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Cayo Hueso: melting-pot wonders of Key West Florida.

Blowing a Conch Shell in Key West (Scarborough photo)Yes, I know that Cayo Hueso really means “Isle of Bones” in Spanish, but can I help it if the nickname still ends up on T-shirts sold all over Duval Street?

But here’s the surprise; you can enjoy family travel to the infamous margarita-sodden island at the end of the world. Just be prepared to explain some, ahem, possibly odd sightings.

It’s still a gay mecca and holding pen for various bizarre characters, but the town is also lively and fun; there’s a real sense of escapism (especially after you’ve made the drive all the way down the Keys to get to it.)

Although I am officially a Conch (one who is born in Key West) I was really only a temporary resident when my parents were stationed there with the Navy, and we moved when I was three.

Mom still talks about living through the Cuban Missile Crisis, with possible annihilation coming from only 90 miles away.

Having lived the peripatetic Navy life on active duty myself, I must say that when I visited Key West it was very strange for me to stand in the town where I was born; don’t get to do that very often.

On recent visits to the island, I’ve stayed at the vintage Crowne Plaza La Concha and the Key West Bed & Breakfast (the Popular House.) Both were fine for families, although older kids might appreciate/enjoy the B&B’s more authentic atmosphere, and good breakfasts plus free bikes to ride around town.

There are resorts and hotels near the water, but they’ll cost you, and Key West is not really a beachy place anyway. For the good stuff you need to go back up Highway 1 to Bahia Honda State Park and maybe try to snag one of its popular camping spots.

The whole family will enjoy the hokey-but-thorough Conch Train Tour, but hit it in the morning for cooler breezes and smaller crowds. After the tour, you’ll know where to return later on bike. Spare yourself the headaches of driving & parking here; the main attractions lie within a few square miles.

Kid-friendly places to visit include the live-action fun at the Shipwreck Historeum, the small Aquarium, Mallory Square festivities at sunset and treasures at Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum. There are also local sailing trips and day trips to the nearby Dry Tortugas.

Older kids who are writers or history buffs, or must live with annoying parents who are, might like Hemingway’s House or President Truman’s Little White House.

For eats, I recommend these: try the Cuban sandwiches at the (no kidding) M&M Laundry on White Street. Clean clothes and good chow at the same time, and not a tourist in sight. There’s good Cuban ropa vieja and lots of families at Jose’s Cantina on White Street. Another mellow place is Pepe’s Cafe on Caroline, with all sorts of food including BBQ. Blue Heaven, mentioned in the Chicago Tribune article, is yummy as well.

You can get a smoothie and do some Internet surfing upstairs at the Waterfront Market on William Street. Speaking of getting on the ‘net, I also enjoyed the Coffee Plantation on Caroline Street for a cuppa Joe, good snacks and some free WiFi if you buy a little something.

Florida Souvenir Tea Towels at a Flea Market (Scarborough photo)

Yes, if you get into the crush on Duval Street for very long, your kids will perhaps run into loud drunks — either local ones or visitors from the monster cruise ships that pull in. Most are obnoxious but harmless, like some of the crude T-shirts that are all over the shops. That’s not why you came here, so stroll the side streets, don’t bother the chickens, and enjoy yourself in the Southernmost City in the U.S.

(P.S. When you drive up or down Highway 1 through the Keys, fortify yourself. There’s Key Lime pie at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo, Mile Marker 99.4 bayside, and also good food at 7 Mile Grill on Marathon, Mile Marker 45 oceanside. If you’re dozy while driving, perk up at Leigh Ann’s Coffee House, Mile Marker 50.5 oceanside, or Baby’s Coffee at Mile Marker 15 oceanside.)

Update 31 May 2006: Found an interesting link about Key West’s “Pirate Soul” museum.

Update 28 December 2006: Here’s a “Road Trip” article from Budget Travel Online about the wondrous drive down the Overseas Highway to Key West.

Update 13 February 2007: Concierge.com, the site for Conde Nast Traveler magazine, has this page devoted to tips for seeing Key West.