The place to remain, what to eat and learn how to get there: Planning the proper Key West getaway
Chase away the winter blues and join other snowbirds as they fly their way south — really south — to the farthest point south in the continental United States to enjoy life in Key West. Key West is a haven for those looking to escape winter’s grip, and just the thought of it puts you in the right state of mind. Known for its history and sparkling blue water, along with residents who prefer to live on the more eccentric side of life, Key West offers a seaside adventure unlike others you may find in the Sunshine State. So do as the residents do — grasp hold of that free spirit you haven’t seen in a while, and see where a trip to Key West may take you.
One of the best ways to see Key West is by taking a tour, a good way to familiarize yourself with all there is to see and do around town.
Hop on the Conch Train.
Photo contributed by Visit Key West / Part tour and part history lesson, the Conch Train has been helping visitors discover Key West for 60-plus years.
The train’s been around for 60-plus years and takes tourists on a hop-on/hop-off experience through Old Town Key West and along the waterfront. Tour “engineers” will steer you through the history of the island town, showcasing many points of interest, such as Ernest Hemingway’s house and President Harry Truman’s magnificent Little White House. And there are places from more modern times, such as the Mel Fisher Museum and the Shipwreck Museum.
BeachBunny’s Original Tours of Key West
Offering GPS-driven downloadable audio and multimedia tours for walking, biking and driving, visitors can maintain social distancing and get an authentic, immersive Key West experience. There are several tours from which to choose: a stroll through Old Town; a sunset sip and stroll; a bike ride along the beaches and back roads; and a road trip through the Lower Keys. Participants can download BeachBunny Tours’ free app to a phone or tablet through the Apple Store or Google Play, then choose a desired tour.
Dive On In
Had enough of walking its streets? The warm blue Gulf waters surrounding Key West are calling your name. Fury Key West (furycat.com) offers different adventures in and on the water, from snorkeling to dolphin watches, sunset cruises, jet skis and more. It’s your all-in-one headquarters for almost every activity on the water.
Fury’s Eco Tour is a two-in-one experience that includes snorkeling and a dolphin watch. You’re out on the water for about three hours with knowledgeable guides committed to the safety of the reefs and other area waters. They also know right where to go for the best opportunities to see colorful fish and playful dolphins. Once snorkeling is done, sit back with a glass of champagne — provided — and enjoy the ride. Other tours are available, with one — Fury’s Ultimate Adventure H2.0 — that lasts all day, food and beverage included. The Fury office is located on Front Street, right across from the original Kermit’s Key Lime Shop.
For those wanting to step out of the ruckus of Duval Street and the busyness of Old Town Key West, the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy (keywestbutterfly.com) offers a cooling, pleasant, quiet walk through nature. A small educational exhibit opens to a magnificent glass-enclosed habitat with more than 60 species of butterflies that greet you as your enter. It’s a colorful, flutter-filled wonderland of beauty with a backdrop of tropical plants, flowers, a cascading waterfall and a small stream where two friendly pink flamingos reside.
A Lighthouse Experience
The Key West Art & Historical Society now offers a Key West Lighthouse Sunset Experience for groups of up to eight. Reservations must be made in advance, but doing so gets you into the historic lighthouse for 90 minutes with exclusive access to the lighthouse, keeper’s quarters and grounds. The lighthouse, opened in 1848, has 88 steps to reach the top. Each experience includes a complimentary bottle of wine or Prosecco and artisanal meats, cheeses or sweets. Bookings are required at least 24 hours in advance. Contact [email protected]
Key West’s dining is unique and casual, and don’t be alarmed if a rooster struts by — he and hundreds more are leftovers from the cockfights once held throughout the Keys. When the fights were outlawed, the chickens were set free and now roam the streets and neighborhoods of Key West.
But it’s not chicken that most come to the Keys to experience. Seafood is the foundation of much of the local fare with Caribbean and Cuban influences adding a spicy twist to the standard fish dishes on many menus. Here are some suggestions.
Half Shell Raw Bar.
Snag a table on the waterfront and enjoy views of Key West’s historic harbor while slurping down a platter of fresh oysters with a cold beer. Fish is prepared almost any way you like it — fried, blackened, broiled. You name it, they deliver deliciously. (halfshellraw.bar.com)
A&B Lobster House
It’s hard to miss this spot with its commanding presence on Key West’s seaport. Enjoy cocktails with a catbird seat for viewing one of the Key West sunsets. Local seafood and freshly cut steaks highlight an interesting menu full of flavor, including the grilled octopus and Caribbean lobster risotto. (aandblobsterhouse.com)
Photo by Anne Braly / What Fisherman’s Cafe lacks in space, it makes up for in character.
More of a roadside stand than a café, what it lacks in space — there are just a few tables along the sidewalk — the café makes up for in character. Breakfast is a fusion of Caribbean and French fare with variations of quiche along with a breakfast Cubano with roast pork, Swiss cheese, eggs and black beans. You’ll be missing out if you don’t order orange juice, freshly squeezed to order. It opens at 7 a.m. and serves sandwiches, salads, shrimp and grits, and other items for lunch and early dinners till 5 p.m. (fishermanscafekeywest.com)
Kermit’s Café Kitchen (keylimeshop.com)
Photo by Anne Braly / The Cuban sandwich from Kermit’s Café Kitchen. Once you’ve finished lunch, be sure to stop in the adjacent Kermit’s Key Lime Shop where you can buy everything key lime from lotion to salsa.
The café is adjacent to the original Kermit’s Key Lime Shop where you can buy everything key lime from lotion to salsa. The menu has a nice mix of entrées from Cubans to Reubens, wraps and ribs. A slice of key lime pie is a must. The café is small — just a couple of tables inside — but outside is a garden oasis where you can sip on a refreshing drink and dine while enjoying your surroundings.
Where to Stay
For longer stays, the Florida Keys have numerous long-term rental possibilities — Airbnb, VRBO and the like. But for shorter stays, there are several hotels and resorts to consider, from mom-and-pop places to luxury resorts. Here are a few to consider.
One of the first resorts you’ll encounter when arriving in Key West by car is Marriott Beachside. The hotel has accommodations ranging from waterfront suites overlooking a suntanning beach to rooms with pool views and more. The pool and its tiki bar are lively on sunny days, and the waterfront teems with activity. Ask at the front desk for help in arranging watersport rentals, as well as the schedule for the water taxi, a fun way to get downtown. The hotel restaurant, Tavern N’ Town, is not your average hotel restaurant. It’s a favorite for locals, too, and serves fresh local seafood and has a nice wine list. (marriott.com)
Casa Marina Key West, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, is a historic property opened by industrialist Henry M. Flagler in 1920. The waterfront resort offers 311 rooms and suites, two private pools, a large private beach and the island’s largest space for meetings and weddings with 11,000 square feet indoors and outdoors. Dining venues include Flagler’s Ballroom, serving daily breakfast; and the outdoor Sun Sun Beach Bar & Grill with lunch, dinner and “toes in the sand” dining options. (casamarinaresort.com)
The new boutique Capitana Key West is one of the closest properties to downtown Duval Street and has a private beach fronting the Gulf of Mexico. The hotel boasts 75 rooms, each with a balcony — 64 units with Gulf views and 11 townhome-style cottages. Grocery delivery is available if you choose to dine in. (capitanakeywest.com)
Finally, the Opal Collection has unveiled its latest property, Opal Key Resort & Marina, in the former Margaritaville Resort. The location is convenient to Mallory Square and has a 37-slip marina, outdoor and indoor dining options, waterside shops and live entertainment. (opalcollection.com)
Make It a Day Trip
If you like the excitement Key West has to offer — and there’s plenty of it to be had — but, at the same time, appreciate a more sedate vacation experience, consider staying on another Key and make a day trip out of Key West. It’s a two-hour drive from Key Largo, the Key farthest north, less drive time if you’re on Duck, Marathon or Keys farther south.
> Hawk’s Cay Resort is about an hour away — close enough to spend a day in Key West, have dinner and return to Duck Key in time for a nightcap and bed. The resort is a playground for children, with dolphin experiences, bike rentals, a really fun pool, mini golf and more. Adults have their own places for fun, too, with their own pool and bar — no one under 21 permitted. Don’t forget your tennis racket. Lessons from the resident pro are available. Dining includes a hook-and-cook option to bring your own fish to Angler and Ale, one of several dining venues at Hawk’s Cay. The chef will cook it for you and serve it with your choice of sides. Or, order off the menu. The whole catch of the day, flash-fried — fins, teeth and all — is a popular entrée. The water views are especially nice. The guest rooms have their own porches overlooking the pool and the ocean. There are also numerous cottages with multiple bedrooms and complete kitchens for longer stays — perfect for families. (hawkscay.com)
Photo by Anne Braly / Located about an hour away, Hawk’s Cay Resort is close enough to spend a day in Key West, have dinner and return to Duck Key in time for a nightcap and bed.
> Faro Blanco Resort and Yacht Club on Marathon Key, also about an hour’s drive, is a 16-acre waterfront resort with amenities that include the 199-seat Lighthouse Grill with expansive waterfront views, two swimming pools, bar, market, fitness center, on-site watersports and fishing charters and more than 11,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space. The resort’s on-site landmark Faro Blanco Lighthouse has guided guests by land and sea since the 1950s. (faroblancoresort.com)
A New Way of Getting There
It is the farthest point south in the continental United States, and much of the final stretch south of Miami is via a two-lane road. Flying in is now easier with Allegiant Air’s nonstop service from Nashville on Wednesdays and Saturdays. For a complete vacation planner, log onto fla-keys.com.