On Stock Island, old Key West reigns — for now.
I’m unclear on how Stock Island got its name — seems no one really knows, but conventional wisdom suggests it has something to do with livestock pens — but I do know that for years, you didn’t go there unless you wanted a boat motor fixed, worked on a shrimp boat or had some dirty deeds you needed done dirt cheap.
But Key West is no longer the Key West of Tom Corcoran or Ernest Hemingway or bootleggers. It’s the place instead where, once upon a not-too-distant time, you could watch a stripper put matches in her nipples and light them (the matches) — steps away from the largest Cuban cultural center in the United States. My husband says it best: Key West went to hell when it let Dunkin Donuts in.
Stock Island wasn’t my idea of a great time, at least not initially. Immediately north of Key West, this small key historically housed boatyards, shrimp boats, and the underpinnings of paradise — and it also had a reputation for its unvarnished inhabitants who were not at all interested in giving tourists a great experience. So severe was the behavior on Stock Island that it was a natural place to dump a body — as happens in Tom Corcoran’s Bone Island Mambo.
However, a persistent woman with the Monroe County Tourist Development Council convinces me it’s worth a look-see, and so, on a recent trip, we extend our stay an extra night and head south from Islamorada.
We miss the turn off A1A to Stock Island and turn around in front of a run of shops that do nothing to improve Stock Island’s image: a Metro PCS storefront, tattoo parlors and heavy equipment rental lots personify this stretch of road. We turn on Cross St., at another collection of less-than-paradisic businesses. We pass rows of housing that best summarize the housing problem in the Keys: It’s too damn expensive to rent — much less own — much land, so people squeeze into trailers. The workforce that creates paradise doesn’t exactly live the good life, either — the island is not quite one square mile but has 4,400 residents who share the space with the many aforementioned businesses. After a series of turns that take us by pockets of industry and these physically close-knit communities, we find ourselves by the Stock Island Marina and The Perry Hotel.
If you’re looking for the old Key West, look no further. Despite The Perry’s luxe accommodations, everything about this reconstructed Stock Island evokes the fabulous appeal of 1970s Key West. In perhaps the oddest attempt at gentrification ever, Stock Island Marina Village eschews shrimp boats for tour boats in its 220-plus-slip marina, steps away from The Perry’s 100-room hotel.
That “village” is a $16 million stab at recreating paradise. And while the tourist-based marina (think sunset sails, sportfishing excursions and transient slips as opposed to shrimpers, spongers and longliners) and neighboring oh-so-sweet, dog-friendly Perry may exude class and luxury, all it takes is a trip to grab dinner to realize the crumbly limestone heart of Stock Island still beats strong.
At Hogfish Grill, Stock Island’s unvarnished side remains. Owner Bobby Mongelli greets us in a classic Led Zeppelin shirt, his face reddened from the sun. He serves up a platter of — among other morsels — conch fritters, smoked kingfish (his private stash) and other local seafood. Mongelli’s website brags about “fresh seafood, strong drinks, panoramic waterfront views, outdoor dining and plenty of local characters” and it’s not wrong. My dinner, shrimp and grits topped with hogfish, has me making noises ordinarily reserved for the bedroom.
I know I’m not technically on Key West at this point, but bullshitting with Mongelli — if I remember correctly, he did landscaping work for Jimmy Buffett — is the most fun I’ve ever had in Key West. I don’t feel like a tourist; I don’t feel like there’s a spectacle put on to make sure I return. And, honestly, I love how Hogfish is sandwiched into the marina across from pallets of construction supplies, trailers and trash along Front Street. Here are the scraps of Florida we don’t ever want our tourists to see, the true heart of Florida, and they’re on display for anyone seeking a decent piece of fish miles away from cruise ships and Duval. As late as the 1990s, Pinellas had Boatyard Village, a manufactured reality of a working waterfront by what is now the southern terminus of the Bayside Bridge. Boatyard Village emulated this new Stock Island reality.
Our hotel, The Perry, is new but is designed to look weathered — think reclaimed wood and understated nautical artifacts. We arrive early and our room isn’t quite ready, so we take the dogs to the poolside bar and wait. El Cap goes to get me a drink, but returns with the bartender in tow. It turns out they don’t have the proper ingredients to make a Singapore Sling, but she wants to meet the woman who ordered it (apparently it’s not a standard drink on Stock Island).
While The Perry’s definitely classier than what I expected to find at the end of a road lined with industry and low-income (not government housing, simply housing paid for by people who don’t make a lot of money), it’s a harbinger of things to come on Stock Island. If I were a gambling woman, I’d wager we have less than a decade before that lovely grittiness gets completely polished over.
Which is why you should get there now, where you can soak in the limestone dust mingled with saltwater and diesel fumes at Hogfish, then go back to your hotel at night and sip on champagne poolside.
When you get up in the middle of the night to walk the dog, though, you can head down to the mangroves, watch the crabs scuttle in the moonlight, and hear — not-so-distantly — strains of rock music, the occasional fight and the roar of a motorcycle. These sounds, just as much as the tide ebbing and the pleasant chatter at the hotel bar, are the sounds of real life flowing around the newest piece of paradise.
6810 Front St., Stock Island. $9-$28. Soups, salads & apps, $5-$18. Full liquor. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight; Sun., 9 a.m.-midnight. 305-293-4041, hogfishbar.com.
7001 Shrimp Rd., Key West (also on Stock Island.) Dog-friendly, restaurant, marina, bar and pool on-site. All rooms have a view of the marina. 305-296-1717, perrykeywest.com.