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EssentialsPut yourself in a Florida Keys state of mind with a leisurely drive on the 113-mile Overseas Highway, passing ultramarine expanses of sea, clusters of mangrove trees and scrubland, candy-colored plastic palm trees, tikis and giant seashells.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is just one of many Keys attractions holding allure for both anglers and fans of scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking and canoeing.
Tool around Key West on the open-air cars of the Conch Tour Train , and learn about local legends, lore and landmarks.
Introduce yourself to the sleepy descendants of Hemingway's six-toed cats while learning about one of the greatest American authors at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum .
Enter the greenhouse at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory and find yourself in a completely different world. More than 50 species of butterflies flutter from one tropical flower to another; if you're lucky, one will land on your shoulder.
It's de rigueur to have your picture taken at the southernmost point in the continental United States, marked by a red, black and yellow concrete buoy at the intersection of Whitehead and South streets.
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When nighttime falls, leave the car at the hotel and do the Duval Crawl. No, it's not a dance-it's the local term for barhopping along Duval Street, Key West's main drag. Be sure to visit Sloppy Joe's and Capt. Tony's Saloon (Hemingway's favorite haunt).
Street performers, including jugglers and performing cats, entertain daily at dusk at Mallory Square off Duval Street; raspberry and peach sorbet sunsets spill across the sky for the big finish. Sometimes the best things in life are free.
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Florida Keys in 3 DaysThree days is barely enough time to get to know any major destination. But AAA travel editors suggest these activities to make the most of your time in the Florida Keys.
By Patricia Miller
You'll definitely need a car to explore the Florida Keys from Key Largo to Key West and all points in between. The Overseas Highway, or US 1, is the only way in and out of the Keys by land, and most directions use mile markers on US 1 instead of actual numbered addresses; for example, Key Largo is located between mile markers 91 and 107, and Key West is located between mile markers (often abbreviated as MM) 0 and 4.
Day 1: MorningYour 3-day crash course of the Keys begins with a stop in Key Largo, the first island you'll reach after leaving the continental United States. Check into local favorite Doc's Diner (MM 99.6) and start the day with a hearty breakfast; patrons include firefighters and police officers (always a good sign). The owner is a local optometrist who, along with his daughters, warmly greets all customers. Highlights of the raved-about, extensive and well-priced breakfast menu include pancakes and malted Belgian waffles made from scratch, and Doc's Feast, which includes 12 scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham steak, pancakes, French toast, hash browns, grits and biscuits for $32.99—a great deal if you and your friends want to try some of everything (and you will). Lunch also is offered and includes Angus beef burgers, melts, sandwiches and salads. The décor is plain and simple, but that really doesn't matter when the food is so lip-smacking good.
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Day 1: AfternoonYour morning at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park may very well extend into the afternoon, but after a dive or a ride on a glass-bottomed boat you might find yourself envisioning the fish you just saw on a plate with a nice lemon butter sauce; if so, try out another local favorite. There's no need to dress up for lunch at Ballyhoo's Historic Seafood Grille (MM 97.8) in Key Largo, where you can choose from a variety of freshly caught fish from the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico and have it prepared in one of many ways. There's also a raw bar, and don't miss the delicious pretzel rolls.
Looking for something to do after lunch? Scuba enthusiasts from around the globe flock to Key Largo (which calls itself the “Diving Capital of the World”) to explore its shipwrecks and coral reefs; a wealth of outfitters, guides and charters are ready, willing and able to help you do the same.
If you prefer to keep your head above water, explore souvenir emporiums like Largo Cargo (MM 103.1) for such amusing mementoes as beer can shorts, which have pockets deep enough to hold—what else?—a beer can; or choose from assorted touristy tchotchkes and beach gear including tote bags and flip-flops. Or make your way to Shell World, whose two locations (most extensive MM 97.5 and MM 106) contain one of the most extensive selections of seashells in the Keys (except for the surrounding waters) as well as T-shirts and a collection of stylish home accessories and gifts. Key Largo also has a variety of art galleries, including Key Largo Art Gallery (MM 103.2) which deals in colorful graphics by Florida Keys and Cuban artists.
Day 1: EveningWrap up your day with dinner at The Fish House Encore Restaurant, Sushi Bar & Piano Lounge (MM 102.3); it's a bit pricey but well worth the splurge. Its charming and cozy décor evokes an English country cottage, with white tablecloths, faux greenery, white lace curtains and dark green walls. You can also choose to dine on the covered outdoor patio, complete with strings of white globe lights, a fountain and a tiki bar. Attentive, down-to-earth wait staff will make you feel pampered while serving up fresh fish dishes and some palate-pleasing desserts, including a meringue-topped Key lime pie and a white chocolate baby grand piano filled with chocolate mousse. After dinner, enjoy live entertainment at the piano bar.
Day 2: MorningRise and shine for the drive from Key Largo to Islamorada, about 25 miles southwest on US 1 between MM 65 and MM 91. Get an early start so that you're not late for breakfast at the Bob's Bunz Islamorada Restaurant & Bakery (MM 81.6). The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m., and you may have to wait in line for a table due to Bob's reputation for out-of-this-world bakery goods as well as old-fashioned dishes just like Mom used to make, but it's worth it. Fuel up for the rest of your day on specialties like banana bread French toast or the Islamorada omelet with pepper jack cheese and mango salsa. Check out the pastry case, conveniently located near the cash register, for yummies like pecan rolls, Key lime cookies and tarts, and the notoriously popular sticky buns, all baked on the premises; get a variety to go for snacking on the road.
From Islamorada, drive about 49 miles south on US 1 to Bahia Honda Key. On this leg of the trip, you'll drive on the Seven Mile Bridge over Florida Bay after you pass through Marathon.
Stop at Bahia Honda State Park (MM 37); it's touted by many as having the best beaches in Florida and in the Florida Keys. Most beaches in the Keys are small and rocky, but the ivory sand at Bahia Honda State Park's three beaches is soft and fine, perfect for squishing between your toes. You can also go fishing, rent a kayak, or go on a boat ride to the reef for some snorkeling. Stop in at the nature center to learn more about the area's flora and fauna.
And don't miss the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. Hike on a short and slightly steep nature trail for an amazing view of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean from the old bridge, originally part of the Overseas Railway. No longer in use, the bridge ends abruptly where a span was removed years ago; look across the way to see where the rest of the bridge begins for a one-of-a-kind experience. Should you work up an appetite as morning turns into afternoon, grab a quick bite at the park's snack bar; choose from sandwiches, salads and ice cream.
Day 2: AfternoonDon't be surprised if you spend more than just the morning at Bahia Honda State Park, especially if you're the outdoorsy type. When you decide it's time to continue your journey, head east on US 1 for about 7 miles to gaze at pint-sized Key deer in their natural habitat at the National Key Deer Refuge (MM 30.3) in Big Pine Key. First, stop at the refuge's visitor center (just off US 1 on Key Deer Boulevard in the Big Pine Key Shopping Plaza) for some brochures and a map. There are only about 800-1,000 of these endangered Lilliputian relatives of the Virginia white-tailed deer, so be cautious when driving in this area, as the deer often cross the roads. It's illegal to feed the deer, but it's delightful just to watch them in their natural habitat.
Day 2: EveningThe Keys are made up of some 1,700 islands. Tucked between Little Torch Key and Summerland Key, you’ll find Ramrod Key. The island was renamed after the “Ramrod,” a ship that was wrecked nearby. A short distance on the Overseas Highway (US 1) will bring you to Boondocks Grille & Draft House , a casual bar and grill with covered and open-air patio seating. The menu features items from burgers, ribs, steaks and chicken wings to fresh-caught seafood, handpicked from local fishermen including grouper, hogfish and snapper. Quench your thirst with a handcrafted cocktail or a craft beer from their diverse selection.
To reach the restaurant from the National Key Deer Refuge, drive 3.5 miles west on US 1 to Ramrod Key, to the thatched-roof building with an adjacent caveman-themed miniature golf course. This happening destination also features more than 20 LED TVs, bingo, live music, theme nights and trivia competitions.
Day 3: MorningHit US 1 bright and early for the 25-mile drive to Key West. Save your appetite for breakfast at Blue Heaven Restaurant & Bar (just south of Duval Street at 729 Thomas St.); it's practically a requirement for visitors. Roosters and their chicks, and maybe a cat or two, strut their stuff on the patio while you graze on such delectable dishes as eggs Benedict with lime hollandaise paired with your choice of meats; shrimp and grits; or banana, pineapple or pecan pancakes.
Only 4 miles long and 2 miles wide, Key West is a walking town. Most of the town's attractions, restaurants and shops can be found on or near Duval Street, Key West's main drag. Note that parking spaces are scarce, so park your car at your hotel and hoof it the rest of the day. To acquaint yourself with the area, make your way to 303 Front St. in Mallory Square and hop on the Conch Tour Train. A 90-minute tour of the isle features a “conductor” who relates stories about the island's distinctive landmarks, history and residents, including Ernest Hemingway and Harry Truman.
Photo submitted by Maria White / AAA
Day 3: AfternoonKey West is well-known as an artists' enclave and you can find their works at various art galleries and shops on Duval Street; most of the galleries are located at the southern end of the street. Pop into the Alan S. Maltz Gallery (1210 Duval St.) for brilliant nature photography, Wyland Galleries (623 Duval St.) for true-to-life color paintings and sculptures of marine life, and South Pointe Gallery (1201 Duval St.) for high-quality French Art Deco posters from the early 1900s.
After viewing man-made art at the galleries, walk just a little farther south on Duval Street to see original works by Mother Nature at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (1316 Duval St.). Saunter slowly on a winding path while you watch fragile butterflies in brilliant stained-glass hues glide weightlessly around the glass-walled conservatory. Tropical flowers, trees and small waterfalls combine with soothing new-age music to create a peaceful, stress-reducing environment.
Day 3: Evening
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However, standing in the crowds at Mallory Square on a warm day, especially after a day of sightseeing, shopping and water sports, can be a bit tiring. The solution? Make a dinner reservation at the Hot Tin Roof (Zero Duval St. at Mallory Square in the Ocean Key Resort & Spa, A Noble House Resort), a restaurant with an outdoor deck that faces Mallory Square and Florida Bay. You'll have a perfect view of the sunset while you dine on Floridian cuisine with a Latin and Caribbean flair. Choose from such items as curried crab cakes, Hot Tin paella and yellowtail snapper rubbed with dill chimichurri.
Finally, it's time to do the Duval Crawl. If you're not familiar with the phrase, it translates to bar-hopping on Duval Street, a popular pastime in this town. The main drag in Key West, Duval Street is party central, populated with a plethora of open-air bars and pubs. Catch local bands and knock back a cold brew or a margarita at hot spots like Bourbon St. Pub (724 Duval St.), Rick's & Durty Harry's Entertainment Complex (202 Duval St.), Sloppy Joe's (201 Duval St.) and Virgilio's Key West Martini Bar (524 Duval St.). If the mood strikes, amble down the side streets and check out Capt. Tony's Saloon (428 Greene St.), the location of the original Sloppy Joe's where Hemingway hung out with his buddies; or the Green Parrot Bar (601 Whitehead St.), known for having one of the best jukeboxes in town.
AttractionsIn an area with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
By Patricia Miller
There's more to the Florida Keys than Key West. In fact, the Keys consist of some 1,700 islands. The largest and most populous— Big Pine Key , Islamorada , Key Largo , Key West , Marathon and Sugarloaf Key, along with Dry Tortugas National Park —are the hot spots for fun, fishing, sightseeing and water sports.
Immerse yourself in the Florida Keys lifestyle at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. Take to the waters via glass-bottom boats, scuba diving or snorkeling to see the park's main attraction: its living coral reefs. Landlubbers will appreciate the park's nature trails, beaches and a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium. At Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, you can swim with dolphins and sea lions or catch them in the act in live shows; parrots perform too. Observe marine creatures on a bottomless boat ride through a 3-acre saltwater lagoon. And don't forget to pet the resident cats.
Interacting with dolphins also is encouraged at the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon. Depending on your budget (and how wet you want to get), you can watch narrated demonstrations, shake flippers and paint a T-shirt with an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, or become a trainer or researcher for a day.
Wander the nature trails at the 9,200-acre National Key Deer Refuge in Big Pine Key to peer at the diminutive Key deer, an endangered species ranging in height from 24 to 32 inches. The best time to see these dog-sized creatures is at dawn and dusk.
When you arrive in Key West, the Conch Tour Train , a AAA GEM attraction, should be first on your list. Not only will the ride help you get your bearings, you'll also learn about Key West's history, architecture and famous residents, including an author, a painter and a president.
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum . was the home of one of Key West's most illustrious citizens. Highlights include Hemingway's writing studio, decorative tiles in the kitchen and Art Deco bathroom, the first swimming pool in Key West and a cat cemetery. Guides regale visitors with humorous tales about the author's life.
Twenty-two original engravings painted by artist and ornithologist John James Audubon, who visited here in 1832, decorate the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens . Owned by harbor pilot Capt. John Geiger, the American Classic Revival home features 18th-century antiques and a 1-acre garden with rare tropical plants.
Learn little-known facts about President Harry Truman at the Little White House Museum . Truman stayed here 10 times during his term, enjoying the beach, fishing and playing poker while discussing policies and working at his living room desk.
Delve into other aspects of Key West's history, art, people and events at The Custom House ; collections include Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad.
To see art created by Mother Nature, meander the path at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory , where butterflies of amazing hues, tiny gem-colored birds, soothing waterfalls, New Age music and tropical plants and flowers create a miniature Eden. You may never want to leave.
The waters of Key West have been host to many shipwrecks. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum reveals some of their bounty, such as a treasure trove of artifacts from the 1622 shipwreck of the Atocha which included gold jewelry, silver ingots, coins, gems and pottery. Shackles, cannons and pewter pieces from a wrecked slave ship also are on display.
If you can tear yourself away from Key West, take a ferry or seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park . You'll have an entire day for bird-watching, swimming, fishing, picnicking, snorkeling and diving, or touring Fort Jefferson; you also may camp overnight.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
RestaurantsOur favorites include some of this destination's best restaurants—from fine dining to simple fare.
By Inspector 420
as told to Patricia Miller
Housed in a 1930s “conch house” from a rustic fishing camp, Ballyhoo's Historic Seafood Grille in Key Largo has retained its comfortable décor, down to the wood-beamed ceilings. The friendly staff will help narrow down your choices on an extensive list of fresh seafood from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. You can't go wrong with the catch of the day—served many ways—or all-you-can-eat stone crab. Yummy pretzel rolls are a special touch, and the wine list has choices to complement every selection.
Rise and shine extra early for breakfast at the Bob's Bunz Islamorada Restaurant & Bakery . The lines are long but worth the wait, especially when you sink your teeth into the incredible sticky buns and pecan rolls created by talented pastry chef Robert Spencer. Egg dishes and fluffy pancakes are equally tempting. Lunch also is available at this diner-style family restaurant.
Moor your yacht to the dock in front of the Islamorada Fish Company . This open-air restaurant serves nothing but the freshest fish, assured by daily deliveries to the fish market next door. Try the stone crab claws, Florida lobster and fried fish sandwiches; the burgers and chicken dishes also are good. Sit dockside for an amazing view of the bay—especially striking when the sun slowly sinks below the horizon each evening.
Barracuda Grill isn't your typical seafood shack with beer signs and fishing nets on the wall. Minimalist yet cozy décor and innovative meal presentations set this Marathon restaurant apart. You'll relish the “tipsy olives” appetizer, marinated in a secret recipe. The seafood dishes are savory, and the rack of lamb or aged Angus beef are a refreshing change of pace. The wine list leans toward California wineries.
Elegant and understated Antonia's Restaurant in Key West blends traditional Italian cuisine with a modern Mediterranean influence and offers homemade pasta and praiseworthy sauces combined with seafood, chicken, veal and beef. The wine list comprises Italian and American labels; a full bar also is available.
Roosters roam the courtyard of Key West favorite Blue Heaven Restaurant & Bar , but it's the food that makes this charming place so memorable. Take your place in line for tasty breakfasts including made-from-scratch “Richard's Very Good Pancakes” and a variety of Benedicts served with lime hollandaise. Fresh herbs and spices lend high flavor to equally scrumptious lunch and dinner items with a Caribbean influence, such as Jamaican jerk chicken. Vegetarians will savor such dishes as carrot and curry soup and tofu stir-fry.
Like most Key West restaurants, the fish is fresh and the servers are friendly at Conch Republic Seafood Company . Large aquariums, nautical décor and local musicians playing cover songs complete the casual setting on the marina. The Floridian and Caribbean cuisine features such favorites as Key West shrimp, grilled dolphin and tuna, conch chowder and fritters and blue-crab cakes. Bold diners may indulge in the raw bar and a rum bar with more than 80 varieties.
For serious Cuban cuisine, make a trip to El Siboney Restaurant . Off the beaten path in Key West, the family-friendly restaurant is a favorite among local Latin Americans. Expect a wait for such Cuban favorites as ropa vieja, arroz con pollo, picadillo, fried plantains and award-winning Cuban sandwiches. Artwork on the walls pays tribute to the restaurant's namesake, a mythical Caribbean Indian chief.
At Key West's dockside Half Shell Raw Bar , you might be overdressed if you're wearing long pants. Breathe in the salty air and watch boats slowly rock in the marina while you dine at simple wood tables. The down-to-earth menu features fresh oysters and shrimp served many ways, including raw, fried, steamed or in a po’boy sandwich. Oysters Rockefeller is about as fancy as it gets. Drink it all down with an ice-cold beer.
A short boat ride from Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina transports you to Latitudes , located on an island just off Mallory Square. Tiki torches and a beachfront view of the Gulf of Mexico create a romantic backdrop; the cuisine (and the mood) is Caribbean with Asian and American accents. Menu highlights include butter poached lobster, seafood ravioli and ginger-braised short rib.
Pepe's Cafe is the oldest restaurant in Key West and perhaps its best-kept secret. Locals come here for the comfort food and relaxing ambience. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes are a favorite, and every Thursday is Thanksgiving. The brick walls hold photos of celebrities who have dined here; a large bougainvillea tree provides shade on the patio.
See all the AAA Diamond Rated restaurants for this destination.
EventsIn addition to its many cultural and historic landmarks, this destination hosts a number of outstanding festivals and events that may coincide with your visit.
By Patricia Miller
At the Marathon Seafood Festival , held in March, feast upon the freshest fish culled from Marathon's unusually deep bays. Lobster, grouper, conch, shrimp, snapper and stone crab await your appetite; a boat show, live music, arts and crafts and a flea market flesh out the festivities.
The Seven Mile Bridge begins in Marathon, and every April 1,500 runners compete in the Seven Mile Bridge Run to race from one end to the other. Cheer them on while taking in the beauty of the vivid sapphire waters stretching to the horizon.
Blow your own horn in a conch-shell-blowing contest during Key West's Conch Republic Independence Celebration commemorating 1982's short-lived liberation of the Keys. April's 10-day event includes drag queens sprinting in stilettos in a “drag race,” a bed race featuring wildly decorated beds, and a pirate's ball.
In keeping with Key West's motto "One Human Family" is the 5-day Key West Pride Festival in June. Shake your groove thing at clothing-optional late-night dance parties with live DJs; cheer on your favorite contestant at the Mr., Ms. and Miss Pride pageants. The family-friendly Pride Parade caps off the week with the carrying of the 100-foot-long section of the Sea-to-Sea Rainbow Flag.
In July, dive or snorkel in the clear waters of Looe Key Reef in Big Pine Key for the Underwater Music Festival . You'll be reelin' and rockin' to tunes played by undersea musicians surrounded by a beautiful coral reef and its colorful denizens, including angelfish, parrotfish and yellowtail.
Head back to Key West for some more frivolity. The Hemingway Days Festival in mid-July pays homage to the isle's adopted son, Ernest Hemingway. Activities include a look-alike contest, literary readings, a marlin tournament, a Caribbean street fair and a short-story competition.
Key West earns its nickname of “Key Weird” during Fantasy Fest in late October. Mingle with some 70,000 others if you dare at this adult-themed saturnalia where Mardi Gras meets Halloween. Wacky costume contests, parades and parties galore are some of the highlights.
Unusual things drop at midnight during the New Year's Eve Key West Celebrations , including a conch shell, a drag queen in a giant high heel shoe and a pirate wench from a tall ship. Fireworks blaze over Key West Harbor, welcoming a new year of good times in the Keys.
See all the AAA recommended events for this destination.
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Little DeersBy Patricia Miller
The Florida Keys are famous for their coral reefs, Key lime pie, dazzling sunsets, and marine wildlife, but one small creature indigenous to the area is relatively unknown outside the islands: the Florida Key deer. A tiny subspecies of the much larger Virginia white-tailed deer, Key deer are the smallest race of deer in North America, measuring only 24-32 inches at the shoulder (about the height of an Irish Setter) and weighing an average 65 pounds. These Lilliputian creatures vary in color from reddish brown to slate gray and exist nowhere else in the world but Big Pine Key . You'll find these endangered animals at the 9,200-acre National Key Deer Refuge , which draws some 90,000 annual visitors.
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Most deer fatalities occur along US 1 and Key Deer Boulevard, and several agencies—the Nature Conservancy, the Florida Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, county government and local citizens groups—have banded together to address the loss. The posted speed limit is now 45 mph during the daytime and 35 mph during nighttime on the stretch of US 1 running through Big Pine Key, greatly lowering the risk of collisions, especially at dawn and dusk when the deer come out to feed.
Visitors are often tempted to treat the darling deer like pets, rather than wild animals, but feeding Key deer is illegal. Small herds sometimes roam near hotels looking for a handout. It's important to remember that any physical contact with the deer lessens their natural fear of humans and increases their risk of injury, disease, poaching and dog attacks.
While the Key deer's chances for survival have increased, the future is still in jeopardy. Drive carefully, and help protect these beautiful and fascinating creatures—one of the Florida Keys' best-kept secrets.
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