On our way to Mystery Writers Key West Fest, we took the turnpike extension south toward Homestead. I noted the Mutineer Restaurant at the corner of SW 344th Street. From this junction, you head south. A long, boring stretch of swampland and mangroves follows until you leave mainland Florida. Then it’s about a three hour drive to Key West.
Traffic travels at speeds of forty to fifty-five miles per hour through a series of islands. The scenic wonders will make you glad for the slower pace so you can enjoy the sights along the way. Allow extra time for pit stops and to fill your stomach. It took us five hours total from Fort Lauderdale. State parks abound if you want to stop for a swim or stretch your legs.
Key Largo is the first big island after you leave the mainland. Their inviting Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center is a good place to stop and use the restroom. Here also are a Publix and Winn Dixie, where you can grab a snack or use the facilities. There’s even a Starbucks, a rarity in the Keys. Full service restaurants include Fish House, Snappers, Skipper’s Dockside, Conch House, Island Grill, and Sundowners. We ate at the latter on our way home. Admiring a lovely view of the Gulf, we sipped creamy clam chowder in a bread bowl. It was a filling meal. Or you can take the scenic Card Sound Road instead and stop at Alabama Jack’s, if it still exists. Resorts on Key Largo include a Hilton and a Marriot. If you like snorkeling or diving, check out John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park.
On Tavernier are a Winn Dixie, Dairy Queen, CVS drug store, Dunkin Donuts, Chevron and Shell gas stations.
Islamorada is a popular weekend retreat. Stop by Hooked on Books at 81909 Overseas Highway and browse the bookshelves. Numerous restaurants claim their fame here: Islamorada Fish Company, Marker 88, Island Grill, Hog Heaven, Wahoo’s Bar and Grille, and Shula’s 2. The Postcard Inn and the Chesapeake Resort look like nice hotels. From here, it’s two hours more to Key West. There’s a Visitor Center if you need a pit stop. Tourist attractions include Theater of the Sea, a marine mammal park, and a History of Diving Museum.
Marathon has a Publix and Winn Dixie, Walgreens, IHOP, gas stations and fast food places along with another visitor center. There’s Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, and a Turtle Hospital if you’re looking for places to explore. Further along on Grassy Key is a Dolphin Research Center.
We stopped for lunch at Boondocks Grille & Draft House at Ramrod Key on our way south. This restaurant opens for lunch at 11am. They have good clam chowder, sandwiches and salads, and a nicer gift shop than most of the souvenir stores in Key West. Don’t forget to order Key lime pie while in the Keys.
Pigeon Key has a visitor center and a Sunset Grille and Raw Bar.
When you hit Key West, you face Roosevelt Boulevard going in two directions. Heading to the left will take you to a bunch of hotels and Southernmost Point. This latter is Mile Marker 0 on our country’s east coast and is 90 miles from Cuba. The opposite direction will take you past strip shopping centers, fast food restaurants, more hotels, and into downtown.
Duval Street hosts bars, restaurants, and gift shops. During the day, stroll along and soak up the tropical ambiance. Visit Hemingway House, Truman’s Little White House, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, and more. Take a ride on the Conch Train. Charter fishing, glass bottom boat rides, and various other boat tours are available. Or stroll along the Historic Seaport District for a number of waterfront restaurants. At night, check out Mallory Square for street performers and a blazing sunset. Things come alive downtown in the evening, when hordes of visitors ply the cafés and bars where live singers entertain the crowds.
We dined at our favorite restaurant, Louie’s Backyard. This historic site faces the Atlantic Ocean and is a great place to enjoy fine dining. Prices can be expensive, but if you’re on a budget, just order an appetizer or share a meal. At the Upper Deck on the second level, you can get small bites if you don’t feel like a full meal. Here I am with Deni Dietz, my editor from Five Star.
Come to the Keys to decompress. With its slower pace of life, it’ll help you relax. There’s only one negative. It’s hard to leave this island and return to reality.
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