By Lynn Harding –
Every January since leaving Key West in 2001 my husband and I return to that magical island for the incomparable Key West Literary Seminar (www.kwls.org). Almost three decades ago a group of local writers created this annual event that now draws the very best in literary minds to the American tropics.
The Seminar is a four-day January vacation for book lovers who come from all over the globe to mix in a casual setting with writers, critics, travelers, educators and other passionate readers. A theme is chosen each year and addressed by the invited poets, novelists, journalists, essayists and historians. They share their art, inspiration and passion for the written word through conversations, panel discussions, readings and performances held at the San Carlos Theater in the heart of Old Town Key West on Duval Street. The cost is currently $495 for the seminar, not including lodging or transportation, but the fee does include some evening buffet dinners in idyllic settings, such as the gardens at the Audubon House.
The 2011 topic, The Hungry Muse (January 6-9 or 13-16), explores the role that food plays in literature. Just some of the writers coming to chew on this topic include Gail Greene, Frank Bruni, Ruth Reichl, Adam Gopnik and Calvin Trillin. Naturally, all this talk of food turns a visitor’s thoughts to one of the Southernmost City’s great treasures – unique restaurants!
Morning becomes Key West. Long before the tropical sun climbs high enough to melt the sidewalks, before the breeze hides in the tree tops with the White Crowned Pigeons and the cicadas come to life with their song, the locals are awake. They’ve walked the dogs, swept the porches and now with newspapers in hand they are heading out, before work, for a grande con leche or buchi (no milk, spoonfuls of sugar).
Most of the delightful small hotels and inns in town serve continental breakfast but we still feel “local blood” running in our veins and never miss a quick stop at 5 Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop on the corner of Grinnell and Southard streets. where the Cuban coffee is dark and rich and the cheese toast hot and crunchy.
Those with time to tarry stop by Sarabeth’s (www.sarabethskeywest.com) at 530 Simonton Street for a Key West pink shrimp omelet, served with fresh muffins and homemade marmalade. Or they trek to Azur (www.azurkeywest.com), 425 Grinnell Street, for The Morning After, which is a fruited honey yogurt and granola ambrosia. Some of the hungry head up to Croissant de France (www.croissantsdefrance.com), 816 Duval Street, for a cafe au lait, truly authentic Breton galette and superb pastries.
The organizers of the Seminar know that after a wonderful morning of intense literary discussions and readings one needs a leisurely lunch. You need not go far from the San Carlos to find global cuisine. Just around the corner at 509 Southard Street The Café offers vegetarian and vegan dishes from all compass points – fresh and exciting. Turning southwest into Bahama Village, one finds the Blue Heaven Restaurant
(www.blueheavenkw.homestead.com) on Thomas Street, which is famous for its outdoor courtyard ambiance, Floribbean flavors and flock of resident Key West chickens.
Other restaurants within an easy walk are the very French Banana Café (www.banana-cafe-key-west.com) on “Upper” Duval Street. Another five minutes of strolling will get you to Camille’s Restaurant (www.camilleskeywest.com) on Simonton Street, offering Caribbean/Key West cuisine in a bright, rambling, art-filled former bar.
Lynn Kaufelt (a founder and president of the Board of Directors), the Board and Executive Director Miles Frieden entertain Seminar registrants with lavish receptions, truly gorgeous buffets and a champagne dessert gala held at various historic locations throughout old town so one needs little more.
We save an evening for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants meeting friends and catching-up. Step one block off glaring Duval and you stroll down quiet residential streets of Victorian gingerbread houses built in the mid-1880s by Bahamian sea captains and wreckers. The air is soft and scented with jasmine and the deep clove of nicotina. Lights are dim, screenless windows are open to the evening breeze, ceiling fans hum and cats on picket fences tilt their heads begging for a gentle touch.
In a tiny, chic local bistro on Olivia Street, the menu at 7 Fish (www.7fish.com) ranges from the favored meat loaf to yellowtail snapper in Thai curry sauce. Santiago’s Bodega (www.santiagosbodega.com) on Petronia Street in Bahama Village just knocks you out with their selection of hot and cold tapas and stunning salad combinations. Sit outside on the covered porch and watch a different world glide by. For urban sophistication and a menu to match you must try Café Marquesa (www.marquesa.com/cafe) on Fleming Street. The world-class boutique inn, The Marquesa Hotel, is next door.
Although we lived in Key West for over 23 years we still rely on the Web site for the Key West Literary Seminar (www.kwls.org). There you’ll find a carefully selected list of accommodations, the complete program for both sessions of The Hungry Muse and their on-line registration, pod casts and blogs (I often visit Littoral by Arlo Haskell for insights and literary news) and such evocative photographs of the ‘true’ Key West paradise that I catch my breath just looking at them. Enjoy!