Last Updated on January 31, 2024
By John and Sandra Nowlan
In many ways, the Florida Keys and Key West are a totally distinct part of the Sunshine State.
Locals, who tend to embrace a relaxed, “live and let live” lifestyle, take pride in claiming this is “not Florida.“
In fact, in 1982, the Keys and Key West declared itself the independent Conch Republic after a U.S. Border Patrol Roadblock caused a massive traffic jam. The mock secession with its comic overtones didn’t last very long. But the “sovereign state of mind” continues with Conch Republic celebrations each year.
The distinctiveness of the Florida Keys is first evident in the geography. Driving south on U.S. 1 from Miami airport, urban sprawl suddenly gives way to a different world. You’re soon adjacent to the protected Everglades, vast flat acres of scrub brush, and soggy marshes. That area is soon morphs into small communities and the remarkable Overseas Highway. The highway is 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West, connecting 44 low-lying tropical islands with 42 bridges. This engineering marvel was completed in 1935 after a hurricane destroyed many railway bridges that linked the Keys since 1912.
Unique Attractions of the Florida Keys
The long crossing, with the Atlantic Ocean on the left and the Gulf of Mexico on the right, is spectacular. But there are also several unique attractions worth a stop. The African Queen, the iconic steamboat used in the classic 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
Built in England in 1912, it continues to take visitors on short cruises along the Key Largo Canal. The original steam engine is still in place, but a disguised outboard is now its source of power. The entertaining operator is a movie trivia master.
The Florida Keys are famous for excellent SCUBA diving, and the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada contains the world’s largest collection of underwater breathing devices, some going back centuries. Modern diving techniques are used by staff members at the Mote Marine Lab in the Lower Keys. Open to the public for scheduled tours, this facility is the International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration. Scientists here identify threats to the fragile coral of the Keys and cultivate it for transplanting onto dying reefs.
The longest island-hopping span in the Keys is the modern Seven Mile Bridge. Completed in 1982, it runs parallel to the former highway and old railway structure. Visitors interested in Keys history can walk or take a tram along the old rail bed to tiny Pigeon Key.
A National Historic Landmark, this two-acre island includes eight well-preserved buildings that housed and fed over 400 workers. They completed Henry Flagler’s vision and built the Key West extension of the Florida East Coast Railway more than a century ago. Vintage photographs and artifacts line the walls of the Museum.
Key West, A Step Back in Time
Entering the city of Key West, the southernmost point of the U.S. mainland, is also a step back in time. The low-rise architecture in this city of 27,000 includes 1,000+ elegant wooden two-story shuttered houses dating from the late 1800s. Known as Conch Houses, short wooden posts raise them off the ground to improve air circulation in hot summers.
The most visited attraction in Key West is the Ernest Hemingway House, built in French Colonial Style in 1851. The residence of the world-renowned writer in the 1930s, it contains artifacts and treasures from Hemingway’s time in Key West. Tourists love the dozens of cats, most polydactyl (six-toed), that roam freely in the house and on the grounds.
Also unusual in Key West but scattered across the city are hundreds of free-range roosters. These handsome birds came from Cuba and were used for cockfighting until that “sport” was outlawed. Then, they were left alone to prowl the town and delight visitors.
Another historic home in Key West worth a visit is the Harry Truman Little White House, the winter home of the 33rd U.S. president. And soon-to-be-open is the Elizabeth Bishop House, the residence of the Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. Poet Laureate. There’s another Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where she spent many childhood summers with her maternal grandparents.
A nightly Key West tradition is the sunset celebration in Mallory Square. Bustling with street performers, food & craft carts, psychics, and musicians, this lively scene highlights nature’s often spectacular light show at sundown. We were treated to one of the best.
The Fishing Capital of the World
The Florida Keys are often described as “The Fishing Capital of the World” and we took full advantage of its reputation. We made seafood part of every lunch and dinner with local varieties like snapper, grouper, hogfish, wahoo, mahi mahi, conch, and crab. It was a wise choice. Most seafood restaurants offer freshly caught products in many styles – grilled, fried, sauteed, or blackened. If you catch it, they will cook it for you.
We usually had conch fritters, fish tacos, or fish sandwiches for lunch, always with an oversized portion of fresh seafood. At the Fish House in Key Largo, one of two restaurants we visited that had been featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network series, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, we enjoyed the House Specialty, Mahi Mahi Matecumbe Style. It was baked and topped with fresh tomatoes, shallots, fresh basil, capers, olive oil, and lemon juice. Outstanding! We were also invited to the back of the kitchen to observe a skilled chef fillet, a large mahi mahi.
Other remarkable seafood restaurants included Chef Michael’s in Islamorada (“Juliette” Hogfish – pan seared with shrimp, scallops, chardonnay butter, and toasted almonds) and two restaurants connected to our accommodation – Margaritaville Beach House in Key West and The Angler & Ale at the Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Kay.
Our last lunch before heading home was at the quirky Hungry Tarpon in Islamorada, whose ceiling and walls are plastered with U.S. $1 bills. Guests can also enjoy the company of dozens of pelicans while feeding giant tarpons and other fish species that congregate around the restaurant’s pier.
The Signature Dessert of the Keys
While seafood came in many styles, the region’s signature dessert, Key Lime Pie, also had variations among restaurants and shops. Being keen researchers, we tried more than a dozen slices and found that a smooth, pale yellow filling was consistent.
Toppings, however, varied widely with thick or thin meringue or globs of whipped topping. The graham cracker crusts were thick, thin, or with added molasses, but most were tasty. Our biggest disappointment with most fillings was that they were just too bland and lacked a tart lime flavor. Some of the best slices were at The Angler & Ale, Margaritaville Beach House, and Kermit’s Key West Lime Shop, with all elements in harmony and a very limey filling.
U.S. Highway 1 is the longest north-south road in the United States, stretching from Key West to Maine at the Canadian border. We’ve often driven along its northern areas but now have more respect for its southern extremity.
As someone wisely noted, “If you take the best qualities of a New England and Maritime Province seaside town, add a laid-back atmosphere, you’ve essentially got the Florida Keys.”