Tropical Getaway

By on November 1, 2015

By Michele McIntyre –

If some tropical island locations leave you with a nagging feeling that you might not be able to get off the island should you need to, you don’t have to worry about that in the Florida Keys. What’s to love about the Florida Keys? Everything. It’s a tropical location with no passport requirement. The vibe is Carribean, but it’s completely within the US. The drive from Key Largo to Key West via US1 is nothing short of stunning. Seafood, conch fritters, fresh fish and Key Lime Pie. Need we say more? Read on to find out how to spend nine days on a road trip from Miami to Key West and back.

Day 1: Fly into Miami international Airport (MIA). Rent a car and drive south to Key Largo. Check into the Hampton Inn Key Largo for the night. Grab something to drink from the Tiki Bar and have your picture taken with Mango the parrot. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a manatee in the shallow waters of the beach area.

Make the short drive to Bayside Grille for dinner and to watch the sunset. Sit downstairs in the Bayside Sunset Bar and order an Ocean Bounty Bucket and the excellent Key Lime pie to get into the island spirit, while listening to the nightly live music.

Travel Tip: allow for approximately two hours from landing at MIA to arriving in Key Largo. Additional time should be allotted during periods of heavy traffic or rain.

Day 2: Grab breakfast at your hotel (included) and head south towards Islamorada. Arrive at Theater Of The Sea in time for the 9:30 Guided Marine Life Tour and flow from show to show until the 11:30 Bottomless Boat Ride. Leave before it gets too hot.

Travel Tip: Allow 2.5 to 3 hours at Theater Of The Sea.

Drive a bit farther south to Robbie’s Marina to feed the giant Tarpon. Admission to the dock is $1 per person and each bucket of fish is $3 (tax not included). It’s well worth the $4. Have lunch at the Hungry Tarpon restaurant. The fish tacos, Matecumbe Fish Sandwich and Cash Island Shrimp Po Boy are all excellent choices. Wander around the open air shops before finishing your drive to Key West.

IMG_4655Check into Lighthouse Court, your Key West home for the next three nights. Room E4 is perfect – it’s located just steps away from the included continental breakfast, the pool and the Mojito Bar which features its own small deck. Grab a drink from the bar and take a dip in the pool before going exploring.

Your hotel is only one block from Key West’s famed Duvall Street. Spend the evening exploring the waterfront area and be sure to have a front row seat at Mallory Square for the nightly Sunset Celebration. When the sun dips below the horizon head to El Meson de Pepe for authentic Cuban food. Order a homemade Sangria and one of the combination platters for a sampling of a variety of Cuban specialties.

Day 3: Have breakfast (included) on your private deck or at one of the cozy poolside umbrella tables at your hotel. Be sure to try one of the ham and Swiss croissants from Croissants de France.

You have one goal for today: get out on or in the water. Certified Scuba Divers can spend the afternoon diving the world’s third largest coral barrier reef (Florida Reef) or diving one of the many wrecks surrounding Key West with Southpoint Divers.

IMG_4572Your sunset this evening will be viewed from the gorgeous Appledore V Schooner operated by Sebago Watersports. Sebago’s crew is second to none and with only 24 passengers, you’ll feel like you’re on a private sailing trip. Fresh fruit, cheeses and assorted crackers are offered along with beer, wine, sodas and champagne. The homemade sangria is excellent.

Day 4: Today will be spent exploring what Key West has to offer on land. Directly across the street from your hotel is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. (Allow 45 minutes to one hour, more if taking the guided tour). Pay a visit to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy (allow 30 minutes to one hour). Kids will love the Key West Aquarium; parents will love its manageable size. The Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum is a fun way to learn about how Key West became the richest city in the United States. Be sure to climb the 65′ lookout tower for stunning views of the Key West harbor. (Allow one hour).

Travel tip: If you experience one of those afternoon rain storms that Florida is famous for in the summer, the Conch Tour Train is a fun way to get out of the rain (sort of) and still learn the fascinating history of Key West. For the driest seat (you will get a little wet no matter where you sit, but they give you a poncho), choose a middle seat in the middle of the train.

Tonight you’ll board a Key West Sunset Dinner Cruise with Sunset Watersports. Enjoy a tropical food buffet in air conditioned comfort, live calypso music (a bit crazy at times) and an open bar. Priced at an online discounted rate of $59 for adults, this is one of the best values in town if you consider that your dinner, drinks and entertainment are all rolled into one adventure.

IMG_4628Day 5: This is your last day in Key West and you will certainly make the most of it. You’ll board Fury’s Ultimate Express for a morning or afternoon half day tour that includes: parasailing, a 30-45 minute jetski tour, water trampoline, kayaking and a banana boat ride. This tour is SO MUCH FUN! It doesn’t hurt that they ply you with yummy snacks: fruit, hummus with pita chips, smokin’ tuna fish dip, cheese & vegetable platter and cookies. While this is not a traditional booze cruise beer and wine are served along with sodas and water.

Travel tip: While the order of activities may vary depending on group size and crew availability, many tours start with parasailing from the Key West Bight. Once your exhilarating (not scary, just breathtaking) parasail ride is over, you’ll travel by boat to the water sports dock anchored off shore. It’s here where you’ll board the jet skis for your tour. There isn’t much shade at the dock, so be prepared to jump in the water to cool off and bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat. You’ll be photographed during your parasail ride and offered the SD card for $30. If that price seems to steep exchange cameras/cell phones with another group of riders and offer to photograph each other.

For lunch or dinner today, get a taste of authentic Old Key West with a visit to Schooner Wharf. The food is good but the atmosphere and live entertainment is really fun. If you’re tired by now of endless fish and seafood, get the Pirate’s Cut Burger. This burger is not for the lightweight. It’s 10 ounces of prime rib burger topped with braid rib meat and smokey bacon poblano sauce, baby romaine lettuce and aged cheddar. It’s meat on top of meat covered in a meat sauce. Delicious for the carnivore in your group.

When your tour ends, so does your time in Key West. Grab your car and head north on US 1 for Part II of your adventure.

Check into your home for the next three nights, the brand new Hyatt Place Marathon. Situated gulf side at the site of the historic Faro Blanco Lighthouse and nearby famous Seven Mile Bridge, Hyatt Place is located just a few minutes from anywhere in Marathon. What’s to love about this property? Included breakfast (great breakfast sandwiches), fun lawn games, two pools (one waterfront with lighthouse view) and everything is clean, fresh and new. What you may not love about this property is that no rooms have balconies or terraces and many rooms overlook the parking lot. The plentiful outdoor public spaces make up for this.

IMG_4625Day 6: After breakfast at your hotel, head to the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters. Take a guided aquarium tour before spending an hour or so wandering through the exhibits. The tidal pool touch tank and the predator reef tank for live shark feedings are especially cool. Schedule a Coral Reef Encounter. When it’s time for your encounter, you’ll complete some paperwork and be handed a towel. You’ll be instructed to shower off to remove all body oils and products that could have a negative impact on the delicate balance of the aquarium.

Then you’ll meet your guide for an orientation of what you can expect when you get in the tank. You’ll be given two choices when you make your reservation: snorkel or SNUBA. You’ll interact with “Spotty” the sweet and friendly Spotted Eagle Ray and feed the fish from a squeeze bottle. The most exciting part of the excursion is safely feeding the sharks and other predatory fish through specially built feeding ports that connect two tanks.

After your encounter, head to Sparky’s Landing for a late lunch. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but the fish tacos are the best ever thanks to the flavor explosion from pickled red onions and cilantro lime cream. The jalapeño bacon grilled cheese is amazing and the key lime pie is quite possibly the best in all of the Keys.

Day 7: Today is a day of leisure. Swim in the pools at Faro Blanco Resort. Visit the local beaches: Bahia Honda State Park is spectacular – best beach in all of the keys. Sombrero Beach is also a nice spot to cool off with no admission fees.

Tonight you’re in for a real treat aboard the sailing catamaran Sirius. This clean, spacious and comfortable 24-passenger vessel is the perfect boat to enjoy a beautiful sunset. Captain Dale is a lifelong sailor whose hospitality will make you feel like you’re on a private charter. Your relaxing sunset cruise includes beer, wine, bottled water and soda.

Day 8: Check out of your hotel and drive north to Islamorada. Spend a few hours at the History of Diving Museum. The Museum features one of the world’s largest international collection of diving helmets and artifacts.

Head to Key Largo to spend the afternoon at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Reserve a late afternoon 2 1/2 hour snorkeling tour. The well-priced tours are one of the best values in the Keys. Bring your own snorkel, fins and mask to save $9 off the price of your tour. The boats are simple, roomy and clean and the captains and onboard dive masters are knowledgeable and professional. Be sure to save some time to wander around the visitor center featuring a 30,000 gallon saltwater aquarium and other natural history exhibits interpreting the park’s unique marine environment. The concession stand inside the park is convenient to grab a quick lunch or snack between activities.

IMG_4575Check into the Key Largo Marriott Beach Resort for your last night in paradise. For the best views reserve a bay view balcony room. Arrive just in time for happy hour at Breezer’s Tiki Bar. Take your drinks back to the pool and watch the sunset from your lounge chair.

Walk next door to Sundowners for dinner. Nothing else on the menu matters once you taste the pineapple coconut bread. The 5 cheese macaroni with toasted bread crumbs and bacon is fantastic too. Kids will love to feed the tarpon from the back dock.

Day 9: You’ll travel back to Miami for your flight home. It’s just about an hour drive, but allow extra time for turnpike delays and to return the rental car which can be a lengthy process.

Florida Keys Travel Tips

  • Hurricanes and Tropical Storms can be nuisances but they can also be real threats to South Florida from June 1st to November 30th. Stay alert and informed by the local news media. The best source of unbiased information comes from the National Hurricane Center. Tourists are the first group to be evacuated in the event a storm becomes a category 1 hurricane or greater. Heed all evacuation warnings. By visiting during the peak hurricane season (mid August to late October), you’ll be rewarded with low hotel rates, plenty of space on tours and excursions and less crowded restaurants and bars. The opposite is true for special events like Fantasy Fest in Key West – usually held in late October).
  • Tipping tips – In addition to tipping for services like housekeeping (give a few dollars a day, more for top tier properties) and server/bartender tabs (18-22%), excursion crew and tour operators expect gratuities too and they’re not shy about telling you so. They might even suggest a dollar amount or a percentage (this usually sounds like this: “If you had a good time here today and if our crew took good care of you, we appreciate tips just like your servers and bartenders do on shore.” It can be off-putting if your not prepared for it. Budget for gratuities just like you would food, lodging and transportation.
  • For more information on the Florida Keys, click here to visit the Florida Keys Tourism website.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer and her family were guests of many of the hotels and attractions mentioned in this destination guide. While the opinions of the writer are her own, believes in full disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest.

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Tropical Getaway