You know you’re in the Florida Keys when you drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key West and see signs that say boats, boat rentals, boat lifts, boat works, boat trailers, boat storage. Yes, this is the place to have a boat.
Stretching 120 miles along the southern tip of Florida, the Florida Keys are a string of islands known for fishing, boating, snorkeling and more. With an average temperature of 77 degrees, it is a sportsman’s paradise.
That sunshine-swathing drive features lofty palms that bend as their emerald fronds sweep the air clean in the tropical breeze. Magenta bougainvillea twines around archways and adorns trellises, and the water is as turquoise as the water in Crater Lake is sapphire. Florida’s aqua water is crystal-clear, whether in shades of grey, green, white or almost black.
What to Do in the Florida Keys
My boyfriend and I are not disappointed to be surrounded by the lavish yellow blooms of the trumpet tree or the aromatic gardenias, but we have a goal in traveling to the Florida Keys for 10 days in February.
Key Lime Pie
We want to discover the best key lime pie known to man – and the Florida Keys are the place to do that. What almost diverts our quest is the discovery of abundant wildlife in startling shapes and sizes.
Curly-tailed skinks (tiny lizards) glide along pathways, behemoth iguanas fracture concrete, tarpons (some as large as 100 pounds) jump for fish dangled from people’s hands, and manatees the length of kayaks (though lacking a kayak’s sleek lines) surface close at hand.
We expedite our pie-sampling mission with pleasure while reassessing our goal. Key lime pie is a little bit of heaven, though. Key limes – tart and sweet – are the primary ingredient. Mix them with eggs and sweetened condensed milk, plunk all this into a crisp, buttery graham cracker crust and top it off with dense whipped cream. Scrumptious!
We’ll see if we can rip ourselves away from pie-sampling to give the wildlife the attention it deserves. That does not include the famous clothing-optional Bull & Whistle rooftop bar in Key West, wild as it is.
We reach Key Largo in time for breakfast at Harriette’s, a funky diner. The hefty key lime muffins with their robust lime hit are a great primer for the pie competition.
Learn more about activities in Key Largo here.
Key West is the most popular island in the Florida Keys and the southernmost point in the United States. With 25,000 residents, it is also a museum haven.
We visit the Shipwreck, Sails to Rails, Custom House and Mel Fisher Maritime museums. President Truman comes to life when we wander through his white, clapboard summer house. Five-toed cats engulf us at Hemingway’s Italianate home.
Years ago, Hemingway’s favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s, moved to a new location, and, in protest, Hemingway absconded with a urinal. It now sits in his yard, decorated with tiles, and is a watering trough for the descendants of his cats.
Then it’s off to the sleepy tiny island of Islamorada, where the Shrimp Shack’s po’ sandwiches burst with shrimp and the hush puppies that accompany them verify that we are in the South.
After lunch, we head to Bud and Mary’s Marina where the water cooler dispenses iced tea. We are in the South. Cottony-white egrets and grey pelicans with hefty yellow, webbed feet stroll the dock at Bud and Mary’s in search of entrails from yellowtail snapper that fishermen clean there. The birds don’t mind at all if they bump against our legs while foraging.
Learn more about activities in Islamorada here.
Robbie’s Marina of Islamorada
The silvery tarpon that cluster near the dock at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada can jump four feet. Their eel-like toothless mouths suck up the fish that people dangle from the dock. I have a hard time diverting my attention from those colossal creatures, but we are due at nearby Postcard Marina.
The fishing guide there provides rods, bait and advice at the free program called “Fish Like a Local.” We fish, though a local might find our efforts amusing. I am intrigued by the gargantuan manatees that frolic at Postcard Marina’s dock near the Tiki Hut Bar.
Nature Preserves in the Florida Keys
Before leaving Islamorada, we do some excellent comparison shopping for key lime pie at the restaurants including Lazy Days, Ziggy & Mad Dog’s and Ciao Hound, where the lobster ravioli almost rivals (but doesn’t quite) the pie.
Then we walk through the verdant trails at Green Turtle Hammock and Lime Tree nature preserves before traversing the 42 bridges that lead to Key West. Along the drive, bike trails, beach walks and citrus groves, with boxes at the ready for picking, dot the terrain.
Back in Key West
Back in Key West, we take an open-air trolley ride that gives us an overview of Key West, primarily down Duval Street, the main drag that boasts 122 bars. The saying goes that Key West isn’t a fishing town with a drinking problem, but a drinking town with a fishing problem.
One of the residents besides Hemingway who appreciated that saying was Tennessee Williams, who wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the La Concha Hotel. Robert Frost spent 16 years in a cottage here, and Shel Silverstein created his children’s books in Key West. Another children’s author, Judy Blume, has a bookstore, and Jimmy Buffett has a recording studio.
Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion Inn
We immerse ourselves in the amiable atmosphere of Key West’s Curry Mansion, where the owners serve breakfast, happy hour with live musicians and, best of all, conviviality. Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion Inn was built in 1869 and assures its guests that, “our house is your house.” They mean it. It is located adjacent to Duval Street, the main drag, which bustles with activity. It’s a 3-minute walk to the Harry S. Truman Little White House.
Searching for the Best Key Lime Pie
Then we forge ahead with our pie comparison shopping at the Fish Market, Margaritaville, Goldman’s Deli and The Dirty Pig restaurants. We crown Kermit’s, the store that serves everything key lime, the winner of our contest, so now we can try to pry ourselves away from pie and move onto our fascination with wildlife.
After we visit the Key West Aquarium and the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, we find a man walking his green turtle. Nobody lifts an eyebrow.
Roosters are underfoot as we enjoy outside dining at Garbo’s Grill. Since they roam the island, they’re prowling under our chairs again at BO’s Fish Wagon. Large iguanas scurry around the grounds at their adopted home, the graveyard.
Called “guana gaitors” because of their size, they plow under gravestones, breaking up the concrete. People can shoot this invasive species, as opposed to the protected roosters.
There seems to be a festival every month, and the celebration of the Conch Republic in April is the big one. Also, residents stroll down the streets in full-body paint for Halloween parades, Fantasy Fest in October and toga parties.
Key West is a town of music and meandering, and I am grateful that I also experienced it as a town of dazzling flora and bountiful fauna — and, of course, the best key lime pie known to man.
If You Go:
You can fly into either Miami International Airport (MIA) or Fort Lauderdale (FLL). If you choose the latter, it will take about 30 minutes longer to drive to Key West, but you might be able to save on flights.
There is 165 mi. between Miami and Key West, and it takes 3 hours and 20 minutes. But then you’d miss this great road trip. I suggest a leisurely drive through the Florida Keys ending with a few nights in Key West.
Where to Eat in the Florida Keys
- Best Key Lime Pie – Kermit’s Key Lime Shoppe
- Key Largo – Harriette’s
- Islamorada – Shrimp Shack, Lazy Days, Ziggie and Mad Dog’s, Ciao Hound
- Key West – The Fish Market, Margaritaville, Goldman’s Deli, Dirty Pig, Garbo’s Grill, BO’s Fish Wagon
Where to Stay in Key West
Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion Inn
511 Caroline St., Key West, FL 33040
Book a room at Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion Inn here.
Author Bio: Marcia McGreevy Lewis is a retired feature writer for a major Washington state newspaper and was the director of communications at an independent school where she founded the school’s magazine. Her book, “Backing Forward,” from which this article is adapted, is in search of an agent.