If you want to be a little friendlier on the wallet fly into Ft Lauderdale instead of Miami. Only half an hour north and you’re going to have to rent a car regardless, as the only way to see Key West is to Road Trip all the Florida Keys.
Get an early start and just head south on Florida’s turnpike until you eventually hit US Hwy 1 then it’s a straight shot of 130 miles to Key West Florida. It’s not about the drive, I’ve prepared a “best of” list for each island to explore along the way!
Just before leaving the mainland you will want to stop at the Florida Keys welcome center-literally a trailer in a motel parking lot, but this is where your journey begins. I was greeted by a couple of retired ladies in their floral shirts enjoying an ice cream each and a gossip amongst themselves. Don’t be deterred just grab your coupon books, and brochures for the rest of the trip, and instigate a chat, once you get these gals talking they are full of helpful tips!
First stop on my list and the first island up is Key Largo. Mrs. Macs Kitchen is just off Hwy 1, which everything is, and it is a must to sit outside and enjoy your first taste of the keys. Know worldwide for their Key Lime pie it was the best I have ever had. After you’ve finished your slice jump back in the car and head onwards to Islamorada.
While traveling through Islamorada everyone must stop on mile marker 87 to get a picture of Islamorada’s own Giant Lobster! She marks the entrance to Rain Barrel Village where you can have a look at local artists’ masterpieces.
It’s only a few more miles till you see the welcome sign to Marathon, and the half way point. Adults and kids alike will enjoy a stop off at Robbie’s to feed the tarpon! Grab a bucket of fish and head to the dock where you will be surrounded by large tarpons under your feet and all around the dock. Tarpon can grow 4-8 feet in length and weigh 60-280 lbs. each so hold the bait down low and watch the massive fish jump from the water to feed! All in all, the best entertainment $3 can buy! By now you’ve built up quite the appetite yourself, so jump back in the car and head a few miles further south still on Marathon for the famous Lobster Reuben only sold at Key Fisheries. (over 215 thousand sold to date) Head up to the window and get yourself a Reuben and some conch fritters, but don’t be surprised when they call your order by the name of you give when they ask you that days trivia question-wild animal and first to mind was a boar! Sit back and enjoy the view and chat with the locals at this backcountry find.
Back on Hwy 1, settle in, as the seven-mile bridge is in sight. Take in the openness and water surround as you travel along the bridge. You’ll pass over several smaller islands so watch out for the key deer before you arrive at Big Pine Key. Time to finally relax in the keys island style. Pull into Baha Honda State park grab your swim suit and your camera as this park offers some of the best views in the keys. Enjoy your time here beachside but don’t miss what remains of the over-sea railroad. Originally built in 1904 by Henry Flagler, it opened in 1912 carrying freight and passengers from Key west to the mainland, it made the keys accessible and the economy boomed. Unfortunately, a hurricane in 1935 destroyed much of this railway, but inspired the government to build the highway we enjoy today opening in 1938. Pack the car back up, jump back on Hwy 1, its only 40 more miles to Key West.
Upon arriving in Key West you’ll want to find your hotel quickly, grab a quick shower and head down to Mallory Square before sunset. You will not want to miss the Sunset Celebration! I know you will be captivated by the glowing red sun sinking into to the Gulf of Mexico’s horizon, but there is much more to see and do. The boardwalk is full of magicians, jugglers, psychics, artist, food vendors and local musicians all combining for an incredible cultural experience. Usually around dusk the performers will pack up but not me. I’m heading directly to Duvall Street where the nightly party is just getting started. Loads of restaurants and bars to choose from. I suggest doing a little bar hopping to experience as much as possible, you will surely make new friends, just don’t miss trying a Key Lime Martini!
No rest for the weary, I have an early start this 2 by 4-mile island has a lot to discover. Start the day right with a stop at the oldest ‘joint’ on the island, established in 1909, and has been serving a mean breakfast ever since. Pepe’s on Caroline Street is a must, serving up daily specials like crab cakes for breakfast and a mimosa with fresh squeezed Florida orange juice! Key West has lots of museums but top of my list is Ernest Hemingway’s home. Although he only resided here from 1931 to 1939, it was in this house where he did some of his best work. A few include “the Snows of Kilimanjaro”, ‘The Short Life of Frances Macomber” and novels like To Have and Have Not. You must wait for a group tour, they congregate in the front room about every half hour and do a great job bringing the house to life. You’ll hear all about his wives, see Key West’s first indoor bathroom and outdoor swimming pool. Plus, the cats are not to be missed; there are still 45 living decedents of Hemingway’s very own Snowball. Snowball was a Polydactyl cat which what makes them unique is that they have 6 toes each! Grab a quick photo on the balcony that was a film location for James Bond A License to Kill then head a few blocks south to see the most photographed place in Key West. This is, of course, the Key West buoy that notates the Southernmost point of the continental USA. From here you are now only 90 miles north of Cuba!
Public Beaches on this small island are hard to come by, but I have managed to fine one. Almost a 20 min walk north of the buoy is Clarence Higgs Memorial Beach, and where I’m going to spend the afternoon soaking up some rays. Full of tourists and locals alike you can take up a game of beach volleyball, swim in the clear calm waters or grab a bite to eat at the beachside cafes, no shirt or shoes required! As soon as the sun starts to dim head back towards Duvall Street as Happy Hour here starts early. A popular stop is the original Jimmy Buffets Margaretville. You have many choices for dinner and the seafood is fresh at them all, but it was Mangoes right on Duvall Street that I ended up at. Featuring its outdoor seating you can have your dinner and not miss a beat of the vibrant strip. A must have are the bacon wrapped scallops on brie with mango apple salsa!
It is a long drive back up the Keys, but we make it just in time to tuck ourselves in Kendall tonight. Late to bed and early to rise,
we are headed to discover Florida’s Everglades National Park! There are so many tour providers here it is hard to choose, but I’ve found Gator Park and booked online which only cost $18/pp for an authentic airboat ride through the Everglades followed by a wildlife show where they wrestle alligators! I hear the Everglades and I immediately think of a swamp, but it is so much more beautiful. Apparently, it isn’t even a swamp at all, rather the world’s slowest moving river. From the boat, it appears shallow in places where the weeds are protruding and I begin to understand the reason for the flat bottom boats. But it was the reflections of the clouds that blew me away, these swaps were something to see, beautiful in fact.
Our guide, who by they way is not wearing shoes, instructs us to put in our ear plugs and he takes off! The wind starts blowing my hair and we sway side to side as he spins around curves and this was way more fun than I anticipated so hold on there aren’t any seatbelts either! My tour did not disappoint, we were able to spot several alligators lounging on the banks, within the shallow water and even get to see a baby alligator only a few weeks old swim alongside our boat. Returning to the dock we are guided over to the show to grab our seats. They do a great job demonstrating how strong these beasts of the water are and how the Natives used to trap and capture them. End the show with a photo op holding one of their lovely friends, a teenage alligator!
Onwards on the road trip we go, and back to civilization, downtown Miami. Highly recommended is a boat tour of Miami’s own
Biscayne Bay and Millionaire Row. Again, there are numerous tour providers at the port/shopping center but do an early booking online if you can. These tickets will save you a few dollars and are open for the entire day and tours depart every hour. It’s from the back of the boat that you will grab some of the best views of the city. Also, included on the tour is the cruise line ports, which is the largest in the world, and houses of Shaq, the late Elizabeth Taylor and Al Capone.
My last stop on my road trip Florida is Miami Beach. I checked in to my hotel and head out. I found the beaches to be ok; you have a few waves but there was a bit of seaweed and sand gnats and maybe that’s just the Atlantic. However, the weather is pretty much a constant so if the beach is not for you there’s always a pool to relax by. A wander down to South Beach is a must. Grab a seat in one of the sidewalk restaurants where the drinks are as large as fishbowls, and enjoy the show there’s a lot of people watching to do here!