By Valerie Coffey
At the start of our full-time RV adventure in fall 2014, one of the first places Mitch and I headed was Key West, Florida, the Southernmost tip of the continental U.S. We stayed for ten days. We enjoyed it so much, that in fall 2015, we decided to spend seven weeks in the Conch (pronounced Konk) Republic. We even had family join us there for Thanksgiving. (Read our previous post about where we stayed.)
We have a lot to share about Key West: what it’s like, what to expect, and what to do there. So here are our ten “key take-aways” from Key West:
1. It’s warm, but still gets cool.
Key West is the American Carribbean, literally 90 miles from tropical Cuba. It’s a great place to head when the rest of the northern hemisphere is cold. The ocean temperature is around 80F (30C) in October, keeping the typical daily high air temperatures in the 80s (30C) and summer-like much of the year. With the high humidity, the “feel-like” temperature is often the 90s through November.
Mitch and I are sun-chasers. We yearn for beach weather year-round. So we love a feel-like temp in the 90s! But like every place in the U.S., KW does have occasional cool spells in winter, where the wind picks up and you’ll need a jacket. And it’s a tropical place, so it rains a lot.
On November 1, 2014, we attempted to visit Dante’s poolside restaurant and raw bar near the waterfront on Key West Bight, but it was nearing 50F and a cold wind was blowing off the water. We weren’t comfortable in our shorts and t-shirts, so we didn’t last long. When your hands turn numb in Key West, it’s time to go indoors.
That was an unusual cold snap though. Most winters, Key West is still one of the warmest places you can go. When Tampa and Miami are not quite warm enough for notherners’ tastes, it’s likely to be 80F in Key West!
You can count on it NOT freezing in Key West. The record low temperature is 41F! It NEVER snows!
2. Key West is Fun/Default to Duval Street!
What is there to do in Key West? SO much! Shopping, museums, music, food, drink, art galleries, jet skiing, parasailing, snorkeling, kayaking, boating, pools, beaches, gardens, people and the sunsets! It’s never a dull day in paradise.
If in doubt, head to Duval Street, which crosses historic Old Town from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. In spite of an old ordinanace on display at Irish Kevin’s bar, open containers of adult beverages *are* allowed on the length of Duval Street.
One afternoon, a young guy in a rental car slowed down to ask us in a Russian accent, “What’s there to do in this town?” (We were kind of taken aback by this lack of imagination, but…)
We said, “Have you walked Duval Street end to end?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Well, go do it again!” we rejoined.
You will see something new and entertaining every time you walk down Duval Street.
Start your day with brunch at the Southernmost Beach Cafe, a charming open-air cafe with omelets, french toast and mimosas (or lunch if you arrive after noon) and enjoy the view of the (topless optional) beach.
Which brings us to number 3:
3. It’s myth that Key West doesn’t have any beaches.
Key West does have a few sandy beaches, and they are lovely! Southermost Beach, Smathers Beach, Fort Zachary Taylor Beach, and Higgs Beach are white sand beaches you can visit for free. The beaches sometimes have a bit of seaweed, and the shallow water can be a bit murky. But KW beaches are good enough to get your beach fix, if all you want is sun and a pretty view.
And KW is full of pools, if that is your thing. Every self-respecting guest house and inn has a charming little pool or access to one.
From Southernmost Beach, be sure to nab a picture of yourself at the Southernmost Point, and the Mile Marker 0 sign. Go early to avoid a long line, especially on a Saturday.
4. Key West is ideal for 21+ adults. But if you have kids, there’s plenty to do.
A block from Southernmost Beach, back on Duval Street, a great family destination is the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy, where grandparents, underaged kids and fun-loving adults alike can interact with an inspiring collection of butterflies, including the blue morpho, tropical birds and a few flamingos to boot.
Walk another three blocks to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, and take a tour to get close to the dozens of six-toed cats in residence, which are said to be descendants of the famous author’s cat.
Take your family to Key West Eco Discovery Center to learn about the native plants and animals of the Keys, and if you have time…
5. Visit some of the other Keys.
We took the time to explore the other Keys on this visit. Yay!
We love Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key, about 45 minutes from Key West. The park has rustic camping spots (for small campers and tents), three beautiful beaches, and a view of both the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. The Bahia Honda bridge is an incredible place to take in a sunset.
Big Pine Key is also home to the tiny elusive Key deer. They are easy to find at night when they approach cars (because unfortunately people feed them and they associate cars with food), and this is how they get killed ont the roadway. Go to Big Pine Key at night to see them on the side roads, but keep your speed down and DO NOT FEED THEM! They are adorable — about as big as a big dog.
We also made the 1.5-hr drive to Lorelei’s Cabana Bar and Restaurant on Islamorada (EYE-lah-more-AH-dah) with its sunset celebration, and then we did it again with our visitors, it was so great. The water around the keys is very shallow for a long way out, which often sets up the ocean like a reflecting pool for spectacular sunrises and sunsets. We enjoyed the western water sunset view from Lorelei’s, the outdoor seating (which occasionally requires visitors to run for cover from a passing shower), great live music, yummy tropical cocktails, and the menu, which is full of great seafood and even a couple of vegetarian selections for me!
Speaking of menus…
6. You can’t go wrong with food in Key West!
The food in Key West is superb. It’s really a foodie’s ideal gastronomic destination. Mitch loves seafood – and Key West offers a wide selection of the best! I’ve been a vegetarian devotee since 1991, so I’m always looking for yummy healthy plant-based options. In much of the south, I have to grin and bear it, but not in Key West.
We really try to make dinner in the RV as much as possible, to save money and really eat healthily. But one could eat out in Key West every night for months before you’d really get a handle on the Key West food scene.
Take in fine wine and tapas at Nine One Five Duval Street, situated in a charming old Key-West-style house, or on the outdoor upper porch at Point5 Lounge.
One restaurant we visited again and again is The Cafe, 509 Southard (pronounced SUTH-erd) Street, offering creative vegetarian entrees like Kung Pao tofu, falafel pita sandwiches, brown sugar acorn squash with quinoa, vegetarian “sausage” pesto pizza, and a kale Caesar salad to die for. The bohemian ambiance offers just enough light to impart some romance while allowing one to read the menu, which is important for RVers of a certain age. The menu also includes some seafood delicacies, organic wines, and delectable desserts.
We also revisited Willie T’s outdoor restaurant and bar, 525 Duval Street, again and again for its food, which is surprisingly great for a place that specializes in all-hours live entertainment and the longest, most decadent list of mojitos we’ve ever seen. Don’t miss trying their Key lime pie — a lot of places offer this local favorite with a history tracing back to Key West in the 1900s — but I think Willie T’s was yummiest. I want my Key lime pie made fresh, not frozen.
Another Key West restaurant we loved, that we feel would please even the snobbiest of food critics, is Santiago’s Bodega, 207 Petronia Street. We had no luck getting seated on a walk-in basis, because this Spanish tapas restaurant is rated #3 on Trip Advisor’s best restaurants in Key West (out of 345). But with a reservation on the books, we went twice. The outdoor covered seating was lovely and romantic, the service perfect. Even our relatively finicky college-aged son was inspired by his first experience with tapas at Santiago’s.
To find palate-pleasing food in Key West, ask a local for their recommendations, or just walk along Duval Street and peruse the menus on display outside each restaurant to find your own cheeseburger in paradise.
7. Key West has awesome entertainment!
The awesome entertainment on Duval Street occurs day and night. Duval Street in Key West is worthy of comparison with Bourbon Street in New Orleans for talent. Like Bourbon Street, simply walking by open-air venue after open-air venue on Duval Street allows you to view the live entertainment in the house and decide where you’d like to sit down to enjoy the music.
You’ll find entertainers on the street, too. You’ll see a lanky blond mermaid playing ukelele sitting on a stool on the sidewalk, and Darth Vader playing the banjo beside a tip jar reading, “Tip Your Vader.”
If you’re a Jimmy Buffet fan, you’ll be especially pleased. Buffet holds a certain saint-like status in Key West, and his music is ever-present (throughout Florida, truly). Parrot Heads hit up the Green Parrot bar, 601 Whitehead Street, for live entertainment, and of course the Margaritaville Restaurant (a widespread but decent chain) on Duval Street for classic pub fare and margaritas.
We frequented the Durty Harry’s/Rick’s Bar Key West complex, 202 Duval Street, for loud, raw, classic rock-and-roll talent, in the form of the Durt Bags band seven nights a week. Take your ear plugs. And find the stairs to explore the less-crowded balcony view of the band in the Crow’s Nest, more bars, corn hole games, the dance floor with the DJ, and a balcony overlooking Duval Street. The bathrooms downstairs leave a little to be desired, but while waiting in line one evening, I witnessed a talented bartender juggling lit-up bottles of liquor like a Cirque d’Soleil performer.
On Thanksgiving eve, we missed the 4th annual women’s gravy-wrestling contest to pick up a visitor from the airport, but our other visitors said it was quite a sight.
Speaking of Rick’s…our dear followers know we have a penchant (talent? weakness!) for karaoke, and if you’re up late enough, and we were! Rick’s has karaoke every night from midnight until 4 am.
A six-block stroll down Duval from Rick’s brings you to the vibrant gay district of town. On Sundays, 801 Bourbon Bar is a fun place to karaoke from 4 to 9 pm. The drag queen shows at 801, Aqua, and La Te Da are among the most entertaining shows on Duvall Street and they don’t cost much — just a small cover charge and tips for the “girls!”
8. There’s always something going on in Key West.
Every weekend is an event in Key West. The events calendar always has some special celebration or two (or three) happening at any time. Examples of some crazy annual festivals are Bike Week/Poker Run in September and Fantasy Fest in October. But in Key West, every day is an excuse for a parade and a party!
Just wandering around, we found the annual International Sand Art competition at Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria resort, in late November. We also experienced the annual Holiday Lighted Boat Parade, on December 12, best viewed from Schooner Wharf. We attended the 35th annual Key West Superboat World Championship. Holidays like New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s Day, Fourth of July, and Halloween are off the hook in Key West (and the price of accommodations often reflect the goings on).
9. Key West is a small town — a friendly one.
We quickly felt at home in Key West, because everyone is friendly there. While the population is largely transient, Mitch noticed after he got off the plane at the tiny Key West airport (he went on a business trip during our stay) that he would see the same people from the plane on the street, beach, or in a restaurant an hour later.
In no time at all, we learned our way around. We learned where to park (on the street or at the courthouse). We got the local discount at the dry cleaners, made friends with people at numerous venues, got to know our RV neighbors as well as the entertainers, clerks, servers and bartenders. We struck up conversations with locals everywhere we went.
On the days that a gigantic cruise ship docks for the day, the small town is overwhelmed with tourists buying their $5 t-shirt and having a drink at Sloppy Joe’s. But the locals enthusiastically greet these visitors like welcome friends.
Maybe that has something to do with why we like Key West so much. The night before we left, it took us several hours to make the rounds and say goodbye to the many new friends we had made.
10. Don’t miss a sunset!
If it isn’t already evident from the numerous sunset pictures on this post…Run, don’t walk, to a site where you can catch the sunset every single evening!
It’s often cloudy in KW at sunset, which shouldn’t deter you. The sun often peeks out from the horizon through the clouds at the last minute, which just enhances the color and effect. If you don’t come away with an amazing sunset photo from even a brief visit to Key West, you’re missing out.
For sunset, any place with a western ocean view will do, including Mallory Square, Sunset Pier, Turtle Karaals Restaurant, Louie’s Backyard, the Westin, the Hyatt, Latitudes Restaurant on Sunset Key…or a boat!
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