Close your eyes, feel the sun on your face and the wind caressing your hair. Relax. You’re in the Keys. A world away from home and the stress you left behind.
If you’re like most people, you’ve flown into Fort Lauderdale or Miami and rented a car for the four-hour trek down to Key West on the Overseas Highway. There’s lots to see along the way. Among the highlights of the trip down is the Theatre of the Sea south of Islamorada and Bahia Honda State Park and Beach in Big Pine Key. Don’t forget to try to get a peek of the tiny Key deer at the National Key Deer Refuge before you reach Key West.
Once you reach Key West and your accommodations (we’d recommend a bed and breakfast close to downtown), you’ll want to unload your bags and turn in your car. Parking is hard to come by, and it’s a walkable and biking island. If you’re not into walking, get a place to stay that’s close to the hop-on-hop-off trolley. Taxis are another option.
You’re officially on Key West time. Stroll through palm-tree lined streets (make sure not to disturb the resident roaming chickens) and take in the sights and sounds that make Key West such a special place.
Theatre of the Sea
At the Theatre, you’ll find better-than-Sea-World shows on a smaller scale with dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions and colorful parrots.
You may walk through the park or choose to enjoy any one of the many shows they have scheduled on a daily basis. We particularly recommend the boat show where you climb into a pontoon with an open middle and cruise down the lagoon as dolphins swim up into the boat opening and delight those with front-row seats to the antics of these friendly creatures of the sea.
This stop has the feel of an eco-friendly, family affair and you could easily spend the day here if you’d like. At minimum, we’d recommend two hours.
Tips: If you’re a military service member, or retired member, or senior citizen, ask for a discount. The Theatre of the Sea treats our veterans well. There is a concession area so you can refuel and refresh midway through your tour. This is also handicapped accessible and friendly. You may want to call ahead if you’d like to swim with dolphins or if it’s busy tourism season.
Bahia Honda State Park and Beach
Manatees, crystal-clear water and palm trees… ahhh.
Here, there are turquoise bays, softly-lapping warm water, manatees hanging out in the harbor, and sea urchins and other cool critters hiding in the tide pools.
This park is found at mile marker 37 and has a few different beaches, each with a different feel. We suggest parking your car near the interior harbor (by the concession/gift shop area) to watch for the trio of manatees that hang out there.
Make sure to wear sunscreen, and reapply often, as the sun will certainly kiss your skin. Binoculars would be helpful too, as the manatees tend to bob up and down in the bay, scooting out of the way of kayakers and boats coming by.
Tips: The bathrooms are as clean and nice as I’ve seen at a state park. You could change here into beach gear and wash off the sand on the way to the car. It costs $9 for two people to get in the park, but it’s worth it. You may also want to check out the gift shop as it’s rather large and pretty nice. While getting down to the water’s edge may be difficult for those with disabilities, there are paved walkways and boardwalks around that will give anyone a great view of the manatees and ocean beyond.
Mallory Square offers a sunset spectacle everyone should see once.
Just keep your hand on your wallet and any valuables, and be prepared to have your personal space violated in the crush of the crowd. This is not recommended for those suffering from PTSD or those who do not feel comfortable in crowds. Parents—keep a hand on your kiddos at all times (we saw a couple of frantic parents searching for temporarily lost kids.)
But, once you get past the crowd, there is a lot to like. Street performers stake out space on the boardwalk well in advance. They juggle on unicycles, give off-Broadway-esque performances, and generally entertain the crowd while the party gets started.
There are concessions and vendor booths and some restaurants and bars lining the boardwalk. As the big orange ball in the sky dips beneath the horizon, the party reaches a raucous crescendo of excitement.
Tips: Take cash—small bills—for vendor booths and tips for performers. Also, get there early and stake out your own spot on the boardwalk. We might recommend getting one of the ocean-front tables underneath umbrellas to watch the spectacle and enjoy food and drinks without some of the stress of the crowds. Also, the restroom at the boardwalk does not offer soap so take your own.
So just about everyone wants to get an iconic photo of themselves in front of a huge buoy-type marker denoting the southernmost point of the United States.
You’ll find this point at a bend in the road on the edge of Key West. You’ll also find a line of people waiting to stand in front of the monument to get their picture taken. This line goes slow as people position and reposition themselves.
Don’t be silly and wait in line. The monument’s round. Go around it or step up on the road barrier off to the side and take a selfie aimed downward at you and the monument. You’ll get a better pic that way and no line. Besides, this way you’re not disturbing those people who did wait a half hour in line.
Tips: This is a free thing to do. Just please take care to not step out into the road while you get photos. There are no restrooms here, and it’s a bit of a walk back to town, so we suggest hopping off the trolley here and hopping back on once one comes by.
Key West Aquarium
Nice but small, is the best way to describe this aquarium.
The aquarium might not impress someone who’s been to a larger, more modern facility, but it’s a nice stop and has lots of interactivity.
The kids will enjoy it and it’s included in some tourism package deals, so it’s definitely worth a 45-minute stop.
Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
The conservatory is as quick or slow as you’d like to make it. A self-guided tour, you meander along as butterflies dance in the sky or rest on nearby foliage. Consider the stop as a relaxing getaway from the bustle of the street outside.
Plan to spend at least 30-45 minutes here. And bring your camera.
Butterflies will land on you and flutter around you as you stroll through the paths and sit on the benches. Kids, especially, will enjoy watching the magical butterflies.
Tips: This indoor facility is warm and humid. There are veteran discounts and children younger than 4 get free admission. It is handicapped accessible. The gift shop is small but a real treat, offering some unique finds.
Audubon House and Tropical Garden
Like nature and orchids? Then this is the place for you.
Prefer quiet and solitude over the crowded streets of Key West following a cruise ship exodus? Then hide out here.
The Audubon House is a nice historical stroll into the flora and fauna of the Keys from years and years ago. Learn a lot about the area and the plants. This includes a guided tour of the home and an unguided tour of the gardens, which is resplendent in tropical flowers and beautiful trees.
This is truly an unexpected oasis in the middle of town.
Tips: There are stairs galore at the house, but the garden is relatively flat. There is also a nice restroom facility at this stop and a great gift shop with Audubon prints available.
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
This popular tourism spot is devoted to the Nobel Prize winner’s life. While Ernest lived here for just 10 years, it’s become a mecca for readers, authors and fans alike.
The home itself is gorgeous, the grounds well manicured (complete with cats running around). You can imagine what it was like as he typed out his words, ripped up pages, and stormed through is days.
The docents here are particularly among the best as they’re just as passionate about Hemingway as Hemingway was about life.
Tips: The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum doesn’t take reservations, and only accepts cash for admission at the gate. There is often a line, so we suggest getting there before the cruise ships let their passengers out, or going after the cruise ship is packing back up for the evening. The first floor and grounds of the home are handicapped accessible, but the upper floors are not (which is OK, because the first floors are the best anyway).