Our Journey Back to a Life with Travel!
For months now, we’ve been telling you that despite the lockdown, people are in fact traveling. Not as many as in 2019, but more people than you realize. Today’s travelers have three things in common. They’re being careful, creative and quiet!. Here is a story from a young North Carolina couple who decided January was the right time to hit the road again!
By Audrey Garrison
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After 8 months of hunkering down, converting flight after flight into airline vouchers, and endless daydreaming over our next big trip, my husband Trey and I decided it was time to fly the coop. We reached out to Travel Anne herself to help us settle on a location that would be both feasible and fun.
Not that we needed an excuse at this point, but my husband’s birthday seemed like a good one. We settled on Key West for our late January retreat. TravelAnne proposed a handful of different properties to us and we settled on Casa Marina Key West, a Waldorf Astoria Resort for the beach access (a rare commodity in Key West), on-site amenities and activities, and comfortable distance to town.
Given Covid-times, being about a 15-20 minute walk to where most of the tourists were flocking gave us peace of mind and knowing we had multiple pools, beach, and activities to choose from at the hotel meant we weren’t worried about feeling bored if we stuck close to “home base.”
Using up some of those airline vouchers, we booked a direct flight from Charlotte into Key West on American and while the flight was more packed than I would have liked, we didn’t feel unsafe. We took a grand total of 2 taxis while in Key West, to-and-from the airport, and otherwise got around on foot. On arrival at Casa Marina we were immediately struck by the beautiful ocean views peeking at us through the hotel lobby as we checked in.
The check-in process was warm but streamlined, and after giving them our preferences on in-room cleaning we grabbed our reservation packet from the concierge desk and headed for our room, which was about a 5-minute walk from the lobby.
I had called the hotel about 3 weeks ahead of our arrival and had their concierge team arrange dinner reservations for us, which I absolutely recommend. Because we had the hotel arrange our reservations, we also received little coupons for each restaurant we dined at that offered us things like a complimentary glass of wine or slice of key lime pie.
The one restaurant I had been hoping to dine at that TravelAnne recommended was Latitudes out at Sunset Key Cottages, but they were booked out through March! That’s definitely one restaurant you want to book as far in advance as possible.
Trey and I had decided to treat ourselves to a room with ocean views, which absolutely compensated for the somewhat dated décor in the room itself. The room product at Casa Marina could use a refresh, but with 2 pools and beach chairs, we hardly spent any time in our room except for sleeping or breakfast on the balcony. One thing to note is that while we did have our own little private balcony, there were partitions on either side separating us from our neighbors that offered privacy but not noise control. Breakfast for 2 sometimes turned into breakfast for 6.
When we ate at the hotel, we primarily dined at Sun Sun Bar & Grill, which is the restaurant situated between the 2 pools (1 for adults and 1 for families) and overlooking the ocean. The menu is mostly bar food (ie sandwiches and salads) but did include a few local flavors like pink Key West shrimp. The tables were spaced well apart and since we were outside, we truly felt quite comfortable.
In the evenings we also spotted a handful of couples dining down on the beach, which I would recommend arranging in advance, or they had a handful of fire pits set up and if you were lucky enough to snag a seat in time you could enjoy appetizers and a drink with both fire and ocean views.
We spent 3 nights at Casa Marina (Friday-Monday) and the first 2 days consisted primarily of pool time and dinner on Duval Street. From Casa Marina to the Southernmost Point of the Continental US (and also the start of Duval Street) was about a 5-minute walk. From here to Mallory Square at the end of Duval Street was another 30-40 minutes on foot, depending on how many shops you got pulled into along the way.
A few of our favorites were Island Style, Guild Hall Gallery, and Key West Pottery. The first evening we tried to catch the sunset at Mallory Pier (where there is a famous sunset festival that takes place pretty much every evening), but quickly realized the sunset was drawing more of a crowd than we were comfortable with and immediately turned around.
It was around this time we noticed that there were police setting themselves up at certain points along Duval Street reminding passers-by to wear masks, which was both comforting and a bit disconcerting. Admittedly, by the time we left our dinner reservations around 9/9:30pm on both Friday and Saturday, some of the bars along Duval Street were so packed it was like stepping back to January 2020. We dined out on the wrap-around porches at Nine One Five and Bagatelle those first two evenings, which was well-suited to our comfort level. The great thing about Key West is that outdoor dining opportunities abounded!
Sunday morning we set out fairly early to try and tackle some of Key West’s more “touristy” things, and this wound up being perfect timing as we really didn’t have to contend with many crowds. We first stopped by the marker for the Southernmost Point in the Continental US, where there was no line first thing in the morning, and a friendly masked stranger snapped a picture of us.
Next, we headed to Blue Heaven for breakfast, which felt like one of our most authentically “Key West” meals with chickens roaming about the courtyard where we dined. We did have a short wait on arrival, but the restaurant has an outdoor bar across the street where you can grab a drink and everyone waiting was pretty well spread out in the street or poking around nearby shops.
From here we walked the short distance to Hemingway Home, where we delighted in meeting some of the polydactyl (six-toed) cats and seeing Hemingway’s writing studio. They do offer small guided tours every 30-minutes or so, but we decided we preferred a self-guided tour and were appreciative of the extra space that gave us, though the home was hardly packed.
We also had fun seeing and learning about the Baltimore Bricks used to pave the grounds at Hemingway House, which come from another favorite Travel Anne destination!
Our last stop of the morning was the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, which was a quick 15-20-minute tour that was way cooler than I anticipated! You step into a hot house that feels very much like a remote tropical island and are immediately surrounded by many different species of butterflies, birds, and a pair of charming flamingos named Rhett and Scarlett. There is one designated path through the conservatory so your pace is pretty well dictated by the people ahead of you, but once again we felt everyone kept a respectable distance.
Overall, I think we made the absolute most of our time in Key West. Next time I hope to take advantage of a few more restaurants, a cocktail at Sunset Pier when the sun is going down, and perhaps a few more adventures by boat or by seaplane, but this was the perfect way to “dip our toes” in the travel waters after 10 months of being grounded.
*Audrey Garrison is Travel Design Director at Celebrated Experiences, a destination management company specializing in the UK and Italy. She currently resides in North Carolina and is happy to be back on the road!
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