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As Key West goes upscale, residents keep its flavor alive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KEY WEST, FLA. / / The greeter at the Blue Heaven restaurant led me through the open courtyard's seating area toward the enclosed dining room.

The courtyard was crowded with diners. There was a wait at the bar for tables. There was a buzz.

But the dining room was buzzless. Some tables were empty.

Was I missing The True Blue Heaven Experience?

"Well, maybe," the greeter said. "But some people don't like the 'too much nature' thing -- the chickens and the cats. ..."

Chickens and cats? Just walking around the restaurant?

Can there be a more Key West dining experience than that?

And I was missing it? Buzzless and cluckless?

Ah, but wait. ...

Soon after I was seated at an inside table, a solitary cat found my dining room and sidled up to a woman at the next table whose hand left her girlfriend's long enough to give the cat a few strokes.

And at the dining room's little bar, seated confidently on a barstool like a regular, a large black Doberman-like dog calmly lapped ice water from a salad dish set in front of her. Alongside, also seated on a stool, was a man cutting into a steak.

They were a couple.

"She's a Bahamian mutt," the dog's date said between bites.

Who likes ... ice water?

"She likes anything that's not 'doggie.'"

(Inspired in this Land of Famous Writers, I rush to scribble: Guy walks into a Key West bar with his pet. "You serve dogs here?" Bartender says, "Nope. Just grouper, snapper, mahi-mahi. ...")

Key West may not be exactly what it was. Hemingway stopped refereeing boxing matches in what's now the Blue Heaven's courtyard 70 years ago. Into the 1980s the town was still a haven for dropouts, dopers, artists and writers and the aggressively nonconventional, and that, it remains.

But even here in the Blue Heaven -- among the cats and chickens and slurping dogs and same-sex handholders -- a symptom of change: a family of 12, all ages, all smiles and beautifully dressed, is celebrating a birthday.

They may even be wearing socks beneath their flip-flops.

Key West, where change is as much a part of its history as pirates, smuggling and hurricanes, is at it again.

"We're seeing a lot more families," says Alice Weingarten, the ebullient, much-honored chef / owner of Alice's Restaurant Key West on the quieter end of Duval Street. She came here in 1979, opened her restaurant 10 years ago and has seen it happening.

"It's gearing up toward what everybody says is going to happen in the next two years -- that this is going to be like Nantucket, like little places where only the rich can afford to come play."

Which isn't altogether bad news for Weingarten, whose dinner entrees hover around $30. It's sensational news for people who not that long ago bought humble two-bedroom, one-bath "conch houses" for a few thousand bucks and now have them on the market for (and this is not hyperbole) a cool million.

Marginal hotels are being converted into luxury resorts. Rustic lodgings are being converted into luxury inns. There are strong rumors that the town's lone youth hostel is -- like a lot of places here -- headed toward condo-conversion.

"It's different now than when I moved here," says Ray Campbell, 47, a storyteller / guide / poet who leads tours at the Ernest Hemingway House, one of the few unchanged remnants of old Key West. He moved here only four years ago. "A place like this draws people with money that want to make money."

For those who knew the Key West of yore, whatever yore is theirs, there are other bits of familiarity.

Sloppy Joe's, the bar where Hemingway famously loitered, is still Sloppy Joe's. Capt. Tony's Saloon, which was Sloppy Joe's before Joe (and the loyal and thirsty Ernest) moved a few yards away in a dispute over rent, is still pouring, though you won't see any hints of Hemingway.

"Hemingway was here in the '30s," says bartender Nate Jones. "We don't really care. We're more famous for Jimmy Buffett getting his start here than Hemingway."

Once, it was a short walk from Joe's or Tony's to the plain concrete pier that, some years ago, became home to jugglers and peddlers and fire-eaters who catered to tourists who gathered to watch the sunset.

It's still a short walk, but the whole "sunset celebration" thing has been spiffed up and formalized. Cruise ships dock there. Seriously expensive hotel rooms overlook everything, and crafters and performers get their spaces now by lottery. It's all ... so orderly.

"I don't know where the old pier was anymore," says Dennis Blankenheim, a youthful, tanned, bearded and long-haired 60, who has been living off his jewelry-making and wits mostly in Key West for 30 years. "Back in the '80s, that was the heyday. I mean, it was a party down here. We were making a lot of money, but we were putting it up our nose."

Today, Blankenheim and his lady of 25 years own a place across the channel on Stock Island.

"Both of us appreciate that we can invest our money in land," he says. "You got to acquiesce or die, you know?"

Speaking of which: The chickens are feeling the heat.

Remnants of an age when islanders kept chickens in backyards and sometimes trained them to maul each other for sport, the fowl roam more or less freely around town. Over the decades they have become part of the Key West ambience.

"Some people think they're a nuisance," says Kate Thompson, a "chicken lady" at the Chicken Store, a combination hen hospital and source for items such as stuffed animals that cluck. "Other people who have been here for awhile, they like them because they're fun to watch."

City officials -- fearing what one instance of chicken-related bird flu would do to local tourism (remember what SARS fears did to Hong Kong and Toronto?) -- last month approved a resolution ordering the poultry cooped. Exactly how that's to be done, given the estimated 3,000 elusive, ownerless critters dashing about, hasn't been explained. The weather has also been foul. Last October's Hurricane Wilma, strongest of the seven hurricanes that hit Key West over 2004-2005, took out some piers, stripped trees of foliage and did its share of damage. But today, unless you know exactly where to look, the damage is not obvious. Hemingway's house was unaffected; Harry S. Truman's Little White House (open for tours) remains White and not so Little; few restaurants and bars stopped serving. Days after Wilma passed, storm-weary Florida mainlanders were taking escape weekends here.

"It's our lifeblood to get up and running," says Jeff Brannin, general manager of the Heron House, a deluxe bed-and-breakfast a block off Duval. "We had to get it cleaned up and ready to go."

Which, more than anything, is what Key West has become: cleaned up. Duval Street remains a pretty good party, and at the Green Parrot, not far off the main drag, music still stirs the soul.

But freshly painted charm has overwhelmed the back streets' comfortable scruffiness. And if you can get a decent room on a Saturday night, be prepared to pay what, in his youth, would have kept Blankenheim housed, fed and wasted for a month.

What lingers, despite everything, is that indefinable essence that still lures to this place some of the planet's most interesting people, as it has since Hemingway was here in the '30s.

Alan Solomon is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

It's possible to fly into Key West, Fla. American Airlines offers one-stop service from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, changing planes in Miami. Figure on paying $550-$600. But most visitors with time will fly into Miami International Airport, rent a car and make the 140-mile, three-plus-hour drive. Round-trip fares from Baltimore to Miami can be half the Key West fares.

TRANSPORTATION

Much of the tourist's Key West is walkable from any lodgings in the central Old Town. Bicycles are also popular, and some lodgings offer their own free; rentals, if necessary, run about $15 for 24 hours. Also available: motor scooters (singles about $45 per day; doubles about $75; there are rates for shorter terms) and a variety of modified golf carts (from about $90 for three hours, $150 for 24). Cabs, some of them pink, are rare, but they exist.

LODGING

Most of the time, anything less than $150 a night in Key West is either away from the action or, well, check the room first. Nicest choices are in the smaller hotels and inns within easy reach of Duval Street. Sampling: A night at the 17-room Gardens Hotel (800- 526-2664; gardenshotel.com) starts at $265 in-season and rises quickly as beds go from queen-size to king. The Heron House, another attractive property (888-265-2395; heronhouse.com), gets $199 for a double bed, minimum $249 for queen or larger.

INFORMATION

Key West Chamber of Commerce: 800-LAST-KEY (800-527-8539), keywest chamber.org; Monroe County Tourism Development Council, 800-352-5397, fla-keys.com/keywest.

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