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Travel

Seeking the Key West of yore

Stock Island across the channel harbors plenty of fabled Florida authenticity

At the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden on Stock Island, some of the Cuban “chugs” on which defectors escaped.

MARC MEWSHAW FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

At the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden on Stock Island, some of the Cuban “chugs” on which defectors escaped.

STOCK ISLAND, Fla. — By old-timers’ lights, Key West lost its edge long ago. Granted, feral chickens still roam the streets and dart between the stiletto-heeled legs of drag queens. But the Key West immortalized by writers from Hemingway to Tom McGuane, an island that was wild, free-spirited, and cheap? Forget about it.

Since the 1980s, this former haven for hard-drinking shrimpers and louche dropouts has rapidly evolved into a one-percenter’s playpen. As incomes have surged, tolerance for seediness has ebbed. In only the most recent instance of not-in-my-back-yard prudery butting up against boho license, debate rages over whether Fantasy Fest, a long-running bacchanal in which revelers parade down Duval Street in nothing but body paint, should require nipple pasties and cache-sexes. Many wonder: Has the Conch Republic become nothing more than a mildly risqué theme park?

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Fear not, authenticity-seekers. Key West didn’t die. It just moved across Cow Key Channel to Stock Island. There you can experience life as it once was, in all its raffish glory — and take in a few indigenous delights while you’re at it.

In the 19th century, Stock Island was a stockyard for the cattle that kept Key West’s wealthy wreckers and ship captains in beef — hence its name. Today, it still exists to serve the more prosperous landmass to the south, with a population consisting largely of service industry workers who have been priced out of Key West.

Stock Island is also where Key West’s commercial fishing and shrimping industry decamped in the early ’80s, chased out by unwieldy overhead. At the Hogfish Bar and Grill, you can still sit cheek by jowl with the salty men who trawl for crustacean booty. A hogfish sandwich at this funky, open-air shanty costs $14.95 — about half as much as a portion of hogfish at the upmarket bistros south of the channel.

But there’s more to this unsung island than cheap eats and fishing. Dig and you’ll unearth a horde of offbeat gems such as the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden (yes, it’s on Stock Island, despite the name). A showcase of native flora, it offers a calming detox from the rum-soaked sensory onslaught of Duval Street. But its most striking feature is a collection of 12 Cuban “chugs,” vessels that carried defectors across the 90 miles of open water between Cuba and the lower keys. Many are rickety craft improvised out of spare parts, some little more than plastic sheeting wrapped around Styrofoam. All of them bear poignant witness to economic desperation and human ingenuity.

“The fact that they were built in secret and people brought their families over in them — it gives you shivers,” said Mary Chandler, the garden’s vice president.

Thanks to the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy granting Cuban refugees who make it ashore expedited legal status in this country, the Coast Guard continues to recover beached chugs at a rate of one or two a year. They are some of the lucky few that complete the crossing. Chandler called my attention to the foam outriggers fitted to some of the dinghies. “Those were for extra flotation. The idea was to keep the chugs out of the water because they were so fully loaded and the channel is shark infested.”

Talk of predators had me hankering for cuddlier fauna. Luckily, I knew where to find them. The first sight that greets visitors to the Monroe County Detention Center is a 600-pound hog lolling in a mud wallow. Past this and a sign apprising me, along with the toddler-wielding mothers I’d fallen in with, that we were now subject to random searches, I found a patch of Eden: the Sheriff’s Animal Farm.

What began by happenstance 20 years ago when the Police Department needed a place to pen an abandoned horse has mushroomed into a menagerie of 90 animals — all cared for by inmates. Part rehabilitation, part therapy, wholly surreal, it’s the only program of its kind in the States. And twice a month, it opens to the public.

Visitors can interact with animals domestic and exotic. “Almost all of them were abused, neglected, or confiscated,” said Jeanne Selander, the farm’s supervisor. Albert, a 100-pound African spurred tortoise seized in a drug arrest, performs the role of resident lawnmower, implacably chomping sod. About a 13-foot albino Burmese python, a volunteer told me, “Some guy was keeping him in his car and charging people five bucks a pop to hold him.”

Deeper in the bowels of the zoo, an inmate in an orange jumpsuit, one of three on duty that day, (“There were supposed to be five, but two got rolled up for bad behavior,” Selander said) introduced me and a towheaded boy to a puny gator and handed it over for me to hold (its jaws were taped shut). “He was kept in an aquarium in a bar and he ate the stuff they use to seal the glass, the liner,” the inmate said. “That’s why he’s so small.”

Supervisor Jeanne Selander with a sloth at the children’s zoo at the county detention center.

Marc Mewshaw for the boston globe

Supervisor Jeanne Selander with a sloth at the children’s zoo at the county detention center.

Other farm charmers include two-toed sloths, Vietnamese potbellied pigs, goats, lemurs, and a herd of Patagonian cavies (“good eating,” an inmate told me, in jest, I hope). And let’s not forget the iguanas. Stock Island, like Key West, is overrun with these descendants of pets released into the wild. They slink in through the bars of the peacock cage to pilfer food, leading one to ponder the fine line between captivity and freedom — considerations not lost on the offenders who work here. “We call this place the Stock Island Sheraton,” one inmate said. “Everybody gets a bed. The air conditioning is on 24/7. Beats being homeless.”

Despite the island’s rough edges, gentrification has made inroads here. Artists’ galleries have sprouted up on the dock that’s home to the Hogfish Bar and Grill and a gleaming new $280 million marina, where tatty “liveaboards” bob alongside millionaires’ yachts, opened in January. Are these bellwether events?

In search of answers, I went to Arnold’s, the only face of Stock Island many out-of-towners ever see. That’s because Arnold’s is where cars towed from Key West end up. And though it may not be everybody’s idea of an upscale joint, they do sell T-shirts for those desiring a souvenir of their misfortune. It apparently represents a big step up from what used to be here. “Right where you’re standing,” the proprietress said when I approached the ticket window, “a man got stabbed over a half-eaten sandwich.”

Arnold’s was formerly a disreputable bar called Stew’s — the sort of watering hole where ordering a glass of chablis might have cost you an eye.

“There used to be a bar like that on every block,” she said. “Stock Island is a whole lot better than it used to be.” As a token of progress, she pointed to the condos across the street where a stock car racetrack once stood.

So, with these improvements, is there any danger of Stock Island becoming the next overpriced, over-policed Key West? “I’m not going anywhere, no matter how much it changes,” she said. “I’ve never seen snow and I never want to.”

It was agreeable enough a response, exactly the sort of attitude that brings the well-heeled snowbirds to Key West. But when I asked the woman for her name, she bristled and a gent in greasy overalls demanded I show ID. I backed off. No sense pressing the issue: It didn’t take much prodding, I was learning, to get Stock Island to revert to type.

Marc Mewshaw can be reached at marc.mewshaw@gmail.com.

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