Getting there three ways and back – maybe!
There are probably a couple dozen famous cities in the world that everyone either visits or wants to visit. Maybe Paris, Moscow, New York, Hollywood, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, London and many others come to mind. But none compare to the worldwide eclectic reputation of Key West. The proliferation of cruise ships pulling into Mallory Square every day in the last few years has made Key West an international destination of some repute!
Unfortunately, few people see the REAL Key West the way it should be seen. Walking Duval Street from one end to the other is a good start, but jaunt does not do much for the history, novelty or uniqueness of the island. Sure, Sloppy Joe’s sees all the tourists, but there are more bars and restaurants just as entertaining, just as quirky and way less “touristafied” (I just made that word up!) than Sloppy’s. Everyone knows the Southernmost Point big red marker, but there are many other symbols around town much more interesting. Everyone seems to gravitate to the sunset celebrations at Mallory Square each evening, but there are some beautiful sights all day long you don’t have to wait for!
There are three modes of transportation which brings most people to Key West – plane, car, or they come by boat! We are going to detail these THREE great ways to get to Key West so you can enjoy THREE great nights in Key West. Why THREE nights? Well, our experience is that any more than three evenings in town, and the Betty Ford Clinic starts to sound real good!
Here are the ways to get to Key West before the fun really starts. As they say, getting there may be half the adventure!
Driving to Key West
It doesn’t matter if you drive south from Minnesota or Miami you end up on one single road that delivers you from everyday life into a glimpse of paradise, starting in Key Largo. US Route 1 runs 2,369 miles from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida. The only way onto the islands leading to Key West is by the federal highway US 1 just south of Miami in Florida City. US 1 leads directly to Key Largo.
But stop, we already are going to take you on a detour! About a mile out of Florida City you will see a road sign directing you to Card Sound Road veering off to your left. Take it! Now a word of warning, if you are close to being out of gas, try it next time. If you don’t like odd drives along varying waterfront wilderness, keep going straight. If you don’t like old Florida bars with a name like Alabama Jack’s, don’t bother, just stay on US 1 – both roads lead to Key Largo!
Alabama Jack’s appears about ten miles into your drive to Key Largo on Card Sound Road. It’s a favorite of locals, travelers, bikers, boaters and other characters willing to take an extra 15 or 20 minutes to get to the Keys the fun way. Jack’s is a waterside bar serving refreshments you will probably need as you enter paradise. The food is average bar food, the beers are cold. You can look over the rail and watch mangrove snapper along the pilings the restaurant is built on. This stop represents the rest of your trip – a whole lot of different people just enjoying being where they are, with no color lines, no status lines, no age lines, no gender lines – just people at the beginning of a great journey.
As you leave Alabama Jacks you will continue southwest on Card Sound Road. Eventually you will enter US 1 again at the northern edge of Key Largo. At this point we need to explain about mile markers. They will help you find everything along the road to Key West. You will see your first marker around number 106 as you enter Key Largo. Mile Marker 0 will be in….You guessed it! Key West. You have 106 miles ahead of you – enjoy it!
We will make a note that at mile marker 104.1 you will see a sign for the Caribbean Club. If you are thirsty again, you might make a stop here. Their claim to fame is the 1948 old movie Key Largo was partially filmed here. Humphrey Bogart may have shared a bar stool with you here.
On down the road at MM 104 is a better stop if you like tiki bars – Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill. The former Dallas coach serves some rather good food and has a huge tiki bar built over the water.
If you are looking for a place to stay before you complete your journey to Key West, the Marriott Resort at MM103.8 is excellent. The Marriott’s sunset bar, Breezer’s’ is a fabulous place for appetizers and watching the sun creep into the bay. The photo at the left was taken from the landing at Breezer’s.
A mile down the road is the entrance to John Pennekamp State Park. There are a plethora of state parks in Florida and several along your way to Key West. What makes this one different is that 75 squares miles of it is underwater! There are trails and things to see on shore, but this park is made for snorkelers and divers. It’s worth the stop.
By the time you get to MM 100, you may be getting hungry. If so, look for Skippers Dockside. It is a little off the main road, but the food is better than average. Try the
shrimp ceviche for a good Florida appetizer.
Back on the road as you enter the next town, Tavernier, Florida about MM 93.6 is the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. These people do great work rescuing birds who have been injured or entangled by fishing line or nets. You can see numerous species in their rehab center. A kindly donation would help preserve the Key’s wildlife.
We must insert a note about things to see and do. The drive along US 1 in the Keys has all kinds of attractions, sights, unique shops, and places you may want to see. The ones listed here are just a few recommendations along the way. It’s over 100 miles of scenery! If we listed every interesting site and attraction, you would not get to Key West until the following week. Here are a select few to make the drive interesting.
At MM 84.2 you will see a big sign advertising the Theater of the Sea. Try to plan a visit. The Theater is just that – a tropical stage to interact with dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish, sharks, stingrays, alligators, and birds. The surroundings are a lush tropical setting for learning about Florida aquatic wildlife.
By now the signs will be telling you the city you are in is Islamorada, the sport fishing capital of the world. On the right side of the road (north) is Florida Bay. The Bay is an estuary for many saltwater species including tarpon, bonefish, mangrove snapper, redfish and snook. On the left side of the road (south) is the Atlantic Ocean. A few miles offshore, fishermen from all over the world angle for sailfish, marlin, swordfish, wahoo, kingfish, grouper and yellowtail snapper, to name a few of available trophy fish.
After leaving the Theater of the Sea, just ¼ mile down the road is the Post Card Inn. The reason the Post Card is significant is the huge fleet of fishing charter boats anchored at their very new marina. A little history – while the Keys are known for their beauty and tropical weather, they also are known for their hurricanes. In 2017, hurricane Irma hit this part of the Keys with a vengeance, destroying the Post Card Inn. The Post Card remodeled, rebuilt and restored the entire property. Thus, the new marina, new tiki bar and an ocean front hotel worth spending a few hours or a few days. While the Post Card Inn is one of our many favorites, there are dozens of marinas, hotels, resorts, restaurants and boat dealers along your journey.
Bridges along US 1 connect the major islands. There are about 1700 islands in the keys and 42 bridges. Obviously, most islands are not connected roads, but are a vital part of the estuary of the Keys. One bridge that is very special is heading over to Matecumbe Key, at MM 77. Just at the base of the far end of the bridge, you will see a big sign that says ROBBIE’S. Robbie’s has become a major attraction for travelers in the Keys. Thousands of people stop to hand feed tarpon that weigh more than most teenagers! Robbie’s also has a collection of little tent stores that sell everything from baubles to beads and everything from “Florida” (but mostly made in China!). This is an obligatory stop for the traveling tourist (at least once) to feed the tarpon – if you have kids from 5 to 105, they will love it!
On down the road about ten miles, at MM 67.5, is the Long Key State Park. What a great place to hike, swim, camp or just stroll around the park. This is one of Florida’s many state parks that is unique because of the Atlantic Ocean view!
Before you get tired of walking the ocean side, save some energy for one of the most famous fishing resorts in the world – Hawks Cay Resort is at MM 61.1. If you have ever watched any outdoor shows, Hawks Cay has been featured many times showing the bounty of nearby waters. This is a place for good old-fashioned family fun. The resort has every possible saltwater activity, with the focus on sport fishing. The kids will have fun too with a huge pool, paddle boards and daily activities. The food is exceptional, so a lunch on the way down the Keys is a great stop.
If you have kids, 5 to 95, The Dolphin Research Center is at MM 58.9. This place is for family fun and they do great work to
preserve our dolphin population. They have a the research center and a large contained area in Florida Bay where they rehab and train dolphins. The kids love it (and adults too).
By the time you get to MM 53.5, you will be in Marathon, Florida. A city of about 8500 people stretching over several keys (islands), Marathon is considered halfway to Key West and you will see the obligatory businesses that are named “Halfway Bakery”, “Halfway Cleaners, etc.”. One big development in Marathon is Key Colony Beach – a community with over 400 homes on a large peninsula out in the Atlantic Ocean. Few communities exist in the Keys of this size. A quick drive through might be an interesting glimpse of how people live in this part of paradise!
Perhaps the most interesting place of all the attractions we discuss is at MM 50. Crane Point Museum and Nature Center is one of the coolest places to find out about the Florida Key’s history, nature and early life in the islands – all in one
place! This is a privately operated attraction which offers exceptional opportunities to see and feel how it must have been to survive on this strip of land a couple hundred years ago. Of the nature trails on these 63 acres is one that leads to the Adderley House, a home built about 1903 from materials found around Vaca Key. It survives today to remind us of the hardships faced by our forefathers. Make time for a couple hours here – it’s worth the visit!
Half Way To Mile Marker 0
Yes, we are just halfway to Key West and some of the best traveling is yet to come! In fact, you will see in the next three miles places like the Stuffed Pig, a great little local’s place for breakfast and lunch, and then you will start seeing signs like the 7 Mile Pizzeria and the 7 Mile Bar & Grill – heads up! You are coming to the most spectacular views on your entire trip – The Seven Mile Bridge!
The current Seven Mile Bridge was completed in 1982 and was one of the largest bridges in the world at that time. Alongside the new bridge you will see the remnants of a bridge Henry Flagler completed for his railroad in 1912. Built against unbelievable odds and at the cost of a major portion of his fortune from his Standard Oil investments, his railroad bridge helped to build much of the lower keys. Flagler’s bridge brought tourists and products to and from Key West leading to twenty plus years of prosperity, until the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed the bridge structure. In the face of this destruction, the United States bought the right of way from the railroad and made a bridge for automobile traffic from the remaining structure.
The back story and history of the bridge is fascinating, but the real story is in the spectacular views on both sides of the bridge. Florida Bay on your right and the Atlantic Ocean on your left makes keeping your eyes on the road nearly impossible. You will see ships on the horizon in the Atlantic and bay fishermen looking for snook and tarpon in the shallows. The sparkling blueish-green water laps the pylons of the bridge along with the waves produced by the boat traffic underneath. Sunrises and sunsets are breathtaking! Seven miles is a long way to travel on a bridge, but the time seems but a small few minutes you hate to see end.
After about 7 miles (imagine that, on the seven mile bridge), the bridge comes to an end! By now you are awestruck with the beauty of the Florida Keys. But as hard as it is to imagine, at MM 36.8, get ready for a whole new close up experience at Bahia Honda State Park. Yes, this park has all the normal things state parks have, hiking, camping, swimming and more. But Bahia Honda offers a unique chance to get in the water and snorkel over the shallows to see another whole world beneath the surface of the Ocean. This park is a family favorite due to the relatively shallow water and the ability to give children more than a cursory education about marine life. Relax and look around, your next adventure may just be underwater! Our family tells stories about their first encounters with the creatures of the sea, and their memories as they became acquainted with the saltwater environment at Bahia Honda.
Sadly, we must move on since you can almost taste the margaritas in Key west in an hour or so away. Across the bridge going south you will start seeing warnings about one of the strangest animals in the Keys – the Key Deer. These dog size animals can be seen day or night on Big Pine Key. They look exactly like their full-sized white-tailed cousins in the woods of the Midwest, but are just about one-third the size. The Key Deer is an endangered species and live only in this area. Their biggest enemy is man and the cars they drive. That is why speed limits are reduced and so you can keep a watchful eye out for the deer on the island.
While you are on Big Pine Key, and if you aren’t late for happy hour in Key West, you may want to set your GPS for another part of the island where the No Name Pub resides. This is a dive bar that has become an institution by selling the idea they are an old bar littered with thousands of dollar bills covering every imaginable inch of their walls. I admit it is a sight to see, but the sight is short lived once you get on down the road to Key West with dozens of quirky bars!
If you need to make a stop somewhere you may want to try Boondocks around MM 27 or Mangrove Mamas on down the road, but you are now just about 20 minutes from Stock Island, which we consider part of Key West. There are a few bars, a naval air station and a couple sights along the way, but few people can bring themselves to stop when they know the excitement of Key West lays just minutes ahead. We got you driving to Key West. Skip to the fun if you like, but there are a couple other ways to get there.
Getting to Key West by Boat
For boat owners on the Gulf coast, you can set your GPS to the buoy at the Northwest channel (N24°33’44.2”, W81°49’3.4”) and head down Florida’s west coast. Or from the east coast, you can come around south of the keys and set your GPS to N24°32’42.9”, W81°48’59.2”, which is the entrance to Key West Channel from the Atlantic Ocean.
However, if you want to relax and down a couple of cocktails, try the Key West Express. This is the fun way to get to Key West from Ft. Myers or Marco Island. The schedules vary, but they generally leave Ft. Myers around 8 AM and get you to your destination in time to have a dozen fresh oysters for lunch at The Half Shell Raw Bar in Key West. The same estimated schedule applies to Marco departures. The Key West Express boats dock at Key West Bight Marina which is about five blocks from Duval Street and close to every island attraction. As you approach the marina from the channel,you get a feel for the vibe of Key West as the Express passes by Mallory Square, the Sunset Pier at the Ocean Key Resort and the tiny beach at the Pier House.
The fun part about the Key West Express is you can enjoy the ocean spray in the back of the boat, work on your tan on the deck, play cards with friends or just watch a movie. The cost is about $129 round trip, but if you sign up for their emails, there are specials offered at certain times of the year.
Of course, the way thousands of people get to Key West everyday is on a cruise ship. One or two ships pull up to the Mallory Square docks daily. They generally are docked by 9 AM, dump thousands of passengers out on to Duval street and to the trinket vendors on Front Street. Then the ships must be loaded and gone before the nightly sunset celebration on Mallory Square. Dumping off thousands of people on the island is good for the many restaurants, shops and retailers on Duval, but not a good way to experience the REAL Key West.
Flying to Key West
I am continually amazed at the number of non-stop flights to Key West International Airport (EYW) from around the country. The last time we checked there were 15 airports that flew straight to Key West, most of which were major hubs.
The airport in Key West is small, but functional (which, not everything in Key West is functional!). They move a lot of passengers through the TSA lines efficiently. When you land there are plenty of taxi’s waiting to take you anywhere on the island. Some taxis group passengers together and charge a per person set rate by destination zone from five to nine dollars. Fares are regulated, so over-charging is rare. The Key West Airport is a couple of miles from most of the attractions. The airport is located on Roosevelt Avenue on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island and the traffic is rarely congested, which makes access easy.
Flights range from a little over an hour from Tampa, to a little under two hours from Atlanta and around three hours from Chicago. Three hours, in February in 10-degree temperatures up north to a balmy 80 degrees in Key West, is a small price to pay in flight time for a hint of paradise! By the way, there is a small full cocktail bar in the Key West Airport right beside the baggage retrieval conveyor! A Rum Runner while waiting for your bags is not all bad – welcome to Key West……
AND NOW LET THE ADVENTURE BEGIN …..
FINALLY, KEY WEST – THE SOUTHERNMOST CITY IN THE US
I have been to Key West at least 30 times. I haven’t always driven, but time allowing, I would prefer the drive. I try to cross those 42 bridges at least a couple times annually. No matter how many times I look out that windshield at that final little bridge over a canal that separates Key West from Stock Island, my level of anticipation peaks at a new level. We always wonder, what has changed? Something always changes. Is there a cruise ship in town? Not as many as there were when cruise ships were allowed to go to Cuba. Any new bars? There are always new bars! Any old favorites closed? There are always a few that close! That’s Key West – the more it evolves, we find that the evolution hasn’t taken much of a hold on the Conch Republic, the local’s name for Key West. Key West got the name Conch Republic when Key Westers got tired of Custom’s officers blocking traffic to the island. The government claimed
they were looking for illegal aliens, but Key West residents swore it was drugs they were looking for. So all in one day in 1982, the mayor and a few of his cohorts decided the city should secede from the United States! They declared the secession, called the new country the Conch Republic, marched to the naval base, declared war, surrendered immediately to the naval commander in charge and subsequently demanded one million dollars in reparations. Well, I don’t think they got the money, but they did get the attention of the international media which caused enough pressure on officials to stop the road blocks. That’s how the Conch Republic got its name!
This article is about the REAL Key West. The people, the places, the habits, the oddities – we will try to cover it all. But Key West has a way of re-writing events and history in their own way, in their own time frame! Nothing ever changes except for the fact that everything always changes in Key West! Its just that no one seems to care or pay much attention.
The Bars, The Attractions, The Restaurants, The Places to Stay
The first thing you need to know is there are about 190 bars on this two mile by four-mile island – that’s about four times the number of churches – and that’s Key West! Picking the best bars becomes an occupation for some residents of Key West and an obsession for visitors. You can break “best” down into categories – ones you have visited and ones you haven’t! I am not convinced there is a BAD bar on the island – just different. For our purposes we will divide them into two categories – TOURIST’S MUST SEE and OFF THE GRID LOCAL’S FAVORITES.
Tourists Must See Bars and Restaurants
There are bars in Key West that have a worldwide reputation and your friends, neighbors and relatives might think you were strange if you didn’t visit the basic watering holes! At the top of the list is Sloppy Joe’s. One door away on Duval Street is Irish Kevin’s, where their irreverence isn’t a place for kids or delicate ears. North a couple blocks is the Hog’s Breath Saloon. Just west of Sloppy Joe’s on Greene Street is the original Sloppy Joe’s, now called Captain Tony’s. It is legend that Sloppy Joe Russell, Ernest Hemingway and some other bar slugs moved everything one night in 1937 from the Captain Tony’s location to the current location a half block away because the landlord wanted to raise the rent a dollar a week!
A few years ago we would not have included The Green Parrot on Whitehead Street in this list, but they have commercialized their quirkiness to the point you can’t even find a seat anymore. Plus, we used to have to step over a dozen lazy dogs before the health department clamped down on their afternoon dog naps in the middle of the floor. The Half Shell Raw Bar also became super popular when the
Key West Express started dumping hundreds of tourists off at their doorstep over at Key West Bight Marina.
Of course, the guy who helps make Key West famous has a place right in the middle of Duval Street – Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville! A couple blocks south of Margaritaville is La Te Da. Perhaps the most famous drag queen performances in the country go on there many nights a week and they have their own hotel nearby. And finally, Rick’s complex of Bars on Duval includes Durty Harry’s, The Tree Bar and Rick’s are all great places to people watch since they are directly across the street from Sloppy’s and Irish Kevin’s.
Off The Grid Local’s Favorite Bars
This list will include some names that could be in the category above, but for the most part they are a little more off the beaten path, eclectic (a nice word for a dive), or very different in their own way. At the top of this list is a patch of gravel covered ground on the waterfront at Key West Bight Marina. A half dozen dilapidated structures they call the Schooner Wharf. How can you have a falling down bar for 30 years, and it is still falling down, and looks the same through numerous hurricanes and other calamities? The locals at the Schooner don’t seen to care much what it looks like. One thing that makes the Schooner unique is a guy called Michael McCloud. He is listed as an American folk singer, but in Key West, Mike is a legend that started his career at The Bull (another of our favorites) 30 years ago. Michael has been entertaining at the Schooner for at least the last dozen years. Despite the look and gravel walkways, Schooner has a darn good burger!
Moving towards Duval Street from the waterfront, take Green Street about 2 blocks west to a relatively new place called Shots and Giggles. Open a couple years, my understanding is the bar is owned by a local who wanted a place for his friends on the island. He opened a place that is cozy (and small), friendly to dogs (they keep dog snacks handy), even friendlier to people, and clearly not a tourist trap for the fanny pack crowd!
Once you get to Duval Street at the next block, take a left at Sloppy Joe’s. You will walk by Sloppy’s and Irish Kevin’s to Caroline Street which is a block south. There, on the west side of the street is a three story building that houses three establishments – The Bull, Whistle Bar and Garden of Eden. We saw a review on another website saying this place was great because they have three options in the same building. That may apply to some people, but a person with a body like mine has no business in the Garden of Eden, for it is a clothing optional place and that’s no option for me! However, my favorite place for people watching is The Bull on the lower level. Big open windows the size of a garage door open right on to the sidewalk of Duval Street. You see it all and may become part of the street scene if you keep drinking the cheap margaritas The Bull serves.
If you are able to walk a few more blocks down Duval Street to Eaton Street look for an alley before getting to Southard Street. In that alley will be another locals place called Mary Ellen’s Bar. This place is not for your children or your 80 year old mother-in-law who is going to judge you! It is just a back-street bar that has a ton of locals who find some curious ways to promote their evening events. The people in Key West are fun loving gagsters and this place is an example.
I hate to even publicize the next place! It’s small, already full of locals, regular travelers and city leaders who used to make their plans over a cocktail or two at the tiny bar. We call it The Peanut Bar, but the real name is The Chart Room in the Pier House Hotel. The funny thing is The Pier House lists this as a dining option – the only thing they have ever served in The Chart Room were free overcooked hotdogs and some stale popcorn! However, you can help yourself to some peanuts to shell and throw on the floor along with plenty of scuttlebutt from the locals who make this a regular stop.
The Restaurants and Food
Most of the bars mentioned above aren’t known for their food. Sloppy Joe’s is a slight exception, since they serve Key West pink shrimp. These shrimp are only found in certain deep waters around the Keys. The pinks have a mild, sweet flavor and a pink shell. Once you have tried them, you will know the flavor. Many restaurants serve Key West pinks, but ask to be certain.
For the best formal food on the island there are only a couple places we note. Louie’s Backyard at the south end of Duval Street, near the southernmost point is my favorite. Louie’s has been serving Caribbean style entrees for over 50 years. The restaurant is in an old Victorian home with a magnificent ocean view. I am told the same award-winning chef has been there for 30 years.
On the other end of the island at Key West Bight Marina you will find A&B Lobster
House. Not many restaurants can say they have been around since right after World War II, but A&B has been serving exquisite seafood that long. They overlook the marina and offer white tablecloth service nightly. Reservations are recommended.
If you want good basic food that covers all the bases, try Jack Flats in the middle of Duval Street. They have a large menu and the quality is above average. Nothing fancy, but Jack Flats has a sports bar feel with better food. They are easy to miss and don’t let the small door fool you, it opens into a huge space.
For breakfast you must try Blue Heaven. This quirky outdoor restaurant serves some of the best breakfast food in a unique setting in Florida. They are in a tropical setting
with plenty of birds and chickens roaming the grounds. The menu is large, but they are known for their pies in addition to the early morning offerings. Blue Heaven is located over on the west side of the Key West, a couple blocks from The Hemingway House on Petronia Street. By the way if you don’t like chickens, you won’t like Key West – they are everywhere. Walking either way on Whitehead Street you will find a lot of hens and their chicks roaming the streets.
The fame of the Hogfish Bar & Grill over on Stock Island comes partly for their exceptional food. It is possible our first taste of Hogfish came from this bar 20
plus years ago. Now their Hogfish Sandwich has such fame, people stop at the Hogfish as they drive into Key West from points unknown. However, don’t be fooled – this is a BAR with a reputation for food. Finding the Hogfish Bar & Grill can be a little tricky – use a good GPS and look for Front Street along the waterfront on Stock Island which is across the small bridge as you leave Key West. It’s worth the stop and even more fun if you stroll the docks with a beer in hand. Some of the craftsmen have their shops open. They do everything from marine woodwork to art objects from junk! You may even see a manatee or two along your walk. We can also recommend Roostica. This wood fired pizza restaurant is located on the way to Hogfish Grill. The owner of Hogfish started this pizza restaurant in 2016.
In OLD Town, an area of town with classic homes from the days of shotgun homes, cottages and conch homes built in the early 1900’s, you must give Sarabeth’s a try. This quaint little place is located in a colorful remodeled home on Simonton Street. Sarabeths started making marmalades from an old family recipe and eventually turned that into a healthy restaurant business. Known for Key West classic dishes with plenty of fruits and pastries, breakfast is excellent. We haven’t tried lunch, since long lines kept us from joining the waiting crowd.
For the first dozen visits to Key West we avoided a place called Pepe’s. It was in a ramshackle looking building on Caroline Street that we passed when leaving the docks from the Key West Express. I wasn’t looking for Cuban food was my thought. As with everything else in Key West, nothing is what it seems to be. There is nothing Cuban or Spanish about Pepe’s menu. This is a popular local’s hangout. I think they refuse to paint and fix up the exterior to keep the tourists out! Breakfast, lunch or dinner – never had a bad experience here.
Over on the edge of Bahama Village, near Truman Annex in the upper Duval corridor on a little street called Petronia is a small restaurant called Santiago’s Bodega. This place is great for dinner even if it is hard to find! The decor may be old stuff gone vogue as a style. No matter, the food is really good. They call themselves a ‘Tapas” restaurant, but most of these small plates are dinner, not small plates. Try the croquettas, beef tenderloin, pinchos moriunos or the brussels sprouts – all excellent. This is another place where you generally need a reservation, and it is worth it.
We said we were shooting for three days in Key West and we have given you enough restaurant suggestions
, except for one. Along Greene Street about a block south of the Schooner Wharf, is a rustic ramshackle building called BO’s Fish Wagon. Yes, it was a wagon at one time , but now it looks like a hurricane dropped some scrap material there. Go ahead and click on the link to BO’s Fish Wagon. We can’t describe the dog friendly BO”s, but they have a great grouper sandwich!
We have presented enough restaurant suggestions to last at least for several days or trips! Many of the classic places mentioned in the Bar section also have decent food. Places like Hogs Breath Saloon, Sloppy Joe’s, Margaritaville and others are acceptable, but the ones above we think are out of the way exceptional!
Attractions and Things To Do
In Key West there are attractions and then there are oddities that are just as entertaining and interesting as the ones plastered all over the travel brochures. We will start with the ones every tourist usually sees and then move on to some
of the less publicized attractions.
Almost every visitor goes to Hemingway House. Located on Whitehead Street, the Hemingway House was purchased by Ernest Hemingway in 1931 and resided there with his wife for several years. Many of Hemingway’s short stories and novels were written in the house. The home has many original artifacts. But about 40 or 50 six-toed cats reside in the home. All are descendants of Hemingway’s cats. Worth a one-time visit as a Key West must see attraction.
If you go to the north end of Whitehead Street, you will find The Key West Aquarium. Keep this one for a rainy day or when the heat gets unbearable.
Just a block away is the Key West Museum of Art and History. This museum is run by the Key West Art and Historical Society. They also run the Lighthouse and a couple of other attractions listed here. Many are worth a little time if they interest you.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is worth the visit if you want to learn about his discovery of the Spanish ship Atocha that wrecked in 1622. Fisher recovered an estimated 450 million dollars worth of gold and silver. The museum is on Greene Street visible from the Art and History Museum.
Fort Zachary Taylor is on the southwest side of the island near the Truman Annex, which is a government compound. There is a small beach at the old fort that is good for snorkeling. The Truman Annex features what people call the Little Whitehouse because President Truman spent so much time in Key West. If you are pressed for time, skip this one.
An attraction you should not skip is the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. On the south end of Duval street you will see a large yellow building that looks more like a bed and breakfast than a conservatory. Once inside, the rear of the building is covered with a dome that houses thousands of butterflies, birds and tropical plants making up a natural setting for the birds and butterflies. Bring your camera! You will have the opportunity get close-up pictures of the flying inhabitants. This is one of my top three tourist attractions.
These and a few other tourist attractions make up the list of the well-known sightseeing places in Key West. Many fall into the category of “must see”, but we have a few others you may never hear about, but are part of the “real” Key West.
You will hear about ghost tours and all the haunted buildings in town. We don’t know about ghosts, but we do think you should visit where the bodies are buried – the cemetery! The Key West Cemetery was established in 1847 after a previous year’s flooding washed a bunch of bodies out of the old cemetery. They gathered up the bodies and found a 19 acre plot in Old Town to start the new cemetery with immediate customers. This cemetery is full of history, with sections for the sailors who died on the battleship Maine in the Cuban harbor sinking. Another section has
victims of the Civil War. Before you go, visit this website to learn about some of the colorful characters buried in this still active cemetery. It’s worth a couple hours and a short walk south on Margaret Street.
One attraction that you can visit, or stay overnight in, is the Curry Mansion. This mansion was built in 1869 by one of the first millionaires on the island. William Curry was a wrecker who salvaged wrecks on the reefs around the keys. He built this massive home for his family including a “widow walk”. The Curry is now a bed and breakfast that is popular. We recommend staying in The James House, another restored home, across the street which is owned by the Curry.
The main mansion offers self-conducted walks through the rooms with period furniture and smallwares. See how people lived in the 1800’s. The Curry Mansion is on Caroline Street just a half block off Duval Street and very convenient to the whole island.
I know we are planning for your three day Key West trip, but here is one attraction that will take half of one day. Take a seaplane to the Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas! The tortugas are a group of islands 70 miles west of Key West. On one of these islands is Fort Jefferson, the largest brick building in the western hemisphere, built in the 1850’s. Seaplane Adventures will take you there for a half day of sightseeing the Fort and snorkeling the island. Boats leave daily from the Key West Bight Marina daily if you want to keep your feet on something solid. Great history and a lot of fun in a seaplane or boating over. This adventure encompasses several activities in a small half day period including exploring the fort, snorkeling the island and riding in a seaplane!
If you are not up to the half day trip to the Tortugas and Fort Jefferson, but want a little relaxation, try a sailing charter or one of the snorkeling adventure boats run by Seabago or Fury. Both companies run various types of snorkeling, diving and fun water sports trips out of Key West Bight Marina. If you want a more personal experience on the water, try the sailing charter Spirit of Independence. You can schedule their regular sunset or fun day trips. Captain Ricky will even offer private charters customized to your liking. Either way, a couple hours on the water can be a relief from the nightlife of Key West.
Walking Key West – An Attraction In Architecture!
How about a little walk? Between the Cemetery and Hemingway House is a section of town we have referred to as Old Town. If you spend some time looking at the houses around you, note the 19th century styles. Many are conch houses,
others may be shotgun houses, with some Victorian homes along the way. Architecture in Key West is a visitors guide to the influences of different periods. The exiled Cubans, the Bahamians, the Spanish and of course Europeans who settled in the states and ended up in Key West. Each different influence brought styles from their heritage mixed with the necessities of Key West’s tropical climate. Walking the streets of Old Town Key West is like taking a walking history lesson. Enjoy the sights of the past.
The Must See Mallory Square at Sunset
Finally, every first time tourist in Key West must visit Mallory Square at sunset. Tourists and locals alike have made this a ritual for at least 60 years. There is no better place to watch the sun’s majestic entrance into the Gulf. The entertainers will provide a little fun before your evening plans. Some of the acts have been performing at the Square for over 30 years! As you exit Mallory Square, you may want to stop at El Meson de Pepe for the best mojitos and Cuban food on the island – and try a little salsa dancing!
Your four days and three nights in Key West will be busy if you just do half the things we covered and visit just a few of the bars and restaurants. You are going to be tired, so we have a few suggestions of where to rest!
Where to Stay in Key West
There are well over 150 hotels in Key West and another 50 or more bed and breakfast lodgings. Choices range from big chain hotels to local independent owners. Prices are as varied as amenities.
Two bed and breakfast operations we would suggest are The Curry Mansion and The Conch House Heritage Inn. We have stayed many times at The Curry. They offer a breakfast every morning at poolside and happy hour snacks and refreshments every day at 5 PM. Suggestion, try room 302 in the James House, across the street from the main mansion. .The primary reason we stay at the Curry Mansion on some occasions is they are a half block from all the action on Duval Street and just a short walk from the docks that moor the Key West Express. The Conch House is in Old Town and is roomy and clean according to friends who have stayed there. Of course, breakfast is offered in the mornings there as well.
There are an abundance of hotels on every part of the island. Every chain has a location somewhere in Key West. You can spend time looking on the travel sites or below are the ones we have stayed in that we recommend. (There are others we have stayed in we won’t be mentioning.)
The Pier House – stayed here many times. Right at the foot of Duval Street. The Chart Room, one of our favorite Bars, is located inside. They are on the high end from a cost standpoint. The location, clean rooms and waterside bar make it worthwhile. They also have a small private beach and nice pool.
All the way to the other end of Duval Street (south) is the Casa Marina, part of the Waldorf Astoria group of hotels. This gracefully aging beauty was open in 1920 as part of the Henry Flagler group of exclusive hotels he was building along the coast. This hotel is immaculate, exclusive and right on the Atlantic Ocean with their own private beach. We would highly recommend this facility, but the cost may not be worth it if you plan to spend your days off property.
The Galleon Resort and Marina is a perfect location if you are planning on taking advantage of the many water sports in Key West. The hotel is on the Gulf side of the Island and has a 90 slip boat marina. They also are a time-share resort, so availability may be limited at certain times of the year. They are priced about the same as the Pier House year around.
The Margaritaville Resort says on their website they were ranked as one of the top resorts in the Florida Keys! We are not sure about this lofty ranking, but Margaritaville has a great location right on the entrance to the Key West Harbor. They also are right next to Mallory Square, with their own shops on property near their marina. This is a good hotel and will be priced as the Pier House and others.
Right in the middle of Duval Street is the Crown Plaza La Concha Hotel. We haven’t stayed here in several years, but the hotel has been remodeled recently and should be better than our last visit. The La Concha is one of the tallest buildings in Key West and has a great view of the landscape. The hotel has a large wine bar on Duval, and very comfortable lobby. Pricing is just slightly less than waterfront properties.
Getting Home….. maybe! Key West Can be Hard to Leave
If you have roamed the island for the last few days, you probably met a lot of people. Servers, bartenders, street vendors, performers, and some colorful characters in the streets. Many of those people were in your position at one time. You can be a responsible caring person and choose to go home to tend to life’s routine, obligations and rituals or you can say……To hell with being a responsible person and become a server, bartender, performer or a colorful character in the street…. just like all the people you met!
Everyone sees Key West a little differently. Some are attracted to the unrivaled rich history. Others just scratch the
surface for a quick get-away, much like taking Key West in as nature’s Valium! Many come for the water sports that abound in the
clear blue waters. Some people love the almost 24 hour a day entertainment. Annual events like the Hemingway lookalike contest, Fantasy Fest, Song Writer’s Festival, multiple fishing tournaments, food and wine festivals, Super Boat Championships, and many more bring thousands of visitors. The natural setting of an island between two oceans offers experiences not found anywhere else in the world.
The choice to leave is difficult or in some cases. As we suggested early on, getting home may be a necessity to maintain your sobriety and sanity! One thing you know is that you will be back. Someday, sitting in your office at home, or at your job at the bank, or when making another appointment, landscaping another house, working at some other diverse occupation, your mind will wander back to Key West and the planning begins once again…….