The Florida Keys & Key West
A long string of coral islands stretching beautifully across the sea, the Florida Keys ultimately forms the southernmost tip of the continental U.S. Though it’s considered the land of the Eternal Vacation, there’s a passionate community here that seeks to protect all the things we as travelers want from it – from shimmering waters, to vibrant marine life, as well as its unique culture. People may come here to party, but they stay for so much more. Here’s why the Keys are a place to love.
PLACES AND STORIES TO LOVE
Authentic Cuban Grandma Food
When you think food and drink in Key West, rumrunners and key lime pie probably top the list. However, there is a lot more depth to this island’s culinary scene. Did you know Key West has nearly 300 restaurants? Key West native Analise Smith, founder of Key West Food Tours, knows the side streets you might never venture down that reveal a slice of island life you didn’t know existed.
She brought me to El Siboney, a homey Cuban restaurant 50 years in the making. We dug into roast pork, rice, plantains, and my favorite—Cuban coffee. This is the kind of restaurant your hotel doesn’t tell you about (probably because the locals want to keep it all to themselves), and exactly why booking a food tour can be such an eye-opening experience.
IF YOU GO
Okay, okay. You can’t go to Key West without having a rumrummer. Check out the Rum Bar on Duval Street, known for their fun party drinks, like mojitos, daiquiris and the rumrunner. Grab a seat on the porch and watch the world go (or stumble) by.
Want to book your own culinary tour in the Keys? Visit Key West Food Tours.
The Buck Stops Here
Just a few blocks off Duval Street, you’ll find a tiny little slice of history. President Harry Truman chose to vacation (and work) in Key West during his presidency. You can explore Truman’s Little White House daily, complete with a knowledgeable guide. I had the pleasure of exploring this gem with Clinton Curry of Historic Tours of America. Clinton has a deep love for all-things Key West. As a seventh generation islander, how could he not? We toured the grounds, as well as the interior. I couldn’t get over Truman’s poker table – built for him and for this house out of the local mahogany – complete with cigar holders made out of three-inch shell casings. Hey, it’s a military town afterall! You can also see his working desk, complete with his famed Buck Stops Here sign.
Key West: A Writer’s Town
In 1928, Ernest Hemingway came to Key West. He wrote a Farewell to Arms, and with that founded an unofficial writer’s community at the southern-most tip of North America. Since then, many other writers have called Key West home, notably playwright Tennessee Williams. Williams visited and lived in Key West from 1941 until his death in 1983. You can visit the Tennessee Williams Museum, as well as walk by his home at 1431 Duncan Street. It’s worth mentioning strolling through the neighborhoods of Key West is one of the loveliest ways to experience this charming town.
The Beach Locals Don’t Want You to Know About
You’ll hear tourists lament Key West doesn’t have any beaches. Local musician Howard Livingston says that’s not really the case, but shhhh don’t tell anyone. I met Howard for a little live music, conversation and a glorious sunset at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic Park. This place offers a mix of natural beauty, wildlife and U.S. history. Fort Taylor was used in the Civil War, Spanish American War, WWI, WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis. You’ll find the beach at the southern end of the park, perfect for picnicking, swimming, snorkeling, paddling and fishing. It’s a little off the beaten path, and well worth the adventure.
Relaxing Away Again in Margaritaville
Spend any time in Key West and you can’t help but imagine yourself in a Jimmy Buffet song. That said, sometimes you want to escape from the partying masses and nab some R&R. Well guess what? Margaritaville Resort and Marina fits the bill. I was a bit leery (how could this place not be a crazy party scene?), but this lovely resort offered my desired respite from Duval Street. Ideally located right on the waterfront of Old Town Key West, and just steps from the famous Mallory Square, Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina is a hub of relaxation and luxury in the middle of all of the excitement that Key West is famous for. Recommended!
GOOD TO KNOW
Craving a beach day? Guests of Margaritaville Resort get special beach access! Just a short launch ride away, Sunset Beach is located at their sister resort, Sunset Key Cottages. Fun fact: this is where I honeymooned!
Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina
245 Front Street
Key West, FL 33040
The only ER you want to visit on vacation
For any traveler, going to the emergency room is a nightmare. And yet there’s one hospital in Marathon with over eighty-thousand willing visitors annually. The Turtle Hospital opened its doors 1986. Their mission? To rehab injured sea turtles and return them to their natural habitat, as well as helping to make the beaches and water safe and clean for sea turtles. The hospital has saved over 3,000 turtles to date. Visitors may take a 90-minute guided educational tour of the facilities and sea turtle rehabilitation area. You can even feed a few turtles at the tour’s end.
Lionfish: it’s what’s for dinner
Lionfish are beautiful, but what they do to Florida’s ecosystem is not. It’s thought that lionfish, a popular Indo-Pacific aquarium fish, were first released in Florida’s Atlantic Ocean waters during the 1980s. Now, with no natural reef predators, they prey on invertebrates and over 70 species of domestic fish. Enter Rachel Bowman, the Florida Keys’ only female commercial lionfish fisherman. Armed with a spear and scuba gear, she nabs these pesky fish one-by-one, adding up to thousands over the year. The good news? You can—and should—eat them! If you see lionfish on the menu, order it. You’re doing your part to help save the ecosystem.
GOOD TO KNOW
Many restaurants in the keys will cook whatever fish you’ve caught. Rachel brought me (along with some lion fish) to Sparky’s Landing in Marathon, an open-air restaurant where they’ll take whatever you caught and cook it in a wood-fired oven.
13205 Overseas Highway
Marathon, FL 33050
The Pie that Put the Keys on the Map
There’s only one thing that might be more famous than the keys’ glorious weather. That would be key lime pie. If you’re looking for some of the best in the region, look no further than the Blond Giraffe. Founder and Co-owner Tania Beguinati, a lawyer by trade, used her grandmother’s Brazilian recipe — which features meringue, a crispy graham cracker crust and a tart filling— to win Key West’s Key Lime Pie Contest in 1999. Twenty-one years later, her pies are still winning awards. Her store now sell about 170 items — from cookies, candies to key lime rum cake — along with pies served with meringue or whipped cream, chocolate drizzle and even frozen slices dipped in chocolate and served on a stick.
IF YOU GO
Enjoy your pie (and a coffee) al fresco in their Secret Garden, located right behind their iconic lime green shop.
The Blond Giraffe
92220 Overseas Hwy Tavernier, FL 33070
Tranquility and Adventure in Marathon Key
Looking for a quiet oasis in the heart of the keys? Visit Tranquility Bay. Nestled amongst palm trees, in warm and welcoming Marathon, Tranquility Bay is easy to get to, but hard to leave. Wake up to the glistening waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Stay in a beach house or surround yourself in the tropics in a garden guest room. Let the powder-soft sand sift through your sun-kissed toes as you relax on the 2.5-acre private beach. Relax, *sigh*… you’ve arrived.
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GOOD TO KNOW
Guests of Tranquility Bay may rent kayaks, hobie cats, wave runners, & jet boats to explore the local marine ecosystems. Fun!
Tranquility Bay Beachfront Hotel & Resort
2600 Overseas Hwy
Marathon, FL 33050