said, the revelry spills over onto the sidewalk and this place really is people watcher's heaven.

But nothing lasts forever and I will be home just in time for Thursday's 25-degree low.

But Fat Tuesday is next week. Maybe I should take one more look at Bourbon Street - purely for comparison's sake.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.