This guest post comes from freelance travel writer Ella Buchan, who recently spent six weeks travelling all the way down America’s east coast, following the historic US Route 1 – the country’s first interstate highway – from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West in the Florida Keys. Her time in this Florida archipelago was sponsored by The Florida Keys & Key West as part of the #DriveUS1 campaign with Captivate, the finale to that epic road trip of more than 4,000 miles.
This slender chain of islands stretches luxuriously and languidly off the southeastern tip of Florida, 15 miles from Miami, curling like an unfurled ribbon in the breeze.
The archipelago even looks stylish from above. Emerald jewels of islands are scattered on a patchwork quilt of every shade of blue from cerulean to turquoise, linked by a road that seems to float on the water.
From the serene beauty of the Upper Keys, where much of Netflix series Bloodline was filmed, to the delightfully quirky Key West, here’s my guide to a stylish stay in the Keys.
Travelling down this stretch of the US1, here known as the Overseas Highway, is a treat in itself. The islands are in the Florida Straits, dividing the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, two distinct ecosystems that create a unique natural beauty.
The road passes dense mangroves and soars over vast expanses of open water. You might have to brake for tiny endangered Key deer, or spot chicks peeping from lofty osprey nests.
Set aside at least half a day to visit Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada, an eclectic hub with al fresco restaurant, an artist studio selling furniture painted with Keys’ wildlife, and endless opportunities to get on the water. Hand-feed giant tarpon fish from the pier (they leap out of the water to grab bait from your fingertips), rent a paddle board to weave through the mangroves or take an eco-tour with KeyZ Charters, spotting herons, manatees and sunbathing crocodiles.
In Marathon, the Dolphin Research Center offers a forever home to rescued dolphins unable to be rehabilitated into the wild. Book in advance to swim with the fascinating marine mammals, or just wander around the series of large outdoor pools to meet the residents and maybe watch them flip gleefully to Taylor Swift. They’re never forced or bribed to perform, but seem to love showing off their moves.
En route to Key West, at the tip of the archipelago, peaceful Bahia Honda State Park has an idyllic curl of beach the colour of set honey, with gorgeous views of the Overseas Highway from the Old Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, part of the railway that linked the islands before the road was built.
Walkable Key West packs in the attractions. Meet six-toed cats, which roam freely around Ernest Hemingway House. Descended from a pet given to the author by a ship’s captain, there are now 50 felines slinking around this grand, traditional home.
Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory is a sanctuary away from the busy streets, with paths winding around trees and flowers, Caribbean flamingoes strutting around and the air alive with butterflies.
For souvenirs including vintage posters, books and antique jewellery, spend some time rummaging around the treasures in 90 Miles To Cuba.
To end your trip, what could be more perfect than a Hollywood-worthy sunset? The views are so uninterrupted here that locals and tourists join a Sunset Celebration in Mallory Square every night, with live music and gift stalls creating a fiesta spirit.
Get even closer with a Wind & Wine sail, run by Danger Charters. The schooners cruise out to sea while staff pour copious amounts of wine, soaked up with canapés like mini caprese salad and summer sausage.
The delicious quirkiness of the Keys extends to its food.
Take conch. This slightly rubbery, briny mollusc is a mainstay of most menus here, and so synonymous with the area that Key West declared itself the ‘Conch Republic’. The city seceded from the United States in 1982, in a move that was only partly tongue-in-cheek. And they celebrate with a festival every April.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo is a good place to try conch, in its conch salad. The meat is served as cerviche, making it tender to the bite.
Also in Key Largo, Ballyhoos has a vast seafood menu including blackened mahi mahi served with Key lime butter and lump crab. They also have a separate vegetarian and vegan menu.
Farther down the chain in Islamorada, Florida Keys Brewing in Morada Way Arts District serves bright, sunny craft beers like Honey Bottomed Blonde in a tasting room with murals and bottle caps on the walls.
Nearby, Marker 88 serves crab and butter-soft steak on one of the Keys’ few natural sandy beaches. Head there in time for sunset and grab a table on the outdoor terrace.
Key West is the nightlife hub. Fill up on shrimp and grits, or local favourite stone crab, at chic Ocean Grill before weaving between the bars on Duval Street, the busiest stretch. Willie T’s is plastered with dollar bills, stapled to the walls, ceilings and pillars by customers for more than 15 years.
Smallest Bar is tinier than a shed, with three stools and shelves groaning under bottles of spirits. It’s a fun place to mingle, with crowds spilling on to the street. More peaceful is hip local spot The Porch, tucked in a Victorian mansion. The bar is divided into two sides, the liquor side for philosophising over glasses of whisky and the louder beer/wine side for dancing to Uptown Funk.
It’s all about the Key lime pie, and every restaurant will claim to have the best. You can’t really go wrong with the creamy, citrussy treat – like cheesecake, but with a Graham cracker crust.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen serves it ice-cold with a flourish of whipped cream, while Blue Heaven in Key West goes all out with a meringue-topped version. It’s actually a traditional ‘Conch’ touch – and fun to photograph/measure the size of your head against.
Ocean Grill keeps it classic, with just a drizzle of raspberry sauce and cream. While Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe has no rules. From the classic triangles to chocolate-dipped Key lime pie on a stick, along with Key lime chutneys, tea, olive oil and wine… There’s definitely a theme here.
The Keys has a jewellery box overflowing with chic, elegant resorts that complement its natural beauty.
Your first stop should be Kona Kai in Key Largo, with just 13 bright, breezy cottage-style rooms and suites dotted about lush botanic gardens, leading to a private sandy beach and pier. There’s a freshwater pool with complimentary soft drinks and fruit, hot tub and kayaks for guests’ use.
In Islamorada, Amara Cay epitomises the Keys’ balance of quirky and chic. Huge rooms have dark wooden floors, marshmallow beds and balconies looking over the palm-fringed waterfront. The reception opens out into a bar area and Italian restaurant, with swinging rope chairs, a wall decorated with keys and a lounge leading out to the pool.
Faro Blanco Resort, in Marathon, is a Hyatt Place property set on a marina with its own lighthouse.
And in Key West, Chelsea House is a haven tucked away from the busy streets. Made up of three historic properties, including two Victorian Queen Anne-style buildings, rooms have grand four-poster beds, rocking chairs are placed on the porches and a breakfast buffet is served by the elegant pool.
Your feed will be fat with endless photos of sweeping ocean vistas, verdant mangroves and beachy scenes.
In Key Largo, the wall of battered licence plates at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen is irresistible.
Fans of Netflix’s dark drama Bloodline might recognise the licence plate lampshades – Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen II, also in Key Largo, featured in the second series. Also look out for Anne’s Beach in Islamorada, where Robert Rayburn pulls up his kayak to meet with son Danny, and Long Key State Park, scene of one of the series’ defining moments (no spoilers!)
Rayburn House is actually Moorings Village & Spa in Islamorada, though only guests can step on to the palm-fringed vanilla sand.
Prepare to queue for your selfie at Southernmost Point in Key West – this is one of the most popular photo spots. Fewer tourists cluster around the ‘Mile 0’ sign that marks the spot where the US1 finishes, with another opposite heralding the beginning of the road. Whether it’s the start or end of an adventure is up to you…
Most major airlines fly to Miami, where you can pick up a car with Hertz from around £150 (185USD/255AUD) for a week.
See http://fla-keys.co.uk/ and www.visittheusa.com/destination/florida-keys-and-key-west for more inspiration and to plan a trip to the Florida Keys.