The Key West Mystique

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Key West snowbirds

Key West snowbirds | 5 things to get you up to speed

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

12/01/2022

Back before Covid upended the rhythm of our island and turned every month into off-the-charts occupancy rates, I counted the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas as the best of the year.

From the day after Thanksgiving to the last twinkling light on Christmas Day, the island slowly stretched itself getting ready for the return of Key West snowbirds and the onslaught of happy visitors the day after Christmas. The weather “broke” a bit and the island enjoyed its hometown holiday parades, Christmas lights and parties before heading into the work of high season. Snowbirds began an unhurried return to the island, a few early on and then hundreds more as Dec. 25 neared.

Then came Covid-19. The two Covid Decembers (2020 and 2021) were frantic as we coped with angry visitors, sick friends, grief and anxiety and a disconcerting level of entitlement from visitors who seemed to think Key West didn’t have Covid, meaning they could do as they liked. Like we had some bubble around us into which they could escape and we should be grateful for their cash.

(OK. So we were grateful for the cash. But, still. We were living with and dying from Covid, too. Having to smile through visitor entitlement wasn’t exactly fun.)

It feels different this year as we head into December. It feels, well, almost normal. That’s a good thing if one prefers not sharing the island with a crush of strangers. It’s not so good if one thought the cash flow of the Covid boom years would go “to infinity and beyond.” (Thanks, Buzz Lightyear.)

My snowbird friends are showing up and I like that. They bring an energy that reminds me to see the island through their eyes. I like that they call Key West home for three to six months, support local businesses and volunteer most everywhere. I like that their homes have lights on in the evening.

Key West snowbirds
Welcome home, snowbirds. A Christmas holidays toast to you.

Five things Key West snowbirds need to know

And, I like that their first question is usually some variation of “so, how are things?” Since I’ve been asked that half a dozen times this week, here goes five things Key West snowbirds need to know to get caught up:

  • Yes, it is hot. By the end of November, before the snowbirds arrive, Key West historically got a break from suffocating summer. That hasn’t happened this year. November has been warmer than average; highs are warmer; lows are warmer. There’s not much in the forecast predicting otherwise. You’ll not need your almost-winter clothes. Hope you brought shorts.
  • Hurricane Ian skirted Key West, taking, instead, a direct path over Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas., But that didn’t mean we escaped gawdawful flooding and significant tropical wind damage. Folks, especially in New Town and parts of Mid Town and Bahama Village remain in recovery mode. We lost a ton (actually hundreds of tons) of sand at Fort Zach, much of which has been replaced. The piles of sand that pretty much covered Salute on the Beach have been shoveled out and redistributed back to Higgs Beach.
  • Most folks can’t afford to live here. Key West hasn’t been a cheap place to live since, maybe, the 1970s. Once we traded hometown for destination vacation resort, our housing prices — rent or own — have climbed out of most folks’ reach. The Covid years put those prices on steroids. There’s pretty much no housing for regular people at any price. Fact: Were Ranger Ed and I not already here, we could not afford to vacation in Key West, much less live here.
  • Lines may be long; wait times equally so; staff is scarce. The unemployment rate in Key West continues to shrink as folks leave the island because they can’t find housing or they are aging out. That means most every business, government and not-for-profit is hunting employees. There are far more jobs than people to fill them and the shortage shows no signs of improving. Expect slower service, fewer choices, longer waits and shorter hours. When your server is also the bartender and the greeter, be sure to leave a large tip.
  • Stuff closed; stuff opened. People left; people came. A friend of mine is known to roll her eyes when she hears a snowbird shocked to discover a favorite restaurant changed its menu or, heaven forbid, shut down. “What do they think,” she says as an aside. “That we go into some kind of stasis when they leave.” That’s what happens; it’s life; nothing personal.

I’ll leave you with this: Maybe, just maybe, we’re back to normal. A little tattered and worse for wear after almost three years of catastrophic changes and still figuring our way through the aftermath. But, as you’ve heard me say so many times “we live in Key West.” Welcome home, snowbirds.

3 Comments

  1. Kim Debs

    How is the sargassum smell now?

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Gone. Once winter arrives, the winds shift and it stays off shore.

  2. Audrey Thompson

    Right on Linda. the same thought has occurred to me that we are in the “before 2020″ regular tourist season. It’s been easy to get into restaurants (which aren’t full) and as long as you go to Ross on a day when the cruise ships are not in port it’s ok. (but with the introduction of the self check credit card only line even Ross is doable). Traffic is not bad. I asked a server at a Key West Harbor restaurant what her thoughts were and she said…”it’s been dead”. Even with Fantasy Fest and the Boat races. Whatever normal is….I think we are there again.

Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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