Key West for Cheapskates

Three hours into my latest visit to Key West, Fla., I listened as a mermaid explained why islanders are called “Conchs.”

“We had a tradition a long time ago where, when a baby was born — because, back then, your baby was born at home — you would put a stick in the yard and put a conch shell on it. That’s how you knew there was a new Conch born.”

A second-generation Conch, Kristi Ann Mills — known locally as Mermaid Kristi Ann — runs the annual Key West Mermaid Festival. She and I met on a previous visit and I think of her as representing what’s best about Key West: the people.

Renowned for stray chickens in the roads, bender-encouraging dive bars and the laid-back “Margaritaville” lifestyle popularized by Jimmy Buffett, Key West has long attracted a bohemian blend of artists, musicians, conservationists and dropouts to the end-of-the-road tropics at the southernmost tip of the United States.

During the pandemic, the island became a different sort of haven, beckoning an influx of newcomers seeking an outdoor lifestyle. Real estate prices soared and with Florida’s open tourism policy, the hotel business boomed.

So, could I, a thrifty traveler, still enjoy it?

The Funky Rooster Coffee House and Wine Bar in Old Town.Credit…Mark Hedden for The New York Times

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