Sunday, September 28, 2014

From The Archives: Sunset Key

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Latitudes Restaurant

We were on the Westin Pier for the 12:15 ferry to Sunset Key. There were cruise ships docked for a fine Christmas Eve in Key West and tourist boats were sailing up and down the harbor. We were waiting for this one to complete it's latest round trip across the water:Nephew Tim showed up exactly on time which was when we discovered we should have checked in with the Westin Concierge to get our boat passes. A quick call by the captain confirmed our reservations for a ride to lunch across the water. We were not Westin guests, which put us in an unusual category, we were just visitors to Sunset Key's only restaurant, called Latitudes. As we are relatively impoverished in our brave new world (and because I was working Christmas Eve) we were having a Festivus lunch rather than dinner. It's a five minute ride across Key West harbor and we were preceded by the other launch that serves the exclusive island. In the background we see uninhabited Wisteria Key, known locally as Christmas Tree Island, which is also privately owned. The owners have announced plans to turn it into a boating center surrounded by a mooring field which I thought sounded rather interesting. I'm sure the anchor outs who live for free around the island will complain about gentrification...
It's been a while since the wife got out on the water thanks to shoulder surgery that disrupted our usual summer boating activities so she was enjoying the open water ride.
Frankly the ride from the Westin Marina to the Sunset Key dock is too short, with not enough time to take in all the sights. Pretty soon the sand beach comes into view: The homes on the island are strictly private and sell for millions of dollars even though they pretty much resemble the standard "Conch Style" sold in similar developments like Truman Annex and Tranquility Bay (the Singh property in Marathon) which still sell for lots of money but not as much as this lot. Tin roofs, porches and palm trees on a private island equipped with narrow streets and golf carts is what Sunset Key amounts to. I have been around the island in a previous life when I worked at Fast Buck Freddie's and helped deliver furniture. Our van was loaded onto the elderly tank landing craft docked at Trumbo Road (and which is used to transport the garbage truck among other utility vehicles to the island) and we rolled off at the vehicle ramp on the east side of Sunset Key. The house we delivered to was unexceptional, hardwood interiors, high ceilings, granite countertops in the usual way. It was an interesting diversion to discover that Sunset Key is vaguely like Key West only Disneyfied, sanitized and rather boring. Sunset Key, like Wisteria Island is made of dredge spoils from efforts to make the key West harbor deep enough for ocean going ships. The original dredging was done long enough ago that nowadays the islands are not really considered "spoil "islands- they have become part of the scenery. I have heard it said that homeowners insurance is difficult to buy for these homes as they are built on what is essentially human made land, but movie stars and the like buy here (Oprah Winfrey is rumored to own one) and I expect it is of little moment to the likes of them if insurance is ridiculously expensive. It is possible to rent a bungalow on the public beach side of the island next to Latitudes, the corner reserved for plebs like you and me who get to play on sand imported by barge from the Bahamas. No expense is spared in this crazy place:
As the ferry approaches the dock one can see Latitudes sitting right on the beach:The dock is covered to protect the precious cargo (you and me) from the ill effects of sun or rain:
There are docks for private boats but only residents are allowed to use them, no hoi-polloi may land on the island. Indeed, residents have been known to complain about plebs daring to anchor off the island. One can only imagine what would happen were you to land and claim Florida's inalienable right to public use of beach up to the high tide mark. Good luck if you try it. There is a fire truck stationed on the island (staffed by city firefighters as needed) and they do have security I believe, but the Key West Police Department has to send officers over from the city if they call for them, as Sunset Key is part of Key West (Wisteria Island is in Monroe County, not the city), and it takes time to ferry them out and get them back so as far as I am concerned, when i am dispatching, the less mayhem on the island, the better. And of course, Sunset Key is really an unruffled oasis of tranquility, all joking aside. There aren't even any roosters running loose. And if you think that as a guest at Latitudes you are going to get to run around the island at will, think again. A nice young lady met us at the dock and escorted us cheerfully to our luncheon appointment:
This is about as much view of the island as you get:Consider that we were having Christmas Eve lunch and this was the weather:Temperatures in the upper 70s, (around 25C in Canadian weather), with a light breeze and plenty of sunshine. we elected to eat outside on the beach. Though at Latitudes "inside" is a relative term:

And eating outside doesn't involve anything quite so gauche as actually sitting in that fine Bahama sand; tables are set on their own wooden decks:Young nephew Tim has been in Key west a few weeks and had yet to explore Sunset Key. Our choice of lunch venue worked for him:The lunch menu is relatively simple, with salads, sandwiches and a few appetizers.
We opened up with a cheese platter featuring four wedges of cheese with crackers, fruit and bread in an exquisite display:Then my wife and I shared a steak salad, and this was one half portion:And we followed up with a shared grouper sandwich. Tim had a turkey and bacon sandwich and left nota crumb on his plate. I think it was up to snuff... We all three elected to try the intriguing sweet potato salad, which is obviously the orange ball on the plate. It was quite delicious with a gingery tang:Decidedly I wanted something sweet to finish up with but Tim and my wife demurred. Then Michael, our smart waiter dropped by a dessert menu "just in case..." and I spotted my wife's weakness: creme brulee. They had three flavors in a tasting dish, vanilla, amaretto and something else. We scooped them up whatever they were:
Our meal was in many respects modest, they drank water I splurged with a delicious, full bodied ice tea (unsweetened if there were any doubt about that). The whole shebang including a decent tip (18%) came to exactly $100. And the view was free:
Guests from the Westin can come over apparently and enjoy the beach and they were out sunning themselves in the weak December sun:

For us it was time to take the 1:45pm ferry back to the mainland, we had places to go and all that good, real world, stuff. So when we saw the ferry heading towards the island dock from the city, we reluctantly got up and walked past the indoor guests, some in festive outfits:Sunset Key used to belong to the Navy, which organization built fuel tanks on the island and ran utility lines out to the place they called, unimaginatively, Tank Island. Then the Navy handed the island back to the city, without every having actually stored a drop of fuel on the island (!) and the city commissioners of the day sold all the waterfront land and the island to the Hilton developers for the bargain basement price of eleven million dollars. What made Tank Island so valuable were the water and electrical utilities laid across the harbor by the Navy. And the lack of such amenity has made it hard to develop Wisteria Island (Christmas Tree Island) just fifty yards north. I find the raggedy anchored out boats rather endearing as a symbol of the determination of the marginal and dispossessed to hang in and make a life in Key West even as gentrification continues even in the face of economic collapse. On Sunset Key the only free living these days is for the wildlife:
Lesser mortals off work and on vacation may circle Sunset Key on jet ski tours but they may only look and not touch:
Which goes doubly for anyone on the island:
We rated the lunch an enormous success and plan to do it again before too long. We enjoyed our previous foray to Latitudes and were wondering why we took so long to come back.And there in the distance is the US Coastguard base overseen by the huge pink bulk of the "Fly Navy" building as the Bachelor Officer Quarters building is known.The help gets to ride in the small boat well away from guests like us:
And if like us you parked in the Westin's multi-level garage on Front Street you will want to get your ticket validated at the restaurant for free parking:
Residents' dogs get to ride to the island, but Cheyenne is not so privileged so she got to nap in the Nissan while we stuffed our faces:
It's a dog's life but I doubt she would have enjoyed the sweet potato salad. We'll never know for sure.