By Bridget Jackson
The Florida Keys is the grand finale to the beautiful state of Florida. Some people may think Florida stops at Miami, but 15 miles south of the fast paced city is a tropical paradise. Highway 1 is the golden road that takes you on a magical journey through an array of islands surrounded by tall coconut palms. Each island has its own unique features and charms. It is a 2 hour drive along Hwy 1 from Key Largo to Key West but it is worth every minute. The islands along the way promise warm tropical weather all year long, so no matter when you decide to visit make sure you pack your swimsuits, flip flops, hat, sunscreen, camera and most importantly the ability to relax; remember you are on island time!!
The Florida Keys land mass is approximately 137 square miles and is comprised of over 1700 islands that extend from the southeastern tip of Florida that wraps around the Gulf of Mexico to the Dry Tortugas islands. Many parts of the Keys were once a living underwater reef that eventually formed islands when the sea level dropped.
Hwy 1 held my ticket that took me to paradise, and the highway is easy to navigate because everything is identified by Mile Markers (MM). The MM dots the road and will guide you to the destination you are seeking. Believe it or not they use ½ miles in the Keys too! Key Largo begins at Mile Marker 106 and Key West is home to MM 0. The Keys are divided into several main island: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Lower Keys, Key West and outlying islands. The outer keys can only be accessed by boat.
On my trip to the Keys I had a great time exploring the islands, there is so much to see and do. Unless you are traveling by boat it would be nearly impossible to visit every island (did I mention there are 1,700!). These are some of my highlight sites from my trip that I think you will enjoy too!!
Key Largo is the entrance to the keys which happens to be the dive capital of the world! Scuba and snorkeling are some of the best ways to enjoy this islands underwater playground. The one destination on my itinerary was to visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park located at MM 102.5. John Pennekamp is the first undersea park in the United States and consists of 178 nautical miles of coral reefs, one of the largest shipwrecks and the famous Christ Statue. When I was in Key Largo my plan was to snorkel the reefs at John Pennekamp and see the Christ Statue. The weather had other plans for me and the seas were too rough to snorkel. So I had to go with my Plan B and I boarded the Spirit of Pennekamp glass bottom boat. Although it wasn’t snorkeling it was a great adventure floating over the Molasses Reef. The water was crystal clear which made the visibility through the windows an incredible underwater experience without getting wet. The trip lasted 2.5 hours and the boat ride through the mangroves to our destinations was amazing too.
Another fun sight to see is located at MM 100, where the African Queen Canal boat (at the Holiday Inn Marina) is available for daily canal cruises where you can go to re-live the 1957 classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
After an afternoon of kayaking on the sound, I worked up an appetite. The Fish House was the answer to satisfy my taste buds. The fish was delicious! For a sweet treat, Key Largo Chocolates and Ice Cream (MM 100.5) is the only choice. I thought I had walked into sugar heaven; a shop filled with, ice- cream, gelato, cupcakes, fudge, cookies, chocolate candy and much more! Your craving for sugar will be fulfilled here. They make all their tasty treats onsite where you can watch them in action through a huge glass window.
Islamorada is known as a village of islands that is 20 miles long and surrounded by turquoise water. Islamorada is famous for being the sport fishing capital of the world. In the middle of Islamorada is the Hurricane Monument at MM 81.5. It’s tucked away off the road so it’s easy to drive past it if you aren’t looking for it. Although it’s a simple memorial, after reading the history of the men and women that lost their lives in the Hurricane in 1935 it left a powerful impression on me!
Next on my agenda was to visit Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park MM 84.5. This is the site of an old coral quarry that has uncovered perfectly preserved fossilized specimens of many different types of ancient coral sea life. Walking along the quarry wall looking at all the different fossils was truly a remarkable experience.
A fun activity on my list was a stop at Robbie’s Marina (MM 77) to feed the tarpons. At first I was hesitant about hanging off the ledge of a dock dangling a tiny fish in my hand. After my initial shock that I wasn’t going to be eaten alive by the tarpon, I eagerly grabbed my bucket of fish and headed for the ledge of the dock. Now if feeding the fish doesn’t sound fun, the pelicans are eagerly waiting with their mouth open hoping somebody throws them a fish. The marina also has a restaurant, boats, kayak rentals, and open air shops filled with novelty gifts. A place fun for the entire family!!
I love art so I headed to the Rain Barrel Artisan Village (MM 87) which hosts a variety of artists who display whimsical art and jewelry in eclectic shops. Before you leave don’t forget to take your picture outside with the huge lobster!
Last on my list of places to see before I left Islamorada was at MM 69 Long Key State Park. It’s definitely a park for the nature enthusiast to enjoy; the air is so crisp and refreshing. There are two trails but Golden Orb trail is a journey through beautiful natural trails that’s leads to an observation tower that offers a panoramic view of the chain of lagoons immersed in its native habitat.
Some of my favorite restaurants on the island are- Lazy Days you can actually dine on the sand and the view is breathtaking here; Shrimp Shack – awesome fish tacos and key lime pie with ganache drizzled on top. Yummy!! Ma’s Fish House – Shrimp and Grits and chocolate ganache cake for dessert! All items on the menu are great!
Marathon– The next island on my agenda was Marathon. The Lower Keys and Marathon is attached by the 7 mile bridge. The view on the bridge is breathtaking, at Little Duck Key there is parking so you can enjoy the views outside the car. Marathon is referred to as the “Heart of the Keys” because this island is essentially located in the center of the Keys. On this island there are several marinas for the avid fisherman. Other areas of interest are the Turtle Hospital and Dolphin Research Center where you can interact with the dolphins in the water. If the old bridge reconstruction is complete make it a point to stop at Pigeon Key the site of Henry Flagler construction headquarters for the 7 mile bridge. There is a museum that explains the history of how the overseas railroad was constructed. At Pigeon Key you can walk on the Old Bridge.
At MM 50 on the Atlantic side I made my way to visit another beach, Sombrero Beach. To get to the beach I followed the road through a neighborhood, parking is free at the beach and there are restrooms, a covered picnic area, and playground. Sombrero Beach has plenty of coastal sand to lounge in the sun; yes I was also able to walk barefoot at this beach. The beach is pretty with its tall coconut palm trees, you can even rent paddleboards and kayaks here.
While in Marathon I stopped by San Pablo Catholic Church on 122nd Street. I heard the church had a beautiful garden and to my pleasure the meditation and prayer garden was a serene place with all of its lovely statues immersed in tropical plants.
Lower Keys- I headed south and made my way north to the Lower Keys. The Lower Keys are relatively undeveloped and still pristine it’s a great place to go camping, fishing, boating, or just relaxing surrounded by nature. The National Key Deer Refuge and a National Marine Sanctuary are also located in the Lower Keys. The Key Deer are native only to Florida and are also endangered, so seeing one of these gentle creatures is a real treat. In my opinion the Lower Keys has one of the most beautiful beaches located at MM 37 Bahia Honda State Park, geological formation is Key Largo limestone, so the shore has a lot of coral stones, but the water is absolutely pristine, surrounded by an array of nature trails and the Old Bahia Bridge as a backdrop. One of my favorite spots here was walking on the Old Bahia Honda Bridge there I has a spectacular panoramic view of the island, tall palm trees everywhere, white sand and aqua blue water. I felt like I was looking at scenery you would see on a postcard. So I took lots of picture to create my own personal postcard picture! While walking around the bridge don’t be surprised if you see iguana’s basking in the sun. The coastal shore is full of coral rock; I suggest wearing shoes instead of going barefoot.
After crossing the seven mile bridge you are about 40 miles to Key West.
Key West is the most populated island and host to a bevy of attractions for the entire family. The island is only 7 miles long but its action packed. The weather is fabulous year rounds with tropical plants, lush hibiscus bougainvilleas bushes, and plenty of palm trees. Key West is the southernmost city in the United States and Cuba is a mere 90 miles south by boat. Since the island is relatively small I was able to visit all my desired spots in two days. Most of the key points you can walk to so make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes, it will be hot so you may also want to wear a hat.
A must in Key West is watching the sunset at Mallory Square; I made sure I got there at least 45 minutes before sunset to ensure I had a spot along the sea wall. It will get crowded closer to sunset. To pass the time I enjoyed a delicious coconut drink, yes it’s served in a real coconut!! Mallory Square is filled with a variety of festive activities, street performers, souvenir shops, vendor with unique trinkets, artist, and depending on the day of the week there might be a cruise ship docked.
Near Mallory Square is the old Custom House a main focal point on the island with its bright red brick exterior, now its home to fine art and history exhibits. The Custom House is also surrounded by an array of contemporary outdoor sculptures.
Duvall Street – Is a long street that reminds me of a beachy Bourbon Street. It’s lined with restaurants, bars, art galleries, cigar shops, museums, and quaint shops. There is something for everyone!
I walked the length of Duvall Street, and took a right on South Street and I ended up at the historical landmark the Southernmost Point. Getting a picture here is a priority if you come to Key West. Be prepared to wait in line, since everyone else wants a snapshot for themselves with the marker. Time passed quickly because everyone is taking pictures of peoples with their cameras as you wait in line. I like to refer to it as pay it forward photo opportunity.
Old Town, or commonly referred as the Historic District is where the majority of the attractions and business are located on the island. While in the Historic District I toured the house of the famous writer; Ernest Hemmingway. This charming house is where the writer lived for many years and wrote many of his well known books here, and the movie “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. His house was simple but very tranquil I quickly understood how he was able to relax and write freely. A special treat on the premises are all the six toe cats that reside there full time. I even had a cat pose for me and put its paw out so I could take a picture of its six toes. I believe others had taken its picture too!
Across the street is the Key West Lighthouse and Museum. After viewing the museum I quickly made my way to climb to the top of the lighthouse. If you aren’t afraid of heights I strongly encourage you to take the climb. When I reached the top I enjoyed a spectacular panorama view of Key West.
The Harry S. Truman Little White House was a former vacation home to Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy during their terms.
Key West Cemetery was established in 1847 and is located in Old Town. I know it seems weird for someone to tell you to go visit this cemetery but it’s not your ordinary graveyard. It is filled with quirky headstones such as “I told you I was sick” or “He loved Bacon”.
Not far from the cemetery is the Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea it’s a beautiful beach church that becomes an open air church when all the exterior bay windows are opened. The grotto and gardens are also beautiful and peaceful.
Parking is very limited near Mallory Square and Duvall Street, but I found that the parking garage near the Ferry terminal (Grimmel and James Street) was easy and convenient besides you can walk along the Harbor Walk which has many restaurants and shops. As you stroll along the boardwalk you can see all the pretty yachts docked at the Historic Seaport.
A trip to Key West wouldn’t be complete without a eating a slice of key lime pie, I prefer the Key Lime Pie Company. Another meal I can’t go without on the island is lobster! I like the restaurant Two Friends Patio located on Front Street, it’s away from the crowds and the lobster meals are priced very reasonable.
For some strange reason I thought the Florida Keys ended at Mile Marker Zero, but that is not the case.
Dry Tortugas is what I refer to it as the forgotten island. Dry Tortugas is 70 miles away from Key West and is only accessible by boat or seaplane. I decided I must see this treasure island so I boarded the Yankee Freedom III ferry for an all-day adventure at the Dry Tortugas National Park. This island is an uninhabited paradise and known for its variety of sea and bird life, crystal blue waters with protected coral reefs, ship wrecks and the massive Fort Jefferson. The Fort is the 3rd largest 19th century fort in America and was constructed in 1846. During the Civil War it was used for a Union soldier military prison. One famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd who was blamed for fixing the leg of the man who assassinated Lincoln. Walking throughout the fort was an amazing experience. I enjoyed learning the history of the Fort it’s really hard to imagine people actually lived here many years ago before it was a prison. During your visit make sure you take a peek at Carlos the resident crocodile in the moat! Yikes! After my history lesson, I decided to snorkel the clear waters surrounding Dry Tortugas. The marine life was stunning!! The Yankee Freedom III also provides free snorkel gear and wetsuits to use if you don’t have your own.
I am grateful; to Henry Flagler who constructed the overseas railroad and linked the mainland of Florida to Key West, without his dedication to creating this route a trip by car may not have been possible. The Florida Keys islands are spectacular, where else can you enjoy the shores of the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast at the same time except the Florida Keys!! When you visit the Florida Keys you can be assured of tropical weather so come with a laid back attitude and remember it’s Happy Hour all day every day! Safe Travels!