The southernmost point of the continental United States is a true Land’s End where going your own way is not merely tolerated – it is actively encouraged.

The funky beach town of Key West, Florida is the southernmost point of the continental United States, a true Land’s End with a laissez-faire attitude that pairs perfectly with sherbet-coloured houses, spectacular sunsets and semi-tropical breezes. Going your own way is not merely tolerated – it is actively encouraged.

What is it known for?
Geographically closer to Havana than Miami, the coral reef-filled waters off Key West often  resemble those found in the Caribbean. But the Conch Republic, as it is known, has a character all its own. This is the town that inspired Jimmy Buffett’s song Margaritaville, after all. Free spirits, soul searchers, artists and anyone who wants to be a part of such a community have all drifted down to be part of One Human Family, Key West’s official philosophy of inclusion.

“Key West attracts everyone – rich or poor, old or young, famous or infamous —interesting people find their way to Key West,” said Perry Collier, who, with his wife Sue, spends winters in their 100-year-old house in Old Town. “When you’re out on the town, listening to great live music, you never know who you will meet.”

The town attracted writers like Ernest Hemingway, who lived here in the 1930s, and during his term in the 1940s and ‘50s, former US President Harry Truman spent a lot of time at the gracious Little White House, not far from Duval Street, Key West’s main strip. Lined with small boutiques, open-air bars and music clubs like Sloppy Joe’s (where Hemingway drank and where bands play every night of the week), Duval Street attracts tourists, cruise ship day-trippers and packs of Harley-riding visitors who mingle with the locals. The harbourfront watering holes, such as the bar on Sunset Pier are also packed, especially at day’s end, when, sundowner in hand, everyone watches the daily crepuscular show. “When the geese head south and the skies turn grey [in New Jersey]. I know I need to be [in Key West], where every morning it’s going to be another sunny day,” Collier said.

The streets surrounding Duval are part of the Key West Historic District, including Old Town, which is filled with 19th-century one- or two-storey wooden Conch-style houses (brought by Bahamian immigrants), with wide-planked porches, intricate pastel-coloured trim and lush gardens filled with jasmine and bougainvillea. Sitting on the porch is a sure way to make friends and chat with neighbours, and it is a perfect place to watch events like the annual Fantasy Fest parade during Key West’s answer to Mardi Gras, held at the end of October. The slower pace of life and Key West’s compact size mean the best way to get around is on two wheels or on foot.

Where do you want to live?
Key West is linked to the mainland and the rest of the Florida Keys by a single highway, US Route 1, and it runs through New Town, which looks very different from Old Town, with fast food restaurants and waterfront condo buildings.

The most popular places to live are in the historic district of Key West, in the charming neighbourhoods clustered at the water’s edge. “The historic district is the most popular with out-of-town buyers,” said Rudy Molinet, principal broker and co-owner of Marquis Properties Realty. “These include Old Town, Casa Marina, Truman Annex and the Meadows, all within walking district to restaurants, bars, water sports and cultural activities.” Property-seekers come from all over the US and Canada, as well as the UK, France and Italy, and the most sought-after properties are single-family homes in the Old Town area. “Key West is a city built on diversity, so our buyers come from everywhere and all walks of life,” said Molinet.

Side trips
A day out on the water deep-sea fishing, scuba diving or snorkelling is a common activity. Key West Marine Park was established to protect nearby coral reefs, while charter boats take people to reefs and atolls further out. About an hour’s drive up US 1 in the Middle Keys, Marathon is a sizable town with a variety of good shoreside restaurants. About 70 miles off Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson, a Civil War prison, are reached by charter flight or high-speed catamaran.

Miami is a three-hour drive or an hour’s flight from Key West International Airport. There is also service to other Florida cities like Tampa and Orlando, and Delta debuts flights to New York’s LaGuardia Airport in December 2012.

Practical info
While properties in the most coveted neighbourhoods are selling within weeks of being listed, prices are down about 20% from the height of the market. “It’s a great opportunity for buyers to get their slice of paradise,” Molinet said. But the low interest rates and an influx of cash buyers also mean the real estate market is experiencing a brisk recovery. Properties range from small condos and conch houses to larger lots in Casa Marina and Old Town, where the average home is a two bedroom, two bath between 1,200 and 1,500sqft on a 2,500 to 3,000sqft lot. An average single family home needing renovations starts around $500,000, while a recently redone house costs between $700,000 and $1 million. “Condos start around $300,000, but can go as high as $1.5 million in the Truman Annex area,” Molinet said.

While vacation rentals cost $6,000 to $7,000 a month in winter’s high season, long term rentals are much less. A one bedroom costs $1,500 a month and a two bedroom goes for $2,500 to $3,000.

Further information
Keysnews: Daily news, features and colour from around the Florida Keys

Conch Color: News and photos of island life

Keysnet: Online version of weekly Florida Keys Keysnoter newspaper, covering news, fishing and diving