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Key West Bargains for the Tight-Budget Traveler
By Deborah Straw

A visit to the Conch Republic, a.k.a. Key West, does not require taking out a loan. Yes, prices are higher than they were just a year ago (particularly for inns and apartment rentals) and higher than those in many northern and central parts of Florida, but, a few bargains are readily available to travelers with imagination, flexible attitudes and an abiding curiosity about people, history and nature.

To satisfy merely the curiosity, no money is required. Studying people, nature and architecture are immensely rewarding. I've spent countless hours a) on the front porch of a guesthouse, b) on lower Duval Street or Mallory Square, sitting on a bench or a pier, and c) at any of the fine beaches, not spending a penny but watching pelicans, dogs and men and women in minuscule bikinis. In Key West, I generally walk five to ten miles a day, just for the sheer pleasure. I always carry a camera and perhaps a book and a bottle of water. Be sure to pick up an island map as some of the streets are tiny and confusing, especially near the cemetery.

The island's National Historic District in Old Town includes nearly 3,000 wooden structures. With their steep-pitched tin roofs, louvered wooden shutters and inviting front porches, Old Town's small clapboard Conch cottages are all too appealing. Many homes are tiny, only six or seven hundred square feet. People sit on their porches in rattan, wicker or plastic chairs, reading, dreaming, playing checkers. Two of my favorite streets are Fleming and Southard, which run perpendicular to Duval and Whitehead, and the narrow, alluring lanes and streets that crisscross them. Have a cafe con leche or a spicy Cuban sandwich at 5 Brothers Grocery (930 Southard), a reasonably-priced locals' hang-out at the corner of Southard and Grinnell. The May Hill Russell Library at 700 Fleming Street is another great place to spend a few hours, inside or outside in its lush garden with 60 palms of 30 varieties.

In Key West, because of the heat, you eat less and often at odd hours. It's quite possible to eat economically; grazing seems the natural mode here. The Key Lime Pie Co. makes the best of its kind - one lasts two people up to three days (available at its factory shop or at either of the two Fausto's Food Palaces). Add a tabouli or black bean salad (or sushi, new at Fausto's) and a French baguette or a loaf of Cuban bread and you've got an inexpensive lunch or light dinner. Cuban sandwiches (grinders) cost between $3 and $5 and satisfy the soul. Blue Heaven on Thomas Street offers nutritious, large breakfasts. At this funky, mostly outside restaurant, your dining experience is amongst cats, artists and the ubiquitous roaming chickens.

Other economical, filling eateries include The Deli on Truman Avenue, the Dennis Pharmacy on Simonton Street and BoBo's Fish Wagon on Caroline Street. Subway offers large sandwiches at inexpensive prices. Just look for frequent discount coupons in local papers.

The least expensive accommodation in Key West is at the Hostel-Key West on South Street. During the high season, the hostel is booked far in advance so call early. (305-296-5719). A reasonably-priced, attractive guesthouse is Abaco Inn at 415 Julia Street (305-296-2212) or call the Key West Innkeepers' Association (305-295-1334) for a list of other accomodations. You can give them the price range you're willing to spend. Off-season rates are reduced substantially, and the weather's always nearly perfect in Key West.

You don't need a car in Key West. In fact, it's almost a waste of money, given the tight street spaces and lack of parking. Many streets are but lanes. Bikes and scooters are available at fairly low costs and the entire island is walkable. From Old Town, it's about two miles to the airport and one mile to lovely Fort Taylor State Park Beach. The other public beaches are also relatively close to the center of town (but more crowded and with fewer trees and picnic tables). But the hottest action and sights are definitely in Old Town. Even in the low season, May through October, there are people from all over the world to watch and learn from - free of charge.

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