January 13, 2022

The One and Only Key West

Katie and Gene Hamilton

Bring Binocular News

Magical sunsets and margaritas entice visitors to this funky FL town 

Key West is a small island measuring only four miles long by one mile wide. At the southernmost tip of Florida it ends the string of mile markers down the Overseas Highway, also known as Florida state road A1A, and is called U.S. Highway 1. Key West is just 90 miles from Cuba and 130 miles from Miami. Key West, a popular vacation getaway, is known for its funky vibe, sandy beaches and picture-perfect sunsets. Key West FL is a one-of-a kind getaway where you won’t be disappointed.

conch train in Key West FL
No car needed to get around Key West

Whether you arrive by airplane, car, RV or motorcycle there is way too much to enjoy in a short visit. Moreover it takes a few days to get accustomed to the early morning crow of roosters. And get used to planning your day working backwards. You want to be somewhere facing west in the early evening to watch the setting sun. But once you’ve adjusted to the Keys latitude and attitude you’re in for a treat.  

To get you in the Keysie frame of mind, order a paperback or ebook from two of our favorite authors Laurance Shames and Carl Hiassen. They both have characters in their books with the unique perspective and personalities of Key West.

Need-to-know visitor information about Key West

As you approach Key West from Stock Island you’ll see the main roads line the shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico on the north and the Atlantic Oean on the south. They encompass the town with plenty of lodging, restaurants, activities and places to visit.

We’ve stayed at a motel, hotel, apartment and a townhouse at Truman Annex. If you’re there for a short stay, a room is all you need. For a longer stay you may want more space like a studio or condo. You’ll find the prices for lodging varies from low to high so a visit to Key West can fit most budgets. The same is true for restaurants.

Foodwise, you’ll find typical fast food chains along with plenty of seafood entrees. Conch fritters are one of our favorites’ and a variety of fresh fish. However, Cuban cuisine is a specialty and each time we return we notice more international fare.

Here’s are links to Key West Attractions and Keywest.com, good resources for information if you’re planning a visit.

Getting around Key West

Key West is a walkable town so if you arrive in your own car or a rental, you’ll barely use it. And the availability of parking spaces is low and the cost of parking is high and it’s difficult to find. You can always rent a bike, scooter, moped or golf cart to get around. But don’t forget your binoculars. You’ll use them on the beach, at Mallory Square and to look at some of the nifty fretwork on cottages and homes. Here’s some quick tips about Traveling with Binoculars.

Rent a scooter or bicycle in Key West  FL
Many visitors enjoy renting a scooter or bicycle to tour Key West

Duval Street is a must visit where you’ll find novelty and gift shops, restaurants, bars and everything else Key West has to offer. Look for the sign that posts the exact time to watch the sunset at Mallory Square, a boardwalk on the water with vendors and street entertainers.

The influx of cruise ships in Key West has been a big issue. Their enormous vessels block the view of the setting sun at Mallory Square. Before you go visit Cruisedig.com, a site that posts a calendar of scheduled arrival and departure dates of cruise ships visiting Key West.

Cruise ship in Key West, FL
Avoid visiting Old Town when cruise ship passengers crowd the streets.

In addition, you want to avoid going anywhere near town when a cruise ship deposits a few thousand of their passengers to shop and enjoy Key West. It’s a good day to spend at the beach or on the water.

For one visit we stayed in an apartment by the White Street pier near Higgs Beach. Since I’m an early bird and like to see the sunrise I got a glimpse of any incoming cruise ships as they arrived. That determined if we’d go into town or spend the day elsewhere.

Pristine see-through waters

Fishermen set out in the early morning on all size and style of boats. You’ll find many charter boats looking for anglers so spend some time walking the harbor docks. Check out the boats and talking to their captains to find the right fit for you. At the end of the day anglers return with a hearty catch. They fish in both the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay waters or the Gulf of Mexico.

Pastel cottages and lush landscape line the streets

We like to take a trolley tour to get an overview and avoid navigating the narrow streets. These tours cost upwards of $45 for a day for unlimited hop on, hop off service with plenty of information from the driver. The Old Town Trolley Tours is a great way to learn the history of the town, see the architecture of homes and places to visit.  The lush landscape of bougainvillea, hibiscus and palm trees that encompass the streets is a plus. The Conch Tour Train is another easy way to get around Key West.

One of our first visits to Key West we attended J World Performance Sailing School. We were staying at a B&B near the harbor and I wasn’t that familiar with the town. After two days on the water I was a total wreck and could hardly move. So I skipped class and got on the conch train and easily found a drug store for some meds to ease my aches and pains. At the awards night I won the prize for having the most black and blue marks!

Favorite places

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, FL
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

Did you know in the 1830s Key West became the wealthiest city per capita in the U.S.? That’s due to all the wealthy Key West treasure hunters retrieving the bounty from shipwrecks off the coast. At the Mel Fisher Museum, formerly a U.S. Navy Storehouse, there’s a lot to learn. You’ll learn about treasures of ancient mariners and shipwrecks retrieving coins and artifacts. One exhibit shows the tragedy of slave ships. The museum is a fascinating look at the age of buccaneers and pirates on the U S. coast and Caribbean islands. 

Our firsthand experience using binoculars when traveling: 8×25 compact binoculars are a good choice for traveling because they’re lightweight and easy to tuck into a backpack or purse. The first number”8” is its magnification which makes an image 8 times closer than what you see with your eyes; it’s good for a wider field of view. The “25” is the size of the objective lens measured in millimeters that defines how much light the binocs can gather. A larger objective lens has more light gathering power so the image resolution will be higher and brighter.                      

The Harry S. Truman Little White House in Key West was the winter White House for President Harry S Truman. We were surprised at his modest home and furnishing in the Truman Annex neighborhood of Old Town.

The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is a most unusual and fascinating place to visit. It’s a butterfly park that houses from 50 to 60 different species of live butterflies from around the world in a climate-controlled, glass-enclosed habitat. This is a must stop for nature lovers.

The Hemingway Home and all its cats is a popular place to visit. These cat are unlike typical cats with five front and four back toes.  The home is across from the Key West Lighthouse, close to the southern coast of the island.

The Key West Art & Historical Society has four historic sites, including the  lighthouse where you can learn about the history of Key West with a unique perspective and understanding of the island’s past.

Southernmost Point in Key West
Southernmost Point in continental U.S. is 90 miles from Cuba.

A short walk from there is a longtime favorite of ours, the Southernmost Point buoy landmark. The colorful giant buoy reads “90 miles to Cuba.” At 12 feet tall and seven feet wide the buoy stands 18 feet above sea level and marks the southernmost point in the continental United States. That’s the lowest latitude land of contiguous North American states. The large painted buoy was established as a tourist attraction in 1983 by the city and is photographed by thousands of tourists every year.

On New Year’s Day, 2022 vandals damaged the buoy but we’re happy to report it will be restored and those involved will be charged.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas near Key West FL
You can reach this idyllic and historically significant island by high speed catamaran or seaplane.

The crystal clear waters of the Dry Tortugas lure Key West visitors for some pretty terrific snorkeling at the remote island. Fort Jefferson was built there to protect the strategically located harbor. And during the Civil War it was used as a military prison for captured deserters. After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 the fort held the four men convicted of complicity in the event, the most famous being Dr. Samuel Mudd.

Getting to Dry Tortugas

Almost 70 miles west of Key West the park is accessible only by boat or seaplane. This is a pricey place to visit however you get there. By a high speed catamaran for the day costs $200 per person. By seaplane figure $371 for a half day. The Dry Tortugas National Park website noted above has links to more information about how to get there from Key West.

When we visited by seaplane we spent the day touring the fort and snorkeling. But we noticed a medical helicopter land and wondered what happened. Later we read the Citizen, the daily Key West newspaper, and were surprised to read the lead story. The day we were there a woman tourist was taking a picture from the top wall of the fort, backed up too far, and landed in the mote filled with water. She survived the fall just fine and was returning to her home in Kansas. 

A visit to Key West is on the bucket list of many travelers for oh so many reasons. And we’re no different. When we hear a Jimmy Buffet tune, it brings back fond memories of this tropical town right here in the U.S. We’re always making plans for another trip to Key West, a favorite one-of-a-kind place.

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Gene and Katie Hamilton travel the U.S. extensively in search of a favorite place. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
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