Text by Barbara May, owner of Travel Leaders
Photography Courtesy of Travel Leaders
Since the town’s earliest days, people have come to Key West, Florida, to fish, write, carouse and rejuvenate. Key West has always been a place where you can be yourself, find yourself or re-invent yourself. Known as free-spirited, artistic, quirky and scenic, Key West is one of the most unique places in the United States. With its live-and-let live attitude, tropical climate and seemingly continuous happy hour, the island has been welcoming visitors seeking a vacation for two centuries, including famous inhabitants Ernest Hemingway, John James Audubon and Tennessee Williams;
Vast arrays of activities await visitors to this paradise. Flip flops, shorts and tee shirts are the normal attire here and are welcomed island-wide. From fine gourmet dining to conch fritters and a cold beer, Key West’s restaurants and bars have something for every taste, and are especially known for ultra-fresh seafood. And the town’s storied night life is legendary and unforgettable.
Some MUST DO’S in Key West:
Water sports are popular in Key West due to its location. Deep sea fishing of all kinds, kayak eco-tours, parasailing, jet skiing, speedboat and snorkel tours, windsurfing, water skiing, banana boats—you name the activity—it’s all there. Sunset cruises promise a beautiful view; most hotels can offer suggestions to make sure you make the right choice.
Many visitors are surprised to find that the Florida Keys don’t have many beaches. Key West and the rest of the Keys are coral islands, former reefs created when the ocean was deeper and the region was submerged below water. Today, the ocean is shallower and the living coral reefs are six miles offshore, providing a barrier to waves and swells. Thus, with little sand to begin with, and a lack of wave action to deposit more, beaches in the Keys are a bit of a rarity. However, there are still a few great options for quality Key West beach time.
- Bahia Honda State Park: A 30-mile drive from Key West will bring you to one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere.
- Dry Tortugas Beach: Nearly 90 miles from Key West is the fascinating and beautiful Fort Jefferson National Park. Many visitors find a trip here is the best thing to do in Key West. You can take the Dry Tortugas Ferry to one of the nicest beaches in the entire chain of the Florida Keys. This is an entire day trip and includes breakfast and lunch, snorkeling gear, and a guided tour of the historic fort. This beach will rank with the best thanks to crystal clear water, great snorkeling, powdery sand and a true sense of remote adventure.
- Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park: Located in Key West, this Florida state park known to locals as Fort Zach, is a favorite. The beach is a mixture of sand and coral rock and swimming along the three coves is quite popular and enjoyable. Snorkelers can explore the rock-pile barriers just offshore to observe small tropical fish. Until lately, the beach had been replenished with sand, but the recent Hurricane Dennis swept some of the sand into the bay bottom, leaving parts of the beach back in its former state—rocky. The park’s small admission fee is well worth the price. Bicycles are the preferred way to get to Ft. Zach, but if you are up for a long walk, it is enjoyable.
- Smathers Beach: This long and tranquil beach stretches on Key West’s southern shore. It’s the largest beach that runs along the southern shore of the island for almost two miles. Beach activity ranges from tanning to volleyball to water/beach sport rentals.
What else does Key West have to offer? Here are some “must sees:” The sunset celebration at Mallory Square, and be sure to watch the One Man Cat Show for amazing feline feats; Ernest Hemingway’s House for liturature and cat lovers; Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum; Southernmost Point Buoy…touristy, but you just have to get a picture; The Lighthouse; a visit to the Key West Winery with free tasting and a very unique selection of wines; The Pepper Store for hot sauce lovers; BO’s Fish Wagon for a grouper sandwich; The Green Parrot just to see the oldest bar in the Keys and its amazing jukebox; take the ferry, Fausto’s Gourmet Market, even just to look at the selections… these are only a few! Be sure to visit the Audubon House and enjoy the beautiful gardens. Take a tour of this house and take in the history. The Butterfly Conservatory is beautiful and the Aquarium, although small, is also fun.
Shopping is popular in Key West, but you won’t find your typical mall here. From cheesy tee shirt souvenir shops to designer (local and otherwise) clothing, art galleries, jewelry and antiques, there’s something for everyone. Browsing was never more fun! Do not miss the Kino store near Mallory Square. These handmade leather sandals are very affordable ($10-$12 per pair), come in a variety of styles and colors, and are oh-so-comfortable. The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square also features many vendors selling their own handmade items.
Here are a few things NOT to do in Key West. DO NOT bring or rent a car: you can rent a scooter or a bike for a nominal charge (hotel front desks can recommend providers) and that is the best way to see the island. City Tours Trolleys stop at key tourist locations throughout the city and recount local history along the ride. The trolleys run every 15 minutes, making them a good way to get around to all of Key West’s hot spots. Key West is an easily walkable city with a large number of attractions close to each other. You will always find more to see and do by walking from place to place.
DO NOT judge a book by its cover—some of the most “hole-in-the-wall” places are the best. DO NOT be surprised by anything you see or hear. Key West is a laid-back place with very liberal ideas, which is a big part of its charm. Leave your pre-conceived notions at home and chill. That’s how to appreciate Key West!
Fun facts about Key West:
- Average high/low temperature, winter (F): 76°/66°
- Average high/low temperature, summer (F): 89°/80°
- Sunny or partly-sunny days per year: 259
- Distance from Miami: 160 miles
- Distance from Cuba: 90 miles
- Southernmost point in the U.S.
For more information on planning a Key West vacation call Travel Leaders at 901.377.6600. This year they celebrate 30 years of being in business. Located at 2765 Wolf Creek Parkway, Ste. 104, Travel Leaders is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.