Arriving in Key West I wasn't sure what to expect. Everyone told me that this wasn't like the rest of Florida, and that could not have been more true.
Soak in Keys Culture
Wake up early and soak in the colour and culture of Key West by starting at a local favourite for breakfast. Situated in “old town” Blue Heaven is housed in a quirky blue colonial-style home, converted for use as a restaurant (many older homes are in Key West).
While walking to the restaurant on the first morning, you can't help but notice the local bird seems to be a sort of domestic rooster. In fact, they also seem to serve as official alarm clock here. The roosters, like many things about Key West, are a holdover from another time. In particular a time when the area was frequented by Cuban cockfighters. They are a colourful addition to the street traffic, and are said to be one of the Keys most frequently photographed sights.
The best place to enjoy coffee and highly recommended banana bread for breakfast at Blue Heaven, is in the garden. This casual space is busy but relaxed, and filled with locals and tourists alike. As we walk to our table past the home's original verandah, a stray cat languishes on a chair. These tabbies are thought to be descendents of Ernest Hemingway's infamous six-toed cats (his home, now museum is nearby) so are rarely chased from their resting places.
After breakfast, its time to enjoy the sunshine, and the sights. You can easily walk around much of Key West, and in particular old town. The famous downtown is anchored by Duval Street, here you'll find all the usual shops and tourist traps, along with some interesting restaurants and night life.
Instead of following the crowd though, wind through the older streets and you'll find Key West's softer side with art galleries, unique shops and a handful of home decor stores.
After strolling and shopping, a stop at the Ernest Hemingway Museum and House was next on my list. Anyone in my line of work would have an interest here, but Hemingway is one of the most interesting writers of his time, living what seemed to be a carefree and colourful existence in Key West. The home is kept in its original state, and you can peek into what was Hemingway's office to see where he worked. Is is best to avoid the busiest times of day ““ and the crowds ““ so you can spend some time enjoying the expansive gardens, and the descendents of Ernest's cats.
The grounds are home to about 50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats. These are not stray, but all cared for like family pets, and can be traced to those that snuggled up to Hemingway himself. They sun themselves on the pool deck, and sprawl across the antique coverlet in the master bedroom, and all enjoy a scratch behind their ears.
Explore the Lower Keys
Key West is a great base for exploring the Florida Keys, but there is so much to explore just a short drive away.
Big Pine and the Lower Keys are to Key West what Muskoka is to us: a place to vacation and relax in nature.
Bill Keogh at Big Pine Kayak Adventures has been introducing visitors to the Keys, and to kayaking for more than 20 years. This is a great way to get out on the water and explore the shallow waters near Great White Heron and Key Deer National Wildlife Refuges. Keogh's tours utilize safe and stable “sit on top” kayaks, so even the uninitiated can easily enjoy the ride.
The Lower Keys are the one place in the world you can spot (if you're lucky) the tiny Key Deer in the wild.
Plan ahead, pack a picnic and spend the afternoon at Bahia Honda State Park. This park is more than 500 acres, and boasts an award-winning beach and an historic bridge. The bridge was the Bahia Honda railroad bridge finished in 1912 as part of Henry Flagler's railroad route from Miami to Key West. Between 1912 and 1935, the railroad was the only “overland” route to Key West. The bridge, and the route, was destroyed in 1936 by a hurricane and was converted into the Overseas Highway. A new bridge was built in the “˜70s, and now the orginal serves as a scenic walk and viewing point across the channel.
Meander in Marathon
Marathon is made up of a handful of small islands (Boot Key, Knight Keys, Hog Key, Vaca Key, Stirrup Key, Crawl and Little Crawl Key, East and West Sister's Island, Deer Key and Fat Deer Key, Long Pine Key and Grassy Key) and is a truly casual destination, a favourite of sport fishers. These islands are steeped with the rich Florida history of Henry Flagler's railroad days. The story goes that the name Marathon came about by the railroad workers who were working night and day to complete the railway.
A great way to experience the area is with a “ferry” ride to Pigeon Key. A small boat makes the commute over to the island a few times a day, and is a great sight-seeing excursion in iteself. On the way out of the marina we lean over the sides of the vessel to catch glimpses of manatee.
Pigeon Key is one of the most historically significant locations in the Florida Keys, housing hundreds of workers to work on the infamous overseas railroad. During its heyday, it was a community serving the workers who lived there full-time. The site survives as a historic centre with a museum dedicated to the railroad and its builders. You can take a museum tour, or just wander through the gardens. There is a quiet sandy beach to enjoy, gardens and the requisite “resident” cat, purring away in a corner.
Florida with a side of Key Lime
The Florida Keys is the birthplace of that dessert renowned for its sweet-tart deliciousness: Key Lime Pie.
While the exact history is best left for tales in kitchens and dining rooms over a bite of the sweet stuff, there is no doubt that any Conch (what Keys residents call themselves) will have something to say about the regional dessert. Each person you ask will have an opinion about the merits of the type of crust, the thickness of the filling, and of course whether it's topped with whipped cream, meringue or nothing at all. One thing they all agree on: their limes are different. Apparently, even the tiny limes we can sometimes find in local stores called “Key Limes” are, in fact, much too green (read flavourless) and nothing like the real thing. If your Key lime pie is green, it's just not real Key lime pie. The filling should be pale custard yellow, just like the juice from a fresh Key lime.
Our Keys adventure was filled with tastes of Key limes, here are a few of the standouts.
Blue Heaven's Key Lime Pie
We'll admit, there was Key lime pie to end every meal we enjoyed in the Keys, including breakfast, in the name of research. The standout is certainly the pie topped with an absolute mountain of billowy meringue that is served at Blue Heaven (729 Thomas St., Key West). The restaurant itself is one of those perfect treasures so indicative of The Keys: casual, colourful, a place that feels at ease with itself and makes everyone who enters feel so. A destination for breakfast for those in the know, Blue Heaven is where you'll find locals and visitors alike pulling up a chair in the garden under a huge Banyan tree for homemade pancakes, omelettes and their renowned banana bread. If for nothing else though, you must visit for the pie. This was the best I found with a beautiful sweet-tart filling, graham crust and indulgent meringue reminiscent of the best lemon meringue pie you've ever tasted.
Glazed Donuts' Key Lime Doughnut
OK, maybe it's because the lowly doughnut has been such a trending food for the past few years, or because we're Canadian; but we managed to seek out what is surely the coolest little doughnut shop in America. We are positive it is the southernmost doughnut shop in the U.S.
Glazed Donuts (420 Eaton St., Key West) is retro cool in style, with a nod to classic American diner, and inside you'll find a daily fresh selection of house-made doughnuts made by owners who are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America. Everything is handmade, everything is from scratch, everything is delicious. You'll find tropical-inspired flavours like Banana Dulche de Leche and Mango Hibiscus and Key Lime Pie. This is worth a mid-day stop after you've been enjoying the sights of Key West on foot for the day.
Sweet Savannah's key lime cupcake
If you're travelling the Keys by car you'll be on the lookout for the hidden gems that appear along the Overseas Highway. In Marathon, this sweet bakery café produces a variety of baked goods (tuck into your treat at a table in the hidden garden behind the store) along with the ubiquitous Key Lime Pie. At Sweet Savannah's (11287 Overseas Hwy., Marathon) try one of the other Key lime treasures including cupcakes, shortbread cookies, and a locally made ice cream of which the maker could not be revealed!
If you go
General tourism information:
Ernest Hemingway Museum:
Big Pine Kayak Tours
Bahia Honda State Park