Planning a trip to the Florida Keys? The 3-hour drive to Key West from Miami is one of the best road trips in the States, and a must-do if you're traveling there. Sure, you can take a quick flight down to the Conch Republic airport (EYW). But in about the same amount of time you'd spend in airports and the flight, you could have a more enjoyable trip visiting many of the attractions on the drive down. Here's a road trip itinerary for the US 1 through the Keys and few of my favorite stops to make on the trip.
When you pass mile marker 118 on US 1 South, you're officially in the Florida Keys and just over 100 miles from Key West. There are over 800 small islands that make up the Florida Keys and on this route, you'll cover over 40 of them. Connected by 42 bridges from Key Largo to Key West, each key has a unique name and story.
The variety of food you can find is great too! There's of course lots of seafood restaurants and shacks, but you're sure to encounter Irish pubs, American-style bars and grilles, and Caribbean bistros as well.
On Islamorada, near mile marker 78, be sure to stop at Robbie's to grab a bite to eat or a souvenir to bring home. Buy a bucket of bait fish for just $5 and try to feed the tarpons without the pelicans snatching them up first! Tarpons are one of Florida's premier game fish and they can be found all around the Keys. From Robbie's, you can charter a boat for various tours including fishing, eco-tours, sunset cruises, and parasailing. Kayak and jet-ski rentals are also available.
If you want to get an up-close look at some amazing aquatic animals, stop at Aquarium Encounters near mile marker 53 on Marathon Key. For less than $25, you can explore all the displays at your own pace and even touch some of the animals like sting rays and turtles.
If you stop anywhere along the Keys to see aquatic life, make a stop at The Turtle Hospital near mile marker 48, also on Marathon Key. For $30, you can take one of the guided tours to learn about the rehabilitation and release of several different sea turtles. Tours start every half hour beginning at 9 am and going until 4 pm.
Distressed or injured sea turtles are brought to the hospital from all over the world. If you ever observe a sea turtle in need of care, you can help initiate their transfer to this location so they can get the help they need. And, you eve get to pick the turtle's name! No turtles are bred or sold at this establishment; their ultimate goal is to rehabilitate and release. Unfortunately, some turtles will never be released back to the ocean due to their critical ailments. Symptoms caused by punctured shells, commonly called "bubble butt", seemed to be the most common that we observed on our visit. Air gets trapped underneath the turtle's shell as it heals after a puncture, causing the turtle to float. No longer able to dive for food, the turtle would slowly die on the surface of the ocean.
In the hospital's 100,000 gallon salt water tank, at least a dozen sea turtles have small weights glued to their shells to help off-set their buoyancy, allowing them to swim normally despite their bubble butt symptoms.
Getting closer to Key West, at mile marker 47, you will drive onto the famous Seven-Mile Bridge. Take a look to the south and you'll notice the old railroad bridge that once connected mainland Florida to the Keys. The railroad bridge was operational at its completion in 1912. But it soon met its demise in 1935 when a category 5 hurricane came to the Keys, which also claimed the lives of more than 400 railroad workers.
If you're craving a little bit of adventure, you can find it at Sky Dive Key West located at mile marker 17 on Sugarloaf Key.
We did a morning jump on our last day visiting Key West as we were heading home. When we jumped out of the little Cessna 182, the skies were clear and the view from 10,000 feet was a beautiful blend of blues and greens.
When you arrive in Key West, especially as you approach the west side of the island, you'll be surrounded by scooters, bicyclists, and pedestrians. It's not practical to drive a car around the island just for sight-seeing. Parking is limited, and expensive, so I recommend walking or renting a more practical vehicle. You can rent buggies, bicycles, and scooters by the day on Key West from many convenient kiosks around the island.
Duval Street is where you'll find the highest concentration of tourist traffic at just over a mile long. Start on the south end and get a picture next to the Southernmost Point Buoy. Best to arrive early to beat the line.
Make your way north and stop into the the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory on Duval Street between South Street and United. Spend about $20 and 30 minutes surrounding yourself with some rare and exotic butterflies, birds, and other interesting creatures all under one roof.
Whitehead Street runs parallel to and west of Duval Street and that is where you can find and explore Earnest Hemmingway's house. It's open daily, no reservations are required, but there are guided tours for only a 17-dollar, cash only entrance fee.
Inside the house, check out the study room where Hemmingway wrote most of his works and roam the grounds where he entertained his guests with Key West's first, and largest swimming pool. A highlight of our visit was observing the Hemmingway cats that prowl the grounds.
Head back over to Duval Street and browse through one of the unique art galleries, grab a drink and enjoy some live music at an outdoor cafe, or stop at an ice cream shop and try the Key West favorite, key lime pie.
When you arrive at the corner of Greene and Duval, enjoy the live entertainment and start a new tradition at Sloppy Joe's Bar. Or, pop into Irish Kevin's for a pint and a few laughs. Wherever you end up on Duval Street, you're sure to have fun.
For accommodations on Key West, there are many resorts, hotels, inns, and condos to choose from. If you're looking for some quiet relaxation, a resort on the beach can offer you more privacy from the hustle and bustle of Duval Street. We stayed at the Casa Marina Resort on the southwest side of the island. We chose this location for its convenient location and amenities. It's less than 10 minutes walking to Duval Street and as a guest here, you also have access to the private beach and amenities of the neighboring resort, The Reach Key West, Curio Collection by Hilton. The resort has a large, private section of the beach with 2 walk-out piers. There are 2 outdoor pools, one for families with kids, and one for adults only complete with a poolside bar. A jet-ski and kayak rental kiosk is located right on the beach for guests to make reservations. The resort has a gift shop, bar, ballroom, and a restaurant.
Want to be closer to the excitement of Duval Street? I suggest looking for a short-term condo or one of the smaller hotels in the center of town. There's a few right on Duval.
If you want to escape the commotion of Key West for a day, charter a boat or a seaplane and head 70 miles west to Dry Tortugas National Park. It's well worth the trip. We hired Key West Seaplane Adventures to take us over to Fort Jefferson, located at the park. Our day was spent exploring the fort, snorkeling, and walking around the beach. It's the most remote national park in the country and you can find a wide variety of reef fish and other animals there.
Dry Tortugas National Park is carry-in, carry-out. There are no restaurants or shops at the park, so come prepared with snacks, sunscreen, and a change of clothes for your stay. Overnight camping is available and on a first-come-first-serve basis.
If you love history like me, I recommend exploring Fort Jefferson when you first arrive at the park. There's a lot to see and learn here, and you won't want to miss out if you lose track of time on the beach, which is easy to do! Be sure to get your National Parks Passport stamped at the visitor center inside the fort.
Dry Tortugas got its name from the concentration of sea turtles that were discovered around the island by the first settlers. It was called 'dry' due to the lack of fresh water at this location. Fort Jefferson is an incomplete fortress that American settlers used to defend the Gulf of Mexico, and more specifically the port of New Orleans, against the British in the 19th century. During the Civil War, the fort was used to hold prisoners of war and was mostly abandoned thereafter. Its condition is remarkable considering its age and intended use.
When you snorkel at Dry Tortugas, be sure to explore the old coaling docks to the north of the fort. You'll see large fish, sea urchins, lobsters, and perhaps even a sea turtle. The snorkel area around the moat wall is an excellent spot also.
Fun fact: Have you ever wondered why they are called 'keys' instead of islands? When I last visited Florida, I learned that a key is different from an island for one main reason: keys are coral islands comprised of biologic matter, basically deposits of tiny sea animals, that have accumulated over time and eventually broke the surface of the ocean. Islands are bodies of land that have broken through the surface of the ocean resulting from geologic events like volcanic eruptions or the shifting of tectonic plates.
"Traveling - it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller."
- Ibn Buttata