More Keys Please. 

I live in Florida.  Just 5 hours from the Monroe County line and the Florida Keys.  I’ve been to Key West maybe five times.  That’s it.  I’ve lived in Florida basically my whole life and I’ve only been five times.  What is wrong with me??  Well, I figured it out.  It was the 8 hour drive all the way to Key West.  3 of those hours are two lanes doing maybe 35 mph.  It’s long.  Driving there is not bad- you are going on adrenaline, it’s beautiful and you are on vacation.  But the drive home usually takes even longer and there’s nothing more depressing than the drive out of the Keys (except maybe the flight home from Vegas).  But I realized this summer we don’t have to drive all the way to Key West to enjoy the Keys.  As a matter of fact, it’s a totally different Keys experience if you go anywhere outside of Key West.  And we loved it! 

Get Planning- the sooner, the better

The beach at Ocean Pointe
Where to stay- We knew ahead of time we wanted to be doing stuff in Key Largo and Islamorada so we searched accordingly.  We almost stayed at the Marriott at Key Largo- it’s bayside and pretty gorgeous.  Price wasn’t too crazy.  But we wanted to be a little further down.  Ocean Pointe (MM 92.6) on the Oceanside kept coming up on VRBO.  It offered a large pool AND access to the water and a little beach area.  Perfect mix for our son and daughters.  We booked a condo with a full kitchen. You can rent via VRBO, but be sure to check out their actual website as you might find lower rates.  We booked our unit from Gordon and Tracy of Florida Keys Heaven, who are local and gave us great tips on where to go.  There is a pool bar which has only drinks and snacks like crackers. It’s only open only until 6pm, but there was always music playing at the pool. There is a Cafe is at the marina near the beach.  They have a small menu, but we liked everything we ordered. Unlike the pool bar, the Café has happy hour 4-6. The kitchen is open until 10, bar until 11.  They do have kayaks and a paddle board for rent for $12/hour. Bonus- large iguana everywhere.  

Other Reservations- While the Keys are a place to get away, relax and do nothing, there’s so much to do and see out on the water.  Think snorkeling, kayaking and fishing.  Unless you bring your own boat, you will want to make the time to book tours or rent kayaks.  Most reservations can be made a day or two in advance, but you risk getting stuck with the dreaded 8am tours. 
Renting a paddle board at Ocean Pointe


Driving in South Florida to the Keys- pay to take the turnpike and save an hour.  Totally worth it.  Once you get off the turnpike and merge onto US1 (that’s the junction at Florida City MM 127.5) you will be going on an overpass and looping down to your left onto US1.  This is where the traffic backs up, but your
The sign you've hit the Keys- the blue barrier
adrenaline kicks up.  You are close!  Next almost-there-landmark- the sky blue concrete barrier wall that runs down the middle of what is now the Overseas Highway.  There are mangroves running on either side of the road.  As traffic slows- look down all the waterways- we saw a manatee on this trip.

Ocean side vs. Bayside- locals all describe things as ocean bay or bay side.  So if you are headed toward Key West the ocean is to your left.  This will be important every evening- find a bayside spot for the best sunset views.  More on that in a bit. 

Mile Markers (MM) - This is how the location of most places are referred to in the Keys.  Locations will be given in terms of their mile marker.  So take note. 

Wildlife is everywhere- slow down, take your time and keep your eyes open.  Especially in the water around the rocks and pilings.  Manatee, tarpon, sharks, iguana, sharks, crabs, lobsters, tropical fish, barracuda, rabbits, and the list goes on. 

Pre-Trip Homework: Watch Bloodline- Want to get really pumped up for your trip?  Watch Bloodline.  It’s the three season series on Netflix which takes places in Islamorada.  I began watching it just for the views, but was totally drawn in by the story.  Then of course you want to see all the filming locations while in town.  This book was perfect for that and a great keepsake afterwards: A Local’s Guide to Bloodline.

Old School books for planning your trip

Fuel Your Day- Eat a Good Breakfast

Café Moka (Tavernier MM 92) – Super close to Ocean Pointe.  So stinking cute.  YUM food and specialty coffees.  We went two mornings in a row, it was so good and so cute.  The chocolate croissants- oh my.  I hear the Ham and Cheese croissant is recommended for you savory breakfast folks.  A few scenes of Bloodline were filmed here.  Some of the employees were extras in different parts of the series and are happy to tell you all about it.  And it’s so cute in case I didn’t mention it.  

Doc’s Diner (Key Largo MM 99) - The sign on the strip center storefront says it all “A Local’s Place.”  A local sent us here and there were no regrets.  Diner vibe, but fancy breakfast spot taste.

Doc's Diner

Eating in the Keys IS an Activity

Fish, shrimp, conch fritters and key lime pie.  Make sure you eat these as often as you can.  Here’s a few recs for you:

View from the docks at Islamorada Fish Co.
Islamorada Fish Company (Islamorada MM 81.5) - While this is pretty big and commercial I think it’s so worth it. It’s a part of Bass Pro Shop, which is called World Wide Sportsman there.  Plan to get there before the store closes so you can go inside. As soon as you arrive get on the restaurant wait and then check out the sites. Right in the middle of the store is the ‘Pilar’ the sister ship to Hemingway’s fishing boat. Then walk out on the dock to the right of the shop to see tons of nurse sharks and tarpon swimming in the shallow waters. Walk to the left of the restaurant to see the gorgeous little walkout and deck where sometimes people are feeding the tarpon.  While this is Oceanside, we did have some awesome sunset views with the reflections off the clouds. 

Hog Heaven (Islamorada MM 85.3) - At first I thought why would I go to BBQ in the Keys?  I want seafood all day, every day.   But then a local sent us here.  It actually does have good seafood, but they also smokes all of their meat right there.  It is a dive, but go during the day and sit out back- hidden gem!  You can sit on the dock or just overlooking it by the bar.  Walk to the left to go out to the "Island". Look close to the rocks for the colorful Parrot Fish.  We even walked out into the warm water a bit.  Bloodline shot a scene in the parking lot here.  If you go, ask for "J" or Janielle (pronounced Jah- Neil) and give her a big hug for me. 

Hungry Tarpon located at Robbie’s Marina (Islamorada MM 77.5) – Built in 1947, it has all outdoor seating.  Put your name on the list early.  It’s hot and the line can be long, but the food is good and there’s so much fun to be had while you wait just shopping the hanging around. 

Marker 88 (Plantation Key MM 88- duh) - We had three kids with us so we never did get to eat here as it’s a little pricey, but you’d better believe it’s on our list for the next adult trip down!  Whether you eat here or not, get here for a sunset.  There is a little public beach (MM 88 Beach) to just sit or swim. There’s usually music playing from the restaurant.  Take a walk out on the dock and look for the tropical fish around the pilings. A scene from Bloodline was shot here on an outdoor rocking booths. 

The "island" at Hog Heaven

On our list for the next trip:

Lazy Days Restaurant (Islamorada MM 79.8) - This came highly recommended by several locals, but we just didn’t make it there.  It’s Oceanside and you will need a reservation.  Check it out and let me know!

Lorelei Restaurantand Cabana Bar (Islamorada MM 82) - Another locally recommended spot.  It’s bayside and very popular for the sunset views.  Obviously, it’s on our list.  Guess I’d better get planning my next trip. 

Need a Seafood Break?

Puerto Vallarta Mexican (Islamorada MM 86) - So good.  So Mexican.  Our cheapest dinner down there. Just don’t try to prove anything and order the large Margarita.  It’s a beast. 

Explore the Keys

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Key Largo MM 102.8) - Just a 10 min drive from Ocean Pointe.  We went to snorkel!  But you can do a scuba tour or rent kayaks and boats.  If you are not a snorkeling pro or a boater or not familiar with the area, I suggest you book a tour through the park.  There are private companies that do tours, but I wasn’t sure how to pick one and didn’t want to waste more time on that when I could feel safe booking at the park.  Bring your own snorkeling gear to save a few bucks.  If you don’t own it already, don’t buy it.  You can rend a mask and fins for $4 and get a souvenir snorkel for another $5. If you do need to buy anything else, you’ll save a little money by shopping at a dive shop outside of the park. There's one right next to Doc's Diner. You can book a tour there, too, which I can’t vouch for, so you let me know if you go with them!

Rain Barrel Artisan’sVillage (Islamorada MM 86.7) – Even if you don’t stop to shop, you might want to stop and take your picture in front of the giant lobster.  What the heck.

Robbie’s Marina (Islamorada MM 77.5) – It’s on the far end of Islamorada so about a 25-30 min drive from Ocean Pointe. I could plan an entire trip around all things Robbie’s. It’s mostly famous for the tarpon feeding.  It’s honestly shocking.  Super cheap fun, too.  $2 to go the dock and just $3 for a bucket of fish.  It’s terrifying waiting for them to jump up and grab your fish, but I finally did it and am so glad I risked a heart attack to do it.  We did a 

Just do it: Feed the Tarpon
Backwater kayak tour right there with The Kayak Shack.  It’s a 2-2 ½ hour tour for $45 per

person.  If you do the tour, see if Mitchell’s available.  You paddle around mangroves and through mangrove tunnels, while learning so much about the eco-system.  Just be forewarned about Bird Island.  It’s an adventure.  Don’t forget to eat at the Hungry Tarpon while here and do some shopping. 

Islamorada BeerCompany (Islamorada MM 82.9) - Why not.  Even the Keys is getting into the craft beer scene.  We made it a point to check it out.  The store is bright and cheery and oh-so-Florida-Keys.  We got a flight of 6 so we could try as many as possible.  Sunday Sandbar (google Islamorada Sandbar), Islamorada Ale, Channel Marker IPA, and Last Flight Out are just a few of their brews to try.  Ended up leaving with four small glasses and a bright tank top.  Went right home and ordered me a $10 flight paddle on Amazon.  We are all set.  Later you can use their website to see if the beer is sold near you.  Apparently we can go to the gas station just outside of our neighborhood to get our Keys fix!  There’s also the Florida Keys Brewing Co that we will be sure to check out on our next trip.    

Kayaking beneath the mangroves

See the sun set…every night if at all possible! At the risk of being repetitive, I’m just gonna say it again. Our favorite place to jump in the car and drive to in order to see the sun set was MM 88 Beach next to Marker 88 Restaurant.  Cloudy afternoon?  Don’t let the clouds keep you away- they make for the most colorful of sun sets. 

Ironically, clouds make the best sunsets

Looking for Live Music?

We didn’t get to enjoy the nightlife on this trip, but that was fine since we went full speed from morning to night.  But I know on weekends Hog Heaven is a hopping place with a band on their platform over the water.  Check the Coconut Cowboys Facebook page to see when and where they might be playing.  Southern rock we can all sign along with! 

More Time?  Keep driving…

These are just a few of our favorite stops on the way to Key West.

Old Seven Mile Bridge (Pigeon Key MM 47)

Endangered Florida KeyDeer (Big Pine Key MM 30.2) - On my first four trips we’d cruised down US1 on our way to Key West and I was so bummed I never saw a Key Deer.  Then we stayed closer and we drove back through the neighborhoods in the morning and in the evening and saw lots of them.  Little and sweet, but not as little as I imagined them to be. 

Bahia Honda StatePark (MM 36.8) The broken Bahia Honda bridge makes for a beautiful photograph!  Two natural beaches where we’ve snorkeled.  You can also do a snorkel tour out to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary from the park. 

Key West (MM 3.9 to MM 0) - That’s a whole other post…

Your Insta-Inspiration

Follow these great accounts to get you in a keys-frame-of mind for your trip.  Keep following them long afterwards to keep the Keys always on your mind. 

@FloridaSaltFreak- always amazing pix from all over
John Pennekamp resident
the Florida and the Keys!

Questions? Shoot me an email!

I can't wait to hear how your trip goes and hear your recommendations for my next trip. Tag me on your Instagram pictures (@idreamoftrvl), reach out on Facebook or email me!

And don't forget to print those pix before you forget! At the VERY least get either 25 free 4x4 prints or free 5.5 softcover photobook from Parabo Press.  This is my affiliate link, but you still get the free good.  Just chip in for shipping!  It's usually about $7.   


Popular posts from this blog