Fall Vacation in Key West
My wife and I both prefer taking mini vacations as opposed to being gone for more than a few days. A change of atmosphere is nice on occasion but we also miss the pets and don’t like to be gone long. Though sometimes we bring them with us. Vero Beach has become a favorite, and Northern Georgia into the Carolinas have made great adventures. We also visit the Keys every year, usually in September when there’s not so much traffic. When Covid closed down all of the Keys we skipped a couple years but we’re getting back into the annual routine.
We stay in different places on most of the Keys trips. Parmer’s Resort on Little Torch Key is a favorite, but last month it was Key West itself. I had a birthday in October and my wife surprised me with a penthouse suite on the rooftop of the Galleon Resort which is a really nice place. Pool, restaurant, tiki bar, right on the water, and almost anything you could want was within walking distance.
We took the ferry from Ft. Myers Beach one year but I prefer the drive. From the time we leave the house in Bokeelia for the Key West ferry docks on FT. Myers Beach, till the time we arrive in Key West, the drive is faster. There’s almost 50 bridges to drive over, which even in the dark is enjoyable. I grew up down there so the drive brings back memories, plus the ferry has a real “cattle” feel.
This year I booked a fishing trip with Capt. Mike Bartlett, one of our contributing writers, to catch a few Bonefish which we did all morning. And these guys weren’t the usual Keys “Squirts,” these were 4-5 pound Bonefish. Apparently the species was starting to get scarce in the Keys but Mike says there’s so many now he’s actually spotting more in schools than singles on the flats.
I thought I had an eagle-eye on the water, but Capt. Mike can spot a Bonefish on a flat 50 yards away while reading a book in his sleep with mosquitoes biting him and one eye open. We fished a string of islands about 10 miles west of Key West and the wind had not blown much for the past 4-5 days so the water was crystal clear. On the ride back to Key West some of the waters were over 20-foot deep and you could see the bottom as well as we could on the flats. It was the perfect week to be on the water, and the trip with him was something to treasure forever.
Mike has fished Key West’s flats since the late 90’s and has always specialized in targeting shallow water species from Bonefist to Permit, plus he catches a lot of Tarpon in the warmer months. He’s an expert fly-guide but has no problem catering to spinning rod fishermen. Name a species, and he knows right where to go on any particular day. All of the photos he sends us are real!
Another one of our writers, Capt. Gregg Mckee fished with Mike for years when Gregg live & guided in Key West. It’s nice to have contacts….
One of our routines on that particular island is to rent a golf cart which is street legal on the whole island. Even bicycles are encouraged to ride on the streets and follow the same rules as cars. I love driving through the back-streets of old Key West. We even drove through the Key West cemetery which was a bit creepy but the drive also offers a taste of the island’s history. On this one trip we never set a foot on Duval Street. We didn’t attend the famous “Sunset Celebration” either, it’s gotten a bit too commercial for me. We did ride the Tour Train, which I’ve done many times, but there’s different driver so the narration always has a lot of history and details I never knew about the island.
If you find yourself in Key West and want to rent a cart, the gas carts are a better option as opposed to electric, and shop around, one place was about 30% cheaper than the rest with all new carts, the Hydro Thunder company on Simonton.
Robin also surprised me with seats on the 110’ cat “Yankee Freedom” that runs out to the fort at Dry Tortugas. To my surprise it was a full boat but we had plenty of room, seats in A/C or out on deck, and no lines at the bar. The boat run was 2.5 hours, and I’ll go again but on a sea plane for the view. Passengers included a kid who sent a request to the “Make-A-Wish” foundation with his dying wish to be a boat ride to the Tortugas. I was in tears when it was announced over the boat’s PA, it was the saddest & happiest thing I ever heard.
The waters between Key West and the Dry Tortugas is known to have more sea turtle sightings than any other stretch around. From the top deck of the boat with the water being so clear that week we lost track of how many we spotted. Tourists from all over the world were fascinated when they saw a flying fish take off and actually fly. They can move out of the water at up to 35MPH and fly over 600-feet.
When we go to the Keys I like to leave at 1am and drive through the early am hours with no traffic. I take I-75 to 27, which turns into 997 and goes right through Homestead and on to the once very dangerous 18-mile stretch which is a road between S. Florida and Key Largo. I say “once dangerous” because there were a lot of head-on collisions on that road years ago but there’s now a concrete barrier separating north lanes from south for safety. I drive the “stretch” going down, but I take Card Sound Road coming home, which is an old smugglers route over the card Sound Bridge.
It’s exciting to cross the first bridge in Key Largo, it means we’re there, but Robin sleeps most of the way down. We arrive just in time for breakfast in Marathon at the Wooden Spoon Restaurant, then a drive down Key Deer Blvd on Big Pine to see all of the Key Deer before heading to Key West.
The Key Deer population was estimated to be under 50 back in the 60’s and now they’re counting over a thousand. They’re still at high risk of extinction because of their limited natural resources, but the comeback has been impressive. The Key Deer are known to walk right up to the car and stick their head in to see if you have any food, but don’t stop, and please don’t feed them. Feeding Tarpon off the docks is not as damaging as it is to feed the deer. It’s not so much about food, it’s about them knowing roads are not safe.
I also stopped at what’s referred to as the “Jumping Bridge” on Sugarloaf Key, which was another bucket list item of mine. Nobody else was there so I didn’t jump, I didn’t want Robin to have to swim out in case I didn’t pop up. Next time:)
Key West has a lot of homeless. Some are simply people who just couldn’t fit into society, some are by choice, and some are probably living pretty good. One early morning I left the resort with a pocket of $20 bills and I gave them to bums on the docks hoping they’d use it for coffee and a sandwich. My childhood could have easily landed me on those docks and I’d like to hope someone would toss me a bone occasionally.
The few chickens who lived at the Blue Heaven Restaurant have expanded. What was once a few is now a couple thousand and Key West has decided to pretend they’re endangered. If you’re driving and don’t allow one to cross in front of you it’s a $500 fine. If you hit it, a $1,000 fine. This sounds like something a city would do because they’re facing imminent bankruptcy, which has happened to every industry Key West has created since the early 1800’s from shipwreck salvaging to their sponge industry, smuggling, shrimping, tourism, and now…. let’s protect the chickens. Each time they go bankrupt they have to surrender their legal powers to the state and rebuild a new economy. I wanted to shoot a couple, they start screaming at 4am. It’s probably a cheaper fine than running one over.
A Virgin Cruise Lines ship was there, it was the only virgin on the island.
I contacted Jim, the CEO of the Key West Trading Company, about where to find his bourbon. Their facility is on Stock Island but the bourbon can be found all over Key West. I’ve tasted a lot of bourbons and this is by far the best I’ve found. They also sell it online at www.KeyWestTradeCo.com
If you make it to the island treat yourself to at least one meal at Bel Mare. Plus, the Navy base allowed a public road to go through the base to the western tip of Key West, which is a state park and home to another fort you can tour, Fort Zachary Taylor, named after our 12th President. The fort is an impressive walking tour and at that park you can see the real southernmost point of the US. The famous buoy is only the nations southernmost point without trespassing on Navy property.
Publisher, Nautical Mile