Less than an hour from Jacksonville and very close to the border with Georgia, lies one of the top 10 U.S. island, at least according to Condé Nast Reader’s Choice Award. It’s a lovely small island with beautiful powdery sand dunes and a lovely Historic District (Fernandina Beach) busy with charming bed and breakfasts and yummy restaurants. It’s one of the few old towns in Florida that still retain its old charm (even though a bit touristy). Once arrived, it will not be difficult to find a nice Victorian Bed and Breakfast to spend a few days and feel like you are back in time. It gets very busy during weekends so if you are looking to stay in a particular B&B book well ahead to not be disappointed.
For a while, we were even considering moving here and it’s not too difficult to imagine why: a short cycle from downtown Fernandina and you’ve reached a huge and vast beach, with soft white sand and beautiful properties facing the sea. Not a bad spot to live. There are plenty of accommodation options in the Historic District, most of them in a wonderfully kept Victorian style. If you are looking for something different (still Victorian but with a touch of modern) and wish to open your window to the ocean breeze, head to Elizabeth Point Lodge.
The place is absolutely gorgeous and has got some stunning views of the beach and the ocean. We didn’t stay here but we went in to see the rooms; in my view, the rooms facing the back of the property and the car park are nothing special but the ones with ocean view (for a premium, of course) could be well worth the investment.
Bear in mind that the great majority of restaurants are located in the Historic District so if you decide to stay on the beach you will have to drive or get a cab there. Food-wise, we decided to try España Restaurant and Tapas and were not disappointed: lovely outdoor garden, nice service and good food. If you have got a sweet tooth, have a look at Nana Teresa’s Bake Shop: their cakes and pies are absolutely D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S and I bet you will not leave empty-handed!
Amelia Island is generally considered an upmarket destination (more than its neighbour St. Augustine) and that is reflected in the average night rate of the many B&Bs (and the 2 big resorts: Omni Plantation and Ritz-Carlton): you will struggle to find anything below 150/200$. For a cheaper accommodation, right in the heart of the “action” (bear in mind that Fernandina Beach is not a party town, though), try Florida House Inn: some of their rooms are quite small but definitely cheaper than many other B&Bs in town and they offer a very good and generous breakfast. It’s next door to The Green Turtle Tavern, which is a good spot for a few drinks and live music.
There is only one thing that may spoil this idyllic place: 2 big paper mills, and that’s exactly the reason why we decided against moving there. They will not have an impact on your stay though, since you will probably not even notice them. As for anything else in this world, plenty of people will say that there is no issue at all with them (plus, they give work to a lot of local people) but having to choose where to relocate, the last decision is mine, I suppose.
Having said this, Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach Historic town are a beautiful part of Florida, definitely worth a visit.
I have to admit that I had been a bit of a pain with my boyfriend begging him to come here (making a big detour) to see the manatees but I really wanted to see them. I had a brief and unintentional encounter in Belize, near Caye Caulkner island, but at that time I was so excited for all the other marine life that I had seen on that day that I didn’t realize I had just met a beautiful example of an endangered specie. The Florida manatee is the largest of all living sirenians. Sadly, they have been hunted for hundreds of years (and still are, in some part of the world); vessels pose a huge threat to this specie as well and boaters are always reminded to exercise extreme caution (you will see plenty of signs in any marina). Since 1966 Florida Manatee has been listed as an endangered specie and a big conservation program has ensured that the Florida manatee population (that some thought was going to be extinct) accounts now for around 6,000.
Wakulla Spring State Park is an astonishing State Park in Florida, not far from Tallahassee. The flowing Spanish Moss gives drama to an unforgettable kind of Gothic scenario. For as little as 8$ (on top of the entrance park fee), you get on a boat that takes you slowly and quietly down the river Wakulla where plenty of gators, turtles and amazing bird species (including bald eagle, herons and egrets) live, and of course, manatees. As with all American tours, a friendly chap will give you a good introduction of the area and point you all the variety of animals that you will encounter during your tour.
The park gets very busy during spring/summer with a lot of visitors enjoying the spring waters. I visited the park in January 2015 (too cold to swim in the spring) and we saw several manatees during our boat tour. You can spot manatees all year round on Florida coastlines but during the winter months manatees head for warmer waters, such as springs and shallow rivers so you know where to go if you want to see them.
I visited the Everglades on 2 occasions and I was disappointed twice. Hundreds of tourist on dozens of buses driving down to Miami, boarding a noisy airboat and then quickly back on the bus. Wakulla Spring is completely different and well worth the detour. If travelling with kids, they would love it too!
If I had to choose an Highway to get stuck in traffic, I would definitely pick US Highway 1, the so called “Overseas Highway” that links the Keys to the mainland. You will easily understand why. It’s without any doubt one of the most scenic roads I have driven on. Miles of tarmac stretch from the Upper Keys to Key West, including the impressive Seven Mile Bridge. You can’t go any further at the end of your drive cause that’s where US 1 ends (actually, it starts here). You’ve reached Key West, the Southernmost point of Continental U.S.A. and you are officially in the so-called Conch Republic (that actually encompasses all the Florida Keys). Following a United States Border Patrol roadblock on the US 1 that isolated the Florida Keys residents, on April 23, 1982 Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow proclaimed that the Conch Republic was an independent state from the U.S.
You can even apply to get your own Conch Republic passport if you wish!
I had a great time in the Keys and here are my suggestions to ensure you have a blast too, if you are planning to go.
First of all, everything depends on the length of your stay and on what you want to do. When I visited the Keys for the first time, I thought it would have been pretty quick to get to Key West from Miami but it’s not. Miami-Key West is almost 160 miles, that’s to say over 3 h 30 journey (you don’t want to speed…plenty of patrols!). For this reason, in order to avoid unnecessary driving up and down the Keys (and spend more time doing what you want), choose carefully the Key you want to stay in, especially if you are planning to do any specific activity (diving, fishing, partying or just beach bum). In this sense, Fodor’s Travel Florida (which I didn’t particularly like on other topics) has a really extensive and accurate section dedicated to the Keys and the different activities for each of them. You could easily spend weeks on the Keys but a week in my opinion is enough to get a good feel and get back home with a good tan, your heart full of great memories and your liver intact!
Which Key to choose? The Keys are divided in Upper Keys (including Key Largo and Islamorada), Middle Keys (including Marathon), Lower Keys (including Big Pine Key) and, of course, Key West. Every Key has got more than a good reason to stay but, if I have to choose a couple, bear in mind:
Key Largo for diving, snorkelling, snuba.
Islamorada for good fishing.
Big Pine Key for being close to one of the best beaches I’ve ever seen (Bahia Honda State Park)
Key West: for partying.
I will focus more on Key West because it’s where we spent more time and because it’s a place like nowhere else I’ve been before (even though some things reminded me of Caye Caulkner, Belize).
Where to stay? Again, Fodor’s Florida guide details many sleeping options for every Key. If you are staying in Key West, I’d suggest a couple of places. Key West Bed and Breakfast offer very tastefully decorated rooms (the owner is an artist) with private or shared bathroom and nice common spaces and outdoor verandas. The B&B is close to the action but far enough to enjoy a relaxing and quiet sleep. They haven’t got a pool (only downside) but they have got a nice tub with jets in their backgarden. Another good option that we tried is The Conch House. They do have a big pool that enjoys sunshine until late afternoon, big well appointed rooms and very nice and friendly staff. Breakfast was excellent and the afternoon margaritas were a very nice bonus! My boyfriend says that the fact that the owner was particularly handsome may have helped to make my stay more enjoyable…. I am not made of wood. A rented apartment could be a good option to share the cost and have your own kitchen (and most of them come with a communal pool).
Where to eat? If you are travelling from Miami straight to Key West, break the journey with a quick lunch stop at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, a nice and informal eatery on Key Largo, you can’t miss it and it’s well worth the stop.
In general food on the Keys is quite pricey, even more on Key West. If you are staying in a rented apartment, you can buy your own food at Publix just outside the centre. Still pricey but definitely cheaper than anywhere downtown. Plenty of food options downtown Key West. For cheap and filling options, try Havana Restaurant on Duval Street: huge portions and great Cuban sandwiches! Alonzo’s Oyster Baris a safe bet too, especially during happy hour time where part of the menu is half price (from 4 to 6!). On Sundays, do not miss a brunch at Hot Tin Roof: they have an incredible Bloody Mary bar (with unlimited Bloody Mary, btw…) that alone is worth the visit! Again, it requires a few more bucks but you will eat so much that you will not eat anything else throughout the day. If you came to Key West with your partner, head to Louise’s back gardento impress her/him. Nice outdoor bar to get some good cocktails and stunning restaurant location. It’s not cheap but if you have got something to celebrate, that’s a great choice. Food was excellent and staff very competent. Oh, and do not leave the Keys without trying conch fritters and the amazing Key Lime Pie…the original and still the best!
What to do? Plenty of activities on all the Keys. I used Islamorada as a base for fishing and Key Largo for snorkelling (diving is supposed to be truly excellent but I am not very keen, despite having tried it). You will find hundreds of operators that offer fishing charters and diving/snorkelling boats; shop around and always ask how many parties will have the boat since there is nothing worse that being packed on a boat with dozens of other tourists. As far as snorkelling is concerned, it was good but nothing mind-blowing (unlike in Belize or Mexico).
If laying on the beach is your favorite activity, then you want to be close to Bahia Honda State Park. Bear in mind that the Keys in general are not famous for their beaches (so don’t be disappointed about the beaches on Key West) but BHSP tick all the boxes, and more. I’ve been to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and this is without any doubt one of the best. There are not many services on the main beach (Sandspur) except for a small bar/restaurant and toilets, so come well stocked and get ready to enjoy one of the best coastline of Florida with shallow and clear water and baby-powder sand.
But the truth is that 99% of the people that drive down (or fly), come here for a reason: KEY WEST. Located just over 150 miles from Miami and 90 to Cuba, this place is unlike anywhere else. It’s a mix of several cultures: Conchs, freshwater Conchs, Hispanics among others, together with a good number of vagabonds & hippies and an abundance of stray dogs, cats, iguanas and chickens roaming freely around town.
It is also a gay vacation hot spot (and some of the B&Bs gay-friendly are absolutely stunning) but the truth is that (almost) everyone loves Key West. I could spent (and I actually did) days just walking around town and the back streets. Forget Duval St. for a second and just get lost in the hidden back roads, far away from the crowd and the excess. Gorgeous and beautifully kept Victorian properties (most of them turned into bed and breakfast and boutique hotels…have a look at Alexandra B&B), lush and tropical gardens, trees in blossom everywhere….Key West is definitely a pleasure for the eyes.
People watching is also one of the best activity you can possibly do on the island while sipping your favorite cocktail. If you are an Ernst Hemingway lover, don’t forget that he lived here for many years and you can still visit his house but be prepared because it’s a major tourist attraction.
Don’t waste all your energy during the daytime….save some for the evening because the party scene deserves it, as well. Live music of all sorts is almost everywhere, bars are packed at any hour and night clubs offer great entertainment…
Key West is loud, excessive and sometimes can be a bit trashy too but everyone is here for the same reason: have an amazing time so just join the party!
What I didn’t like? Sometimes Key Westerns hold an unjustified sense of superiority. Their place is beautiful, no doubt, but a lot of it is also built to the mere use and consume of tourists so sometimes it feels too artificial (sunset shows in Mallory square are an example). Some of the people that live here haven’t left the islands in ages and that obviously keep them completely outside from the “real world”.
But in the end, I suppose this man is absolutely right….
“Apala… what”??!! You wouldn’t even think that a town with a name like this exists but actually it does.
Apalachicola is a small fishing town in Franklin county, southwest of Tallahassee, Florida. Just over 2,000 souls live here. If you end up here (not many do, believe me), you might be on your way to the well renowned Gulf of Mexico beaches where the water is emerald and the sand is white. The road to Apalachicola is stunning, especially if you take a couple of detours on your way. We did it and got rewarded with stunning views and one of the most delicious blackened Tilapia burgers of our whole road trip in Florida.
Very few Americans have ever heard of Apalachicola and you quickly understand why. It’s a rather sleepy town, with a few old fashion accommodation options and a handful of restaurants and it claims to be the real Old Florida. After spending many months touring America, being European you do realize that what’s old for an American is relatively new for us. But Americans do try hard to keep their old stuff at their best: a lot of buildings (both private and public) have been nicely and carefully restored but all has been done keeping an eye on the past and preserving the traditions.
We ended up here on our way from St. Augustine, FL to New Orleans. And we went on a specific mission: try the famous oysters. More than 90% of Florida’s oysters production is harvested in this area. To me, this is more than a good reason to go!
We stayed at Coombs Inn & Suites(80 6th Street), since the season was pretty quiet and they had a good mid-week rate. It’s located in a tranquil residential neighbourhood and it’s walking distance from Apalachicola downtown. Our dinner choice for the evening was already sorted: Up the Creek Raw Bar (313 Water Street). It’s a pretty informal bar/restaurant, you order your food as soon as you arrive at the bar and they serve you at the table. Whatever you choose it’s going to be delicious…. we opted for Classic and Southern Style oysters and a rich Crab and Lobster Bisque. The oyster purists will probably say that oysters should be eaten raw but I can guarantee you that these baked ones are to die for!
We left with our bellies full (we left a bit of room for a huge dessert) and to my astonishing surprise before we left the bar we ended up meeting a bunch of Italians: they didn’t quite know how and why they ended up there…but, no matter what, they absolutely loved the oysters too!
Let’s put it in this way: you wouldn’t probably choose to go to Apalachicola to spend your holiday but if you happen to drive near this town, I would stop. It’s a “Florida” miles away of what we would expect Florida to be. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.