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Key West Florida & the Florida Keys
The Florida Keys are a chain of islands starting on Rte 1, 27 miles south of Homestead, 164 miles south of Miami. It starts where the southern-most part of the mainland of Florida ends and extends for approximately 133 miles south to Key West Florida, the jewel at the end of the chain.
I have no idea how many ďkeys,Ē or islands, there are? Iím sure someone has counted them. All I can tell you is, there are more than enough of them that you could easily spend a week or two sightseeing or enjoying the beaches on the various islands on your way to Key West.
The islands come in so many different sizes, shapes and colors, all connected by bridges. Some of the larger ones like Marathon Key and Islamorada Key have actual towns with all the vital services. Driving on Rte 1 in these areas you wouldnít even know you were on an island. Thankfully, it takes a short while to travel through these urban areas.
Other islands are so small youíll drive through them without even realizing youíve been there and gone, like Bluewater Key or Cudjoe Key.
Take note of the mile markers along the road, much of the Florida Keys look the same so we describe where to find things by the Florida Key name and the mile marker.
How to get to Key West
The fastest way to get to Key West is to fly. From Miami International Airport there are daily flights to Key West International Airport. Car rentals are available in Key West.
I think that everyone should drive to Key West Florida from Miami so you can truly experience the Florida Keys. Admittedly, the northern half of the keys is not especially unique or scenic unless you want to stop at some tourist traps for shopping or maybe to grab a bite to eat.
The drive through the lower half of the Keys is well worth it. Most of the time in the lower Keys youíre only moments away from ever changing blue, green or aqua vistas. Itís a water feast for the eyes as you travel to Key West along this chain of small islands.
Driving over the Seven Mile Bridge south of Marathon never ceases to amaze and delight me.
Ignore the hurricanes in Key West
If oneís coming, just donít go to the Keys.
Otherwise, believe it or not, for as far south as the Keys are, it isnít always hot and sticky.
January through March can almost be perfection, and you may even have a cool day. During this time, the days are mostly warm, warm enough to be poolside during the day, but during the dinner hour it can be cool enough to require a light jacket.
A friend says, the very best time to be there is summer. Thereís always a breeze. Yes, itís hot, but you can enjoy the beach during the morning. In the afternoon, have a long leisurely lunch, shop a little or take a siesta. Then hang by the pool until midnight enjoying the warm temps and breezes off the water. How does weather perfection feel?
Lodging in Key West and the Florida Keys
The choices for lodging are unlimited. The same can be said for your pocketbook. There are bed and breakfasts, from the quaint to the rustic to the wacky to the posh. There are mom and pop motels as well as big chain motels and hotels.
Remember, reservations are a must, especially in the winter. Watch out for spring break!
Camping in the Keys
My Mom and Dad like to camp in the keys and take their time driving to Key West. There are many private campgrounds throughout the Keys. Sadly, more and more of them are cashing in on their real estate holdings and selling out to. Their favorites are Bluewater Key, mile marker 13, which is private and Bahia Honda, a state park. There are 80 sites, many on the water, along with 6 fully furnished cabins. My Mom thinks this park may have the finest beach in the Keys.
Other state parks that have camping are Lignumvitae Key Botanical Gardens State Park, Long Key State Park and John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park. Just remember that all the campgrounds require a very early reservationÖsupply and demand.
Heading south from Miami to Key West this is what youíll find along the way:
In my opinion, Key West is the Jewel of the Keys. This is the best of the best. This is a trip worth taking. Key West is colorful, unique, laid-back, eccentric, exciting, charming, casual, totally touristy and so much fun. The main business district is centered around Duval Street. Itís easily possible to walk from one end of Duval to the other end, or from the Caribbean to the Straits of Florida. Along the way thereís a wide variety of shopping from tacky to expensive. There are eating places galore, from stand-up places to bar and grills to white tablecloth restaurants. Tourists! Ready! Set! Go!
Key West is at the southern tip of the Keys and is the southern most point of the United States. Youíll know it when you see the sign. Cuba is only 90 miles south of Key West. Key West island is surrounded by water with the Straits of Florida on the North and the Caribbean on the South.
Thereís a Holiday Inn and a Hilton Resort along with many other hotels and motels. The Flagler Hotel is certainly the swankiest, but there are many delightful bed and breakfasts. Thereís even a youth hostel. Thereís a wide range of choices and a wide range of prices. Many of the hotels have private beaches.
There are three good size public beaches in Key West. Two are especially noteworthy.
Well, maybe theyíre ďnoteworthyĒ because theyíre my favorite.
Smathers Beach is on the south side of the island. Itís a couple of miles long. Itís beautiful, dotted with palm trees. Itís picture postcard perfect. Itís a popular place for seeing all kinds of bathing suitsÖand bodies. Venders line up along the sidewalk selling food and drinks, renting chairs and umbrellas and even personal watercraft. This is by far the most popular, and populated, beach. Donít forget to check out our Beach Gear List TBD HYPERLINK to Beach Gear List.
The down side is, as beautiful as the water is, itís not good for swimming. Itís very shallow a long way out. Itís great for wading or cooling off. Besides, you donít go there for swimming. This is a sunbathing and rubber-necking beach. Just enjoy the view. Youíre paying much less for it than you would have spent going to a distant island. The beach is free!
Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park is the second most notable beach is at . Itís as beautiful as Smathers but in a different way. It has many more trees adjacent to the beach so thereís more of an opportunity to get out of the sun if you choose. The beach itself is more pebbly than sandy, but the water is great for swimming or snorkelingódeep and clean.
The view is spectacular, and the beach isnít as crowded. There is a small day fee.
Key West Conch Train Tour
Whether in Key West for a few hours or longer, taking a Conch Train Tour or riding the Old Town Trolley is the absolute best way to see Key West. The tour itself is about 90 minute. It takes you around the entire island, hits all the highlights, and the narrated tours are very informative. The best thing is you can hop off and get back on at any of the stops all day at no extra charge. You wonít be disappointed if you take these tours. The Conch Train Tour is my personal favorite.
Driving a car works well. Traffic is often congested because of the narrow streets and so many visitors trying to get around, but it gives you a chance to look around. Parking spaces downtown Key West are adequate.
Just plain walking is excellent. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore all over Key West, with plenty of chances to sit at an outdoor cafť to refresh yourself.
My favorite way to get around is biking. Itís not recommended to be done in a carefree manner. Nor do I recommend it for children because of the traffic congestion. Otherwise, itís great. Thereís nowhere the bike canít take you and itís all flat. Biking through the neighborhoods allows time for the eyes to enjoy the architecture and the details of the real Key West. Once you get away from the main thoroughfares, thereís much less traffic.
Mopeds are very popular and can be rented in several different locations on or off Duvall Street in Key West.
Key West Restaurants and Bikini Bars
Families are welcome everywhere. Depending on the time of day or night, this might be the criteria for a parent to decide what is OK, because down here everythingís OK so beware!
Besides the few Key West Restaurants listed here, ask the locals. There are hidden restaurants in back alleys that shouldnít be missed. If you can find these few that Iím going to list, youíll be able to find another half dozen that youíll be glad you found. Thereís even one, and probably more, great Cuban restaurants, itís off the beaten track so youíll have to ask a local.
Some of the most popular Key West Restaurants are:
Sloppy Joes on Duval - Itís wild, crazy, fun and noisy, but youíll remember it.
Margaritaville on Duval - Itís Jimmy Buffetís place. Try a ďCheeseburger in ParadiseĒ. It lives up to the song.
Blue Heaven on Thomas Street a few blocks off Mallory Square. Itís funky! Live chickens roam this outdoor restaurant so beware! Dinners can be a little more exotic and pricey than during lunch. Blue Heaven even serves breakfast. You wonít get this dining experience in your home town.
Hogsbreath Saloon is just off of Duval. Itís super popular and noisy. Try it! You might like it! Look for the Hogsbreath T-shirts being worn all over town!
The Raw Bar on the water. Seafood is the specialty.
The Bull on Duval. This is a great place to relax, cool off, listen to music while you wait for your better, or other, half to shop. Sit at one of the open windows right at sidewalk level and people watch. Fun!
What to Do?
Shop Ďtil you drop in Key West! There are shops from touristy tacky to boutiques to weird. Just browsing is fun.
Try some conchÖpronounced ďkonk.Ē After all, the natives call Key West the Conch Republic.
Try it fried or in a chowder. People love it!
Do a taste search for the best key lime pie in Key West. Oh, itís there. Iíve had it, but I wonít tell you where. You need to find it yourself. You be the judge!
Ride the Conch Train for a tour of the island.
Visit Mallory Square, downtown Key West on the water. During the day itís a quiet, pretty plaza. Itís a serene place to people watch. With luck, you might see a cruise ship docked at the Square or nearby. At night, watch the sunset. Tradition says so. Come early as itís so much more than just watching the sun set. At night it comes alive with vendors, artists, craftsmen and street performers, from magicians to dog and cat shows. Itís an experience, but I preferred the sunset.
See the sunset in Key West. Not only watch the sun set but search for the best vantage spot. Mallory Square might be the most popular, but try the view from the roof top of the tallest hotel on Duval. Take the sunset cruise on the gambling boat. My favorite place is viewing the sunset from Fort Zachary Taylor State Park ad the west end of the islandópeaceful and breath taking.
Key Westís Shipwreck Museum is next to Mallory Square. Itís an amusing and educational experience for kids of all ages.
The U.S. Naval Station is available for visiting for naval vets.
The Key West Aquarium is next to Mallory Square. Itís small but great for all ages.
Mel Fisherís Maritime Heritage Society Museum is across from the aquarium in Key West. Mel brought artifacts and a great deal of gold as well as jewels from the shipwrecked Spanish galleon Atocha. Much of it is in this museum.
Harry S. Trumanís summer home has conducted tours. You not only see what the life style was then, but you can learn some history.
Visit Ernest Hemingwayís home in Key West. The tour, and learning more about the man is interesting even if youíre not a Hemingway fan.
Wander through the cemetery. Itís open and free. In Key West people are buried above ground. If itís your first time to see such a cemetery, youíll be awed. Take time to read some of the tombstones. Quite unique!
Go gambling on the gambling boat which is like a small cruise ship. I think itís still free or minimal and usually includes a buffet meal (Not Jimmy). Sorry, no bingo!
Snorkeling is great. Bring your own gear or rent it.
Take a glass bottom boat ride around Key West.
Parasailing would be a great adventure to share with the folks back home.
Kayak through the mangroves.
Try scuba diving. Lessons and gear are offered at some of the marinas and hotels.
Deep sea fishing can be arranged at almost any marina as well as back water fishing trips.
Take a day trip to the Dry Tortugas to tour the fort.
Key West may be a small island but itís chock full of fun and plenty to do for everyone. Enjoy!
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