Also published at MarloMarketing.com.
As the temperature in Boston plummets, I find myself thinking longingly of my fave place on the planet, the FL Keys. So they’re cheesy. Yeah. So they’re hard to get to. Definitely. So, at times, they’re either filled with drunken frat boys, drunken drag queens, or drunken sailors. Yeah! Once you’ve been there, watching the sun set in Mallory Square with Jimmy Buffett playing somewhere in the background and a margarita in hand, you’ll understand.
To inspire your daydreams while you plan your Keys vacation, here are a few of my favorite places. Tell the bartender/waitress/park ranger/police/bikers/drag queens I said hi!
The Fish House, Key Largo
After your long drive from Miami (an hour and a half at least, if traffic is good), you finally arrive at the beginning of the Keys on good ol’ US Route 1. Stop at The Fish House on Key Largo for a Key Lime margarita and their smoked fish dip (a Keys specialty) to help sustain you for the remaining two and a half hour drive to Key West. Delish.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, Key Largo
When in the Keys, you’ll quickly learn that the best food at the best price is found (as it is in most places in the world) in the tiny mom-and-pop places by the side of the road. The night I stopped there, the parking lot was full of tough-looking Harleys and other rides. But I was starving, and it was late, and no bad-ass biker dude was going to get between me and dinner. Good call! This charming little place makes some of the best conch chowder (another Keys recipe) around, as well as simply stunning Caribbean-style crab cakes and other spicy local seafood specialties. The decor is strewn with Keys-made metalwork sculptures, windchimes, and other nifty things for sale. Definitely a place I will stop at again.
John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo
The snorkeling and diving on the reefs three miles off the coast of Key Largo are some of the best in the Western Hemisphere. As part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the area is vibrant with protected wildlife. Take the snorkel/dive trips from the state park itself to assure quality, safety and a fair price. They also have a small aquarium, glass-bottom boat rides and a neat shallow-water beach-accessible snorkel area for swimmers of all levels to enjoy (beware, though — the glass-bottom boat rides, although fascinating, can cause nausea and vertigo in even the most seasoned sailors).
Shell World, Key Largo
You may drive past this retail store (either of their two Key Largo locations) before finally spotting it and saying, “Wow… you really meant this tacky place?” Yes, yes I did. Humor me for a moment. While, indeed, Shell World is home to some of the kitschy tourist crap plentiful throughout the Keys (and the rest of FL, for that matter), the buyers here also specialize in high-end tropical-themed jewelry, art and tableware. It’s also a nice place to pick up good-quality t-shirts and kids’ souvenirs, or shells if you really find the need to make that seashell wreath you’ve always longed for. I’ve purchased all sorts of stuff here, from a gorgeous strand of freshwater pearls to a stuffed raccoon toy (more on the raccoons later).
The Keys Fisheries, Marathon Key
I have spent more time at this small fish shack on the pier than anywhere else in the Keys. Their food (served from an order-up window and eaten at picnic tables on the water) is simple, fresh and delicious. Their fish market sells just-caught snapper, spiny lobster, grouper and other native specialties at a fair price. Their view of the sunset is magnificent. Go there. (Follow the signs through the industrial park. You won’t be sorry.)
National Key Deer Refuge, Big Pine Key
According to Wikipedia, “The Key Deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) is an endangered deer that lives only in the Florida Keys.” According to me, they’re the cutest stinkin’ deer you’ll ever see. And believe it or not, if you travel through Big Pine Key near dusk, it won’t be hard to see them. Keep an eye out in grassy areas near the highway (while following the reduced speed limit created just to protect their dwindling population) or follow the directions on the map provided at the Refuge to the field at the end of the street (you’ll know what I mean). If you spot them, most are very tame and will walk right up to you. Don’t feed them! There are also a few short nature trails in the area for a brief jaunt into the palm scrub.
Bahia Honda State Park, Bahia Honda
This natural-sand key (unlike most of the coral keys) has some of the best swimming, shore-accessible snorkeling, picnicking and camping in FL, as well as some of the most plentiful wildlife. I’ve camped here twice and spotted ospreys, pelicans, dolphins, hermit crabs, land crabs, land hermit crabs, egrets and other shore birds, assorted fish, and… raccoons. Lots of raccoons. Very, very brave raccoons. They are rabies-free, but won’t hesitate to tromp through the campground after dark and even snatch food right off the grill. The rangers here clued me into a handy tip: they hate water guns. Let me tell ya, after a few margaritas, ‘coon hunting with a super-soaker is better than any episode of Lost (and be sure to check out the amazing star-gazing from the beaches at night while you’re at it).
After passing through Bahia Honda, you’ll find yourself about 45 minutes from Key West. Stayed tuned for the next installment of my tropical longings, v2.0: Key West. Coming soon to the mm/c blog nearest you!