Top Experiences in the Florida Keys According to Fodors!
Turtles in the Florida Keys
Five species of threatened and endangered sea turtles frequent the waters of the Florida Keys. The loggerhead, the most common, is named for the shape of its noggin. It grows to a heft of 300 pounds. It’s the only one of the local turtles listed as threatened rather than endangered.
The vegetarian green turtle was once hunted for its meat, which has brought populations to their endangered stage. It can reach an impressive 500 pounds.
Named for the shape of its mouth, the hawksbill turtle is a relative lightweight at 150 pounds. It prefers rocks and reefs for habitat. The Keys are the only U.S. breeding site for the endangered critter.
The largest reptile alive, the leatherback turtle can weigh in at up to 2,000 pounds, attained from a diet of mainly jellyfish.
The rarest of local sea turtles, the Kemps Ridley is named after a Key West fisherman. A carnivore, it grows to 100 pounds.
The biggest threats to sea-turtle survival include fibropapilloma tumors, monofilament fishing lines (which can sever their flippers), entanglement in ropes and nets, run-ins with boat propellers, and oil spills.
Mojitos, martinis, and caipirinhas (sugar-cane liqueur, sugar, and lime juice) may be the popular drinks in Miami’s South Beach, but in Key West the margarita Jimmy Buffett crooned about is still alive and well.
Every bar and club serves them, either the classic version or in dozens of variations. Every bartender claims to make the best. Here are some that rank tops in their category. At the Half Shell Raw Bar, the Raw Bar Rita, made with 1800 Sauza Silver Tequila and a splash of Patrón Citronge, has a funky green glow but good tartness. The PamaRita, which the menu claims is “for the health nut,” is much prettier, dyed and flavored with a splash of red Pama liqueur, and also fueled with Sauza Silver. It scores best in the novelty category.
Although El Meson de Pepe brags about its mojitos, its Gold Margarita, made with El Jimador Reposado, is no slouch. It goes especially well with a basket of Cuban bread served with addictive red and green dipping sauces, so it rates tops for its ability to play well with food.
At Bagatelle’s Toucan Bar, the Patrón’s Margarita, named for its brand of top-shelf tequila, gets points for being smooth, almost creamy. It’s the perfect balance of tart and sweet. The view of Duval Street adds to the enjoyment.
At Mangoes, the Mangorita is naturally the signature drink. Very tropical, but made with Cuervo and Marie Brizard, it ranks in the “tourist drink” category.
The Conch-a-Rita at Conch Republic Seafood Company pours on the Herradura tequila with a splash of Cointreau. This is a strong contender in the classic category.
At Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville one would expect high competition. Buffett on the stereo makes a margarita go down just right, with or without a shaker of salt. Jimmy’s own brand of gold Margaritaville tequila goes into the potent Uptown Margarita, topped with a float of Gran Gala.
Schooner Wharf’s Schoonerita takes top rating in the classic class. The bartender shakes the cocktail and squeezes in a healthy dose of real lime juice at the end. Made with Sauza tequila, it comes served in a proper glass birdbath–shape vessel, although this one has a stem in the shape of a cactus. (South-of-the-border kitsch and margaritas go well together.)
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: A perfect introduction to the Florida Keys, this nature reserve offers snorkeling, diving, camping, and kayaking. An underwater highlight is the massive Christ of the Deep statue.
Under the sea: Whether you scuba dive, snorkel, or ride a glass-bottom boat, don’t miss gazing at the coral reef and its colorful denizens.
Sunset at Mallory Square: Sure, it’s touristy, but just once while you’re here, you’ve got to witness the circuslike atmosphere of this nightly celebration.
Duval crawl: Shop, eat, drink, repeat. Key West’s Duval Street and the nearby streets make a good day’s worth of window-shopping and people-watching.
Get on the water: From angling for trophy-size fish to zipping out to the Dry Tortugas, a boat trip is in your future. It’s really the whole point of the Keys.
Seafood in the Florida Keys
Fish. It’s what’s for dinner in the Florida Keys. The Keys’ runway between the Gulf of Mexico or Florida Bay and Atlantic warm waters means fish of many fin. Restaurants take full advantage by serving it fresh, whether you caught it or a local fisherman did.
Menus at a number of colorful waterfront shacks such as Snapper’s (139 Seaside Ave., Key Largo 305/852–5956) in Key Largo and Half Shell Raw Bar (231 Margaret St., Key West 305/294–7496) range from basic raw, steamed, broiled, grilled, or blackened fish to some Bahamian and New Orleans–style interpretations. Other seafood houses dress up their fish in creative haute cuisine styles, such as Pierre’s (MM 81.5 BS, Islamorada 305/664–3225 www.pierres-restaurant.com) hogfish meunière, or yellowtail snapper with pear-ricotta pasta purses with caponata and red pepper coulis at Café Marquesa (600 Fleming St., Key West 305/292–1244 www.marquesa.com). Try a Keys-style breakfast of “grits and grunts”—fried fish and grits—at the Stuffed Pig (3520 Overseas Hwy., Marathon 305/743–4059).
You know it’s fresh when you see a fish market as soon as you open the door to the restaurant where you’re dining. It happens frequently in the Keys. You can even peruse the seafood showcases and pick the fish fillet or lobster tail you want.
Many of the Keys’ best restaurants are found in marina complexes, where the commercial fishermen bring their catches straight from the sea. Those in Stock Island (one island north of Key West) and at Keys Fisheries Market & Marina (MM 49 BS, end of 35th St., Marathon 305/743–4353, 866/743–4353) take some finding.
One of the tastiest legacies of the Keys’ Bahamian heritage (and most mispronounced), conch (pronouced konk) shows up on nearly every menu in some shape or form. It’s so prevalent in local diets that natives refer to themselves as Conchs. Conch fritters are the most popular culinary manifestations, followed by cracked (pounded, breaded, and fried) conch, and conch salad, a ceviche-style refresher. Since the harvesting of queen conch is now illegal, most of the islands’ conch comes from the Bahamas.
Where are the claws? Stop looking for them: Florida spiny lobsters don’t have ’em, never did. The sweet tail meat, however, makes up for the loss. Commercial and sport divers harvest these glorious crustaceans from late July through March. Check with local dive shops on restrictions, and then get ready for a fresh feast. Restaurants serve them broiled with drawn butter or in creative dishes such as lobster Benedict, lobster spring rolls, lobster Reuben, and lobster tacos.
Once central to Florida’s trademark seafood dish—fried grouper sandwich—its populations have been overfished in recent years, meaning that the state has exerted more control over bag regulations and occasionally closes grouper fishing on a temporary basis during the winter season. Some restaurants have gone antigrouper to try to bring back the abundance, but most grab it when they can. Black grouper is the most highly prized of the several varieties.
In season October 15 through May 15, it gets its name from its rock-hard shell. Fishermen take only one claw, which can regenerate in a sustainable manner. Connoisseurs prefer them chilled with tangy mustard sauce. Some restaurants give you a choice of hot claws and drawn butter, but this means the meat will be cooked twice, because it’s usually boiled or steamed as soon as it’s taken from its crab trap.
The preferred species of snappers, it’s more plentiful in the Keys than in any other Florida waters. As pretty as it is tasty, it’s a favorite of divers and snorkelers. Mild, sweet, and delicate, its meat lends itself to any number of preparations. It’s available pretty much year-round, and many restaurants will give you a choice of broiled, baked, fried, or blackened. Chefs top it with everything from key lime beurre blanc to mango chutney. Ballyhoo’s in Key Largo (MM 97.8, in median 305/852–0822) serves it 10 different ways.
Hemingway Was Here
In a town where Pulitzer Prize–winning writers are almost as common as coconuts, Ernest Hemingway stands out. Bars and restaurants around the island claim that he ate or drank there (except Bagatelle, where a sign in the bar reads, “Hemingway never liked this place”).
Hemingway came to Key West in 1928 at the urging of writer John dos Passos and rented a house with wife number two, Pauline Pfeiffer. They spent winters in the Keys and summers in Europe and Wyoming, occasionally taking African safaris. Along the way they had two sons, Patrick and Gregory. In 1931 Pauline’s wealthy uncle Gus gave the couple the house at 907 Whitehead Street. Now known as the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, it’s Key West’s number-one tourist attraction. Renovations included the addition of a pool and a tropical garden.
In 1935, when the visitor bureau included the house in a tourist brochure, Hemingway promptly built the brick wall that surrounds it today. He wrote of the visitor bureau’s offense in a 1935 essay for Esquire, saying, “The house at present occupied by your correspondent is listed as number eighteen in a compilation of the forty-eight things for a tourist to see in Key West. So there will be no difficulty in a tourist finding it or any other of the sights of the city, a map has been prepared by the local F.E.R.A. authorities to be presented to each arriving visitor. This is all very flattering to the easily bloated ego of your correspondent but very hard on production.”
During his time in Key West, Hemingway penned some of his most important works, including A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not, Green Hills of Africa, and Death in the Afternoon. His rigorous schedule consisted of writing almost every morning in his second-story studio above the pool, and then promptly descending the stairs at midday. By afternoon and evening he was ready for drinking, fishing, swimming, boxing, and hanging around with the boys.
One close friend was Joe Russell, a craggy fisherman and owner of the rugged bar Sloppy Joe’s, originally at 428 Greene Street but now at 201 Duval Street. Russell was the only one in town who would cash Hemingway’s $1,000 royalty check. Russell and Charles Thompson introduced Hemingway to deep-sea fishing, which became fodder for his writing. Another of Hemingway’s loves was boxing. He set up a ring in his yard and paid local fighters to box with him, and he refereed matches at Blue Heaven, then a saloon at 729 Thomas Street.
Hemingway honed his macho image, dressed in cutoffs and old shirts, and took on the name Papa. In turn, he gave his friends new names and used them as characters in his stories. Joe Russell became Freddy, captain of the Queen Conch charter boat in To Have and Have Not.
Hemingway stayed in Key West for 11 years before leaving Pauline for wife number three. Pauline and the boys stayed on in the house, which sold in 1951 for $80,000, 10 times its original cost.
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