Key West offers the best of both worlds for travelers looking to get away from it all. The small island that caps the end of the Florida Keys is a world removed from the rest of the U.S. Yet it is easily accessible by car, plane or ship. It’s a little bit of paradise in our own backyard. If you’ve just a few days in Key West, here are a few ideas for making the most of your time.
Some folks who head to the city of Key West plan on doing little more than laying by the water and catching some sun. Gorgeous hotel pools are part of the amenities for guests of Havana Cabana Resort, The Gates Hotel, and The Marker Key West. But if you’d rather enjoy the surf and sand, several public beaches are open to visitors. Smathers Beach has two broad miles of sandy shore – making it the largest on the island. Dog Beach is much smaller but welcoming of 4-legged friends. Other small beaches each have their own character.
More adventurous types enjoy popular watersports like fishing and snorkeling. Fishing charters are the way to go in Key West. Local owner/operators like Seize the Day Charters can put together custom half- and full-day expeditions. Fishing trips can be arranged for reef, wreck, flats, backcountry, and deep water fishing.
Fish common to the area include tarpon, mackerel, grouper, barracuda, and more. With an understanding of Key West climate and water temperature and how they affect area fishing, skilled captains can ensure that visitors get to fish in areas that will land the best catch. Going with a charter boat provides the convenience and peace of mind that comes from knowing that all permits and licenses are covered. Charter boats typically offer fishing gear to clients as well, if needed, as well as advice for folks who are novices.
One of the best places for snorkeling is nearby Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s accessible from Key West by a daily ferry. This is the site of Fort Jefferson and a magnificent beach where snorkeling among the coral reefs provide visitors with an up-close view of ocean life. Snorkeling is also available at Smathers Beach, Higgs Beach, and Fort Zachary Taylor Beach if you’d prefer to stay in Key West proper. Most of these sites rent snorkel gear if needed.
Arts and Culture
Many folks may have already heard how famous American writer Ernest Hemingway lived on Key West for years. The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is open to visitors. You can visit the gardens, the writer’s home, and see some of the 6-toed cats who are descendants of those cared for by Hemingway himself. Several other prominent writers and artists have called Key West “home”, too, including Tennessee Williams. His home is now the Tennessee Williams Museum.
Fans of history can revel in proximity to the Civil War through three 19th century forts. Key West is home to Fort Zachary Taylor, Fort East Martello, and Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. President Harry S. Truman’s Little White House is also open for tours, along with the Key West Lighthouse, the Key West Firehouse Museum, and the Custom House. These sites offer visitors the chance to appreciate Key West for its historical role in maritime and Civil War history.
When you’re ready to cool off, catch a movie at Tropic Cinema, a multiple-screen movie theatre with an Old Hollywood look. This movie house prides itself on showing an eclectic mix of indie, foreign, and first-run films. The concession stand offers a broad array of treats. They serve traditional (REAL!) buttered popcorn, locally made candy, and soda to baked goods and Zabar’s coffee, fine cheeses, hummus, wine, and champagne.
Dining and Shopping
All along Duval Street and Truman Avenue (as well as nearby cross streets) are restaurants and bars to entice travelers with fresh seafood and inventive cuisine. Eating in Key West reflects Caribbean, French, South American, and Asian flavors. Enjoy a plate piled high at Caroline’s Cafe in a historic setting. This restaurant is a veritable institution, serving local specialties like conch fritters and all-American favorites like burgers. Or eat a leisurely meal in the courtyard of Blue Heaven. Caribbean shrimp deglazed with red stripe with key lime pie for dessert are common favorites. And speaking of dessert, the Better Than Sex dessert bar is an intimate culinary experience for couples.
Duval Street is also the place to go for local and international artwork, as well as shopping in general. Stroll along the palm-tree lined streets while browsing top-rated art galleries. Anna Sweet Gallery, Key West Gallery, Wyland Gallery of Key West, and Savlen Gallery – among others – display and sell fine artwork in a variety of traditional and contemporary styles. Browse jewelry stores, souvenir shops, and boutiques along Duval Street, and don’t miss the well-known Key West Cigar Club & Smoke Shop!
One of the things Key West is known for is having a good time. The city hosts festivals and special events year-round, from songwriting to fishing tournaments. If you have a particular interest, it’s worth checking to see if you can align your visit with an event. Among the most popular are July’s Hemingway Days festival, October’s Goombay Festival and Fantasy Fest, and the “Bight” Before Christmas in November and December. If you can’t make one of these events, though, relax! Every evening, the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square gives people a chance to cut loose and party with music, food vendors, artists, performers, and more.
Something for Everyone in the Conch Republic
Key West is one of those amazing and versatile vacation destinations that offer a diverse selection of things to see and do. It’s hard to imagine that anyone couldn’t have a good time here. Whether your idea of fun is spending hours fishing off the back of a boat chartered through Seize the Day Charters, snorkeling off one of the public beaches, or strolling Duval Street, browsing art galleries and enjoying al fresco dining before the nightly Sunset Celebration, Key West makes your dream vacation a reality.
Author:Benjamin Shepardson is a longtime Key West resident and U.S. Coast Guard Captain.