Key West, Florida (CNN)Key West gets a lot of airtime on New Year’s Eve and during annual events like October’s bacchanal Fantasy Fest. But there’s no better time to visit the last stop on US 1 than right now, through the spring.
The sun is shining, there’s very little rain, and the town is buzzing with energy and events to keep Conch Republic locals, snowbirds and day-trippers alike busy.
Plus, direct flights and new hotels, restaurants and more are making a quick Key West getaway that much more attractive.
Driving the Overseas Highway to Key West from Miami or Fort Lauderdale is one of the best road trips in the United States, but if you’re short on time and want to fly, there are a number of new seasonal flights that will take you straight to the island.
United Airlines is now flying daily nonstop flights from Newark to Key West through May 4, 2017, and Saturday-only nonstop service from Chicago O’Hare to Key West through April 29, 2017.
Other direct flights to Key West are available on American Airlines from Miami, on Delta Airlines from Atlanta, and on Silver Airways from Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
If you’re flying into Miami International Airport or Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, shuttle buses and rental cars are available for the connection to the Keys.
Accommodations are not cheap in Key West, but most are full of historic charm, especially if you stay in the heart of Old Town, where Dade County pine conch cottages and Queen Anne mansions offer shady porches perfect for happy hour cocktails.
For something more modern, the new H2O Suites Hotel gives you access to the best of Old Town with a sleek place to lay your head at night. The 22-room boutique property has a rooftop deck and pool, and half the suites have personal plunge pools.
For an even fresher experience, there are two new hotels on Stock Island, the key just north of Key West proper.
Historically, the marina here has made the area all about fishing, but artists’ collectives and studios and the new Oceans Edge Key West Hotel & Marina and The Perry Hotel Key West promise to usher in a new era of cool.
With 20 acres of both Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico waterfront, six pools and an on-site marina, Oceans Edge is the larger of the two. All 175 rooms have ocean views, and the resort offers water sports, fishing, yoga, meditation and a dog park.
Scheduled to open this spring, The Perry Hotel will have 100 water-view rooms, a hip aesthetic and partnerships with the nearby distillery, organic community garden and a yacht charter company offering high-end cruises to Cuba, departing directly from the hotel’s dock.
Yes, Duval Street is home to numerous rowdy bars and restaurants serving boozy slushies and fried seafood extravaganzas. But there are also some gems, including the new Ocean Grill & Bar (1075 Duval Street), where the signature dish is Key West shrimp and grits.
North of Duval, diners will find under-the-radar eateries like Bien (1000 Eaton Street), serving hearty platters of Latin Caribbean fare, and Old Town Bakery (930 Eaton Street), whose pastries, coffee and sandwiches make great fuel for a day of exploration.
Health-conscious eaters will love Date & Thyme (829 Fleming Street), offering vegan and gluten-free options, as well as fresh organic juices.
The new “Chef Distilled” and “Three Hands Experience” packages at the Stoned Crab restaurant (3101 North Roosevelt Boulevard) offer a more hands-on approach to dining. The first will immerse you in the Key West Legal Rum distillery process while the latter includes a half-day fishing charter and market visit before chef Paul Menta prepares your catch for dinner.
Again, steering clear of the tourist traps on Duval is advised, but Tucker’s Provisions (611 Duval Street) is worth a stop for its fun collection of gifts, books and clothing.
For more of an international flair in a gallery-like space, the wares at Grace on Frances (600 Frances Street) include Himalayan cashmere scarves, cotton robes, striking Japanese pottery, Moroccan bed linens, delicate jewelry and colorful totes perfect for a day at the beach. (On that note, the best beach in Key West is the one at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Entry is $2.50)
Book-lovers may gravitate toward Books & Books at The Studios of Key West (533 Eaton Street) where co-founder and author Judy Blume can often be found stocking shelves and making new release recommendations.
Arts and culture
Right next door, The Studios of Key West is the hub of all things artsy in town, with three levels of exhibition and performance space, plus classrooms and local artists’ studios. There’s something new almost every day and night, but the monthly First Thursdays open house is a lively time to drop by and mingle with the art-loving locals. (6-8 p.m., first Thursday of the month).
On March 25, The Studios is hosting a Stock Island artist studios tour and April sees the opening of an exhibition by rising Cuban artists Mabel Poblet and Lisandra Ramirez.
Performance-wise, watch for a staged reading of Tennessee Williams’ letters, directed by Rebecca Tomlinson (March 19). The reading is one of a collection of events running through April 15 to mark what would have been beloved Key West resident Williams’ 106th birthday.
Key West has a thriving art gallery scene, whether you’re into fine art, photography, sculpture, metalwork, weaving or any other form. Standouts include Gallery on Greene (606 Greene Street), De La Gallery (419 Duval Street), and Harrison Gallery (825 White Street), where artist Helen Harrison’s sculptures inspired by life in the tropics soar toward the ceiling.
The Key West Literary Seminar may have come and gone (it’s held in January and 2018’s event is already sold out) but you can soak up the town’s literary vibes (beyond Hemingway) with the new Old Town Literary Walking Tour that seminar organizers lead each Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 10 a.m. Walks are $25 and leave from the Monroe County Public Library (700 Fleming Street).
If you’d rather not join the crowds in Mallory Square to watch the sun dip below the horizon, alternative vantage points include Fort Zachary State Park, Sunset Key, the deck at Louie’s Backyard, and, our pick, Top Spa at La Concha Hotel.
Spacious double treatment rooms have one of the best views of the sunset in town, which you can enjoy from your shower or private balcony post-massage with a complimentary cocktail in hand. (Treatments come with an additional 30 minutes in your treatment suite.) Spring specials include a Couples Island Journey for $299 throughout March and an Island Facial for $125 in April.