Stretching 150 miles from Miami, U.S. 1 traverses the Florida Keys, a series of narrow tropical islands, surrounded by aquamarine waters, and connected by 42 bridges — one is seven miles long! There are 800 keys, with only a few inhabited. Coral formations range offshore their entire length. They stretch east to west, ending in Key West, the southernmost spot in the U.S. Weather is warmer in winter than anywhere else in the continental U.S. in winter, and pleasant in summer.
The variety of land and water attractions include gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, sailing, fishing, sampling a medley of fresh area seafood, viewing unusual fauna and flora, swimming with dolphins, sea kayaking, and more. It includes the world’s third largest coral reef, which extends 240 miles from Key Largo to the Tortugas. Lush vegetation proliferates with flowering bushes and bougainvillea.
The food is special, too, with dishes like Key Lime Pie, made from tart yellow limes; Bahamian fish stew; and conch served in a variety of ways. The very special Keys’ deer are miniature, no larger than medium-sized dogs. They are so adorable that you might be tempted to take one home as a pet. Several of the keys offer the chance to swim with these intelligent warm creatures who love humans and especially kids. My son swam with them several times.
It’s hard to decide which is more spectacular, the glowing orange sun sphere quivering gently on the water before sinking below the horizon, or the sword swallowers, fire eaters, trained cat acts, bagpipers, trapeze artists, and the like, performing on the Mallory Square docks, preceding sunset. All are part of the Key West scene, and what a scene it is! Key West is a tourist’s delight, a smorgasbord for a gourmand. There’s so much to see and do, countless visits are needed to take it all in.
Key West is one of the most fascinating spots anywhere, only two and a half by four miles, with the original Key West, Old Town, half that size. Key West doubled in size when the Navy dredged offshore to create a deeper harbor and its fill made more land.
Old Town has more houses, most tin-roofed, on the National Register of Historic Places, per area, than anywhere in the U.S. It boasts Conch houses, eyebrow houses, and a colorful cemetery with above-ground graves. Here Coca Cola had its first bottling plant; Pan Am had its first flight, from Key West to Cuba; and a multitude of famous writers and artists live, and lived. Key West was both the richest city in America, and the poorest. It was once a sponge capital. Sponges now sell from two to fifty dollars. Watch cigars being made, still hand-rolled in the Cuban style.
Duval Street, less than two miles long, is the main street, and runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic. Packed from morning to night, people stroll, dine at outdoor cafes, and ride in pedicabs. On Duval is Key West’s oldest house, the 1839 Wrecker’s house, with an original outdoor kitchen.
Mallory Square is as famous and action-packed as Duval, with Front Street, a close second. Old Town is easy to tour. You can walk to everything. To get an overview of the town, see Civil War forts, and houseboats, take the Conch Tour Train, or trolley car tours which allow you to get on and off at several stops, re-boarding when you want to continue. You can also rent mopeds and bicycles.
With so much here, plan to stay several days. The tours of Ernest Hemingway’s house give an insight into his life, and a chance to see his study. Onsite are his cats’ descendants. At the Audubon House and Gardens, view the artist’s originals. There are Spanish galleons’ treasures in Mel Fisher’s museum, and jewelry made from their silver in his shop.
Experience a hurricane at Ripley’s; tour the Truman Little White House; drink at Sloopy Joe’s, where Hemingway drank; listen to a “wrecker” tell about Key West in the Wrecker’s Museum; view area sea creatures at the Key West Aquarium; tour the huge Curry Mansion; go in and out of art galleries and tiny art studios; have your picture taken at the U.S.’s southernmost point’s marker. Take a sunset cruise on a catamaran or a catamaran snorkeling cruise; see underwater on a glass-bottomed boat; take an off-the-beaten-track bicycle tour from the Moped Hospital and eat coconut and almonds on your tour. Listen to a type of jazz blues known as Conchtown rhythm. There are also three theaters. Get a Conch Republic Passport and become a Key West citizen! You’ll have a ball!
There are great places to eat. Square One is an elegant restaurant in Duval Square where you can sit indoors and listen to a pianist, or outdoors near palm trees and vegetation. The Pier House is another elegant eatery. Dine indoors, or outside on a wooden pier that hangs above the water. Cafe Sole is a delightful restaurant, with great food smells, and a personable hand-kissing chef-owner. The portobello mushroom soup and portobellos with olive oil are fantastic.
Kelly’s Caribbean Bar, Grill & Brewery is a wonderful garden restaurant with entertainment. Its multi-levels include the old Pan Am building. Kelly’s brews beer on the premises. Its fried plantain and sweet potato appetizer is marvelous.
The keys don’t just end at Key West. There are a number of islands about 68 miles west of Key West, not connected by bridges, called the Dry Tortugas. There’s a day trip by the Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry to the 19th century Fort Jefferson on Garden Key that shouldn’t be missed. The trip out includes breakfast, and once on the island there’s a fascinating tour of the fort and a look into the cell that housed Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg and sold him a horse. For these “crimes” he was incarcerated at Fort Jefferson for four years. After the tour there’s a buffet picnic lunch and snorkeling in the azure blue waters for those who want to see the coral formations surrounding the walls of the fort.
Called the Heart of the Keys as it’s almost mid-point, one attraction is the Dolphin Research Center, where you’ll find out about dolphins and be able to swim with them. Crane Point Hammock, another, is a 63.5 acre tract with 120 of the 150 indigenous keys’ vegetation. The famous Seven Mile Bridge is the longest segmented bridge in the world. Every year the “Seven Mile Bridge Run” has a couple thousand runners.
A brand new facility, Aquarium Encounters of the Florida Keys, offers a 250 thousand gallon tank where visitors can snorkel or, attached with a breathing hose, can explore and feed the fish and sharks. What’s really cool is to get the docile sting rays to sit in your lap. Kids love it! At the airport, tour the aviation museum. There’s a Turtle Hospital here, one of the few anywhere.
The “Purple Isles,” also called “Island Home” after an old-time schooner of that name, includes four coral islands, and is the deep sea capital of the Keys, or as the locals call it, the sport fishing capital of the world. Here the Theater of the Sea offers swim-with-dolphins programs each day. It also has marine shows with sea lions, sharks and other marine species.
If you’re lucky, you can catch a view of celebrities who come to fish at Cheeca Lodge, where the George Bush/Cheeca Lodge Bonefish tournament is held annually.
This is the longest of the keys, with protected reefs at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and Key Largo Marine Sanctuary, which has a thirty thousand gallon aquarium. The park itself can be viewed via diving, snorkeling, or on a glass-bottomed boat. There’s an underwater, 4,000-pound bronze “Christ” statue. You can also kayak or canoe here. Check out the fantastic world’s only underwater hotel, the Jules Undersea Lodge, where certified divers only enter the 21-foot underwater habitat in scuba gear. Guests can stay here and view underwater live through huge windows anywhere from three to twenty four hours, and they can sleep on lodge cots.
The original African Queen, a tiny boat, a la Bogie and Hepburn from the movie Key Largo, offers rides. At the Caribbean Club, check out memorabilia from the movie itself. Kayaks, canoes, and jet skis can be rented there as well, with parasailing another fun option. At Dolphins Plus and Dolphin Cove, you learn about dolphins and swim with them. Tropical birds as well as birds from all over the U.S. are taken care of at the Wild Bird Center, a lush outdoor center by the water which is free to tour.
A great place to eat is at the award-winning Pilot House, designed like a boat, on Lake Largo.
For information call 1-800-FLA-KEYS, 24 hours a day.
Editor’s Note: Be sure and check out the previous installments in Arlene’s exciting travel series. See “Why You Should Visit California’s Wonderful Dark Place, Borrego Springs,” and “Sarasota, Florida: America’s Circus City“