THE KEYS TO FLORIDA Key West is a mixed bag of the gracious and the graceless, charming tourists and dropouts alike

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Be Nice," says the bumper sticker on the airport taxi.

Whoa . . . what planet is this?

The same one whose Jersey-born mayor likes to brag about his past as a gambler and gun runner; the same one that, in a dispute with the U.S. Customs Bureau several years ago, declared itself an independent nation and applied for foreign aid; the same one whose cemetery contains such quirky gravestone epitaphs as: "I told you I was sick" and "At least I know where he's sleeping tonight."

This is Key West, Fla., where waywardness is cultivated and eccentricity celebrated. Here, as the locals say, it's normal to be a little crazy.

Ernest Hemingway once quipped that he had moved to Key West in 1928 because there was "nowhere else left to run."

Indeed, this is the end of the line -- literally, the southernmost city on the U.S. East Coast -- just 90 miles from Cuba -- and the last resort for dropouts of all ages fleeing the pressures, responsibilities and norms of straiter-laced locales.

It is also, of course, a real resort, a tourist-trampled hot spot for Northerners fleeing the chilly scenes of winter. Come January, the permanent population of 33,000 swells to 60,000; some 1 million people a year visit the tiny 2-by-4-mile island, which sits dramatically between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Down they come, driving the 159 motel- and trailer park-cluttered miles of U.S. 1 from Miami through 40-something other keys; flying into the tiny Key West Airport on little prop planes; or sailing into port on private yachts or cruise ships.

Here, they find clear blue fishing waters, fine seafood restaurants, some of the prettiest gingerbread architecture anywhere, and shopping for everyone.

Accommodations run the gamut from budget chain motels to waterside deluxe resorts and pretty guest houses with morning

croissants by the pool and sherry at tea time.

The main drag

Key West's main drag is Duval Street -- bursting with noisy bars and bistros, galleries, craft shops and knickknack nooks. Although it's only 1.3 miles long, locals like to say it's the longest street in the world, because it runs all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. There it dead ends into the T-shirt stands, shell shops and other tourist traps around Mallory Square -- famous for its nightly off-the-wall sunset celebration.

The town is nothing if not eclectic. Hit Key West on certain weekends and you could encounter a gay drag ball and a Cuban Sweet 16 dance. A famous jazz musician may be sizzling at one of the swank resorts, while, on the street, an anonymous performer with a song in his head beats out a Latin tempo on the pavement with two sticks.

Around town, meanwhile, packs of tourists wield minicameras and mammoth video recorders; wildly dressed men and women swallow fire and juggle live and inanimate objects simultaneously; and aging hippies wonder -- out loud, at times -- where the '60s went and who invited all these tacky people.

Sensory overload can come fast and fierce.

But wait: Blessedly nearby, Key West has a more subtle soul. Just a short stroll from Duval's glare, tree-shaded side streets remain tranquilly oblivious to the neighboring hubbub.

Vibrant bougainvillea and frangipani, tall gnarled banyans, airy palms and dense green avocados -- the amount and variety of tropical foliage will make you think you've wandered onto some Caribbean island.

You can spend hours strolling along the quiet lanes, gazing admiringly at the gingerbread architecture -- much of it painted pastel shades of pink or blue, or lime green. Some of the houses are lavishly landscaped and opulently adorned with graceful verandas, porticos and columns; others are just humble, even ramshackle, cottages.

Pick up a copy of "The Pelican Path," a street-by-street guide to the city's historic houses, and the "Solaris Hill Walking and Biking Guide," which has maps of scenic and cultural routes in and around town. Both are free at the Key West Chamber of Commerce in Mallory Square, as well as at hotels around town.

Guided literary walking tours also are available. You'll see the homes of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Robert Frost, among others. The city boasts eight Pulitzer Prize-winning writers among its past or present residents.

Tombstones and crypts

For a bit of solitude, walk north to the city's 21-acre cemetery -- and wander among the tombstones and crypts. In line with the quirkiness of Key West's lifestyle is its unique "death" style. Here you'll find the tombs of pet deer and puppies -- with passionate odes to their passing -- as well as an as-yet-unoccupied grave. The live owner has been diligently adding to his marble memorial all the nicknames he has acquired through the years.

The most famous epitaph is the one of B. P. Roberts, 1929 to 1979, which says: "I told you I was sick," but perhaps equally intriguing is the tribute to one Thomas Fromer, 1783 to 1891: "A good citizen for 65 years," says the gravestone, making one wonder what he was up to the other 43 years of his life.

While many of the city's charms are off the guided path, there are some touristy things worth doing.

One of these is a tour on the Old Town Trolley, a motorized Victorian-style vehicle, which makes a 90-minute loop around Key West and environs that will give you a good feel for the city and get you oriented. For those without cars, this is a good way to see Key West's outskirts, including the Garrison Bight Marina, where the charter fishing boats are moored, as well as most of the island's public beaches. Just offshore, near the Key West Airport, you'll pass some of the wackiest looking houseboats you're ever likely to encounter.

The trolley stops at many of the city's tourist sights and at several hotels, and you can get off and on all day. The Conch Train -- a motorized contraption with open sides and pulled by a jeep dressed up to look like a conductor's car -- covers much of the same turf, but doesn't let you off en route.

Once you've done the trolley, you'll be ready to explore on your own, on foot or by bicycle. Whatever you do, don't rent a car, unless you're driving from the mainland or plan to explore the other Keys. Traffic in Key West can be horrendous, and for the few places too far to hoof it, take a taxi. The 10-minute cab ride from the airport will set you back $8, and most rides around town won't be more than $5. Don't stay earthbound, though. An island is as much about water as it is about land, so be sure to mix plenty of surf with your turf.

Hemingway's idea of heaven was fishing for marlin -- and you can fish, too, on one of the many charter boats or party launches you'll find hawked around town.

If angling doesn't hook you, take a day trip on one of the snorkel and dive boats that leave from the pier alongside the Ocean Key House hotel at the foot of Duval Street near Mallory Square. All gear is provided.

For true tranquillity, take a sea kayak day trip in the shallow back country flats half an hour north of Key West off Stock Island, (305) 294-7178. The easy paddling adventure, run by Dan McConnell, a former Chicago anthropologist with a fascination for marine life, will have you gliding among waving reeds and dense mangrove islands, where you'll encounter assorted creatures from pelicans to porpoises, fire orange sponges, shallow coral and big-nose bass.

If beaches are your passion, Key West will not thrill you. Except for the diminutive private beach on the gulf at the Pier House hotel and the bigger expanses at the Casa Marina Resort and the Reach, both on the Atlantic side, the island's beaches are for the most part narrow, crowded and not particularly clean. Better you should go to Miami.

Ready for some entertainment? All the city's a stage, especially around the Mallory Square docks at dusk. As the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico, its showy orange and purple hues compete for applause with men lying on beds of nails, cats doing dog tricks and stringy-haired guitar players singing pessimistic songs their guitar cases stand optimistically open.

Watching the sunset

A mellower vantage point for watching the sunset is the rooftop bar of the La Concha Holiday Inn, 420 Duval St. Or, take a sunset cruise on the Wolf, a 74-foot four-masted sailboat that glides along the gulf, as a guitar player sings mellow ballads from sea shanties to James Taylor; call (305) 296-9653.

For classier culture, catch a concert at the Tennessee Williams ,, Fine Arts Center, about a 20-minute ride out of town on Stock Island, or see a play at the Red Barn Playhouse on Duval.

Also considered an art form here is dallying -- over a champagne brunch in the garden at La-Te-Da (1125 Duval) or dinner under the stars at Louie's Backyard (Vernon and Waddell streets) by the Atlantic.

For a rush any time, buy a cafe con leche (basically, a cappuccino at one-third the price) from the window of one of the Cuban groceries around town. The sugar's added automatically, if you prefer it sugar-free, pipe up early and say so: "Sin azucar, por favor."

Later -- the later the better -- drop in for a drink and a song at one of the many bars along and off Duval Street. In the old days, the taverns roared with rumba music and fistfights between merchant sailors; now you'll hear folk and zydeco, rock, jazz and show tunes.

The most famous bar in town is Sloppy Joe's at 201 Duval. Guides may tell you that this is where Hemingway hung out, but the original Sloppy Joe's, now called Captain Tony's, is across the street on Green Street. Mayor Tony Tarracino owned the bar until 1989, when he sold it to a Miami doctor. The 74-year-old mayor can sometimes be seen around town, dispensing off-color slogans and talking about his childhood in Elizabeth, N.J., and his 13 offspring, ages 13 to 54.

Key West truly is a mixed bag, a gracious and graceless place, where the cultures of immigrant Cubans and Bahamians, militant gays and redneck sailors, developers, dropouts and tourists clash and accommodate each other.

Some native Key Westers (better known as "conches" -- pronounced "konks") wish the old days were back. The proprietor of one tiny restaurant, Pepi's Cafe, near the old gulf shrimp docks, once became so annoyed at all the intruders that he put up a big "CLOSED" sign on the locked front door. The locals, meanwhile, knew to come in the back through the kitchen, where all was business as usual.

You may be charmed one minute, repelled the next, but what you won't be in Key West is bored.

IF YOU GO . . .

Getting there: To fly to Key West, you must change planes in Miami. American, Delta and USAir make the half-hour flight several times a day. Key West is a 3.5-hour drive from Miami via U.S. 1.

Information: The Key West Chamber of Commerce -- 402 Wall St. at Mallory Square, (800) 527-8539; in Key West, (305) 294-2587 -- can provide information by phone -- and is great for drop-in assistance. The Key West Visitors Bureau, (800) 352-5397, will mail informational guides about the island and help with reservations.

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