Out of State Destinations: The Florida Keys

There’s so much else going on, it’s easy to forget about the simple beauty and serenity of the many beaches in the Florida Keys, like this one at the Casa Marina Resort- Key West. (Photo by Kinny Haddox)

You wouldn’t be the first to visit this vacation spot and never want to leave

You better be careful if you visit Key West, or any of the Florida Keys for that matter. Ernest Hemingway visited Key West to go fishing and had car trouble. Before he could get the car fixed, he had fallen in love with the fishing and everything else there, so he sold the car and decided to live there.

You can hear that story and more touring the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum on Key West, including how his love for deep sea fishing inspired legendary books like “The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway loved to write while relaxing out on his boat or at his Key West residence.

You may not write a book or decide to stay there, but it’s easy to understand the allure of Key West and all the Florida Keys, for that matter. When explorer Ponce de Leon charted the islands in 1513, he called them Los Martires because he thought they resembled men in distress. The more popular name, the Keys, is derived from the Spanish word Cayo (“small island”).

But today, people just call the Keys amazing. The fishing is fantastic from one end of the island chain to the other. Islamorada Key is known as the “Sportfishing Capital of the World” and offers more than 250 charter fishing opportunities. Key West, where they say you are “closer to Cuba than to Walmart,” has more than 200 charter choices.

What you can catch

You can catch speckled trout, kingfish, amberjack, cobia, snapper, tuna, mahi mahi, grouper and dozens of other fish.

In Key West itself, the best fishing is on the flats while at Islamorada, you can shoot for numerous species from trout to tarpon. Other favorites are the Sugarloaf Keys for backcountry fishing, Marathon for deep sea fishing on the humps and fishing near Cudjoe Key in the deeper channels.

There’s no way to fairly give recommendations on trips because it’s up to the angler’s personal preferences. If you are making a trip, start researching early and book early.

Perhaps the single most famous fishing hole in the Florida Keys is at Robbie’s in Islamorada, and you don’t even need a fishing pole. Tourist can “catch” giant tarpon most any day of the year by simply buying a bucket of bait and holding it over the edge of the dock at the popular bar and restaurant. Hundreds of big tarpon call that spot home and leap out of the water and take bait out of your hand. It is one of the most amazing things you’ll ever take part in or watch.

Visitors to Robbie’s are guaranteed to “catch” fish when the tarpon are running under the docks.

In Key Largo, if you are a movie buff, it’s hard to pass up the famous restored African Queen steamboat. Made famous in the 1951 movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, the timeless classic vessel is docked at the Marina Del Mar marina and is available for boat rides. Cruising out into the edge of the Atlantic on the little wooden boat doing my best Bogart impersonation was a highlight of my last visit there, especially since the captain let me pilot the boat for almost an hour!

Fish or food?

The only thing that comes close to the fishing is the food. On most of the keys, you are just a long cast away from the Gulf of Mexico on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other and thousands of bays and estuaries in between. So, fresh fish and seafood is a given. And there are more than 800 restaurants along the 180-mile stretch. Two things — they all serve key lime pie and there is no such thing as bad food there. My two favorite key lime pies are the fried pie drizzled in mango sauce and topped with brown sugar and cinnamon from Burdine’s and the more traditional slice at Kermit’s.

Fried key lime pie drizzled in mango sauce and topped with brown sugar and cinnamon from Burdine’s in Marathon, the author’s favorite. (Photo by Kinny Haddox)

I’ll take the liberty of sharing my absolute favorites, starting with Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (there are now two, but I like the original) for whole fried snapper and Burdine’s in Marathon (the bottom floor is a fish market, the top floor a restaurant if that tells you anything) for the fresh tuna nachos. In Key West, you’ve got to go early and try the Lobster Shack for lobster biscuits; Kermit’s Key Lime Shop for key lime pie and key lime ice cream; Conch Republic on the Harbor for Caribbean style seafood and Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street, Hemingway’s favorite hangout. Try the fried fish tacos, conch fritters and Sloppy Joe fries. They have salads, but if you order one, prepare to be shunned by other guests.

Top tourist destinations

Top tourist spots include the Buoy at the Southernmost Point of the Continental US, the Hemingway Home, Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, Truman’s Little White House, Fort Zachary Taylor Park, Key West Lighthouse, Key West Shipwreck Museum, the whole of Duval Street  and the sunset celebration at Mallory Square.

There’s no better way to top off your stay than taking a Seabago Catamaran Champagne Sunset Sail to watch the dolphins, sailboats and sunset. There are all kinds of other watersports and boats tours as well. You can even rent your own floating Tiki hut bar and wile away the day on the water with friends.

If you’ve got about a week, you can check out fla-keys.com and learn more about the area, more in fact, than you’ll ever be able to remember, or see and do in one trip.

About Kinny Haddox 586 Articles
Kinny Haddox has been writing magazine and newspaper articles about the outdoors in Louisiana for 45 years. He publishes a daily website, lakedarbonnelife.com and is a member of the Louisiana Chapter of the Outdoor Legends Hall of Fame. He and his wife, DiAnne, live in West Monroe.