“Just what is the difference between an island, a key and an islet?” I asked as I drove over Route One into Key Largo.
Dictionary.com defines island as “a tract of land completely surrounded by water, not large enough to be called a continent.” An islet is virtually the same thing, only smaller. A key, on the other hand, is more definitive, described as a reef or low island.
The Florida Keys are actually a 120-mile long archipelago or string of small islands linked by 42 bridges, including Seven-Mile Bridge, one of the longest in the world. From Key Largo, the largest, to Key West, the westernmost, it’s a land of tropical temperatures, beach bars, restaurants with a wide range of price points and ambiance, coral reefs, state parks, upscale and down-home communities, alluring beaches, all sorts of water adventures, and the flotsam and jetsam of amusements and gift shops synonymous with the tourist trade. Whew!
My modus operandi for exploring the keys was simple: one day in Key Largo, then a drive the Overseas Highway to Key West for a two-day stay. Needless to say, the experience of traversing one islet after another surrounded by ocean was exhilarating. Ironically, a week after I returned home, I saw that Travel + Leisure ranked the Overseas Highway among the top-ten scenic routes in America. I can’t argue that one.
About 30-miles long from end to end, Key Largo proved a welcome introduction to the world so admired by Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett fans). Billed as the “Diving Capital of the World,” Key Largo is home to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the nation’s first underwater park.
The above-ground portion offers visitors a chance to hike mangrove and wild tamarind trails, and canoe and kayak rentals are available for those who may want to explore the 2.5-mile trail through the mangrove swamp. The Visitors Center also holds a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, nature exhibits and a theater screening nature videos. For those who may not be fond of exploring the coral reefs by scuba, trips on a high-speed glass-bottom catamaran are offered daily as are snorkeling and scuba boat trips.
Film buffs might be pleased to know that the iconic vessel that starred in the 1951 Bogart/Hepburn flick African Queen, is still ship-shape and sound. Built in 1912 for service in Africa, the Queen plied the waters of East Africa until 1968 when the steamboat was brought to the United States. Before ending up in the Marina Del Mar, part of the Holiday Inn complex at mile marker 100, the steamboat worked in San Francisco and Oregon. Currently, the newly restored boat is available for public, 1.5-hour cruises through the canals and channels and out into the Atlantic. The captain will even let passengers handle the tiller for part of the trip while he feeds the old original steam boiler in the middle of the boat and blows the whistle.
I spent a good part of my Key Largo day at the Kona Kai Resort, Gallery and Botanic Gardens, a place so all-inclusive you might not have to leave the property—except perhaps to eat. Thirteen tropical rooms and suites allow for an intimate stay in stunning bungalows surrounded by carefully tended gardens that eventually abut the white sandy beach.
The check-in office also serves as an art gallery, and the grounds sport an in-ground pool, hammocks for lazing under the coconut palms, and lighted tennis and shuffleboard courts. Just off the pier, guests can enjoy complimentary kayaks and paddleboats. Want exercise or just lazing in the sun? It’s all there for the taking.
Dinner that evening took me to the Fish House, a non-pretentious eatery that’s been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-in and Dives. In business since 1982, the restaurant features fresh, local seafood brought in the backdoor daily by fishermen, then filleted and cooked in a number of ways including pan-sautéed, Jamaican jerk and blackened. The house specialty is Matecumbe-style: topped with fresh tomatoes, basil, shallots, capers, olive oil, and lemon juice then baked. It’s named for one of the keys further west.
The 120-mile long drive from Key Largo to Key West might sound a bit off-putting for those in a hurry, but I found hopping from islet to island over a string of bridges an invigorating adventure.
The county seat of Monroe County, Key West is packed with a variety of things to do and see. Historically, it has a colorful cast of characters that starts with Ponce de Leon and rail tycoon Henry Flagler, then moves on to Harry Truman, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and poet Robert Frost.
Colorful characters still call the festive key home, and can be seen en masse on Duvall Street, especially come evening, when the party really begins on the key’s main nightlife thoroughfare that’s lined with restaurants and bars. On a more sober note, Old Town is a treasure trove of gorgeous architecture dating from 1886 to 1912, much of it done in tropical colors and encompassed by tropical landscapes. First-time visitors might be startled to see chickens and roosters running around all over town. Talk about free range. Don’t harm them, however, because Key West is part of a National Wildlife Refuge where avians of all sorts have a protected status.
On historic Whitehead Street, the Hemingway House is open for guided tours. The Nobel Prize-winning author penned part or all of some of his most renowned novels in the two-story home in which he lived from 1931 to 1939. Interestingly the polydactyl cats (six- or seven-toed) that roam around like they own the place are all descendants of Hemingway’s original pet “Snowball.” On the tour, look for the urinal picked up from Sloppy Joe’s bar, Hemingway’s favorite Key West watering hole, during a renovation that the author converted into a backyard fountain. Talk about recycling that works!
Across the street, the Key West Lighthouse is open to the public with access to the top via 88 circuitous steps. Several blocks away, the Harry S. Truman Little White House harks back to the 1890s when it served as the naval station’s command headquarters during the Spanish American War and later, in World Wars One and Two. In 1946 Truman made the cozy residence his winter White House, a place where he could get away from the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital. He liked the climate and domicile so much he frequented the site a total of 175 days during 11 visits that ended in 1952.
Since then, several presidents have visited the site, which is now a museum that holds many of Truman’s personal effects including the famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign atop his desk.
Near Mallory Square, where daily Sunset Celebrations attract a multitude looking for a chance to see artists, street performers, musicians, and revelers, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum holds many of the artifacts recovered from the 1622 sunken treasure fleet of Spanish galleons. More than just artifacts, the museum also addresses issues like the slave trade, real pirates of the Caribbean, and the science of shipwrecks.
There’s much more to discover in Key West than a two-day visit can accommodate, but information on other attractions in Key West and the other keys can be had by visiting fla-keys.com or phoning 800-352-5397.
On a practical note
For a place to stay in Key West, Chelsea House (709 Truman Avenue) is located in Old Town just two blocks from Duvall Street yet quiet enough for those who enjoy solitude or a relaxing atmosphere. The boutique hotel’s 48 guest rooms are located on three properties, two of which are in the Victorian Queen Ann style. A beautiful, heated pool graces the center of a one-acre tract of surrounding tropical gardens. The complimentary continental breakfast is carefully tended by an attentive and friendly staff.
For suggestions on where to dine, Latitudes, an upscale restaurant with an ambiance to die for, is located on Sunset Island, a private key accessible from Key West by ferry from Marina Slip #29. A short, eight-minute boat ride across the Gulf of Mexico takes you to a romantic world where torches light the palm-dotted patio and sunsets are a thing of beauty. Want to dine indoors? The option includes the Ernest Hemingway Room, where photos of authors fishermen and former Key West residents grace the walls of comfortable and spacious dining area. Menu items change frequently depending on what is in season. Open Table rated Latitudes the “#1 Overall Best Restaurant in Key West” in 2016. Advance reservations are a must.
a more casual eatery, the Hogfish Grill is tucked away at 6801 Front Street on adjacent Stock Island and celebrates the “way the Florida Keys used to be” with its fresh seafood brought from boat to plate, strong drinks, waterfront views, and colorful characters. Owner Bobby Mongelli offers fine-tasting food in a down-home atmosphere. The killer hogfish sandwich and hogfish tacos are house specialty items, but don’t let that stop you from reading further down the expansive menu. Try the Key lime pie
Fresh fish is also the name of the game at The Stoned Crab at Ibis Bay Beach Resort (3101 N. Roosevelt Avenue). The casual eatery lives up to its name by featuring stone crab, but other seafood like lobster, Key West shrimp and fish are delivered daily on the restaurant’s two private fishing boats. Chef Paul Menta also opened the Legal Rum Distillery at 105 Simonton Street downtown in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant, where he offers private guided tours and rum tastings while telling quirky stories of Key West’s rum-soaked past.
For more information on the Florida Keys, visit fla-keys.com.