Touring the Florida Keys

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Morning contemplation

The first time Dale and I went down to the Florida Keys we were young and hadn’t met each other yet. It was a blast. We both have great yet fuzzy memories of drinking too much and spending our evenings in Key West on Duval Street.

Flash forward 10-15 years and we are not quite as interested in Duval Street, but Dale’s father was coming for a visit and we wanted to take him to one of the most beautiful areas in Florida. The road trip itself from Miami to Key West is quite a treat with beautiful emerald green and blue water as far as the eyes can see. So we packed our truck with paddle boards, snorkel gear, and fishing poles and headed south for a different kind of adventure.

On day 1 we enjoyed the beautiful drive down from Orlando to Cudjoe Key. We stopped in Homestead, which is a Miami suburb. Dale’s dad was interested in stopping to visit the Coral Castle. We knew nothing about this place but Dale’s dad was into it. It turns out that his dad likes to read about aliens and all kinds of conspiracy theories for fun. We had no idea the connection until after we arrived and our tour guide began to talk about aliens.

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Dale Sr. at the Coral Castle

Coral Castle Museum is a sculpture garden built by Edward Leedskalnin. Between 1923 and 1951 he reportedly carved over 1,100 tons of coral rock, then moved it, and created this garden. This is amazing because this man was only 5 feet tall and weighed around 100 pounds. It’s reported that he carved and moved everything in secret. He was inspired to do this after his fiancée broke of their engagement the day before the wedding. She claimed the reason was that he was too old for her.

The mystery lies in how he created this sculpture garden and moved all these rocks. Some say it was aliens, some say he was an alien. People are still debating how he did this.

After Coral Castle, which was an interesting stop, we headed to Key Largo and stopped for lunch. We had a wonderful lunch of hogfish and conch fritters at Buzzards Roost. We recommend this place if you are in Key Largo.

From Key Largo we headed down to Islamorada to feed the tarpon at Robbie’s. Robbie’s is a restaurant and marina. They are famous for feeding the giant tarpon. You can buy a bucket of fish and feed them right off the dock. Warning, these fish are huge and will make you jump. Tarpon can weigh up to 280 pounds and reach up to 8 feet long. The ones we fed were not quite that big, but they were impressive! I had a few small scratches on my finger from their teeth.

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Feeding the tarpon 

We ended day 1 at our Airbnb bungalow in Cudjoe Key. It was dark when we arrived so we unpacked and went to bed early knowing we would have a full day ahead.

On day 2 we started the day by unloading our paddle boards and hitting the water. Our bungalow was right on the water. It was so easy it would have been wrong if we didn’t go for a morning paddle. The water was like glass and clear all the way to the bottom. We saw starfish, a sea turtle, sharks, and lobster. It is currently lobster season in the Keys. After a good work out on the water and a quick shower we headed out.

We decided to spend the day exploring Key West. We stopped at Sloppy Joes for lunch and a few drinks. We were a little embarrassed as this place is so touristy. We did find fun watching the tourist stroll in off their cruise ships wearing ponchos, some in matching Key West shirts, and everyone listening to a horrible Jimmy Buffet cover artist. It was cheesy but entertaining. The food was mediocre, but I had a fabulous margarita.

We then headed to the Hemingway Museum. This was a museum I wanted to visit on my last trip. However, my friends were too consumed with wanting to consume a lot frozen drinks so we skipped it. Don’t make my mistake. The museum was interesting and fun. Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote in this house for more than ten years. The tour was informative, and we enjoyed seeing more than fifty of the infamous Hemingway 6 toed cats.

After the museum we headed over to the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. It was listed as the #1 thing to do on Trip Advisor in Key West. Walking through the garden with all the birds and butterflies was relaxing. Yet I would not list this as the top thing to do in Key West. I would place the Hemingway Museum above this activity, as well as the many water sports activities.

From here we went to the Southern-most point in the United States and snapped our obligatory photos. We waited in a long line of other tourists for our turn. Of course clueless people were walking into other people’s shots, behind the structure, etc. It was entertaining.

We still had a little time to kill before sunset, so we had to get a beer at the Green Parrot bar. This bar is known as a local hang out. Then we headed to Kermit’s for a slice of Key Lime pie. This place is listed as the best Key Lime pie in the Florida Keys and it was fantastic!

We ended the day at Mallory Square to bid farewell to the sun. As we waited for the famous Key West sunset we watched performers sing, play instruments, and throw knives that were on fire. Watching the sun slowly dip down on the horizon as the sail boats passed by was so peaceful. It was the perfect way to end an almost perfect day. This is a must do activity if you come to Key West.

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Celebrating another beautiful sunset from Mallory Square

Day 3 we headed out to the marina and rented a boat for the day. We went off shore and did some fishing. I caught a Unicorn Filefish. We did catch and release as the other fish we caught were too small. We then got hot and decided it was time to cool off. We headed out to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary to snorkel. On our way, we stopped at a light house in the middle of the ocean and took a few photos. This area was beautiful. The water was clear and you could see all the way to the bottom.

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Not a keeper!

All three of us snorkeled in the reefs and saw so many fish. Did I mention Dale’s father is 79 years old and he snorkeled with us?

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Elizabeth and Dale Sr. 

There was a large barracuda that enjoyed hanging out under our boat. We saw thousands of yellowtail snapper and they swam around our boat mocking us. We had tried earlier in the day to catch some and were unsuccessful.

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Yellowtail Snapper

Our excitement of the day was when I (Elizabeth) was swimming far behind Dale. I noticed all the fish were swimming away fast and in one direction. Then I saw about 5 barracuda sprinting away too. I looked over to my left and saw a shark, and it was about 3-4 feet long. I’m still not sure what type of shark it was but it looked like either a bull shark or a blacktip shark. I shouted at Dale, “shark!” several times. I never thought I would have to do that in real life… Once I had his attention I headed back to the boat. This was my second time out snorkeling for the day and I was officially done.

While I “Michael Phelpsed” back to the boat, Dale tried to find the shark because he wanted a picture of it. He never found the shark but he thinks he saw it too. I spent the rest of the week being teased for being afraid of sharks. Last time I checked, sharks were not friends, and we live in Florida where people get bit by sharks. The experience did make for an exciting day. We have both snorkeled in some amazing places around the world and we both agreed that Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary was one of the best!

Day 4 we woke up early and did one final paddle out to an Island on our Stand Up Paddle boards. We saw several bonnethead sharks chasing prey below our paddle boards. These are small sharks that are related to hammerhead sharks. On our way back from the island we realized we bit off a little more than we could chew.

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One last morning paddle on the flats

We were tired, but we returned to our cottage, showered, packed our bags, and headed north towards Orlando. We enjoyed another sunny and beautiful drive home through the Keys.

Florida Keys Tips:

If you plan to visit the Keys we recommend that you avoid making the drive over the weekend and especially holiday weekends. A 4 hour drive could potentially take up to 7 hours. We chose to drive up on a Monday and head home on Thursday. Traffic was light.

If you don’t want to break the bank come during the off season. Do not come during the holidays or spring break. Hotel prices are through the roof during the high season.

Also, if you want to save some money do not stay on Key West. If you are not into massive crowds of tourists and party goers you may want to stay on a different key. The prices are cheaper for accommodation, the food is better, and the people are more laid back. We loved Key West when we were younger for the party, but now it seems too commercial and touristy. There are other beautiful Keys to enjoy.

If you are skilled at operating boats, definitely rent a boat for the day and get out and explore. This was the highlight of our trip. We were able to do what we wanted to do and not be at the mercy of a guide and a bunch of tourists. We had an amazing day off shore exploring! This was the highlight of our trip.

If you are not a skilled boat operator, book a small tour on a sailboat or fishing charter. Being out on the water is the highlight of the Florida Keys and you are missing out if you don’t get wet!

Be sure and bring lots of sunscreen, a hat, and long sleeve SPF shirts for when you are out on the water. The sun here is intense and you do not want to look like a goofy, lobster-red tourist. Also in the summer months or early fall bring that bug repellant. The no-see-ums can eat you alive!

Other than that, just bring a good attitude, listen to some Jimmy Buffet tunes, and enjoy a few boat drinks! Despite all the tourists and kitschy souvenir shops, the Florida Keys still amaze! To quote Jimmy, “There’s still some magic left in this tourist town.”