It’s evening, coming up on 7:30. Not that any of us is wearing a watch. Here, you tell the time by gazing at the sky—the wisps of pale gold that slowly turn saffron, then umber until the horizon is ablaze in color—and by the frenzied clicks that accompany the spectacle as all cameras point west.
On Sunset Key, everything stops for the nightly event for which the island is named. At Latitudes, the island’s surfside restaurant, no one seems to pay attention to the Florida lobster tail or coconut-crusted grouper. One by one, we all rise from our chairs and shuffle across the sand to capture the Kodak moment, mesmerized by the panorama.
The sunset has long been a ritual in Key West and, by extension, on the private island 500 yards off its coast—though the two experiences couldn’t be more different. In Key West, the onset of dusk is the start of the party, complete with outlandish performances, tchotchkes and boisterous revelers. On Sunset Key, the view is just as good, but there are no cats jumping through rings of fire—just picture-perfect clapboard cottages, beaches where seagulls outnumber people and dinner tables perched on the sand.
As the curtain falls on nature’s nightly show, the island turns magical. Tiki torches encircle the beachfront tables at Latitudes, casting a warm glow onto the idyllic scene. With the soft sigh of the surf as the soundtrack, it’s even easier to appreciate Chef Todd Holender’s haute island cuisine, which is heavy on local seafood and tropical fruit—a sensuous reminder that we are dining in an archipelago of ancient coral cays.
By day, Sunset Key is equally charming. The cottages on this 27-acre island are the essence of barefoot chic. Designed in the Key West tradition with broad overhangs, metal roofs and lap siding, they are perfect for the indoor-outdoor lifestyle so typical of the tropics.
Our cottage has a private plunge pool with a gorgeous view of the bay and all the islets scattered within it. We don’t usually hang out in hotels when we travel, but this four-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot paradise is so perfectly appointed, we find ourselves quite at home within its white-picket-fenced confines. We literally have to remind ourselves there is an outside world with activities to be sampled.
So we drag ourselves to Key West, mostly because the kids want to feed the sharks, and board an Extreme Adventures catamaran. We immediately realize this was an excellent decision. Captain Ken steers the boat to the sharks’ lair, and we watch them circle round. They look menacing but they’re misunderstood, he assures us as his first mate puts a fish head on a line and lets them have at it. A healthy person could jump in, he says, and the sharks would treat him as one of the pack.
We take his word for that one.
Later he spots a school of dolphins and goes in for a closer look. The baby among them breaks away and comes to the boat, right to where the children are. It does a few tricks to the delight of its eager audience and takes off again. We could watch these intelligent, playful creatures frolic for hours.
After a day on the water, we return to the secluded bliss of Sunset Key and head to the pool bar for a cheeseburger. It shouldn’t come as a surprise: It really does taste better in paradise.