KEY WEST - I am relaxing on a tropical beach surrounded by palm tress, pinky white sand and surf the color of deep blue hydrangeas, all sparkled into pastel diamonds by the sun. But while arriving in Key West is like stepping into a picture postcard of old Florida, it's quickly apparent that the prices here are decidedly new millennium.
Duval Street -- often referred to as the longest street in the world because it runs across the island from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic -- is checkered with expensive souvenir shops, touristy bars, posh eateries and promos for big-ticket attractions. Even a savvy shopper like me has to do some serious investigative work to find discount sightseeing, dining and shopping opportunities in the Conch Republic -- but I know they're here.
First rule of thumb for vacationing on a shoestring: Follow the locals' footsteps. People who live in resort areas always know the best and cheapest places to eat, drink and have fun. Sure, these places are off the beaten path and definitely not as glitzy as the tourist traps. They're also an offbeat mix of funky cafes, shops, entertainment and kitsch -- and not to be missed.
Guidebooks will tell you, for example, tourists gather each afternoon at Mallory Square, a pier overlooking the ocean, to drink overpriced libations as they watch cruise ships come in and out of the harbor and entertainers, hucksters and vendors perform as the sun sets. And they'll mention the crowds at Mel Fisher's Treasure Museum, where gold and jewels and artifacts recovered from two 17th-century Spanish shipwrecks are on display.
They'll describe the visitors who line up at the historic home of literary great Ernest Hemingway and the hungry hordes who wait hours for tables at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville restaurant. No question, all entertaining and interesting activities -- but bar tabs, pricey burgers and admission fees can add up fast.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find more adventuresome out-of-towners wandering among the gravestones at the Key West Cemetery. Located at the corner of Angela and Frances Streets, the peaceful spot features epitaphs such as "I Told You I Was Sick," "At Least I Know Where He's Sleeping Tonight" and "Devoted Fan of Julio Iglesias," along with pink-granite gravestones for three Yorkshire terriers and Elfina, a local family's pet deer, and other quirky afterlife oddities.
Over at West Martello Tower, a pre-civil war era fort maintained by the Key West Garden Club, sun-starved Northerners are exploring the ruins and helitroping among the lush vegetation, palm trees and fragrant flowers. Literary detectives are snapping photos of a white clapboard, red-shuttered Bahamian cottage at 1431 Duncan St., the unmarked home of author Tennessee Williams. On Higg's Beach, thrifty sun worshipers relax and swim without paying a dime for parking or admission. At galleries along Duval, well-dressed vacationers mingle with the local glitterati at wine-and-cheese art openings.
Cost for any of these activities? Free.
Budget-minded vacationers also line up with the locals at Bo's Fish Wagon on Caroline Street, a ramshackle, fishnet-draped structure, for the house specialties -- inexpensive orders of fish and chips and legendary conch fritters. Stop by El Siboney Restaurant, where giant platters of roast pork, beans and rice, fried plantains and other authentic Cuban dishes are priced under $10.
They have romantic dinners at Abbondanza, a sleek Italian cafe where the menus read "Make Love, Eat Pasta" and the restaurant's signature pasta dish will set you back just $9.99. Or head for the Meteor Smokehouse for bargain-priced ribs, wings, burgers and other pub grub favorites.
Locals bypass expensive souvenir shops and pick up $10 sandals at the Kino Factory Outlet store and poke for bargains at Half Buck Freddie's, which features a changing mix of discounted closeout merchandise from Fast Buck Freddie's, Key West's tony department store. They time-travel in the aisles of the Earthbound Trading Co., where incense, candles, wind chimes, beaded curtains and posters sell for 1960s prices. And they pick up and study free local newspapers for interesting -- and free -- lectures, exhibits, concerts and gallery show openings.
Ginger Mohney and her husband, Blake, have been vacationing in Key West for 20 years and have seen a lot of changes in the last two decades, including escalating prices as the town has become more upscale. Still, the couple from Grand Rapids, Mich., continues to find out-of-the-way treasures - including programs at the local library; Nancy's Secret Garden, a one-acre Eden of exotic plants, palms and parrots hidden in the center of Old Town; and Bahama Mama's Restaurant, a little eatery just a block from the Hemingway House.
"As soon as we arrive, we drop our bags and head to Bahama Mama's for lunch," says Ginger Mohney. "They've got one of the best fish sandwiches in the Keys, and you can't beat the price or the atmosphere."
They're right. Behind the blue facade at Bahama Mama's is a sunny courtyard where resident roosters and island cats meander around the tables. Inside, diners get cozy at tables squeezed into the tiny but colorful space and chow down on giant fresh grouper sandwiches, complete with lettuce, tomato and fries, for just $7.70.
"We do a lot of wandering around," Ginger says. "This is one of the best places in the world for exploring. You really never know what little jewel you're going to find."
According to local historian Sharon Wells, the Mohneys have discovered the ultimate free entertainment on the two-mile by four-mile island, which boasts three National Register Historic Districts, more than 3,000 historic sites, a majestic lighthouse and Civil War forts.
"It's one of the best places in the world to walk or bike around," says Wells, who arrived in Key West in 1976 for a three-month job of documenting homes for the National Historic Register and never left. "It's flat, which means just about anyone can wander around for hours. It's filled with terrific architecture, beautiful little lanes, exquisite hidden gardens and great characters. There's a real sense of neighborhood here, and people love that. It has a rich heritage. It's fun to find all this stuff."
In 1984, a local publisher asked Wells if she would write a self-guided walking tour or two for an advertising brochure. The tours were so popular that Wells wrote and published the "Walking & Biking Guide to Historic Key West," a booklet of 14 detailed tours. The free guide is distributed at shops, restaurants and tourist attractions all over the island. Over the years, thousands of tourists have discovered the Southernmost City's architectural, cultural, literary and artistic heritage with the help of her insider knowledge -- for no cost whatsoever.
When it comes to vacation reading choices, nothing's better than location, location, location. Key West Island Bookstore on Flemming Street features a huge selection of used hardcovers and paperbacks written by Florida and Keys authors, and it schedules signings and other free events. Even when there is nothing going on, the old-fashioned stacked-to-the-ceiling take-your-time-and-browse environment encourages customers to poke around for hours.
Connecticut resident Cheryl Kassow, who has vacationed in Key West numerous times, finds biking the best way to experience the island. That's how she happened on the town's municipal swimming pool, at Catherine and Thomas Streets. The pool, atop the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in the picturesque Bahama Village section, offers terrific ocean views, is free and open to the public daily.
"The pool's bath house has great murals from the '50s. It looks like something from another era," Kassow says. "I don't bike anywhere else, but I love to bike in Key West. It's the best way to get around, since parking can be expensive and a hassle to find."
Many inns and hotels offer bikes and helmets free to their guests. Bike rentals are also available at numerous locations around town, including The Bike Shop on Truman Avenue, where a day of pedaling will cost you $10.
Finding budget accommodations in Key West can be more of a challenge, but it can be done, and a number of free reservation services can help you find rooms in your price range. The website www.fla-keys.com, for example, lists hotels, motels, B&B's, inns and guest houses and features compare-by-price seach functions. The Key West Welcome Center on North Roosevelt Boulevard offers information on hotels, condominiums, apartments and other accommodation options.
"When I arrived, rents were cheap; lunch at the Deli, a local restaurant, cost two bucks; and you could dine on fresh yellowtail (tuna) for practically nothing as you overlooked the Gulf of Mexico," Wells says. "A lot has changed, but the bargains are still there, if you know where to look."
Korky Vann writes the "Savvy Shopper" and other features for The Hartford Courant.