by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
If you’ve never been to Key West, you’ve got to go at least once. If you were there several years ago, telling yourself you want to return, be aware – it has changed.
Like many over-touristed areas, the Florida Keys have lost some of their laid back, off the grid groove. Many of the hotels and resorts that sustained major damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017 have rebuilt with a more durable, more modern, more expensive style. During peak season that lasts until Easter, the traffic from Key Largo to Key West is nonstop. There’s one way in and one way out.
And yet with the changes that come with time and a growing population, the rhythm of island life is still intoxicating – especially when you take time to chat with the locals, rediscovering the state of mind that brings Northerners down here for four or five months at a time as they begin to explore their retirement options. While Jimmy Buffet’s Parrothead following packs the upscale Margaritaville resort in Old Town Key West, some laid back snowbirds use their own network to secure off-the-radar seasonal rentals that come with burnt orange sunsets over the water while pelicans dive for fresh fish and thick doormats help to shake off the last grains of beach sand from between your toes.
Getting to Key West by plane is easier now with more airlines adding flights. The ride from Key West airport into Old Town is short, Uber and Lyft are both active, and the large hotel chains on North and South Roosevelt Avenues provide free shuttle service. There are paid shuttles from both Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports to Key West, with stops at some of the most popular keys along the way – Largo, Islamorada, Marathon among them.
Choosing to drive the Overseas Highway across the 113-mile string of coral and limestone islands (and crossing 42 bridges along the way), we spent two nights at Islamorada’s Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina. This area is known for deep sea and sport fishing (grouper, mahi mahi, snapper and more) or just a dose of chill time before tackling the crazy Key West scene. Still renovating after 2017‘s Hurricane Irma, one building of guest rooms is under reconstruction (as of February 2019), and the oceanfront bar/restaurant that was literally blown away in the storm is being rebuilt. Meanwhile the Tiki Bar is hopping with decent casual food and creative island drinks, including Ke Ke coladas and key lime pie martinis using Ke Ke Key Lime Pie Cream Liqueur. Yum. Within walking distance is Theater of the Sea, an all-ages day trip, where you can learn about marine life and swim with dolphins, sea lions and stingrays.
People who choose to live in Islamorada prefer their small community to the busy streets of Key Largo and Key West on either end of this island chain. You need a car to get around to the shops and restaurants. For beachfront lunch or dinner, try Lazy Days, known for fresh fried fish and seafood and their well-loved key lime butter sauce. The happy hour is a local favorite with half price drinks, 50 cent buffalo wings and conch fritters, and three-for-a-dollar peel-and-eat shrimp. Reservations are recommended for dinner.
Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar is another popular dinner spot, known more for its fantastic sunset views than the quality of food. It’s fun – and very crowded so arrive early to find a parking space.
Between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key is the famous Seven Mile Bridge, connecting the middle and lower keys. It’s a bucket list drive that humbles any soul. Marathon on Grassy Key is home to the Dolphin Research Center, a nonprofit educational and rescue center open to the public and providing in-water interaction with the marine mammals.
Key West hot spots
Having been to Key West about 20 years ago, the first thing we did after parking the car and getting settled into our hotel was take a walk down Duval Street, lined with bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. Music starts up around noon and keeps going all day and night. Sloppy Joe’s still seems to be the hot spot for the beer-and-loud music-crowd. Apparently lots of people like that, or maybe it’s the craft beers and bar food. Nearby, Irish Kevin’s Bar offers much of the same, as does Hog’s Breath Saloon.
After a traditional margarita to welcome myself back to Key West at a quieter outdoor spot with a street-facing bar for excellent people watching, it was time to head over to Mallory Square for the daily sunset ritual and street performers. Take off your Fitbit. This is a great place to unwind with a digital detox. If you walk around to take in everything Old Town has to offer, you’ll get all your steps in – and more.
The next morning started early with a walk to one of Key West’s most photographed locations –the Southernmost Point of the Continental United States. Tourists line up for selfies and photos. Especially early in the day, people were considerate of allowing others to get the classic shot that everyone wants, and took turns taking photos for each other.
Key West cuisine
Great food choices are plentiful in Key West; to assure a spot at your favorite restaurant, reservations are advised. Lots of places serve fish tacos, fish and chips, shrimp, wings, burgers and predictable selections of every kind. Key island specialties include conch fritters and chowder, grouper, smoked fish dip (often grouper, but can be wahoo, mahi mahi or any other smoked fish) that looks like a scoop of tuna salad surrounded by chips or crackers.
For something special, take the short ferry ride over to Latitudes on Sunset Key for breakfast, lunch or dinner – with a sunset to remember. Blue Heaven is a casual and funky outdoor spot known for breakfast, brunch and desserts as well as attentive lunch and dinner specials. For the ultimate dessert experience – try Better Than Sex, an adult-themed dessert-only restaurant, that serves wine in glasses dipped in soft chocolate and decadent desserts such as The Morning After (a grilled sandwich with Danish brie, dark Belgian chocolate dusted with cinnamon sugar. A strawberry champagne “soup” sits on the plate for dipping) or Man Flowers (a chocolate stout cake with tart dark chocolate frosting, chocolate stout ganache, Irish cream ice cream and salted caramel). You can also get shots and beer – all with soft chocolate or caramel clinging to the glass.
Key West is one of those towns that enjoys a good female-impersonator show. There are two on Duval Street. The less expensive show at Aqua is somewhat loud and raunchy, while the more upscale cabaret show sells out nightly at LaTeDa hotel and restaurant on the quiet end of Duval. LaTeDa also has a lovely piano bar for a mellow end to a full day in the sun.
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
This is a must-see for cat ladies. The Hemingway house is home to more than 50 cats, most believed to be descendants of Snow White, Hemingway’s first polydactyl (six-toed) cat. All the felines are meticulously cared for around the clock – and not a hint of cat smell anywhere! If you hear someone calling out for Humphrey Bogart or Audrey Hepburn while touring the grounds, it’s because Hemingway’s cats have always been named for famous people. In fact, The Hemingway House is now licensed as a zoo as well as a National Historic Literary Landmark, paying homage to Hemingway’s 10 years of writing from Key West and being influenced by its attitude and characters.
Ernest Hemingway’s earliest writing career was as a wartime journalist before penning novels, a few of which were turned into movies. Among these are The Old Man and the Sea, for which Hemingway was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature, and Farewell to Arms. Depression plagued the Hemingway family, claiming the life of Ernest as well as his famous granddaughter, supermodel Margaux. Today, Margaux’s sister Mariel Hemingway dedicates her life to raising awareness about mental health, depression and suicide that has taken several members of the Hemingway family.
Eco-friendly sun protection for every activity
Key West officials voted in early 2019 to ban the sale of sunscreens containing ingredients that are believed to be harmful to coral reefs and the ecosystems they support. The law banning oxybenzone and octinoxate, goes into effect January 1, 2021. Environmental researchers say these two ingredients accumulate in the water from swimmers and wastewater discharge, and can damage or kill coral reefs through bleaching and harming the corals’ DNA.
The Florida Keys make up the world’s third-largest barrier reef ecosystem, and is home to thousands of species of marine life, attracting divers and snorkelers from around the world.
The Florida Keys sun is strong even in morning; the trade winds can be strong at night. Whether you’re into bicycling, walking, kayaking, sailing, deep sea fishing, music, food or brew pubs, the Florida Keys are ready to feed your passion with year-round warm weather. There are so many places to stay in the Keys – from small B&Bs to historic inns, owner-operated boutique hotels and large chains. It’s best to book early to get what you want. It’s still a small area and bargain rates sell out quickly. To plan your Florida Keys vacation, call 860-399-0191 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcia Simon, APR, CTA, is an IATA-accredited travel advisor, a PRSA-accredited public relations practitioner and principal/owner of friendlygrouptravel.com. Connect through facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel or email@example.com.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, has been exploring new places since she was 17 years old and traveled around Europe on a Eurailpass with her best friend. Decades later, she still considers travel the best investment of time and money she's ever made for herself and her family.