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By Bryanna Royal
A very under appreciated tropical vacation destination right here in the United States is the Florida Keys. Yes, you’ve heard of the Keys, you may even have visited at some point in your life.
We visited for a couple of weeks and instantly fell in love with the island chain. It had such a Caribbean feel with the conveniences of being in the United States. We loved that first visit so much that we took an extended stay the next year, for about three months, and it was very hard to leave.
The great thing about being there for so long was it gave us the opportunity to really explore all up and down the island chain. Here are the spots we would include in the ultimate Florida Keys road trip.
The first thing to realize is that once you enter the Keys there is more than a hundred miles from the very Upper Keys all the way down to Key West. That’s a lot of ground to cover. It’s amazing to think that you will be driving to each of these islands via 42 bridges
The other thing to know is that directions in the Keys are given by saying what mile marker, or MM, they are located. Key Largo, which is the first island, starts at mile marker 107 and Key West is at mile marker 0.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The first stop on the trip is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is located at mile marker 102.5 in Key Largo. This is one of the best snorkel and diving locations in the country.
The state park is pretty much all on the coral reef, so you don’t have to go far from shore to see some really cool colors and marine life.
There is plenty to do at Pennekamp — enough to spend an entire day there. There is a nice beach for relaxing, and there are kayaks and stand-up paddle boards for rent. You can take them through mangrove trails which was really neat.
The park offers boat tours, one of which being a glass bottom boat. This tour will take you out to the coral reef where you can see tons of fish. They also have a small cafe and gift shop.
For more information on the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, visit www.pennekamppark.com.
Blonde Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory
A bit down the road at the Blonde Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory at mile marker 92 in Tavernier, Fla. The Keys may not be known for it’s beaches, but it is known for a few other things, Key Lime Pie being one of them. It says it right in the title! Stop here for a slice or a whole pie. It’s delicious!
For more information or to check their specialties, see their website at www.blondgiraffe.com.
Marker 88 restaurant
After you had dessert, how about some real food? The next stop on the trip is Marker 88, which is located at, you guessed it, at mile marker 88 in Islamorada, Fla.
We really liked this restaurant for its outside set up. Don’t get me wrong, pretty much every restaurant in the Keys has outdoor seating due to it’s beautiful views and relatively nice temperature, but Marker 88’s setup was really nice.
Watching the sunset is a spectacular experience.
To check out their menu or to see the beach-side dining, check out Marker 88’s website at www.marker88.info.
If you’re looking for a cup of coffee or a baked good rather than an hearty meal, check out Midway Cafe. You’ll find it at mile marker 80.5 in Islamorada.
This quirky little cafe has some really great coffee and coffee drinks. The different flavors and drinks rivals that of your local Starbucks.
For more information, visit www.midwaycafecoffeebar.com.
Robbie’s of Islamorada
The next stop on the trip is one of the cooler, and more frightening, experiences we’ve done. There is a one-stop shop for fishing, boat rentals, snorkeling, and more at Robbie’s of Islamorada located at mile marker 77.5. There is a restaurant/bar at Robbie’s as well as several outdoor shops to browse through.
The can’t-miss experience, however, is feeding the tarpons. You purchase a bucket of fish for $3 to feed to these giant tarpon fish (which seem to be upwards of 4 feet long) by hand.
It’s definitely an adrenaline rush to see these monsters lurch out of the water right at your hand, but it’s an experience you must try! Just watch out for the pelicans as they are just as aggressive and hungry as the tarpons.
For more information on Robbie’s, visit www.robbies.com.
Long Key State Park
The Keys are home to several great state parks (one of which we already talked about) and they are all stop-worthy on this epic road trip.
Most of them offer camping, so if you’re looking to stay overnight in the Keys, this may be your most economical way to do so. The caveat being it’s very difficult to find a campsite available, especially in the winter months.
On Long Key, be sure to stop at Long Key State Park. Here you can bike, hike, and splash around in a shallow beach area. This would also be a good pit stop for a picnic on your road trip.
Long Key State Park is located at mile marker 67.5. Their website is at www.floridastateparks.org/park/Long-Key.
Curry Hammock State Park
A bit up the road from Long Key State Park is another really great park called Curry Hammock State Park. We camped here for a few nights and we really enjoyed it. The campsite is clean and friendly, even to big RVs.
There is a small playground and several covered picnic areas right on the beach at Curry Hammock. They also have a nice sandy beach area if you’re looking to kick back and relax.
Curry Hammock is at mile marker 54 in Marathon. Check out their website at www.floridastateparks.org/park/curry-hammock.
Now that you are in Marathon, which is considered the Middle Keys, you’re at about the half-way point in the island chain down to Key West.
Marathon is more like your typical small town since you’ll find a couple of grocery stores, fast food and quite a few stores like K-Mart and Home Depot.
Marathon is also home to probably our favorite beach in all the Keys. Sombrero Beach is a few miles east of US Hwy. 1 on Sombrero Beach Rd. This beach has soft golden sand and plenty of ocean to swim or paddle board in.
Also in Marathon is the Turtle Hospital at mile marker 48.5. Stop in for a tour to learn how this hospital takes in injured or sick sea turtles and how they nurse them back to health. During the week, you can even watch them perform surgeries on the turtles.
For more information on the Turtle Hospital, check out www.turtlehospital.org.
Sunset Grille and Raw Bar
One of the last stops in Marathon that is very unique is Sunset Grille and Raw Bar at mile marker 47. Here you have access to a great restaurant and two full-service bars, one of which is outside next to their huge heated swimming pool. So grab a table, order some drinks and take a dip while you wait.
For more details, visit www.sunsetgrille7milebridge.com.
Seven Mile Bridge
Right next to Sunset Grille is the Seven Mile Bridge. This has to involve some sort of engineering feat to span a bridge that long.
You can walk right from Sunset Grille under the bridge to the other side of the road to get on the walking portion of the bridge. You cannot beat the ocean views this bridge provides.
The colors of the water are what really made the Keys special to me. This is a great spot to get out and stretch your legs or to walk off some of the calories from Sunset Grille.
Bahia Honda State Park
Just past the Seven Mile Bridge is another great state park called Bahia Honda. There is an old railroad bridge next to Bahia Honda that offers great photo opportunities.
You can rent kayaks or stand-up paddle boards at Bahia Honda or make it a beach day and sit in the sand.
Bahia Honda is located at mile marker 37. For more information, visit www.bahiahondapark.com.
National Key Deer Refuge
Big Pine Key is one of the larger islands in the Keys. It is a special place because it is home to the National Key Deer Refuge.
Key Deer are an endangered species of deer only found in the Keys. They are much smaller in size compared to regular deer and if you stop at a few places in the refuge, you’re almost guaranteed to see some.
For more information, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_Deer_Refuge.
No Name Pub
While you’re on Big Pine Key, another great stop is the No Name Pub. Heading into this restaurant/bar, you’ll see thousands of single dollar bills taped to the walls. Feel free to sign your name on a single and stick it up somewhere, if you can find space.
The thing we really enjoyed at the No Name Pub was their pizza. As legend has it, two cooks from Italy came to work at the restaurant and they brought with them a great pizza recipe. When the cooks left the restaurant, they wrote the recipe on the kitchen wall so the great tasting pizza would stay long after they were gone.
Check out No Name Pub’s website for menu information by visiting www.nonamepub.com.
The last stop on the road trip is Key West. You made it!
There are so many things to do in Key West, I don’t even know where to start. You have endless options for dinner, drinks, fishing and entertainment.
A couple of things I would recommend is to park your car and just walk the city. If you stay on the west side of US Hwy. 1, you can walk quite a bit of it and get a really cool local feel for the island.
I know what you’re thinking, you’re not looking to party with the spring break crowd. We thought this the first time we visited Key West, but after a few visits we quickly fell in love with the island. We brought our kids with us each time and felt totally comfortable doing so.
Be sure to check out Duval Street as it’s home to a few famous bars like Ernest Hemmingway’s favorite Sloppy Joe’s. Also be sure to check out the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square that takes place every night and features some really fun street performers.
For more information on the Sunset Celebration, visit www.mallorysquare.com.
If you want to turn your road trip into a sailing adventure, I totally recommend checking out the Dry Tortugas.
You’ll hop aboard a catamaran to sail 70 miles west to the Dry Tortuga island. There’s an old Army fort on the island to explore as well as some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.
For more information on the Dry Tortugas, visit www.drytortugas.com.
Well, that’s it. Now it’s time to head back north to the mainland.
Hopefully you’ll have some time to check out a few spots not listed here. If you find somewhere that you really like, let me know in the comments below. We will definitely be back to the Keys in the near future.