During a relaxing weeklong visit, contributors John and Sandra Nowlan find unique things to do in Key West and The Florida Keys—beyond abundant opportunities to savor all types of fresh fish and Key Lime Pie.
One local resident we met was quite adamant. “We know that Florida has a lot of divisiveness and political intrigue,” she told us. “But Key West is NOT Florida.”
Key West: The southernmost U.S. city
In many ways, she was correct. During our weeklong visit to the Florida Keys and Key West, we found the laid-back locals loved their unique region and embraced a “live and let live” philosophy.
In fact, since 1982, the Keys have declared themselves the Conch Republic, after a short-lived and humorous declaration of independence. The “secession” of the Conch Republic is still celebrated every April.
Driving south on U.S. 1 over the sea
The geography of the Florida Keys is, of course, also unique. Driving south on U.S. 1 from the Miami airport, urban sprawl suddenly gives way to a different world—the protected Everglades, vast flat acres of scrub brush, and soggy marshes.
That area was soon replaced by small communities and the remarkable Overseas Highway, 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West, connecting 44 low-lying tropical islands with 42 bridges.
This engineering marvel was completed in 1935 after a hurricane destroyed many of the railway bridges that had linked the Keys since 1912.
Unique things to see and do in the Florida Keys
The long crossing, with the Atlantic Ocean on the left and the Gulf of Mexico on the right, is spectacular but there are also several unique attractions worth a stop.
The African Queen, the iconic steamboat used in the classic 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, continues to take visitors on short cruises along the Key Largo Canal.
Built in England in 1912, the original steam engine is still in place but a disguised outboard is now used for power. The entertaining operator is a movie trivia master.
The Florida Keys are famous for excellent SCUBA diving and the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada contains the world’s largest collection of underwater breathing devices, some going back centuries.
Modern diving techniques are also used by staff members at the Mote Marine Lab in the Lower Keys.
Open to the public for scheduled tours, this facility is the International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration. Scientists here identify threats to the fragile coral of the Keys and cultivate it for transplanting onto dying reefs.
Walks and tram rides to Pigeon Key
The longest island-hopping span in the Keys is the modern Seven Mile Bridge. Completed in 1982 it runs parallel to the former highway and old railway structure.
Visitors with an interest in Keys history can walk or take a tram along the old rail bed to tiny Pigeon Key, a National Historic Landmark. This two-acre island includes eight well-preserved buildings used to house and feed more than 400 workers who completed Henry Flagler’s vision and built the Key West extension of the Florida East Coast Railway more than a century ago. Vintage photographs and artifacts line the walls of the Museum.
Unique things to do in Key West
Entering the city of Key West, the southernmost point of the U.S. mainland is also a step back in time.
The low-rise architecture in this city of 27,000 includes more than 1,000 elegant wooden two-story shuttered houses dating from the late 1800s. Known as Conch Houses, short wooden posts raise them off the ground to improve air circulation in hot summers.
Ernest Hemingway House
The most visited attraction in Key West is the Ernest Hemingway House, built in French Colonial Style in 1851 and the residence of the world-renowned writer in the 1930s.
Containing many artifacts and treasures from Hemingway’s time in Key West, tourists also love the dozens of cats, most of which are polydactyl (six-toed) that roam freely in the house and around the grounds.
The free-range roosters
Also unusual in Key West but scattered across the city are hundreds of free-range roosters.
These handsome birds came originally from Cuba and were used for cockfighting until that “sport” was outlawed. Then they were left on their own to prowl the town and delight visitors.
Two other historic homes in Key West worth a visit are the Harry S. Truman Little White House, the winter home of the 33rd U.S. president, and the soon to be opened Elizabeth Bishop House, the Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. Poet Laureate. (There’s another Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where, as a youth, Bishop spent many summers with her maternal grandparents.)
Sunset on Mallory Square
A nightly Key West tradition is the sunset celebration in Mallory Square. Bustling with street performers, food & craft carts, psychics, and musicians, the highlight of this lively scene is nature’s often spectacular light show at sundown. We were treated to one of the best.
Abundant fresh fish and seafood
The Florida Keys are often described as “The Fishing Capital of the World” and we took full advantage of its reputation. With local varieties like snapper, grouper, hogfish, wahoo, mahi mahi, conch, and crab, we decided to make seafood part of every lunch and dinner. It was a wise choice.
Most seafood restaurants offer freshly caught products in many styles – grilled, fried, sauteed, or blackened. If you catch it they will cook it for you. For lunch, we usually had conch fritters, fish tacos, or fish sandwiches, always with an oversized portion of fresh seafood.
At the Fish House in Key Largo, one of two restaurants we visited that had been featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network series, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, we enjoyed the house specialty, Mahi Mahi Matecumbe Style, baked and topped with fresh tomatoes, shallots, fresh basil, capers, olive oil, and lemon juice. Outstanding! We were also invited to the back of the kitchen to observe a skilled chef filet a large mahi mahi.
Other remarkable seafood restaurants included Chef Michael’s in Islamorada (“Juliette” Hogfish – pan seared with shrimp, scallops, chardonnay butter, and toasted almonds) and two restaurants connected to our accommodation – Margaritaville Beach House in Key West and The Angler & Ale at the Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key.
Our last lunch before heading home was at the quirky Hungry Tarpon in Islamorada. Its ceiling and walls are plastered with US $1 bills. Guests can enjoy the company of dozens of pelicans while feeding giant tarpon and other fish species that congregate around the restaurant’s pier.
The best Key Lime Pie
Seafood came in many styles and we found that the region’s signature dessert, Key Lime Pie, also had distinctive variations among restaurants and specialty shops.
Being keen researchers we tried more than a dozen slices and found that a smooth, pale yellow filling was consistent. However, toppings varied widely with thick or thin meringue or globs of whipped topping. The graham cracker crusts were thick, thin or with added molasses but most were tasty. Our biggest disappointment with most fillings was the lack of tart lime flavor. They were just too bland.
Some of the best slices, with all elements in harmony and a very limey filling, were at The Angler & Ale, Margaritaville Beach House, and Kermit’s Key West Lime Shop.
A place with unique geography and ambiance
U.S. Highway 1 is the longest north-south road in the United States. We’ve often driven along its northern areas. But now we have more respect for its southern extremity.
As someone wisely noted, “If you take the best qualities of a New England and Maritime Province seaside town, add a laid-back atmosphere, you’ve essentially got the Florida Keys.”
All photo credits: John and Sandra Nowlan, except for licensed lead photo.
Disclosure: The Nowlans were guests of the Florida Keys & Key West but any opinions expressed in this post are their own.
IF YOU GO
Traveling to the Keys with kids or grandkids? Check out this Florida Keys itinerary with kids.
Located on Florida’s west coast, many people consider Siesta Key Beach an under-rated alternative to Key West.
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