I just got back from three weeks of vacation in the Florida Keys and we had an awesome time! I decided to spotlight this destination because I have many clients who are not interested in traveling outside the U.S. If you are looking for a unique, tropical destination within the U.S. with lots of history, shopping and water activities, then you should consider the Florida Keys for your next getaway.
GETTING THERE: We drove to the Keys from South Carolina and broke up the drive into 2 days. We stopped about half-way, in Orlando, for 2 days to go to Aquatica Orlando (I can get you good ticket prices for theme parks in and around Orlando). If driving is not an option for you, you can fly right into Key West or you can fly into Miami, which is usually much cheaper, and rent a car to drive down. To drive from Miami to Key West you are looking at about a 3-1/2 hour drive. However, it’s a fun drive as there are tons of mom and pop restaurants, unique shopping and of course breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, on the left, and the Gulf of Mexico, on the right. The drive starts on US 1 South in Homestead, with the first Key being Key Largo and the last Key is Key West. Key West is the Southernmost point of the Continental USA. Some of the more popular/known Keys between Key Largo and Key West are Islamorada, Marathon, and Big Pine Key. We stayed in Cudjoe Key with family but visited these Keys while making the trek down US 1 South. Cudjoe Key is a quiet, family oriented Key and is mostly residential. Since it’s only about 30 min. from Key West, we spent several days touring around and I will share our experiences below.
WHERE TO STAY: Most of the homes in the Keys are either oceanfront or a on canal (check out the photos below of what the canals look like). Once you determine which Key is right for you, it’s time to start thinking about what kind of accommodations fit your style. There are tons of rental properties throughout the Keys as well as boutique hotels and a few larger/name brand hotel properties. If you are looking to rent a home, depending on which Key you are looking at will determine how long you must rent. Meaning, some places rent by the week while some of the less touristy Keys require a monthly rental. If you are thinking of renting a home, you may want to consider renting a boat, or bringing your own, to enjoy while you are there. However, if renting a boat is not your cup of tea or you don't own one, there are tons of tours and excursions companies you can book with (see below for activity tour list).
THINGS TO DO BY KEY: There are so many things to do throughout the Keys. Here is a small list of the many activities available.
Key Largo – Here you will find the Florida Keys Wild Bird Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Center. There are also lots of hotels, bars, restaurants and shopping in this Key.
Islamorada – No trip is complete without stopping at Robbie’s Marina of Islamorada, world famous for tarpon feeding. For $3.00, you can walk on the pier and view the tarpons being fed, which is a cool sight. For $10.00, you can purchase a bucket of fish to feed the tarpons yourself. The tarpons are huge and although we were told "they have no teeth", they do have scratchy membranes/teeth and you can get hurt. So, feed at your own risk. Below are some photos and you'll notice that I am not in the photos as I "chickened out" and opted to be the photographer instead.
Also, at Robbie’s you will find lots of artisan shops and a restaurant. Since it was a super hot day, we ended the day with a refreshing shaved ice... YUMMY!
Marathon – This Key boasts some of the best boating activities, i.e. deep sea fishing, scuba diving, swim with the dolphins or simply pleasure cruising. You will also find a good bit of shopping, restaurants, bars and hotels here. While you are in Marathon, check out The Turtle Hospital Rescue, "dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered sea turtles". Note: Be sure to call ahead as you have to have an appointment to visit the hospital.
Have you ever been in a helicopter? Are you feeling adventurous? A helicopter tour is a great way to get unparalleled views of Marathon and the other Keys.
Also, if you are a runner, you will be in heaven in the Florida Keys. There are many races hosted yearly throughout the Keys. Check out the 7-mile Bridge Run held in Marathon, annually.
Big Pine Key – If you are looking for a more "low" key vacation, you may want to consider Big Pine Key. While in Big Pine you will most likely see Key deer, since the National Key Deer Refuge is located here. Key deer are endangered and they are protected in the Keys. They are the smallest species of North American white-tailed deer and can only be found in the lower Keys. We saw them all over the place, so use caution while driving. Here are some photos I took...
While in Big Pine, we spent the day at Bahia Honda State Park. It's a public park with a great beach that has virtually no surf, so it's perfect for the little ones. It cost us $10.00 for 4 people to spend the day in the park. In addition to the beach, they offer many activities for land lovers, i.e. camping, bicycling, kayaking, snorkeling, fishing and they even offer lodging. Check their website for pricing on these types of amenities. Note: bring water shoes because there are some grassy areas in the water. Here are some photos I took during our visit.
Looking for a unique place to eat in Big Pine Key? Check out No Name Pub on your way to No Name Key. It's a funky tavern with an eclectic atmosphere and great food. If you are planning a visit, be sure to bring a few dollar bills because all of the walls and ceiling are covered in money; mostly $1 bills but we did see a few $2 bills and $5 bills. Your waiter will bring you markers and a staple gun for you to decorate your bills and staple them wherever you want. We hung a few bills and I am excited to see if we can find them on our next visit! Our waiter said he estimated that there is about $200k+ worth of money hung up around this 2-story tavern. It's simple mind boggling and we couldn't stop looking around. Note, no need to bring the Ipad for the kids as they will be memorized! Here are some photos of this cool eatery.
Key West – The southernmost Key and city in the continental U.S., Key West, boasts a ton of history, sightseeing, water activities, shopping, restaurants, bars and hotels. You will find several chain hotels on the island and many quaint, boutique bed and breakfasts as well. The main street is Duval Street, where you will find a plethora of bars, shopping and eateries. Key West is also a popular port for many cruise lines.
If you are interested in getting a lay of the land and a little history mixed in, I recommend starting your trip with a tour on the Conch Tour Train. It's a 90 minute, narrated train ride that takes you around to all the popular sights on the island. It makes 2-10 minutes stops where you can get off and grab a drink or use the restroom and hop back on. You can also hop off and eat/shop for a while and hop on later. The cost is $31.45/adult and kids under 12 are FREE. However, it's only $28.30/adult if you book on-line in advance. Most of the photos below are from our train ride.
After our train tour, we opted to rent an electric car, which is about the same size as a golf cart but nicer. This is a great way to see the sights and shop because you can park and hop on and off at your leisure. It's small size also works great to go up and down the alleys and when parking. There were five of us, so we rented an electric car with six seats but I noticed that they had a variety of sizes from 2-8 seats.
Our next stop, The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. I could have spend hours here! Everywhere you look you see gorgeous foliage, more 50 different varieties of butterflies and over 20 exotic birds species. The cost is $12/adult and $8.50 for kids 3-12 years old. Below are some photos from our visit.
For those who like to take a walk on the "wild side", I recommend you stop by Peppers of Key West. They offer a free tasting bar where you can taste all kinds of sauces, from "Mild to Wild" they have just about anything you can image! If you stop in, be sure to try the Mango Tequila Jalapeno Grilling and Dipping Sauce and check out the $4,000 bottle of hot sauce.. It's sweet with a tiny bit of heat and is a perfect compliment to coconut shrimp. Here are some photos...
If you are interested in seeing a beautiful sunset, I recommend you head to Mallory Square. We headed to the Square to see the sunset and found lots of street performers, local artists and even fresh coconut drinks. Not to far from the Square, in the marina, is a great conch & Caribbean style eatery called Conch Republic Seafood Company. It's an open air restaurant with great views of the boats/yachts in the marina. The food is terrific and they have some of the fastest service ever! Here are some photos from our visit...
MORE THINGS TO DO: There is something for everyone in the Florida Keys. In addition to the activities and sights mentioned above, here is a list of some additional things to do.
I hope this destination spotlight of the Florida Keys has inspired you to want to explore this very cool destination.
Stay tuned for the next Destination Spotlight with Explore Travel Planners!
Angie Conger Hinds
I have a true passion for travel and I want to share my travel knowledge with you. I hope this blog gives you inspiration to EXPLORE the world!
Enter your email to get updates straight to your inbox.