What is a key? “Key” is the bastardization of “cayo”, the Spanish word for a small island. From the entrance to the Keys to Key West it’s about 106 miles, and the speed limit is 45-55 mph. Driving to Key West, you don’t really notice the low speed limit because you’re too busy looking at all the gorgeous views. Coming back, however, feels like a chore.
(Chris’s opinion) We had chosen the Keys because we have historically had tons of fun on islands. The best trip we have ever taken, arguably, was to Guam. We rented a car, drove to various beaches, hikes, and snorkeling spots, and were largely left alone. For some reason we expected the Keys to be similar to that. We had our own car, and 106 miles of Keys to explore (compared to Guam’s 30 miles). Turns out, the Keys are for people with boats. And who has boats? Retired people, rich people, and retired rich people, that’s who. We didn’t get to swim or snorkel half as much as we would have liked because the majority of the coast is either mangrove (nasty), public beach (super nasty), or boat storage, launches, docks, etc. If you want to enjoy the water you need to take a boat out 30 miles and then you’ll have perfect snorkeling/swimming. We made the most of it – as much as you can without a boat.
When we first entered the Keys we went to Blonde Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory and got some slices of key lime pie. Obviously that’s what you want to do in the keys – have key lime pie (it’s in the name!). It had a cutesy place to sit in the back:
Our first day we went to John Pennekamp State Park which is the US’s only coral reef state park. You need a boat to see anything of worth – but you can snorkel off the shore and visit their aquarium/museum. When we first got there it started to rain and lightning so everyone had to get out of the water. We sat in the truck in the pouring rain and were a little bummed. But we weren’t going to mope the trip away. We went to the aquarium/visitors center and learned about local wildlife, how coral forms, and what mangroves even are. The sun came out soon and we were the first people in the water (Cannon Beach). Snorkeling around we were really surprised to see plenty of parrot fish, crabs, as well as huge and tiny fish we don’t know the names of. We saw a few anemones and even a pissed off (and injured) barracuda. For a public beach and snorkeling area we were surprised to see so much.
We had a great dinner at Bayside Grille and Sunset Bar. Then watched the sunset back at our hotel.
The next day we went to Dagney Johnson Hammock Botanical State Park to take a “hike” that was – surprise- advertised in a brochure. This was another bait and switch as it was a small park that had neither nature nor a trail. The advertised hike was 6 miles. The sign on site said the maximum distance was 2. The mosquitoes were worse than anywhere else we’ve ever been (we had to run to try not to get bit). Also there was a crew leaf-blowing the “nature trail” so it’s basically just a sidewalk or gravel road (no real trail) through mosquito hell. We ran out of there and didn’t look back. (Chris here) Even one year later, I am filled with an intense loathing of this place.
We went to Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen and got a frozen key lime pie milkshake as a consolation prize.
We went to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center. There are two locations – an actual bird hospital and the sanctuary/rehab center itself. Make sure you don’t go to the hospital. The sanctuary was a huge surprise. It’s not a zoo but an actual sanctuary for birds who have been hit by cars, been hurt by fishing equipment or who were pets who shouldn’t have been pets. The center tries to do surgery to save, then release the birds. The ones at the sanctuary were ones who could never be released into the wild. They’re missing wings or parts of beaks and couldn’t make it in the wild. They just live out their days in large cages, eating and being pretty for tourists.
It’s free but takes donations (which go to the birds, obviously).
We drove about 44 minutes to Long Key. The view was really starting to get gorgeous with hundreds of shades of blues and greens on both sides of the road.
Our next sleeping location was at Long Key State Park. We backed the truck in to a truly amazing view. The ocean was mere feet away from our tail gate.
We walked into the water, looking for a place to swim, but were dismayed to discover that the water barely went past our ankles. You would have to walk straight out to sea for miles before it got deep enough to swim. Since it is so shallow it’s about as warm as a bath tub. We still walked around for a while, just to try it.
We tried swimming at Anne’s Beach – a free public beach. It’s deep enough to swim but there isn’t anything to see in the water. It was also very warm. You would definitely need a boat if you ever wanted to swim in cooling waters or see any fish or coral.
Hurricane Irma in September 2017 (5 months after we were there) completely destroyed Anne’s Beach. We also went swimming at Sombrero Beach which is said to be recovering from the hurricane still.
We checked into our final RV park in the keys. It has since closed which is fine because we can’t remember the name of it anyway. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
There was no shade so we had to improvise.
We were sick to death of crowds and rude people so we cancelled our trip to Universal Studios (we were going to see Harry Potter World) but we just couldn’t do it anymore. We are introverted people and sleeping in the back of a truck doesn’t necessarily recharge our introvert tanks. We spent a few hours tweaking our trip so we could do other things. A security guard came over and saw our Colorado plates. Many people had been talking to us about Colorado – and by that I mean they liked to brag that they knew someone who knew someone else who had gone to Colorado State University or University of Colorado. The guy who came to talk to us was the same – he knew someone who’s nephew had gone to CU for a while. He asked us about the Keys and when we mentioned we wish we could snorkel more (without a boat!) he recommended Scout Key where we would go tomorrow.
Oh the big Key West. Famous for really nothing but everyone has heard of it. It has the Southernmost Point, Mile Marker 0 for US-1, Earnest Hemingway’s house (and 6 toed cats), and some museums. We would’ve stayed here but it’s really expensive. So we had to settle for a day trip. The drive there crawls because of the endangered key deer (where you have to reduce speed even more). We made it, eventually. Parking was a nightmare and we ended up parking at Margaritaville. There was a cruise so it was much more busy than it normally would’ve been.
We walked on Duval Street (like Bourbon’s Street’s much older cousin). Then visited the Key West Legal Rum Distillery. We had been dying to go to a rum distillery given Florida’s history of rum. It (was) so small there
aren’t (weren’t) tours. Edit:Their website makes it look like they have scheduled times now (and Mojito Classes), but when we went they didn’t. How it used to go – If one of the employees wasn’t busy he would take you through the process. If he was busy you didn’t get a tour. It was very impromptu and casual – so your experience would range from completely ignored or treated like a rum distillery god.
We got some free tastes then bought a mini sampler and some stickers. Having a small little truck meant we couldn’t buy a lot of souvenirs as we just didn’t have space.
We walked around a bit:Then we went to a Cuban restaurant, El Meson De Pepe’s Restaurant & Bar. We had some sampler plates to try everything. Chickens ran in and out from under the table and the waitresses were all dressed up. It felt as authentic as we can guess authenticity would be (having never been to Cuba).
We decided to leave early to try snorkeling at Scout Key. On our way out we saw advertisements for a shipwreck museum (archaeology not the little kid’s one) and other museums that weren’t in any of our brochures (Florida! Why!) but we had already paid our parking and were almost out of town. We drove by the Southernmost Point. There was a long line of tourists waiting to take pictures with it. We just looked from the window. We also passed Earnest Hemingway’s house. I was currently reading probably his worst book To Have and Have Not which left me really unimpressed with him. I certainly didn’t want to go to his house after reading that. And yes, we’re in Spain now and so there are a lot of his novels that are much more famous and which take place in Spain we could enjoy but no. To Have and Have Not has put me off for a while.
So we went to Scout Key. If you google Scout Key you can’t really find it online – all the pictures are not of it either. It feels like a local’s only place that has somehow managed to stay out of the tourist’s hands all these years. There is only a tiny tiny little sign (not going to tell you where) you can see and immediately have to turn off when you see the sign. Because all the tourists we met were either on drugs (bragging about being on drugs or doing drugs loudly next to our truck all night) or throwing their nasty children’s diapers on the ground we don’t want to say exactly where it is. It will probably get trashed. If you do happen to see the sign and do happen to make the turn enjoy it and pack out your trash. But we’re not going to give detailed directions.
The next day we left the keys. On our way out we went to a Cuban restaurant that was properly Cuban. They didn’t speak English at all. We looked at the menu and got cafe con leche, a Cubano sandwhich (duh) a “midnight sandwich” which is just a Cubano with sweeter bread. Then we ordered something since we had no idea what it was at all. No better way to find out than just get it – turns out it was a guava fruit pastry.
We would’ve been heading up to Harry Potter world but didn’t. We figured we would just head to the Kennedy Space Center. We drove and drove up there and checked into a KOA. We looked at the brochure and realized it was a disaster area. Just to enter it you had to pay $40 per person with $10 parking. That doesn’t include anything. Just going in and seeing models. If you want to see things that have actually been in space or see anything else (3 different things) you could pay $25 each for these add-ons. I get parts of it aren’t open to the public and should be an add-on but reading people’s reviews online made it sound like a cash grab. The nice folks at the KOA let us check out with a full refund and we just drove off into the sunset. We didn’t know where to go but it wasn’t here.