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.
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.
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!