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 Bar is 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 garden to 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….
And maybe we are all just a bit envious! 😉