Just next to Kokomo…
At the bottom of Florida, sometimes you’ll see those little dots representing the string of islands known as the Florida Keys. I grew up there, so I know a thing or two about the place.
Stay somewhere with an onsite beach
The phrase “Island Living” inspires the notion that every step you take will come with sand between your toes. I’m sorry to burst your bubble and inform you of this, but the Florida Keys are a string of coral rock islands. Key Largo, the first Key, my home, admittedly does not have the greatest beaches. If your visit is limited to the upper keys, I highly recommend finding a beach resort if you cannot make it to the beaches that are farther away.
If you’re looking for that kind of classic beach in the Florida Keys but don’t want to shell out that resort fee (perfectly understandable, they are insane) check the middle keys first. You’re mainly looking at Bahia Honda State Park, Anne’s Beach and Sombrero Beach.
Visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park
John Pennekamp Park is arguably one of the most popular tourist locations in the Keys—you can tell because each holiday weekend produces an extensive line of cars waiting to enter Pennekamp. The sight of this line is what informs locals that the rapture of tourists has descended upon the town. If you’d like to visit without waiting in this line, I suggest arriving early in the day.
Why is it so popular? Upon paying an inexpensive entrance fee, you have free range to enjoy the state park. There are two beaches, and you can snorkel at one of them! You can also rent kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes! Pennekamp also offers coral reef tours on a glass bottom boat, which was my first experience with seeing the reefs when I was little. It’s one of my happiest childhood memories, and I didn’t have to worry about getting into the water the whole time.
Kayaking or Paddleboarding
There is no activity in the Keys I enjoy more than kayaking and paddle boarding. I haven’t ever enjoyed much about the outdoors, but I’ll pick a kayak over a hike every time. It is the only form of exercise I’m willing to look at as solely a fun activity. My favorite places for paddleboarding and kayaking include John Pennekamp state park and Robbie’s Marina.
I like kayaking because it gives me the chance to see the islands up close, and it helps to know if I kayak somewhere with mangroves, then I can’t float too far away. When I’m up for a more challenging trip, I
This. Having grown up in the Florida Keys, I never really eat fish in any part of the mainland. There’s just something about a mahi-mahi sandwich with conch fritters and a margarita that does it for me. I have goosebumps just thinking about it right now. I can see it now, me sipping a margarita looking into the sun setting on the water while a local musician plays the worst original music I have ever heard.
Look at the stars
If I lamented one thing about moving away from the Keys for college, it was that Tallahassee skies were nothing compared to the stars in the Keys. I used to lie down in my backyard and stargaze; I can always find Orion’s belt. In bigger cities, light pollution washes out the ability to see fainter stars and in some cases, all stars. Wherever you are in the Keys, you’ll see more stars than in your metropolitan home city, but you should really take advantage of the dark sky locations.
Visit The Hemingway House
Ernest Hemingway was a smart man. An adventurous author, Hemingway resided in the Florida Keys for some time, specifically in Key West. The Hemingway House is a long-time favorite of mine as an aspiring author. I first visited in 2017 as part of a spring break trip and I’ve returned during each trip since then. In addition to one admission ticket granting access to Ernest Hemingway’s past estate with a guided tour, you’re also welcome to hand back after the tour if you want to peruse the gardens on your own or pet the 6-toed cats that hang out on the property.
My favorite part of visiting the Hemingway house, besides the kitties, is peering into the concrete by the pool to look for the penny Hemingway allegedly threw into the concrete during a fight with his ex-wife. After this, I’ll look at the area where they host weddings ten feet away and think “ah, what a romantic place for me to host my wedding, ten feet away from where Hemingway left his wife.”
Tour Key West
Key West is a walkable island, only 4 miles long and 2 miles wide. Each time I’ve toured Key West on foot, I regretted everything. Can it be done? Yes. Will it be done without any complaints from you or your group? Probably not. As I type this, I can still recall the groans of my group when we forgot to enter one of the stores we wanted after we were already on the other side of the island. It was a sad day.
I recommend upgrading to the professional tours that take you everywhere on a bus or trolley. It’s always fun to do things with a bigger group, and you will get access to stories will greater detail and history than you would from walking somewhere and reading a sign. The last time I toured it was with a ghost tour bus, and while the stories where a little far-fetched here and there, I got to enjoy more interactive experiences with museums that are primarily self-guarded.
Just don’t visit Robert the doll. Don’t.
I haven’t done this one yet, and it comes with a few requirements, but if you’re able to dive with the assistance of professional scuba divers I’d highly recommend it. Key Largo is the scuba diving capital of the world and I’m a little mad at myself for not doing it yet, but I can’t wait to explore the sea the same way a fish does and to enjoy the feeling of weightlessness that comes with it.
There’s no shortage of locations you can scuba dive in when you’re visiting the Florida Keys, but it can be costly, especially if paying for a group. Check prices online and see what the best prices are for you, and don’t forget to look at reviews for these locations either. Each spot has different views, find the ones that will be the most worthwhile to you!
Learn what mile markers are
There’s no turns in the Florida Keys, just up and down. Despite the fact that there is only one road with two directions, people somehow tend to get lost. It won’t help much to ask the locals for directions if you don’t know what mile markers are. I’ll teach you real quick: Key West is mile marker 0 because it’s at the very bottom. The first mile marker in Key Largo is mile marker 114 because it’s at the very top. Make sense? Probably not.
Think about it like this: let’s say your hotel address is on Overseas Hwy and the first three numbers of the address are 100. You can probably safely assume that means you’re at mile marker 100. If you ask for directions, someone will probably say “Yes, that’s at mile marker 95, just head South and you’ll see it.” From there, you can deduce you have to drive 5 miles straight in that direction. If you can’t get the mile markers down, know that South means you’re heading towards Key West. North Means you’re headed towards the mainland. As long as you don’t drive in the wrong direction, you’ll get to where you’re going. Drive safe! Especially on the Seven Mile Bridge.
Pick the best Key Lime Pie
Every restaurant in the Florida Keys has Key Lime Pie. Okay, not every restaurant, but maybe 99% of all the eating options available. We invented this pie, and the best versions of this pie can only be found here at the source. I, in fact, used to hate Key Lime pie, until I discovered my parents just had exceptionally poor taste in Key Lime Pie. I won’t be sharing my favorite pie place because I don’t want anyone stealing this pie from me—yes, I’m okay with my stance on gatekeeping pie. You go out to those locally owned restaurants, and you find your dream key lime pie, then it will be yours and yours alone. Take pictures of it, send it to your friends, and enjoy the taste of it as you ignore your now lit-up phone of people who are jealous of your Key Lime Pie.