Updated: Feb 3
Earlier this fall, we loaded up the inflatable paddle board and inflatable kayak and headed out on a road trip to the Florida Keys. It had been 30 years since we visited the Keys and we were not sure what we would find. We were in search of "Old Florida," outdoor activities, and minimal crowds. What we found wowed and amazed us. We left planning our return trip. NO, we didn't go to Key West or Duval Street, but I do have a list of things to do in Key West when we visit, next time. YES, the sunsets are still some of the most beautiful you will ever see. Don't forget to pack your Reef Safe Sunscreen, HD Snorkel Mask and Sunhat. If you need more gear for the tropics, check out my Amazon Store.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in a very affordable AirbnB in Key Largo. We were looking for something small, in an area that as not crowded with water access. This 1950's style motel was recently renovated into small contemporary apartments with a full kitchen, tiled shower, and outdoor patio with a grill, on a canal that opened up to the to ocean. At the end of the canal is a working marina which is home to the Key Largo Fisheries and the Pilot House Restaurant. It was great fun to watch the boats going up and down the canal. CaptK paddle boarded in the canal as well.
What We Did
The Florida Keys have some of the best State Parks in Florida. We set out exploring them. We started with a snorkel boat tour at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. These are some of the United States' most beautiful Coral Reefs. The tours go to multiple locations. We were lucky because the weather allowed us go to Dry Rocks Reef and see the submerged statue, Christ of the Abyss. It is one of three bronze statutes cast from the same mould. The original is in Genoa, Italy, placed in the bay as an inspiration to those who explore the sea. The second is in Grenada, commemorating the survivors of an Italian ship that caught fire and sank.
In the afternoon, we paddled through the extensive mangrove paths. There are several miles of paths and you can launch right off the beach. There are kayak and paddle board rentals available as well. If you prefer to snorkel for the beach there is a wrecked Spanish galleon about 75 yards off the beach. One suggestion is to bring a lunch with you. There are limited food concessions at the park, especially during the week.
Sunset viewing is a major event in the Keys. It involves sipping a cocktail and watching the sun descend into the sea at the end of the day. Our first night we went to Bayside Grill and Sunset Bar. Cocktails in hand, we witnessed a gorgeous sunset complete with the blowing of a conch shell. The second night, we went to Sundowners. Our cocktail hour sunset viewing on the patio rolled right into a delicious dinner.
We headed out the next morning to explore the middle Keys. There is a lot to see from Key Largo to Long Key.
Rain Barrel Village is a funky mix of gift shops and artists studios. It is easy to find because there is a giant sculpture of a Caribbean Lobster out front of their US 1 location. It is definitely worth a stop and a browse around. They offer the most unique souvenirs in the Keys.
I love the hand painted buoys and the pieces created out drift wood. Walk through the gift shop in the front to get to the multi-level artist area. There is a restaurant and bar on site for non-shoppers.
After a brief shopping stop we headed to Long Key State Park. We made a brief stop at Anne's Beach. The Keys are not known for their beaches. You will not find long wide stretches of sand. We were in the Keys during an astronomical high tide. When we got to Anne's Beach at high tide, there was no beach to speak of. The water came directly up to mangroves. Long Boat Key State Park was damaged heavily in Hurricane Irma. The campgrounds are not open. The lagoon and beach is open and a great place for kayaking and paddle boarding. The beach has a large sea grass field that makes for interesting snorkeling. On the day we were at Long Boat Key, there was no one else on the beach but us.
After enjoying a morning at the beach, we headed back towards Key Largo. We stopped at Robbie's for lunch. Robbie's is a complete Old Florida entertainment center. You can rent kayaks and power boats. You can go on snorkel tours. There are gift shops, food trucks, bars, a full service restaurant and tarpon feeding. While it may look a bit rustic, it is great fun for the whole family and the food in the restaurant is delicious!
After enjoying a fish sandwich and conch chowder at Robbie's. We did a but of rum and beer tasting in Islamorada. Both Islamorada Beer Company and Florida Keys Brewing Company do tastings. We stopped at Islamorada Beer Company because they have an adjoining rum distillery. CaptK is a lover of fine rum. We were there on a Tuesday in the slow season and did not encounter any crowds. I believe that is the exception, most days they must be pretty to very crowded.
We stopped at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar, home of the original rum runner. During prohibition, the Keys were a perfect drop off point for bootlegged alcohol, especially rum from Cuba. There were plenty of deserted coves and beaches to drop the alcohol. One of those places was Postcard Beach and the Holiday Isle Boat yard. They started mixing fruit juices with the rum and called it a Rum Runner after the boatsman that brought the rum to the United States. We went looking for an Old Florida, salty Tiki Bar. What we found was a sleek and contemporary Tiki Bar. The views are amazing. There are gas fire pits and mid-century modern rattan chairs. It is a great place to have a cocktail. My recommendation is skip the frozen Rum Runner and get a Cuba Libre in honor of the Rum Runners.
On our last full day in the Keys, we headed down to Stock Island for a mangrove kayak tour. In the waterways between Stock Island and Key West, water trails take you deep into the mangroves. In the center of many mangrove clumps are the remains of 1920's salt ponds. These salt ponds were used to produce the best preservative of the day, salt. These salt ponds and mangroves are now the hatchery for much of the sea life seen in and around the Florida Keys. The naturalist provided interesting information on the history of the keys and the wildlife that thrives in the area. The tour that can be done on paddle boards or kayaks.
After a morning on the water we headed north to Big Pine Key at the historic No Name Pub for lunch. Opened since 1939, it absolutely met our old Florida requirement. Big Pine Key is a National Refuge for Key Deer, an endangered species of White Tail Deer. On the drive out to No name Pub, we caught glimpses of several.
Also on Big Pine Key, is the only fresh water pond or cenote on the island. It was created by a quarry used to mine limestone for the original bridges that connected the Keys. It filled with water fresh enough to support the Key Deer and alligator populations. It is a really fascinating ecosystem.
Our next stop was Bahia Honda State Park. The park is on a narrow strip of land and has nice beaches, by Florida keys standards, on both the Atlantic Ocean side and the Gulf of Mexico side. There is a piece of the original Overseas Highway at the south side of the park. It is an easy walk to the bridge with its
sweeping views of the stunning aquamarine water. It was cloudy with rain squalls when we were there, so the picture does not do the view justice.
As I said earlier, we decided to make Key West its own trip sometime in 2021. When we return, there are a few things in the lower Keys we would like to do. We would like to snorkel Looe Key, kayak around Geiger Key, do a charter fishing trip, and rent a boat for a day and explore by sea. In Key West, we would like to take the ferry to the Dry Tortugas, visit the Ernest Hemingway House, do the wave runner tour, and visit the Papi's Pilar Rum Distillery. If you have any favorite places in the Florida Keys please leave them in the comments section to share with me and other readers. Ready to book your trip, Booking.com.