It wasn’t long into the day before I had a clear mission: to find and consume Key West’s finest Cuban sandwich.
I had taken the Conch Tour to give myself an idea of where I was and what was around, but the long line of open carriages snaked this way and that, and between the stories of President Truman, Ernest Hemingway, and the cheeky opportunist who sold the island half a dozen times over before scarpering with everyone’s loot, we passed the Hotel Marquesa three times from different directions, leaving me more bewildered than ever. One thing that didn’t pass me by was the mention of Cuban bread, and especially when it is made into a sandwich. I asked around and the verdict was unanimous: El Siborey on Elizabeth Street.
It’s off the beaten track. WAY off the beaten track. I thought I’d made a mistake, but asking directions to confirm I was going the right way merely underlined that I had to get there. For one, every mahogany-tinted local knew where it was.
So out among the tiny houses beyond the propane filling station, there it was: an unassuming low brick building, set at an angle to the road. The bread was indeed delicious – lighter than French bread, with a crispier, pancake-like crust. A cup of conch chowder with just the right amount of heat and a pulled pork sandwich made a filling brunch, needing nothing more than a ready supply of ice water to help it down.
The friendly waitress (a bit redundant, everyone here is friendly) zipped between the tables that were rapidly filling with the early lunch crowd just as I was finishing up. Eight well-covered construction workers took a table next to mine. The counter disappeared behind a line of guys working on plates heaped with rice and pork. I’d got in just in time; this was clearly the sort of place people were happy to wait on line for.
The afternoon was spent poolside, acclimatising to the tropical environment which means despite being February, avoiding sunburn. Key West is remarkable because – a couple of big hotels aside – it is so unspoilt compared to what it could be. There are left-over hippies wandering about, plenty for tourists to do, but on the whole, buildings over a couple or three storeys are the exception. Everything is built to a style, yet every house is different. And the overwhelming attitude is to welcome he strangers, not be suspicious of them. Believe me, I’m from Southend, and know all about being wary of tourists.
By late afternoon, I’m ready for another look at the island, this time from off-shore. So it’s down to the docks where the open air bars are already drawing crowds to their two-for-ones and live bands, and boats of all sizes are puttering out of the harbour into the Gulf of Mexico. And I mean all sizes: there are dinghies by the dozen all the way up to the enormous Celebrity cruise liner that has loomed over the city all day. I was aboard the catamaran Echo Two, apparently licensed to take some twenty-two souls but which, according to captain Eddy, never went out with more than ten. It also never went out without the best cheese board on the water, a selection of wines that First Mate Tess was extremely proactive in pouring, and a basket of bread from a bakery that, despite having no seating, still won a ‘best restaurant’ award. Including the crew, there are six of us aboard to watch the sun go down, drink wine, and show each other knots. Eddy shows me a thrown bow line and I teach him a cheat slip knot.
This trip is now officially educational.
Dinner back at the Café Marquesa. Now this is something for a special occasion – or if not, something you know a way in advance is happening, because they were turning people away as I took my table half an hour earlier than planned. Crab cakes that were more crab than cake, followed by local lobster tail and shrimp. It was one of those meals that got everything right – and innovated without making you feel you were missing out. The bread basket was accompanied by a home made hummus rather than butter – vivid and different and memorable. Wine was a Pinot Noir called Aquinas – probably would’ve suited a meat rather than a pork or fish, but we got away with it. A Key Lime Martini to finish and I was ready for bed. As the hotel is joined to the café, I didn’t have far to fall.
Quite simply a beautiful meal in exquisite surroundings. Once you’ve booked your flight, book your table.