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Key West in Florida has a literary

tradition that embraces Hemingway

and Capote, and a party tradition

that won Lucretia Stewart over

When Ernest Hemingway was asked why, in the 30s, he had fetched up in Key West, he was supposed to have answered rather grouchily that there was nowhere left to run to. When he met Martha Gellhorn in a bar called Sloppy Joe's, he learned that there was still Cuba. Driving the 154 miles south from Miami, you can see what he meant. Key West has an end-of-the-line feel to it, which the inevitably slow cruise along US1 reinforces. US1 has a speed limit of 55mph and is single-lane almost all the way. And though this does mean you get ample opportunity to admire the birdlife (watch out for the pelicans on kamikaze missions aimed at your windscreen) and the shifting blues of sky and water to each side of the Seven Mile Bridge, it does take forever (this time I went by Greyhound bus - it took four-and-a-half hours). You think that you will never get there and when you finally do, there is nowhere else to go. The days of taking boats on to Cuba are long gone.

It is difficult to get a handle on Key West. but the island's writers provide, as it were, a key to the place. Read Hemingway's To Have and Have Not. Read Thomas McGuane's Ninety-Two in the Shade. Read Thomas Sanchez's Mile Zero. Read John Leslie's Blood on the Keys. And read, if you can get hold of it, The Key West Reader (published by Tortugas, Box 2626, Key West, Florida 33045 - you can certainly find it there), with contributions from Key West writers as diverse as Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Philip Caputo, John Dos Passos, Tennessee Williams and all the above. Essential reading is The Florida Keys by novelist and short-story writer Joy Williams; Conde Nast Traveler describes it as "One of the best guide books ever written" (a new edition has just been published).

A picture will begin to emerge. Key West likes writers and writers like Key West. There is even a book published called Key West Writers and Their Houses, subtitled "The Influence of Key West and Its Architecture on 20th Century Poets and Writers from Ernest Hemingway to Thomas McGuane" which features many of the aforementioned and a few others besides. In Patricia Cornwell's Body of Evidence, Dr Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell's forensic pathologist heroine, retraces the footsteps of a murder victim to Key West and is charmed by the Caribbean colours and little wooden "Conch" houses ("Conch" architecture is the indigenous look of Key West). But the real Key West is not all "gingerbread" and pastel colours. The Spanish named it Cayo Hueso, Island of Bones, and in the war years, Key West became known as the "Singapore of the West" (a description that could no longer apply, thanks to Lee Kwan Yu's clean-up operations). The Keys, it seems, are full of murder and mayhem, smuggling and shipwrecking, piracy, drugs, drunkenness and brawling. Miami - and its vice - is not, after all, so far away.

But when you get to the end of the road, you may wonder if you have come to the right place. There, in the old town, are pretty little white wooden- frame houses, peeping out from behind forests of bougainvillaea, poinciana, oleander and jacaranda. All the streets have names such as Angela, Olivia, Frances, Petronia, Rose and Virginia. There are pink taxis and cats and kittens everywhere,

However, thankfully, soon enough it becomes clear that the fears which Hemingway expressed in To Have and Have Not were groundless. He had Harry Morgan predict gloomily, "What they're trying to do is starve you Conchs [locals] out of here so they can burn down shacks and put up apartments and make this a tourist town ... they're going to make it into a beauty spot for tourists." Not quite. There are tourist attractions - the Conch Train, the Hemingway House, the Key West Aquarium, Mallory Square and a T-shirt for every occasion - but they are all rather tacky. They somehow just miss, as if to ensure that no real tourist could take them seriously.

Take this "southernmost" business: Key West is the southernmost point of the United Sates and much is made of that fact. There is the southernmost motel, southernmost car rental company, southernmost laundromat and so on. It all seems reasonable enough until you go to Mallory Square to watch the sun go down. Key West is big on sunsets. Mallory Square at dusk has much of the atmosphere of a fairground, albeit a rather kitsch one. When I first went to Key West in 1989, there, strolling up and down insouciantly, drowning out the bustle with a penetrating wail was the self-styled southernmost bagpiper. This time I didn't bother to go - I was too busy attending literary dinner parties - and so missed some of the finest sunsets available to man. The ornithologist John James Audubon who visited Key West in 1832, wrote enthusiastically of "A blaze of refulgent glory [which] streams through the portals of the west and the masses of vapour assume the semblance of mountains of molten gold."

Though Tennessee Williams actually lived in Key West, where he wrote The Night of the Iguana and The Rose Tattoo, for over 30 years, Hemingway, who lived there for only 10, is undoubtedly the town's favourite son. The cult of Hemingway reaches a climax every July when Hemingway Days, consisting mostly of drinking and a fancy dress party where people dress as characters in a Hemingway novel, take place. The place is full of T- shirts and posters and trashy souvenirs immortalising the great man. Once I saw a customised van with the words "Der Hemingwagen" painted on the side.

In her book, Joy Williams tells a good story about Truman Capote in Key West. He was in a bar with Tennessee Williams when a woman came over to the table where they were sitting and asked Capote to autograph her navel with an eyebrow pencil. She pulled up her T-shirt. "Just write it like you would the numerals around a clock." So Capote wrote his name around her navel. T-R-U-M-A-N-C-A-P-O-T-E. Then her husband, apparently furious, got up. He came over to Capote, eyebrow pencil in hand and according to Capote, hauled out his "equipment", saying, "Since you're autographing everything, how'd you like to autograph this?" Truman paused and said, "Well, I don't know if I can autograph it, but perhaps I could initial it."

John Martini, a sculptor who winters in Key West and summers in Burgundy, says that, when people first come they tend to drink and party a lot but after a few years, they ease off. It's not hard to see why they start off like that. Key West is the most tolerant, relaxed place I've ever been. There is a big gay population which appears totally integrated - an old wooden pier which, before its collapse into the sea, was a popular lounging spot, was known as Dick Dock.

The place is crawling with bars and with people crawling into them. Sloppy Joe's is one of two bars that vie for the honour of having been Hemingway's favourite hang-out. The other is Captain Tony's, which claims to be the oldest on the Island. From early in the day, rock music from the late 60s blasts from its rugged portals. In 1985 Captain Tony ran for mayor and almost won. You can buy a poster of him with the adage "All you need in life is a tremendous sex drive and a great ego - brains don't mean a shit."

That is one of the attractions of Key West. Despite its prettiness, it has a raunchiness that make makes you want to behave in a raunchy way. You want to stay up late getting drunk. You want to breakfast on alcohol and raw fish. You feel deprived if you haven't had six Margaritas for lunch and 12 for dinner. And, then, of course, when you're a local and have been there for years, you calm down.

But before that happens, there are fortunately plenty of places to cater to this new, depraved side to your character. Drinking apart, you can eat like a king in Key West. The fresh shrimp (what we call prawns) is particularly fine and, unless you want to dine in style - which you can easily do - you can exist very comfortably on alcohol, conch chowder and raw or semi-raw fish, a diet which leaves you raring to go. Down by the water, the Half-Shell Raw bar is a good place for this kind of thing; you can also buy a T-shirt which reads "Eat It Raw". There's no getting away from fish in Key West, but Pepe's Cafe, hidden behind the shabbiest exterior in town, has great hamburgers. The Banana Cafe's name belies its chic appearance and the French food is excellent. And every morning I would walk across to Dennis Pharmacy for breakfast. After just a couple of days, the Cuban waitresses would greet me with the words. "Mornin', honey. Caffe con leche?" It wasn't hard to feel like a local.

! Lucretia Stewart's 'The Weather Prophet: A Caribbean Journey' is published by Vintage at pounds 6.99.


GETTING THERE: Virgin Atlantic return flights London-Miami cost from pounds 348, from Trailfinders (0171 937 5400) between 28 May to end June. Then either fly to Key West, drive or take a Greyhound ($26 each way).

STAYING THERE: During the season (ie winter), hotels in Key West are not cheap. The Pier House, 1 Duval Street, Key West (00 1 305 294 9541) is well established and has rooms with an ocean view (around $385 per night in season). Joy Williams's The Florida Keys: A History and Guide (Random House, pounds 8.99) has a comprehensive list of hotels and guest houses.