Thursday, August 26, 2021

Key West, Florida

Ever since I heard the Beach Boys song "Kokomo," I've wanted to see the Florida Keys for myself. Is it really the place to go to "get away from it all"? But guess what  Kokomo doesn't actually exist! Not in the Keys, and not anywhere. Those wacky Beach Boys made it up.

Still, our recent week spent there has shown me that this southernmost point of Florida is as "paradise" as it gets here on the mainland. The water surrounds you everywhere, and the vibe is laid back. You really can have a "tropical drink melting in your hand" just about anywhere, not to mention Key lime pie in myriad forms, including frozen, liquid, and deep-fried. It was lots of fun, really relaxing, and truly a great place to get away from it all!

The Keys, in case you didn't know, are a string of islands that stretches across the bottom of Florida. You can traverse the length of it by flying into Miami and driving south and then west, or flying directly into Key West and driving East. We started our trip in Miami. From there, it takes anywhere from one to two hours (depending on traffic and whether you're willing to pay tolls) to drive to Key Largo, the entrance of the Keys. The main sections of the Keys beyond that are Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and Key West. Highway 1 runs across the whole thing, and it takes about two hours and change to drive from one end of the Keys to the other.

Because the area is so expansive, we broke up our week-long stay between Marathon (in the middle of the Keys) and Key West (at the westernmost tip). Marathon is right by some pretty nice beaches and water sports, while Key West is a funky town that offers everything from eclectic dining to sunset parties every night. Key West is also the launching point of the two-hour ferry ride that takes you to Dry Tortugas National Park, which we also visited.

Where to stay

In Marathon, we stayed at the beautiful Isla Bella Beach Resort. The resort is luxurious, if a bit small compared with some of the palatial resorts of other beach destinations. But my kids loved our spacious two-bedroom suite and the various pools.

In Key West, we stayed at the southern part of Old Town, at Santa Maria Suites Resort. Our two-bedroom suite was quite a find, a spacious duplex in a town where real estate is a commodity. We enjoyed all the amenities, from the awesome swimming pool to the free ice cream and Florida oranges.

Where to Eat

In Marathon, the dining scene was extremely casual and the menus simple. Most of the popular places, like Burdine's Waterfront Marina, Sunset Grille & Raw Bar, and Lazy Days serve seafood favorites (and plenty of other dishes) in dockside tiki setups. The food isn't the greatest, but the portions are huge, and after a day under the hot sun, everything tastes good. One notable exception was the roadside stand La Nina, which sells Cuban platters that are beyond tasty. Just ignore the roaming roosters that peck at the leftovers waiting to be cleaned up from the picnic tables!

We found the dining scene in Key West to be much more varied. We had sushi at Sushi Song, breakfast and lunch at the Banana Cafe, Cuban platters from Ana's Cuban Cafe, and a really nice dinner at the funky Blue Heaven.

And of course, when in the Keys, you must have Key lime pie. I'm not a fan of the flavor, but even I was getting into comparing the variations that each restaurant sells. We also tried Kermit's, which is supposed to be the best, but my favorite slice was actually from Blue Heaven (pictured above).

What to Do

The Florida Keys is well known for its water sports and boat trips, but we didn't do much of that. Instead, this trip was mostly about relaxing at the beach and pool. We visited the cute (and free!) Sombrero Beach in Marathon one afternoon (pictured below), and there's also a cool beach in Key West at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.

While in Marathon, we visited the Turtle Hospital, a working facility that services only sea turtles. The hour-long tour was very educational, and it was fun to observe and feed "turtle chow" to all the current patients as they recuperated in the hospital's tanks. A few of the turtles are lifelong residents, as they're too injured to ever be released.

One of the interesting things we did in Key West was visit the Ernest Hemingway Home  not because any of us are big fans of The Old Man and the Sea, but because of the house's more than 60 resident six-toed cats. My whole family loves cats, and we enjoyed spying them all around the property. You're allowed to pet the cats at your own risk, and some were friendlier than others!

When in the Florida Keys, you must head out to the water on some sort of watercraft. Aquatic excursions abound, from jet skiing to sunset cruises to fishing trips. We chose to kayak through the mangroves with Lazy Dog Adventures in Key West. It was an excellent two-hour tour, and what really made the experience special was being able to paddle through the narrow channels formed by the mangroves. Sometimes we had to put the paddles down and grab onto the low-hanging mangrove branches to navigate our way out!

While in Key West, we walked over to Mallory Square after dinner two evenings in a row for the nightly "sunset celebration." Basically, tourists gather in the area to watch the sun go down and catch the various shows being put on by buskers. On the first evening, we watched two shows in a row, as the kids were mesmerized by the juggling and balancing acts. On the second night, we watched an amazing fire dancer do her thing. Not a bad way to end each day.

The biggest part of our trip was visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, which is 95 percent water and located 70 miles off the coast of Key West. To get there, you have to take a rather expensive two-hour ferry ride and book weeks in advance. But given how overrun some of the national parks are becoming, it was a relief to be able to visit this one with just a boat full of other people and have the whole place to ourselves. The main features of Dry Tortugas are Jefferson Fort, two beaches, and the snorkeling experience in the super clear waters. Here are my tips and tricks on how to get there and explore the island.

What's Nearby

Some of our other favorite Florida destinations include Sanibel Island and Orlando. I'm happy to now be able to add Dry Tortugas National Park to that list as well!