Everything will be OK. This is the mantra I’m repeating since dark clouds appeared in the sky during last weeks. All we can do is wait for normality to come back and, in the meanwhile, I feel the need to find a way out in my mind. That’s why I go back with my memory to those carefree days… so I find myself driving along the Overseas Hwy: the skyline of Miami get smaller and smaller behind me and I drive fast towards the Florida Keys.
“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” (Ernest Hemingway, The old man and the sea)
Everything is perfect in this clear winter morning. The black asphalt line under the car runs straight and the sea is all around. Driving along the US1 gives me a strange feeling: it’s like driving a motorboat over the blue Caribbean water. What more could I wish? Going back there in this moment, for instance.
Along the Overseas Hwy towards the Florida Keys
Driving from Miami to Key West takes approximately 4 hours. After leaving the mainland the first island we meet is Key Largo. I remember the wind, a small solitary beach and a vast and inaccessible area with mangroves. Just the time to breathe the fresh sea air, then the journey goes from one island to another until we reach Marathon. Here we stop for the night, we’re not in a hurry so we take our time. We will drive to Key West tomorrow.
4 things to do in Marathon
1/ Visiting the Dolphin Research Center
There is nothing much to do at Marathon, except to slow down and settle in this peaceful little place. To start, we visit the Dolphin Research Center: a no profit organization founded in 1984 which takes care of dolphins and protect these beautiful animals. We pay our tickets (no need to book) and enter the site, we walk along the wooden walkways around the pools: the dolphins are curious and come to see the new visitors.
Their smiling face always made me think that they are funny creatures, and their acrobatic evolutions make me believe that they are very playful. Having the possibility to observe them so closely and see how they interact with the humans is a true privilege. I feel excited like a child about this, as the other people around me.
2/ Eating at Keys Fisheries
After this interesting close encounter it’s time to find something to eat. And this is how we arrive in a very American place: Keys Fisheries. It’s an unassuming place, let’s be clear, but it’s really characteristic. I order their most famous food, the lobster reuben, and a glass of coke.
I sit on an outdoor bench in front of the small pier, and I enjoy this high-calorie meal while watching the boats and the seagulls flying around. Who would put such a delicious lobster pulp inside a greasy sandwich, adding cheese and cabbage? It may seem strange but lobsters here are sold as street food, and sometimes they are eaten this way. After this energetic meal I feel like a true American woman and I’m ready to discover more of the place.
3/ Sunbathing at Sombrero Beach
Let’s walk to help digestion and let’s go to the pretty Sombrero Beach: it’s a beautiful little beach with the perfect colors of the Caribbean, white sand and palm trees under the warm winter sun. Thanks to the fact that the temperature is not so warm, the beach is almost deserted and a great peace reigns here.
4/ A brief stop at the Seven Mile Bridge
There’s one last thing to do before leaving Marathon: a brief stop at the Seven Mile Bridge. The Seven Mile Bridge is the longest connecting bridge between the Florida Keys, and at the time of its construction (early 1900s) it was one of the longest bridges in the world. Parallel to it there’s the old railway bridge, which was destroyed by a hurricane at the beginning of the last century. Today its remains have become a stopping point for tourists for taking some photos.
Final destination: Key West
The Florida Keys are formed by a 200km long line made of small islands: they extend from southern Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, heading toward Havana. Key West is about 90 miles far from Cuba, in fact. If you come here in search of beach life you might be a little disappointed, however: the Florida Keys are not famous for this kind of thing. People come here mostly because of the alternative atmosphere, the laid-back vibe and the feeling of going back to the legendary seventies. They come also for the pubs, the live music shows playing every night, the plenty of beer and cocktails, the Cuban cuisine and the delicious key lime pie. And for water sports, fishing, and diving. But let’s go slowly and do one thing at a time.
5 things to do in Key West
Colonial-style architecture and lush tropical vegetation are the first things we notice when arriving in Key West, as well as some beautiful vintage cars parked along the streets. Our small white hotel perfectly reflects the style of the local wooden architecture. Our car will remain parked there for a couple of days, everything is near and there’s no need to use the car in this small city.
1/ Visiting the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum
To begin with, we pay tribute to a great writer that lived in Key West and visit the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. A beautiful colonial-style villa surrounded by a well-kept garden, where we can enter the rooms of the house, which are perfectly furnished with original pieces, look out from the terraces and even caress the undisturbed inhabitants who still populate the house: a colony of cats, famous for the unusual feature of having six fingers. This oddity is perfectly in line with the slight madness that characterize the island atmosphere.
2/ Chasing butterflies at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
After that, we visit another little enchanted place: the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. From the outside it looks like one of the many colored buildings of the city, but once you cross the entrance door you enter a wonderful indoor garden full of tropical plants, with a population of many colorful butterflies flying around our heads. If heaven exists, in my imagination it should be full of butterflies like this small temple.
3/ Coconut milk at Southernmost Point
A few steps from here we reach the Southernmost Point of the Continental US, which is marked by a colorful concrete block in the shape of a giant buoy. Tourists usually come here to take a souvenir photo, and so do we. Nearby a coconut seller is doing great business with tourists, and we cannot resist the temptation as well. The fresh and sweet coconut milk is delicious, we taste it while watching the horizon and dreaming of a travel to Cuba sooner or later…
4/ Celebrate the sunset at Mallory Square
In the late afternoon everybody goes to Mallory Square, where every day the ritual of the “sunset celebration” takes place: people come here to drink something and wait for the sunset (a magnificent view of the sun setting in the Gulf of Mexico waters). The square is full of people, and young street artists, jugglers and acrobats entertain the public while the sun goes down. It’s a show within a show and it certainly worths to be here once in a lifetime.
5/ Enjoying the nightlife
After the sun goes down, the evening life of the city lights up. The pubs come alive, parties and live music begin, there’s plenty of beer and cocktails. Going around and enjoying the atmosphere is a good idea, the air is vibrant and easy-going. Two of the most famous clubs are the Green Parrot and the legendary Sloppy Joe’s (Hemingway’s favorite pub), but there are so many others and I think that a good advice is to let your instinct guide you.
Just a recommendation: taste the delicious Key Lime Drink at least once! Instead, for an alternative evening you can reach the rooftop of the Garden of Eden. The “clothing optional bar” sign at the entrance is not a joke: if you want you can stay like Adam and Eve, or undergo a body painting session. Don’t worry, nothing strange happens! If you prefer, you can stay in your clothes and just drink something having a chat with someone interesting.
Key West is an extravagant place, populated by artists, dreamers and free spirits. If you want to go there, take with you the right amount of easiness and don’t worry about other people’s judgment. This is the right place to express yourself.
Peanuts for travelers:
- In the Upper Keys you can find accommodations such as motels, campsites and luxury resorts, and you can practice a wide range of water sports (you’ll meet dozens of tour operators along the main road).
- Hotels in Key West are quite expensive and often full, advanced booking is recommended (especially during winter season or special events). If possible, book a hotel in the Historic District, so you can fully enjoy the unique atmosphere of the old town.
- For a relaxing afternoon you can go to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park Beach: you can sunbathe and then you can visit the fortress.
- If you are sporty, why not kayaking through the mangrove canals? The near Stock Island offers many possibilities to rent a kayak, you’ll easily find the mangroves areas.
- Leave home your daily routine, slow down and take it easy. A couple of days are enough to breathe the atmosphere of Key West, but if you stay a little longer you’ll definitely fall in love with this place.