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Pack your bags: The Florida Keys

Pack your bags: The Florida Keys

It's nicknamed the "Conch Republic" after the beautifully unique mollusk shells that adorn its beaches and waterways. Once you reach it's shimmering shores, you can certainly tell that the Florida Keys in many ways views itself apart from the rest of the contiguous U.S. Simply put, there's a different pace and way of life here, whether living or even just visiting this string of precariously placed, but oh-so-gorgeous islands. It was exactly this difference that my wife and I were looking for as we headed down on a mini vacation a few weeks ago.  

Getting to the Keys

In planning our five day trip, many of the recommendations that I came across suggested that travelers arrive at Miami International Airport instead of flying into Key West, FL and then driving south on Highway 1. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is the difference in plane fare, since the inventory of flights into Key West is much lower that that of MIA you can expect a 20-40% premium on a fare directly into the Keys (depending of course on your airport of origin). The more aesthetically-based difference though is that by flying into MIA you get to see just how spectacular the Florida Keys really are as the seemingly infinite Overseas Highway rolls out in front of you on the drive south. It's a delightful drive that skips from key to key through a series of bridges, like a stone skipping across water.

florida keys

And the best part about the drive is that you can see plenty without heading all the way down to Key West, the terminal and most popular of the Keys. All along the nearly 4-hour drive from Miami to Key West are opportunities for great restaurants and seafood, wonderful resorts, plenty of wildlife outlooks and water sports, whether in Key Largo, Islamorada, Long Key, Marathon or Big Pine Key. So, don't just budget 4 hours for the drive, be sure to budget sufficient time to kick around and explore all along the way.

Now, having said that there's a lot to do around the Florida Keys without heading all the way down to Key West, simply put your trip won't really be complete unless you've made it there. Sure, there are more tourists, more crowds and it's a bit tougher to get around in with a car; but, if you're this far down in latitude, why not at least come down to Key West for one of the days you're here.

"Keys" to accommodations

The keys present a ton of opportunities for accommodations. You can spend very little and stay in a modest old carport-style motel or you can elect to hit the spendier digs of the big brand hotels and resorts. We actually stayed midway down the string of Keys in Long Key, at a small, privately-owned vacation spot, Lime Tree Bay Resort. It wasn't a sprawling behemoth of a resort, but rather a quaint, courteously-staffed location perfect for relaxing! The location had a great beachfront - as most do down in the Keys - and we were glad to be located so centrally to what the Keys had to offer, never more than 90 minutes drive from any part of the string of islands. (We couldn't go wrong with an immense deck and hammock all to ourselves as well!)

florida keys

Activities

The Dining Room at Little Palm Island

This was a restaurant that I'd read about in TripAdvisor and the reviews were so thoroughly glowing that I couldn't resist looking into it further and booking a reservation for dinner. Little Palm Island is a very small island located about 20 minutes offshore from Little Torch Key. The trip out to the island comes aboard a renovated wooden Chris Craft-style boat. This remote resort is exquisite and while Kimberly and I would have loved to stay on the island, let's just say that wasn't entirely budget-friendly. However, the Dining Room offers very intimate outdoor dining at sunset...on the beach. It was breathtaking and truly a highlight of the trip. Oh, and did I mention that the Key deer, something for which the island is known made several stops by our table looking for contributions to their dinner? Well, they very cutely did.

florida keys

Duval Street, Key West

Much the way that Bourbon Street can define New Orleans, anyone who's been to Key West knows Duval Street. It's the main artery of activity in Key West and it embraces a unique upbeat, charming and a wee-bit-odd personality all its own. There are shops galore for those in search of retail therapy, more seafood restaurants than you can shake a crab leg at and all sorts of ways to embrace the Conch Republic lifestyle. If you go to Key West and don't spend any time on Duval Street...you haven't been to Key West!

florida keys

The Hemingway Home, Key West

Ernest Hemingway spent some of his most prolific literary years in Key West during the 1930's, moving to the area after falling in love with the big game sport fishing and the solitude: perfect for his adventurous spirit and literary prowess. The home and grounds are a sight to behold and offer a rare peek into Hemingway's life, writing and habits. The grounds are chock full of cats that lazily spend their days around the home, all of whom are genetically traced to the original several dozen felines that were Hemingway's furry friends. Though, Hemingway eventually moved to Cuba in 1940, the author continued to frequent the home in Key West through the decades until he passed away in 1961. This is a very inexpensive and beautiful way to spend a couple of hours in Key West.

florida keys

The Sunset, anywhere in the Keys!

The sunsets are magnificent in the Keys. With so little around you, the colors, duration and spectacle that is the daily sunset really is more potent than you're used to seeing around your neck of the woods. The sunset down here is a daily pilgrimage, really. People clambor for spots with a view in restaurants, will pull off the road to take it in and will gather en masse at piers in and around Key West, as my wife, Kimberly and I found out one of the days we were there. About an hour before the scheduled sunset (being a bit of a nerd for this stuff, I had checked the sunrise/sunset schedule days in advance), the populus of Key West - residents and tourists alike made their way to the southwestern part of the town by the hundreds to prepare. And so, crowds by the hundreds sit in near silence taking in the close of the day: documenting it with snaps of photo shutters and whispers, heads on shoulders and children's faces showing awe. One of the most spectacular parts of a trip to the Keys...the sunsets.

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Food

I won't belabor this one. Simply put, you will find some of the freshest seafood you can find in the keys. Whether it's crab, lobster, tuna, grouper, scallops or even conch (which is delicious!), they've got your seafood. If you're allergic to or dislike shellfish, I'll just say that you're missing out, but I'm happy to take your share. The primary food group in the Keys is seafood, so get ready to get your fill. Oh, and don't forget to grab a slice of key lime pie, the namesake dessert around these parts, with a subtle, cool tang and homemade cracker crust, they really know how to make it around here (as they should, no?)

florida keys

So, there you have it, a glimpse at some of the fun of the Florida Keys. Trust me when I say there's a treasure trove of activities to do, sights to be seen and lifestyle to be experienced when down here - probably enough to pull your own 'Hemingway' and move down here. So, have you been down to the Keys? Or, are you planning a trip? I'd love to know!

PS: Don't forget to get at least a day exploring famous Miami Beach, particularly South Beach, which has some of the most impressive art-deco era architecture preserved in all its colorful splendor!

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