“A WATER WONDERLAND”
as a 100% Pisces thru and thru, I happen to love the Keys. Easy to get to - these little coral islands (there are over 1700 of them) off the southern coast of Florida boasts a tropical climate, seafood galore and a local charm that is part Yankee, part Caribbean. Life is very easygoing here. :-)
It’s all about the water baby! The 3rd largest coral reef in the world is here. The scuba diving, snorkeling and most important the sport fishing is where it’s at. It’s all VERY laidback and relaxed. The non-glam, non-glitz Keys are a direct contrast to flashy Miami. KEY WEST is a quirky gem with a lot of character and charm (should you keep away from the cruise ship mobs that is).
The scenery (once you reach the island) from the main road is kinda bleak, dusty and filled with run down malls, trailer parks and uninspiring, tacky souvenir shops. With very little exception all the restaurants serve up subpar fried crap or food blackened to death with tons of butter (Paula Dean would be proud). The exceptions I have experienced can be seen in my list below. The local restaurants pretty much live off the tourists and their heavy imbibing at “sunset” happy hours, so food is an afterthought. NOTHING to do after 7pm (this can be a good thing as well - you need to be on the water early!)
you must fly into either Miami or Key West and then rent a car to get around. Miami has much better and mostly non-stop flight options where Key West will involve a minimum of 1 connection and in most cases a turboprop plane. In winter both Air Canada and American Airlines have 3 nonstop flights per day from Toronto to Miami and Westjet has 1-2 daily so lots of options.
1. You MUST rent a car. This is really the only way to get around. The only exception where you won’t need a car is if you base yourself on Key West and never leave the island.
2. Do not expect any beaches - they are pretty much minimal to non existent on the keys. YOU MUST GO OUT ON THE WATER - THIS IS IMPERATIVE - you are missing out on what makes the Keys great if you don’t do this. I’m serious - just do it.
3. The ONLY 3 islands worth visiting are: KEY LARGO (mainly for the scuba/snorkel), ISLAMORADA (fishing, sunset bars) and KEY WEST (the southernmost point in the USA and a lot of fun if you know where to go).
MY LIST [A-Z]
Banana Cafe even thou located on the most touristy street in Key West, serves up pretty good food. The crepes are especially yummy.
Blue Heaven brunching with some roosters and their kin, it doesn’t get more Key West than that. Yes, a local institution.
Cafe Moka is a stylish French run cafe in Key Largo where the owners have flown in the coffee, pastries and gelatos weekly. A nice little stop (they have wifi) keep in mind the coffee won’t wow you, but its as good as it gets in these parts.
Casa Morada a stylish little retreat on Islamorada run by some city slickers that wanted to bring some big city amenities to these folksy parts.
Conch Shack (The) is the least fancy place to eat on Key West’s Duval Street (it’s actually a shack) but with tasty conch fritters, yummy lobster rolls and cheap beer, not to mention friendly service its a quick and easy stop on your way to see the sunset.
Ghost Tour of Key West if you are gonna do 1 “touristy” thing in KW than you could do worse than this spooky, yet played for laughs tour which, with the right crowd, is fun. It drags on a little long at the end and it’s been moved to a fat friendly bus (it used to be a walking tour) but you learn that indeed Key West is one creepy place.
Hemingway Home & Museum is a national landmark building and home to the literary legend back in the 1930s when he lived in KW.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park just off Key Largo is home to the 3rd largest reef system in the world and a wonder to behold. Just GO! (except on U.S. Holidays - it’s gets jam packed then).
Key West is, for me, an ultimate paradox. Here is this little island/city, perched out in the sea, half way between Miami and Havana, in the centre of a hurricane zone, yet its home to some of the most laidback locals I have ever met. Where else do you see locals, tourists, drag queens mingling with roosters, chickens and their little chicks. (The chicken always crosses the road here - AND has right of way). You sit on the sunset deck watching the gaggles of fat cruise ship passengers, getting shitfaced while listening to steel drums. MEANWHILE behind all this, is a darkly gothic, slightly scary old town where dimly lit streets, filled with beautiful, crumbling mansions with candlelit patios with swaying rocking chairs (the wind?) where ghost stories are believed and a cemetery is home to the dead, whom it seems aren’t always completely so.
Key West Cemetery normally I wouldn’t suggest such a morbid place to visit, however in quirky Key West it’s a must. Tombstones with such ephitets as: “I told you I was sick.” make it a, dare I say, fun visit. R.I.P. folks!
Little Palm Island next time you win the lottery you can stop here for a few nights with your significant other. Multi award winning and beautiful, I have nothing to add really. As they say a picture speaks a thousand words right? next time…. (as we continue to dream).
Lorelei Cabana Bar on Islamorada is one of the most popular places to view the sunset and is a local institution. Do yourself a fav and skip the mediocre bar food. The staff are very hit n miss, however the drinks are always cold and the view is always great.
Made 2 Order ignore the cheesy name, this breakfast/lunch spot on the water just south of Key Largo on the island of Tavernier (you see all the fishing boats go in and out AND you can sail in) is perfectly A-OK by me for American style morning nosh (large portions of pancakes, lots of omelettes, etc.) The servers are all very young and a bit forgetful so make sure to watch em and double check the bill at the end.
Morada Bay on Islamorada is one of a very few lunch/dinner options in the upper keys worth your time. The french owner does a good job with local seafood and the vibe is upscale Caribbean. You can dine on the beach. Popular for weddings and they host a monthly “full moon” party which does see attendance from Miami scenesters. Fun.
Ocean Pointe Suites just south of Key Largo (again in Tavernier Key) is the best option for groups and families because they offer kitchen equipped 2 bedroom condo rentals at very reasonable pricing. There is a olympic size pool, a small beach and, most important, a dock for boats with which to go on daily fishing, snorkeling, scuba excursions. (Bonus is it’s on the windy Atlantic side, so minimal mosquitos!)
Orchid Key Inn on a island (Key West) full of either chains or quaint and homey b&bs, this is a great option for those (like me) who aren’t fans of either. A remodeled motor inn that now boasts fresh, clean rooms with amazing beds, and a relaxed pool/bar scene. Its also centrally located right where you want to be. a winner!
Seven Fish is a tiny, tiny (make reservations) seafood restaurant where you are just as likely to see locals dining as visitors. Hidden on an unassuming side street in Key West’s old town.
Seven Mile Bridge built in 1982, is one of the world’s most famous (and longest) bridges with sweeping water views and bragging rights.
Sunset Celebration is a nightly “festival” that takes place on Mallory Square Dock in Key West. It does get crowded but that’s part of the fun - people watching, live entertainers, crap being sold and finally a glorious sunset to start your evening…
images via myself, s. keating, sweet carolina, bob fisher
in order of appearance (top to bottom): keys sunset, map, scuba at pennekamp park, boating seen from the sky, dining on the sand at Morada Bay, bedroom at Ocean Pointe, dining on the water at Made 2 Order, seven mile bridge, little palm island, infamous tombstone in Key West, Rooster, key lime pie at Blue Heaven, Casa Morada pool and bathrooms, lounging by the lagoon, Hemingway home, Seven Fish restaurant, Orchid Key Inn neon sign overlooking the old town, poolside.
*all opinions and observations are my own. I have not received any payments or incentives to include any recommendations listed above.