Key West: better in summer, after tourists go home

Key Westers who live on the island year-round have a steamy little secret: Lots of us like the place better in the summer.

It’s true, you have to learn to cope with unrelenting heat and humidity, which is here to stay until mid to late October. It’s best not to try to fight that — and to recognize the real consequences of overheating and sunburn.

If you stick around long enough you learn not to view the climate as an obstacle but instead as an opportunity. Spend lazy days lounging in the shade with a book, or in the pool with a drink. It’s really the responsible thing to do.

Because here’s the deal: Even though Key West is famous for its laidback character, that’s become a commodity that we sell to the tourists more than a way of life for the residents. For the people who live and work here, the price of a successful season is a stressful life in busy bars and restaurants, crowded streets, popular hotels and fully booked trips on the water.

Summer is when the locals have the time and energy to come out to play — or simply to do their jobs without being pushed to the limit. The bonus is that visitors who are willing to cope with the heat will have a much more pleasant time when there’s no long wait for a table, or the movie theater isn’t sold out. And your service is going to be a lot better.

Rooms are more available and cheaper in the off-season. almost half off in some cases, especially midweek. Key West occupancies have remained high even in the summer over the last few years so you aren’t likely to see the kinds of fabulous bargains (less than $100 a night) that you might have a decade ago. But it’s still a lot more affordable, with shorter minimum stays, if any, than during season. The low rates last until Fantasy Fest in late October, then prices really go into the stratosphere during peak season, from Christmas to Easter.

In the old days, lots of businesses would shut down for the summer and fall, but that’s no longer true. A few businesses may take September off but for the most part, plenty is going on.

The attractions are open, and it’s much more pleasant to tour the Ernest Hemingway Home or the Custom House museum when you’re not being shuffled along in a crowd.

Be sure to check out the Key West Cemetery, in the center of the island. There are brochures for self-guided tours at the sexton’s office, at the Margaret Street entrance. And the Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers tours for $15 a person (see box). Just remember that this is a cemetery and behave accordingly.

If you really need to get out of the sun, Old Town Key West even has an indie movie house these days. The Tropic Cinema has four screens that show the movies that never make it to the chain cinema on North Roosevelt — and also the blockbusters, after the chain cinema finishes their run. And in true indie cinema fashion, you can get a beer or glass of wine to take into the theater with you.

The best way to get around the island is to rent bikes.

For those who like to get out on the water, summer is great (except for sailing, when the doldrums set in). But for diving, snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding and lots of kinds of fishing, the calmer seas and better visibility remind many why they love Florida.

Flats fishing in the backcountry, fishing the reef and going offshore are always options. But starting Aug. 6, the real attraction is lobster. Even if you don’t want to go to the trouble of catching them, you can get them at fishhouses and grocery stores. Restaurants on the island delight in serving fresh lobster in ways that range from a classic grilled lobster tail to lobster macaroni and cheese and lobster reuben.

Key West even celebrates the opening of season with a Lobsterfest, this year scheduled for Aug. 7-10, with a free concert and street fair on Duval Street Saturday, Aug. 9, from 1 to 10:30 p.m.