Category Archives: Florida Keys

The End of an Era? Key Lime Tree Pie Shop Fire

a pile of rubble by a palm tree
The sad end of a delicious era?
Cathy Salustri

The best things aren’t things, but experiences. What if, though, one of those amazing experiences involves a thing?

One of my favorite Florida Keys traditions has ended, possibly for good. The Key Lime Tree key lime products shop has burned down, and I don’t know if it will reopen.

I first stopped there on the way home from a trip to the former Bay View Inn on Conch Key (it’s now the Conch Key Fishing Lodge and Marina), and after a far-too-long absence from the Keys– (I wrote about that in this post), I wanted extend the saltwater, salt-air vibe for as long as I could. Since moving there wasn’t an option, I went for the next best thing: bringing home a key lime pie.

Knowing nothing about which roadside shop had good key lime pie, I stopped at this one.

It was the best part of the trip.

Every year since (except for 2017 – thanks a lot, Irma), I’ve stopped here to get a pie. When I learned I had celiac, I floundered, but – alas – the shop had gluten-free key lime pies (it’s all about the filling for me, not the crust, anyway.)

a store with a chain link fence around it and rubble on the ground

Cathy Salustri

The first time the man who would become my husband and I traveled to the Keys, I made him stop on the way home to get a pie. He thanked me when he tasted it.

In 2015, Quebec’s TV5 brought me to Islamorada to tape a segment about the human fascination with dolphin. I stopped at the shop on my way home and met the owner. When I told him how long I’d been stopping, he thanked me with a shell necklace that hung around my rearview mirror for years.

For year now, we bring home one, maybe three pies. When we first bought The Gabber Newspaper, we brought home a half pie for every non-vegan member of our staff. (Journalism may not pay much, but we do have pie.)

For a while, we knew where the shop was because of the Don Bailey billboard of an almost-naked carpet salesman. (Uh, if you’re not from South Florida, you may want to read this to understand that.) When the billboard changed – much to my dismay – had to learn the mile marker (95.2)

I’ve been to the Keys twice this year (so far). The first trip, in February, was a group trip I led. My co-leader and I left the Keys late in the evening, and after 10 days of leading a group, neither of us thought about stopping for pie. It was dark, and my mind was on the drive home.

When I returned for a far more leisurely trip in May, the pie shop had a fence around it – and a black charred shell of a building.

A sign for Key Lime Products

Cathy Salustri

I did a little research and found two articles in Keys Weekly, and they painted a picture that overshadowed my own dismay.

First, last fall, the shop had a series of burglaries. Police finally arrested the alleged thief on November 2, 2022, after the shop owner, Violet Wahba, had lost several thousand dollars in merchandise and store fixtures.

Next, on December 15 – not even six weeks after the arrest – a Key Largo resident who lived by the shop called Wahba to tell her the shop was on fire.

These two things, of course, came on the heels of the pandemic, which came less than a year after Wahba bought the shop in March 2019.

Despite all that, it seems Wahba still tries to operate as she can on the property, because there was an A-frame sign outside the fenced-off business suggesting  some operating hours. I’m not sure that’s still the case, but I hope so.

Wahba’s daughter created a Go Fund Me for her mother to help rebuild the shop; in it, she says the fire destroyed not only the building, but $150,000 worth of merchandise (they sell a lot more than pies).

I was shocked to see no one had donated. I sent them $25. It’s not a lot, but I hate to see the end of this iconic stop along US 1 in the Florida Keys.

Until we meet again, Key Lime Tree. I hope it’s soon.

Sign on ground, reading "The Key Lime Tree – Gifts – Baskets – Food Products– Lotions – Skin Care"
I was sorely tempted to take the sign as a moment, but left it in hopes the owners would rebuild.
Cathy Salustri

10 Things Most People Never Do in the Florida Keys

My Annual Keys Trip

The first time I traveled to the Florida Keys, I was 19 and it was a school field trip. The moment US 1 opened up onto the teal water – there’s a high and dry there now, so you can’t see the water as soon – I felt like everything, for the first time, made sense. A few years later, I married a man who was not right for me when I was far too young to do so. He hated the Keys. He promised me a trip there every year and it was only the last year of our marriage that we made it there. He was miserable and even told me, “I think we just want different things out of life.”

Months after we separated, the first thing I did was point my purple Toyota south towards the Keys, with my kayak on top of my car and my bike inside it. I paddled and biked and breathed the salt air and promised myself I’d never go a year again without visiting the Florida Keys.

Since then, except for one year when Hurricane Irma made traveling there impossible, I’ve done that – often more than once. So far this year, I’ve visited twice. Do I want to live there? Probably not. But I cherish the time I spend there. Want some travel tips that take you beyond the typical tourist experience? I can’t promise to show you the Keys like a local, but I can tell you about some places to see, things to do, and restaurants to try that take you beyond the typical Florida Keys experience. Here are my top 10 things most people never do in the Florida Keys:

10. Take the Card Sound Bridge in to the Keys. Bonus points if you’ve read Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen and know why I mention this book.

9. Stop at Alabama Jacks on the Card Sound Bridge. Think it’s a dive bar? I won’t argue. But before you slide into the Florida Keys, nothing beats stopping here for a cold drink or a burger on the water. You’re still in the Everglades and also in the Florida Keys.

8. Buy seafood at Key Largo Fisheries. I have friends who live a few islands down – and they drive up here for seafood. It’s a seafood market that has a cafe, so even if you’re not sleeping somewhere with a kitchen or grill, you can still get a taste.

A neon sign reading "Flynn's" over a Tron video game
Bayside Gourmet definitely has everything an ’80s kid could want.
Cathy Salustri

7. Play Tron at Bayside Gourmet. I don’t know how I missed this place except I just didn’t notice it until a local suggested I grab lunch there. It’s a Gen X kid’s dream, and the food’s good, too. (And I believe the games have free play.)

6. Take advantage of the ranger-led activities in a state park. On our last visit, we had a free guided tour of the waters and mangrove tunnels around Curry Hammock State Park. Every state park – Pennekamp, Windley Key, Long Key, Curry Hammock, and Bahia Honda come to mind immediately, but there are many others in the Keys – has rangers available for questions, and most (if not all) have free hikes, talks, or paddles with those rangers. No one knows the outdoors in the Florida Keys better than the state park rangers; take advantage of this.

5. Eat at El Siboney on Stock Island. Yes, yes, there’s one in Key West. Don’t bother with the crowds; the last time I ate at the Stock Island restaurant, I believe my group were the only tourists in the building. It’s delicious.

4. Get your groceries somewhere other than Publix. Yes, I know it’s the place where shopping is a pleasure, but the Florida Keys is one of the few places that actually has some decent grocery stores (not supermarkets!). Try the family-owned Trading Post in Islamorada, Marathon Liquor and Deli in Marathon, and, of course, Fausto’s in Key West.

a yellow plate of fish, French fries, and cole slaw
I ate the best cole slaw of my life at Geiger Key Marina.
Cathy Salustri

3. Try the cole slaw at Geiger Key Marina. I’m obsessed with the stuff, and I’m not exactly a huge cole slaw fan. I’m not sure what, exactly, they use to make it, but I’m doing my best to replicate it back home.

2.  Hike at Curry Hammock State Park. The hike isn’t in the part of the park most people use – it’s a short walk off a small parking area off US 1 maybe a mile south of the park’s entrance on the bay side. It’s relatively short – something like 1.5 miles – but it goes over some uneven terrain. The reward is your private vista of the water.

1. Paddle to Indian Key – and then take in its history. This island is easily seen from US 1 near Robbie’s, but the times I’ve paddled out there, I’ve seen precious few people. Perhaps they don’t realize this tiny island has quite a history: At one time, it was the Dade County seat. It’s a ghost town now (and a state park) and, if you’re into snorkeling, word has it there’s some pretty good snorkeling on the far side of the island.

No doubt, I’ve missed a lot – as I’ve said, I’m not local, and I know I’ll have more in future posts. Hopefully, if you’re here and you’ve read my stuff for a while, these aren’t all new to you. And hey, if you have a place you think I’d love down there (or anywhere in Florida), drop me a note and tell me about it!

Best Places to Buy Seafood in the Florida Keys

This week, we’re camping in the Florida Keys. Specifically, Curry Hammock State Park.  It’s lovely and hot – although perhaps not my favorite state park in the Florida Keys – and when we camp, I love to grill and eat seafood. Honestly, I love both those things all the time, but when we camp at the north end of Florida in January, I’m more inclined to make a pizza on the grill, campfire nachos, or quinoa and rice in the Dutch oven. But when it’s 90-plus degrees and I can smell low tide? All I want is seafood.

Because our camper is a 21-foot travel trailer and not a behemoth Class A with an almost-full-size fridge and freezer,  cooking in and outside it is more enjoyable when I prep the food before we leave Gulfport. Last week, I found a fantastic recipe at Fresh Off The Grid for making a shrimp boil – on the grill (This is not a recipe website, so if you need the recipe, click that link.)  I tweaked it: swapped out andouille for a sausage that had a smaller carbon footprint and tossed in some red onion and jalapeño, and – this is the point of this post – found some Keys pink shrimp.

Close up of a shrimp boil platter
The shrimp in this shrimp-boil-on-the-grill came from Keys Fisheries in Marathon.
Cathy Salustri

Dining in the Florida Keys – even pre-2022 inflation – can get costly, and restaurants can be hit or miss. Sure, there are a few I really enjoy (that’s a future post) but by and large, I’d rather cook my own food, because fresh Florida Keys seafood is the best part of cooking in the Florida Keys.

In order of preference, here’s where we get fresh seafood when we stay in the Florida Keys:

Key Largo Fisheries (Key Largo)

My fellow Florida-phile and historian Brad Bertelli (who lives in the Florida Keys) suggested this place to us, and he wasn’t wrong. Key Largo Fisheries buys directly from Keys fishermen.

A plate with two yellowtail snapper fish tacos on it
Yellowtail snapper tacos, with yellowtail snapper from Keys Fisheries in Marathon.
Cathy Salustri

Keys Fisheries (Marathon)

This one we found on Yelp a few years back, and while the seafood market offerings aren’t nearly as robust as Key Largo Fisheries, they, too, buy from local boats – and what they do have on offer tastes amazing. This week, we bought yellowtail snapper for fish tacos and the shrimp for our shrimp boil from them. Bonus: If you’re a soup person – think stone crab chowder and others – they sell their soups at Winn-Dixie supermarkets across Florida.

Lazy Days (Islamorada)

Although the restaurant doesn’t mention it on its website, Lazy Days does have a small seafood market on the first floor. The restaurant itself’s a solid choice for dining, but when we stay in Islamorada (not camping; we love bringing the dogs to leash-free White Gate Court, where they have grills at each cottage and a stovetop in each room) we can pick up seafood here and cook it back at the cottage.

I’m sure there are others; I’ve yet to find a seafood market lower than Marathon that I would consistently suggest – but if you know of any, I’d love to hear about them; drop me a line (see what I did there?)

PS: Love the Florida Keys? Check out The Florida Spectacular episode about Florida Keys history with Brad Bertelli.