The Florida Keys are an enchanting and spectacular place, offering a unique mix of southern charm and island culture brought together in a tropical paradise that few Americans even realize exists. But not only does it exist, you don't even need a passport to go, although at times, you'll feel like you're a world away.
There are more than 1700 islands in the chain that makes up the Keys, which extend off the tip of Florida, creating a natural border between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. At the southernmost end of the chain sits Key West, a place that offers visitors a chance to experience culture, history, and a little adventure, all in one beautiful location. I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Key West, and found its undeniable charm impossible to resist. Amidst the palm trees, sun, and sand, there are so many things to see and do, it is difficult to decide where to begin. But with a clear cut plan, you can spend a spectacular day in Key West, and sample some of the best things the place has to offer.
Most visitors to the Keys will be content to sit on the beach, soaking up plenty of sunlight while wading into the warm, deep blue, tropical waters that surround the islands. But for those who can tear themselves away from the beautiful ocean views, at least for one day, perhaps I can suggest a possible itinerary that will give you a sample of what Key West is all about.
I would recommend starting your day early, as there is plenty to see and do, and be sure to fuel up with a good breakfast before striking out on the town. I stayed at the Casa Marina, one of the largest resorts on the island, which is well known for its large breakfast buffet. Before I set out each morning, I dined on fresh fruits, eggs, bacon, and more. It was a perfect way to start a very busy and active day.
There are a number of ways to explore the island with cabs and busses easily found. You can also rent a bike, scooter, or even an electric car, although I chose to go on foot. Key West is quite flat and not especially large, so hoofing it all over the place was plenty easy. Just be sure to bring plenty of water, as it is often warm and humid there.
After breakfast, I'd suggest heading straight to one of the most popular places on the island, a big, round, red marker that denotes the Southernmost Point in the continental United States. When standing at that point, you are a mere 90 miles from Cuba, and with the ocean stretching out in the background, it is a popular place for photos. As the day goes on, a line forms, and you can find yourself waiting for sometime. Get there early however, and you'll have time to snap a few shots and take in the sights without too large of a crowd.
Not far from the Southernmost Point is the Key West home of the legendary American writer Ernest Hemingway. The house remains in much the same state as it did when Hemingway lived, and wrote, there, and strolling the grounds is a bit like stepping back in time. Be sure to take one of the guided tours for an insightful, and at times humorous, look at Hemingway's life while he lived on the island, and try not to disturb one of the famous cats that wander about the house. There are nearly 50 of them there, all of which are descendants of Hemingway's original Snowball, who had the unusual trait of having six-toes on one paw. If you look closely, you might even spot other six-toed felines still wandering about. (Admission: $10)
Leaving the Hemingway House behind, I'd suggest next moving on to the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. Operated by NOAA, the Discovery Center is the perfect place to learn more about the Keys environments, giving us a glimpse of life both above and below the sea. The 2400-gallon "Living Reef" is beautiful to watch and the replica of the Aquarius undersea lab simulates what it is like to work beneath the surface of the ocean. You'll also learn about the famous Dry Tortugas and the Center's private theater regularly shows a 17-minute HD-video of life in the Keys that is definitely worth catching as well. (Admission: Free!)
By now, you'll probably be more than ready for lunch, so grab something quick and light. There are plenty of good, local places that offer up fresh sea food and the regional delicacy - Conch, a large sea snail that is indigenous to the region. Trust me, it is far tastier than it sounds and Conch Fritters should be on every visitors' list of things to experience while in Key West.
After lunch, head over to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park where you can wander the grounds of a pre-Civil War era fortress that served under the Union flag, protecting the shipping lanes in and out of the Gulf during the war. The massive cannons are still in place, and the views of the surrounding waters are quite nice, especially at sunset. (Admission: Varies depending on how you arrive.)
Not far from Fort Taylor, but still on the State Park grounds, is the best beach in all of Key West. Several natural rock barriers create a tranquil environment, offering a measure of protection from the choppier ocean waters to swimmers, making it a popular destination to say the least. The beach is an excellent place to relax in the early afternoon, offering up opportunities to take a refreshing dip in the warm waters, go snorkeling, or even fish for colorful tropical fish.
After spending a few hours relaxing at the beach, head over to Barefoot Billy's and take an early evening tour of the island by persona watercraft, aka a jet ski. Billy's offers up tours lasting 1.5-2 hours in length that cover more than 26 miles, completely encircling the island. You'll go full throttle across the tranquil waters of the Keys, while visiting several scenic locations, passing between both the Gulf and the Atlantic in the process. And thanks to the Blue Rider program, the watercraft used on the tour are safe for use within the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, which completely surrounds the area.
Returning to shore, you're likely to be exhilarated, exhausted, and probably starving! Grab some dinner at the Blue Heaven Restaurant, which conjures up the best food on the island under the motto of "Serving heaven on a fork, and sin in a glass." When you're done sampling the amazing food on offer, and if you still have any energy left, close out the day on Duval Street by grabbing a cold drink at Sloppy Joe's or one of the other unique bars in the area.
After a day like this one, you may well be ready to relax on the beach again, but at least you'll have had the chance to experience Key West at its finest.