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Aerial view of Key West

Barefoot Elegance

by Luis R. Rigual | Miami magazine | June 29, 2012

“That’s where you want to be. Right over… there,” says Justin Earle, the resort manager at Sunset Key in Key West, pointing to the second-floor veranda of my cottage, which just happens to be the choice spot to take in the daily show that is dusk in the Conch Republic. “And be sure to wear your shades.”

Sunset in Key West is a big deal. Songs and poems have been written about it. Mundane rituals—from dinnertime to leisure walks—are scheduled around it. And locals just can’t stop themselves from telling you how special it is. A parrothead friend once went as far as likening it to an elusive, once-in-a-lifetime affair: intense, blindingly beautiful and over all too soon.

Forgive me for waxing poetic (or at least attempting to anyway) about a daily Gulf Coast occurrence; perhaps it’s the ghost of Hemingway that permeates these shores. Be assured that there’s definitely more to Key West than those precious couple of hours.

My chosen accommodations are proof of that. Known all too well for its live-and-let-live shenanigans, Key West can be paradise in the rough. But the Sunset Key Guest Cottages, just a 10-minute ferry ride away from all the umbrella drink excess, is the antithesis of all that. Here, utopia has filtered out the pedestrian in favor of the posh.

Accessible only by boat and car-free, the 27-acre resort (also a private residential community) is an idyllic retreat of hushed tones and casual elegance. Once guests disembark at the dock, they encounter 40 charming villas ranging in size from one to four bedrooms. The Sunhaven, where I’m to spend a long weekend, boasts all the trappings of beach house chic: a cream palette that extends through all social spaces and four bedrooms, design motifs with nautical sentiments, plump sofas tailor-made for lazy afternoons, and views of the tranquil ocean from just about anywhere. The aesthetics are equally matched by the creature comforts, which include a state-of-the-art kitchen with a fully stocked refrigerator, flat-screens in all the bedrooms, Bose CD players with iPod docks and Wi-Fi indoors and out. On the patio, surrounded by small palm trees and lush greenery, is a private heated pool big enough for laps… or not.

Upon our arrival, my companion and I are perplexed as to our options: tour the property, indulge in a welcome drink at the Flippers bar, sip Champagne and take a dip in our very own pool, or walk the shore of the beach right outside the picket fence of the backyard? Prolific vacationers that we are, we manage all four.

As daytime nears its end and that all-important time approaches, we heed the advice of our host and settle in upstairs with some rosé and our extra-dark aviators to take in that sunset. We’re not disappointed. As a breeze moves in and the scent of saltwater tickles the nose, Mother Nature’s big moment proves to be worth the hype.

When dinnertime arrives, we walk some 10 steps and find ourselves at Latitudes. One of Florida’s most lauded restaurants, the eatery embraces Key West lore unabashedly. In its indoor Hemingway Room, photos of Papa adorn the walls, while outside, tiki torches lend a most romantic flair. Executive Chef Todd Holender has obviously taken all this into account while crafting his menu, an ever-evolving list that makes the most of locally sourced fish and tropical fruits. His lobster bisque laced with sherry and topped with a lobster fritter is so well balanced, I find myself ordering it again and again throughout my stay. The rest of the culinary repertoire doesn’t disappoint either. A coconut-crusted grouper with Chinese black rice, baby bok choy and lemongrass sauce is a fragrant indulgence too generous to finish. And for dessert, we can’t resist the Key lime pie cheesecake-style, a Holender take on the island’s ubiquitous tart treat.

Hours later, with the stars out, we find ourselves in the middle of all the action on Duval Street. Our visit coincides with the island’s popular Songwriter’s Festival, a bohemian exercise in live performance that takes over the city. The cacophony of sounds—a serenade of folk guitars, jazz trumpets and a cappella voices—is charming enough, but the call of our private paradise and its promise of serenity soon beckon us back to the ferry.

Day two begins early. After indulging in the basket of freshly baked muffins, fruits and yogurt left on the front porch, we head to the spa for even lazier R&R. The venue’s intimate square footage belies a vast menu of face and body indulgences that run the gamut from traditional to Key West-centric. After a quick check-in, I am in a private suite and ready for a custom therapeutic massage, a signature treatment that’s as intense or passive as you want it to be. That’s followed by a warm oil scalp massage, 25 minutes of bliss that leave me languidly and deliciously useless. The rest of the day is a glorious rerun of the previous one: private pool, public pool, beach, nap, sunset, dinner and sleep.

On our last full day in the Conch, we decide to give the main island another try and check off all the tourist musts: a picture by the Southernmost Point monument, a frozen drink here and there, and some gallery and vintage shop browsing.

We time the end of our excursion just right and head to the Key West Harbor for the Wind and Wine Sunset Sail from Danger Charters, an intimate (10 passengers or so) wine tasting and sailing excursion in one, complete with a sommelier. Once introductions and pours are out of the way, the group settles in. The weather is cool and dry. The sea is calm and blue. The sauvignon blanc in my hand, crisp and fragrant, is chilled just right.

What do you know? All those stories were right. It turns out sailing into the sunset is everything it’s cracked up to be.

Information: Sunset Key Guest Cottages, A Westin Resort, 245 Front St., Key West, 305.292.5300, westinsunsetkeycottages.com. Nightly rates range from $595 for a one-bedroom cottage to $2,565 for a four-bedroom cottage; Danger Charters’ Wind and Wine Sunset Sail costs $75 per person. For information, visit dangercharters.com or call 305.304.7999.