By Valerie Coffey
In April of 2014, Mitch and I took our first RV trip together a few months before we purchased our new home on wheels. We thought a short trial voyage with a rental RV would be a good idea before we exchanged our sticks & bricks house in Massachusttes for full-time life on the road. (Um. Ya think!?) Mitch had some experience RVing on family vacations but me, not so much.
So we took a road trip, rented a 36′ Winnebago from a private owner in Pennslvania, and drove it to Virginia for a long weekend.
I was sold on the RV lifestyle immediately! What a rush to be riding high, looking out the big windshield at the view, angsting at every turn and at every overhead branch and cable, but every minute becoming more comfortable behind the wheel of a big rig.
But perhaps what *really* romanced me was the rental advertisement for the RV we rented. In the ad, the rig was pictured at a tropical waterfront site in Key West, Florida. The owner told us that he took this picture of his rig at Boyd’s Key West Campground, a popular RV destination in Key West that required booking months in advance. We couldn’t wait to get there!
Now that we’ve stayed for a longer period at numerous RV campgrounds in the Keys, we found Boyd’s was only the tip of the iceberg. The Keys are chock full of great places to camp or RV! We found some other sites we liked even better!
Here’s our take on several amazing RV parks in and around Key West…
Visiting the Keys can be very expensive if you stay in a hotel or guest house — even affordable rooms can run several hundred dollars a night during high season, and the price doubles for special events and holidays. But visiting in an RV is much cheaper. It enabled us to feel right at home for our eleven-day visit in October 2014 and a seven week visit in October-December 2015.
In October 2014, we wanted to stay at Boyd’s on Stock Island (Key West at Mile Marker 5*), but the few sites that could fit RVs as big as ours (45′) were all booked. We were disappointed, but we found a spot across the street at El Mar RV Resort.
El Mar has only five waterfront sites. From about December 1 to April 30, those sites are booked up early with monthly rentals, but we got lucky.
We happened to be assigned a corner spot with full-hook-ups (50 A power, water, and sewer) on a sea-wall with a 270-degree view of the water. Iguanas and egrets cruised the wall every day. At sunset one evening, I spied an osprey flying by with a fish in his talons. I even saw a small shark in the water from inside the RV one day!
The gravel sites at El Mar are level and well maintained. The picnic table has an ocean view. The on-site managers are attentive, polite, and friendly. The palm trees on our site were wrapped with little white lights that lit up every evening– just as charming as can be.
The best part of El Mar is the location. It’s close enough to Key West that you can easily drive in or take a taxi to Old Town, supermarkets, restaurants, and attractions. Biking or scooter-ing around town are also very popular, as parking can be hard to find, and you could do that from El Mar if an eight-mile round trip doesn’t deter you (or the potential to get caught in the rain).
El Mar doesn’t have laundry facilities, a pool, or any nice place to walk nearby, really. But a waterfront site at El Mar during high season and holidays can run as little as $115/night + tax, which covers utilites. That is a huge savings over other types of Key West accommodations, especially with an ocean view. And in an RV, you’re right at home!
P.S. We checked out Boyd’s Campground across the street and found that the sites there were very tight for an RV our size. We had no regrets about
getting “stuck” at discovering El Mar. We chose it again for a longer stay in 2015, and would choose it again for its location.
We have found that when you stay in a hotel, an oceanfront room can cost significantly more than a “garden-view” room, which is often a view of the parking lot. You might even pay double for a nice view. But in RV parks, sometimes the upgrade to a premium or waterfront site is only $5 or $10/night, so Mitch’s philosophy, is “go for the upgrade!” But you do have to plan further in advance for the nice sites.
We move around a lot, and often we have no view or amenities to speak of — sometimes we stay in a dirt parking lot just to have full-hook ups near an event or family member we want to see. That’s fine if that’s all we can get, but at more RV-popular destinations, we often try to get a site with a view or extra amenities, such as an end spot with extra room or a picnic table. That’s why we’re planners!
The next RV site we tried was Bluewater Key RV Resort at Mile Marker 14, rated by TripAdvisor as one of the best RV parks in all of Florida. We got a taste of it in 2014 and wanted more! All of the sites at Bluewater Key are privately owned, so they are all a bit different, but they’re all a little bit of paradise. We highly recommend the waterfront sites, which have their own private docks and Polynesian-style thatched-roof outdoor living spaces.
The waterfront views from this gated resort are exemplary for around $115/night + tax, and if you want a peaceful getaway, Bluewater is a bit removed from the “city feel” of Key West. You can still conveniently commute the 15 miles to the fun and activities, but a taxi would be prohibitively expensive, so you need a car.
But we found it hard to leave the resort! We made an extra effort to stay put and really enjoy the outdoor space. Even when the weather wasn’t ideal, we rolled down the canvas-and-plastic “weather walls” that are ubiquitous in Key West and stayed outside.
The only thing that drove us inside occasionaly were the no-see-ums, those nearly invisible biting gnats. They only came out when the wind was very still at dawn and dusk. We heard that the breeze on the waterfront (windward) side of the resort keeps the bugs away (and usually it’s downright windy). The leeward side of the resort has some land-locked and canal-front sites that are more protected from the wind, but, according to visitors in one of those sites, the bugs were worse there.
We took a walk around the resort almost every day. Some of the owners go all-out on landscaping, lighting, fountains, and all-around amazing outdoor spaces, which is fun to check out. The resort also has “doggone” ample space for pet owners (pun intended), and nice laundry facilities if you need them.
We spent some time at the temperature-controlled pool, which isn’t particularly special (the club house next to it could use some work), but who cares when you have your own private dock? We don’t have a boat, but many other residents and visitors do. We lounged on our dock as much as possible, and swam and snorkled the nearby reef. In November the water was 81F!
The sunrise from our dock at Bluewater Key was spectacular on a still day in November, and may remain one of my favorite images for years to come!
The amenities and luxury feel at Bluewater Key have spoiled us for a long time. The only thing missing from Bluewater in our opinion is a hot tub!
When fellow full-time RVers Jason and Nikki Wynn (Gone With the Wynns) visited Key West last winter, their review of Sugarloaf Key/Key West KOA convinced us it might be our cup of tea. Usually a KOA (Kampground of America) is not our first choice. Every KOA focuses on ample kid-friendly activities, so on a given Saturday, KOAs are usually swarmin’ with kids that get up at the crack of dawn. The pools can become a frothy “kid soup.” A friend of mine says KOA stands for “Kids On Acid.”
That said, we stay at KOAs sometimes if they are conveniently located and have good reviews. But this time, we would be visiting when school was in session, and we wanted to try an RV park a little further down the highway to explore some of the other Keys. The Sugarloaf Key KOA at Mile Marker 20 has a private beach with a floating trampoline, an onsite pub with weekly entertainment, friendly staff and “Kampers,” a heated pool and hot tub open 24/7 — what’s not to like!?
“It’s a party at the end of the road!” said the Wynns. And when we heard that Sugarloaf KOA has karaoke every Friday, we were sold!
So we booked a waterfront site far in advance. We did not regret it!
Although we booked in March for a two-week stay in the high season of early December (eight months in advance), the waterfront sites next to us were often vacant. A site at Sugarloaf KOA is the perfect spot to enjoy the warm weather by the pool or on the beach. Or in the middle of the road. Like these iguanas. Did I mention that this campground is swarming with iguanas?
You can rent a boat, have a brew, and explore the middle Keys from the Sugarloaf KOA. It’s walking distance across the highway from a popular night spot, Mangrove Mama’s, and just a few miles from fun trivia, karaoke, drink specials, and entertainment at restaurants with tiki bars such as the Sugarloaf Lodge, Looe Key (which also has a great reef to dive or snorkel), Boondocks, and Square Grouper.
It’s also only half an hour from Bahia Honda State Park, and Big Pine Key with its endangered miniature Key deer and the No Name Pub (a classic if you can find it). A bit further down the road but great for a road trip is Sombrero Beach on Marathon Key, and Islamorada, where we enjoyed the sunset celebration at Lorelei’s Cabana Bar and Restaurant so much we went twice!
We can tell you that the good life for RVers is definitely happening down in the Florida Keys!
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* The well-known US Highway 1 starts at the southernmost/westernmost point of Key West at Mile Marker 0 and continues all the way up the East Coast to Maine. Approximate locations in the Keys are often referred to by how many miles they are from MM 0.
Next post: Ten “Key Take-Aways” From Key West
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