Florida Keys Roadtrip
Driving to Key West has to be one of the ultimate road trips. However, do be warned, in the Upper Keys at least, the view from the car is pretty much the same as any CVS- and Gas Station-lined highway in the US. So you do have to get off the Highway and out of the car to experience the Keys.
The easiest place to do this by far is Key West, so I suggest that if possible you get down to Key West on your first day, stay for a couple of nights, then travel back more slowly when you have adjusted to the Keys way and pace of life.
Read my blog on how to spend 3 Days in Key West.
If you leave Key West late morning you should get to Big Pine Key just in time to call in at No Name pub for lunch. Leave the highway at Key Deer Boulevard and it is about a 10 minute drive from the highway. Just as you are thinking of turning back, sure that you are lost, you will find it. Once inside there is no mistaking it. Customers have been pining up dollar bills inside this pub for the last 40 years, so that the owner is now sure that the décor is worth more than the building itself! As Brits abroad we are always in search of a place with the atmosphere of an English pub, and here we certainly found it! The atmosphere and food are well worth the detour.
Marathon is usually on most peoples list of places to visit because you can rent bikes and ride out to Pigeon Key along a stretch of the old rail bridge. Unfortunately the old bridge is currently (end 2016) closed for repairs but you can take a boat trip out to the Key. Alternatively, use Marathon as a stop to get closer to nature.
One of my favourite places was the Turtle Hospital between Milestone Marker 48 and 49 (the markers start at 1 in Key West and then mark every mile for the 150 mile length of the Keys) . There is an educational introduction and then a chance to get very close to (and splashed by) as many as 30 turtles who are recovering from tangles with fishing lines or being hit by boats. They even have their own ambulances! Don’t be put off by the fact that it is a hospital, it is not at all distressing. The vast majority of inmates get re-introduced to the wild.
Also at Marathon is Crane Point Nature Reserve (MM50), one of the last areas of the Keys where the natural habitat is being preserved. There is a little natural history museum and some fish tanks indoors and on the covered terrace. But do leave as much time as you can to walk out to the point, enjoy the surrounding vegetation and, when you get there, the views of the bay. You can take a guided kayak trip from here. We really didn’t allow ourselves enough time in this lovely spot and wished we had brought a picnic. Being on the west side of the Key this would also be a good spot to watch the sunset. Whatever you do, don’t leave without tasting all the different varieties of honey they have on sale in the gift shop – Dogwood honey, Red Mangrove honey…you really can taste the difference.
Islamorada is best known for the Theatre of the Sea, but it is also well worth stopping at Robbies Marina (MM77). There is a restaurant here, and we hired jet skis and went out with a guide to explore the bay and the mangroves. You can also hire kayaks and canoes and go exploring on your own. Best of all, you can buy a bucket of fish and feed the huge Tarpon’s that swim under the dock. Be prepared to shoo away the Pelicans that you have spent the rest of your trip trying to get close to!
Where to Stay
If you are looking for a night stop in Isalmorada we would recommend the Drop Anchor Resort and Marina. It is right by the water on the ocean side (no beach) and has a pool and outdoor seating. Most of the accommodation is motel-style. The rooms are well appointed and characterful. I particularly liked the dish of salt scrub in the bathroom.
On Marathon we stayed at Tropical Cottages at MM50 on the Bay side (booked through Air BNB – they call them Caribbean Cottages). These are simple but charming cottages with a Tikki Bar in the grounds. We stayed in cottage No. 9, which is the closest to the road, although it didn’t bother us.
Where to Eat
Breakfast comes highly recommended at The Wooden Spoon. We ate our country steak and steak & eggs elbow to elbow with the locals.
Make Alabama Jack’s either your first or last stop in the Keys for lunch. There is live music at the weekend. This was my first taste of deep-fried Conch. A must.
For a treat in casual surroundings, you can’t beat the beach bar at Pierre’s at Morada Bay. It’s another perfect spot on the Bay to watch the sun go down.