Florida: Key West - The Conch Republic
The Conch Republic
The southernmost tip of Florida, Key West offers both a dizzying array of water activities and the cultural amenities of a mainland city - with a twist! Clear turquoise water, balmy weather and colorful buildings (and people) draw visitors back again and again. The chain of tiny islands that make up the Florida Keys stretches 113 miles into the sea from the mainland. Resorts, great food, and eclectic shops fill the quaint narrow streets of downtown. But there is more to see than the famous Mallory Pier or the Buoy at the Southernmost point.
Built on coral atolls, the keys have great water views and access but little sand. Not to worry though, Key West offers three locations to loll around in the sun. Fort Zachary Taylor, Higgs Beach and Smathers beach all offer visitors a gentle spot to enjoy the Caribbean blue waters surrounding the keys.
We found a surprisingly nice beach at nearby Bahia Honda State Park. Located just 30 minutes north on Highway One, Bahia Honda State Park offers a quiet, nature preserve that is a stark contrast to the cacophony of Key West. Kayaking in our tandem inflatable was sublime in the crystal blue water near the shoreline. We saw schools of tiny fish and a graceful underwater grass meadow and of course lots of seabirds. It was a lovely way to spend a morning. Kayak and canoe rentals are available on site, along with a snack bar and gift shop.
There is a nature trail at the south end of the island that leads to the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. The view is stunning offering a vista of the entire island. The water below the old bridge sparkles and, if you're lucky, you might get a glimpse of a large ray or sea turtle swimming below the surface. It is also a great spot to sit with binoculars and watch the birds go by!
Snorkeling is pretty good a couple of hundred yards off-shore. It is pretty shallow, probably about six feet deep, so a great beginner area. You can see tropical fish, coral heads and even a lobster or two.
Unfortunately, Bahia Honda suffered quite a bit of damage with Hurricane Irma, but re-opened parts of the park in December 2017. The Park Service expects to open the rest of the park facilities as soon as the damage is repaired. Check the Florida State Parks website for details before you go.
On the Water
Sunset Sail from Key West Harbor
Surrounded by water, a visit to Key West must include getting out on the water. Going for a sail, especially at sunset, allows you to enjoy the beauty of this area from a different perspective. At Key West Harbor, there are many boats to choose from including dinner cruises that accommodate a very large number of 'sailors'. Instead, we decided on a smaller catamaran holding only twenty people. Since the wharf hosts several terrific restaurants as well as a plethora of shops, we arrived a bit early to take a walk around the shops, get a bite to eat and have a leisurely glass of wine before boarding our catamaran.
Casting off the lines, our crew invited us to enjoy snacks and beverages in the main cabin. As we motored out of the harbor the captain invited the passengers to help raise the sails. Although we motor-sailed the whole trip, it was still exhilarating watching the sheets unfurl with each pull from ten hearty souls. Jim and I spent the voyage on the top deck admiring the views of the setting sun, listening to the music from the cabin and enjoying the stiff breeze. We sailed for about two hours total, going out to sea and then turning around and heading back to harbor. It was dark when we returned, and the lights of the harbor restaurants and clubs glittered invitingly as we docked.
Downtown Key West
We ventured downtown and walked everywhere. The city is alive with people, especially when the cruise ships are in the harbor. It just adds to the party ambiance! It is relatively easy to navigate the city on foot and there are dozens of shops, restaurants, and museums ready to receive curious tourists. Many people rent scooters to get around, although we found walking gives a better sense of the city. It is worth getting a cab to and from the campground to eliminate parking worries.
We stumbled onto the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum and enjoyed a leisurely audio tour of the treasure hunter's story and see some of the remarkable finds salvaged from the Atocha. But it is not just about treasure hunting, the museum is also active in the preservation space. The story of Key West and its relationship with the transatlantic slave trade is illustrated with the sobering exhibit of the slave ship Henrietta Marie along with its story. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum also curates the African American Cemetery at Higgs Beach.
Another celebrated local to Key West is author Ernest Hemmingway. His home is a museum on the island and its collection of six-toed cats is rather legendary. They loll about the property, with their curious paws on display! I rather liked the exhibit of Hemmingway's desk and typewriter. Amazing to think how much great literature came from that old machine.
We took a tip from a friend to have brunch at Pepe's in Key West. Pepe's is the oldest restaurant in Key West, established in 1909. The Bloody Marys are spicy and the eggs benedict are perfect. If you're there at the dinner hour, expect a fantastic steakhouse. After walking all around downtown we were more than happy to sit and wait on the patio for a table and then linger over our drinks in a little corner booth.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
A lovely beach, great kayaking, and snorkeling spots, as well as the historic fort, are a wonderful way to while away an afternoon. The admission is nominal and there are guided tours of the fort daily. Of course, you could also stop in at the Ernest Hemmingway House to see where the famous author lived and worked, or Harry Truman's Little White House for a guided tour.
Boyd's Key West Campground
Everyone wants a great RV site, with a water view, good facilities, convenient to attractions, all for a budget price. In the Keys that is a particularly difficult goal to achieve. Since its growth from a small fishing outpost to a major tourist destination, Key West, in particular, is not well suited to RV travelers. Narrow streets with parking on both sides create a gauntlet for maneuvering large vehicles. Limited parking, especially for something like an RV, is another challenge. But the weather, the entertainment value, and the sheer beauty of the Keys make it an irresistible destination. All that said, the area does provide some accommodation for RV life.
There are at least two good sized campgrounds on Stock Island just before crossing over US1 to Key West. And there are many others scattered throughout the keys from Key Largo to Bahia Honda State Park. Most provide access to water activities and some offer remarkable water views right from your RV campsite. But don't get the image in your head of RV solitude on a palm-strewn beach.
What we found on arriving at Boyd's on Stock Island, was a remarkably dense population of RVs. We have been camping in wilderness areas for the past year, so these tight quarters were a bit of an adjustment for us. Mere feet separated RVs, with little more than a picket fence to delineate one site from the next. That said, Boyd's is a really great campground with excellent facilities, pool, private showers, a boat ramp, and great water views all within a bike ride to downtown Key West.
Our site was pretty remarkable. A hard coral surface made leveling the unit easy. The rear of the site had a picnic table that kept us from backing into the water. (We had about six feet from the back of the unit to the seawall's edge.) We set up the camp chairs and table at the back of the unit, grabbed a bottle of wine, some cheese, and crackers, and sat down to watch the sunset. BONUS! The naval air station was across the bay and the jets returning from training missions flew overhead to land. Now, I know not everyone would enjoy this, but for Jim, it was heaven on earth! Turns out this naval air station is where they train "top gun" pilots, so we could watch them take off every morning at 8 am and see them return every evening at 5 pm. We didn't see or hear them the rest of the day, but takeoffs and landings were enough to keep Jim enthralled.
Before You Leave
Southernmost Point Park
No trip to Key West would be complete without a stop at the Southernmost Point marker. Be prepared for lots of visitors taking pictures, so you may have to wait to get a shot without people in front of the marker. If you visit Fort Zachary Taylor, the marker is not too far a walk from the fort.
Seven Mile Bridge
The drive from the mainland traverses the famous sever-mile bridge. Crossing over spectacular turquoise water and watching the boats make their way out to sea makes the drive delightful. If you can schedule your crossing at sunrise you will be treated to a spectacular vista but really any time of day is quite lovely!
The Keys are an amazing destination. Though Key West is a bit of a challenge for RVs to navigate, leaving your rig at camp and venturing out on foot, scooter or car is your best way to see this eclectic island. Restaurants, shops, museums and galleries are plentiful. Add to that the almost endless array of water activities and this island is a visitors paradise. Crowds are inevitable, but seem most apparent when the cruise ships dock. If you can schedule your visit to avoid the cruise ships, you will enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere but maybe the crowd makes it just that much more festive!