There are some places we go to where we already have preconceived ideas of what we’ll find. Despite there being countless unusual things to do in the Florida Keys and Key West, it remains one of those destinations.
First of all there’s the sunshine. The most southerly stretch of the Sunshine State is spoilt with long days of sunny rays. And with the tip of Key West just 90 miles from Cuba, it’s a very tropical climate.
With that you’d perhaps expect a laid back Caribbean atmosphere. But the Keys delivers this and more. Locals seem to become ever more relaxed the further south you go, while Key West has evolved further with something of a go-it’s-own-way, quirky nature – crowned by the annual, anything-goes Fantasy Fest jamboree. But you don’t have to wait until autumn to enjoy a little of the Keys’ unique culture.
Then there’s the food – with around 1,700 islands and mile upon mile of coast, you’d expect the Florida Keys to have excellent seafood. Not only will you find the freshest lobster, but also conch, a shellfish from which the locals have penned the Keys’ nickname – the Conch Republic. But don’t expect these seafood delicacies to be served in overblown restaurants sporting starched white tablecloths. Harbourside restaurants and sink-your-toes-in-the-sand beach dining is a thing here.
Then there’s key lime pie – if there’s one thing you’d expect to find and, if you’re like me, will consume in huge quantities, it’s this local creation. It comes in ever more varieties, with each venue from you visit claiming the crown to the best key lime pie in the whole of the Keys. So with some preconceived ideas and expectations met, but with plenty more to discover, I present you with some of the best things to do in the Florida Keys and Key West.
Cool and unusual things to do in the Florida Keys and Key West
1. Save the turtles
Turtles are one of my favourite animals since I swam with these magnificent sea creatures in the Caribbean. So visiting the Turtle Hospital in Marathon was definitely one of my favourite things to do in the Florida Keys.
The hospital was set up in 1986 to carry out research and rehabilitation of injured sea turtles, returning many to the sea, or continuing to look after the animals for the rest of their lives.
It’s a fantastic centre for conservation and learning – perfect for adults and children.
2. Take to the water on the African Queen
Relive a little movie history aboard the steamboat featured in the classic Hollywood film, The African Queen. The boat used to shuttle cargo, missionaries and hunting parties across the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert. Then in 1951 it was used as the namesake vessel in the Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn film.
Afterwards she remained in service in Africa until 1968 when she was brought to the United States working in San Francisco, Oregon and Florida. Now you can take daily cruises on the iconic boat through the canals of Key Largo.
3. Become a rum runner
Become a (legal) rum runner at Key West’s first rum distillery. Chef, and acclaimed local restauranteur, Paul Menta, sought a new challenge in 2013 and founded the Key West Legal Rum Distillery. Housed in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant, the distillery produces six times distilled specialty rums with infusions of coconut, vanilla creme brulee and key lime.
If rum’s too strong for you, it also makes Key West sodas with unique, all natural flavorings like strawberry cream and ginger lime.
4. Get earnest with Hemingway
One of the world’s most popular novelists, Ernest Hemingway enjoyed a golden period while living in Key West. It’s here at the Hemingway home, that he wrote A Farewell To Arms and it’s thought that many of the characters in To Have and Have Not are based on Key Westers he knew at the time.
The Spanish colonial style building, now a museum to Hemingway’s craft, is also home to a menagerie of cats. The Hemingways were big cat lovers, nurtured by a white six-toed cat they were given by a ship’s captain. Today 40-50 six-toed cats live in the museum grounds, some thought to be descendants, named Snow White. Hemingway named all of his cats after famous people so you can meet any number of celebrity moggies at the museum.
5. Spot unusual breeds
The Florida Keys is home to a fantastic range of wildlife, on land and at sea. There are exotic birds, flamingos, butterflies, dolphins, and even the opportunity to feed giant tarpon – not to mention the six-toed cats of Hemingway house and museum. But Key West has some other amusing locals in a breed of wild chickens that roam its streets, running across the road in small pecky packs. I liked this quote about the feral fowl, that they seem the perfect metaphor for Key West – historic, colorful, sort of wild, a little noisy and occasionally annoying.
Another unusual breed you should try to spot – though it isn’t difficult as they roam residential streets is Key deer. Put spotting the deer on your list of things to do in the Florida Keys because they are an endangered species only found on the islands.
The fearless animals can be spotted feeding on grass verges and are very friendly. Also Key deer are known to swim between islands, which has to be worth seeing.
6. Catch an entertaining sunset
When I first heard about the Mallory Square Sunset Celebration I thought we’d arrived in Key West just in time for a special annual event. But it’s far better than that. It seems the people of the Conch Republic love a good sunset and sun-kissed Key West has a perfectly colourful ending to each day.
It’s not just the sunset either – though the orange-pink painted sky that hangs over the Atlantic Ocean is a perfect backdrop to the colourful action on land. Mallory Square is the heart of Key West and each evening an array of street performers, jugglers, musicians and more line the promenade to entertain the masses – it’s one of the most colourful things to do in the Florida Keys.
7. Go to the ends of the Earth
Well, it’s not quite the end of the Earth, but I always love places that are geographical extremes. And at the very tip of Key West you’ll find yourself at the most southerly point in the continental United States.
It’s a place to feel the sea breeze in your hair as you look wistfully across the ocean towards Cuba and beyond.
Where to stay in The Florida Keys and Key West
The sun rises in the east and so an Atlantic Ocean facing room at the Amara Cay Resort, in Islamorada, is destined to impress. By day there’s watersports or just beach lounging to be had at this “barefoot elegance” resort. With a good restaurant (where I enjoyed my first taste of conch) and spacious accommodation, it has a great location at the heart of the Keys.
Enjoy plenty of chic at the boutique The Gates Hotel in Key West. A completely modernised and transformed former motel (the only sign of it’s past being the layout of the rows of accommodation set around the pool). But once in your room you’ll find a soothing mix of blue hues and sand colours, as well as extras like a coffee machine and a tablet to help you discover the local area. The hotel also has its own signature rum created by Key West Legal Rum Distillery.
Deer pic by Joseph C Boone, used under Creative Commons 2.0.