Key West, Florida

We’re off to discover some of the most heavenly islands on earth by sailing in the Florida Keys. They say that Key West is paradise, and I wanted to find out. Locals call this “paradise on earth”, and all the visitors seem to agree. Once you arrive in Key West, you never want to leave.

Key West is the last stop in the chain of coral keys called “the Straits of Florida.” It’s the southernmost city in the continental United States and it’s also a dream vacation destination where you and your family can have a blast! By land or by sea, you have no end of activities to enjoy and discoveries to make. There’s plenty of action to keep you busy.

Juan Ponce de Leon was the first European to arrive in Key West in 1521. Claiming it for the Spanish, it was previously inhabited by the native Calusa people. Later, its location between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean made it a strategic military outpost. The biggest change came when the railroad was built in 1912, making this location more accessible.

Key West is divided into old town and new town…and you can explore both to see the island through its 400 years of fascinating history. Before you go or soon after arrival, get hold of a Key West attractions guidebook and purchase transport tickets. A ride on the Conch Tour Train is a great way to kick off your Key West adventure complete with lots of stories and legends.

The Conch Tour is an hour and a half tour around the island, telling you about four hundred years of history. That history starts with the building of the train tracks in southern Florida. The builder of the East Coast railroad was Mr. Henry Flagler, an oil tycoon, and he built the railroad tracks from St. Augustine down to Miami, Florida. He decided he wanted to put a little extension onto his railroad, to bring it all the way down to Key West. He started construction in 1905, and the first train arrived in 1912. Henry Flagler’s railroad was instrumental in putting Key West on the map.

The Conch Tour Train starts from Front Street, at a little yellow depot. This is a lot better than walking, as you get to see all the sights, you get to hear all the stories and you’ll still have lots of energy for more! Plus, you get the whole tropical-breeze-blowing-in-your-hair feeling…it’s awesome! The train meanders through one of the largest historic districts in the country, and you have to see it. The little houses are just gorgeous, a lot of them built by sea captains.

A lot of famous men spent time unwinding…creating…and getting rich, right here in Key West. You’ll pass the cannons of the Mel Fischer Maritime Museum. In 1622, the Spanish gallons, the Atosha and the Santa Margarita went down about 30 miles off the coast here in a powerful hurricane. Mel Fisher was a determined scuba diving expert who searched 17 years for sunken treasure that he was convinced was around here. On July 20, 1985, he found it! $450 million worth of treasure to be exact, and a lot of it is on display in the museum!

As the train travels on, the next item on the agenda is the Presidential Gate, built in 1906 and only opened for visiting U.S. Presidents to enter the island. There is a mini White House on the island, where Harry S. Truman spent eleven working holidays of his total 175 holidays in his presidency. He was most noted for his poker games, his piano playing, and his crazy Hawaiian shirts.

You’ll see the oldest bar in the Florida Keys, the Green Parrot Bar, built in 1890. Before it was a bar, it was a morgue…probably the reason it’s known for its “killer” martini’s! I also saw a village market with all kinds of goodies! I’d definitely want to go back there!

Further on, you’ll come to the Truman Annex, a fenced in area which was used for housing our military that’s stationed on the island. They’ve always had a very large presence of military here, dating back before the civil war. During the civil war, the Keys were actually occupied by Union soldiers, so if you lived on this island and you wanted to join the Confederacy, you actually had to go north. Now that’s interesting!

Next up, there’s the Hemingway House, home to author Ernest Hemingway and his wife Pauline. Built in 1851, the traditional Spanish Colonial was in a terrible state of disrepair. Earnest and Pauline could see beyond the rubble and undertook a total remodel and restoration in the 1930’s. Today, thousands of tourists enjoy their efforts each year. You might even see the descendants of some of his famous cats, known for their six toes.

Key West, Florida, is the definition of peaceful, with palm-lined streets, tropical breezes, historical old homes and world famous sunsets. The city is a fantastic place to explore – full of history, culture, and beautiful views. But you can’t come down to the Keys and not get out on the water! The way to do it? On an upscale catamaran tour by Echo Charter, of course. The tour has a very special destination. If your timing is right, you’ll be going to see the wild dolphins that live, feed and breed off Key West. They are lucky in Key West to have a large pod that lives here, and they’ve lived here for years.

Sometimes, when the dolphins see the boat out here, they swim right up to it, if they feel like it. It’s up to them, they’re the ones in charge, and visitors just happen to get to witness what’s happening in their lives that day. It’s different every day, so it’s always exciting. These dolphins are out with their babies; they’re teaching them how to hunt, feed, and catch fish—to survive. Hopefully, you’ll see dolphins jumping, playing, communicating and working together as a pod, or a family, it’s just amazing what they go through. You’ll be seeing all the activities that you’ll never see displayed in a captive facility,

And while you can’t swim with them on this tour, you do get to strap on the fins and snorkel with the sponges. The catamaran takes you into an estuary looking for some of the giant logger head sponges, and some of the soft and hard corals that are found here. This is the nursery where all the creatures between the Gulf and the Atlantic basically grow up. Underwater you’ll see a variety of marine life in their natural habitat. This is where they all start their life, so it’s pretty amazing.

Back on the mainland…why not head into Old Town for some island adventure on Duval Street? Want action? Duval street is where to come. There are plenty of bars, T-shirt shops and people watching. One bar is as famous is it is fun. It’s Sloppy Joe’s. Seventy years ago you would’ve found Ernest Hemingway at Sloppy Joe’s Bar….it was his favorite hang-out after a long day of writing. Key West was a major inspiration for the writer, and it’s said this is where the legend of Papa Hemingway came to life.

Lots of famous people live in Key West, in fact, if you’re feeling hungry for a cheeseburger in paradise, well, you’re in the right place. Especially if you’re a Jimmy Buffet fan! This is where you’ll find the original Margaritaville restaurant. And Mr. Buffet comes here every other month or so. He records here, he still has friends here, and he likes to go fishing here. He loves Key West; it’s still near and dear to him.

For people who don’t know who Jimmy Buffett is, or they’ve lived in a cave all their lives, Jimmy Buffett is s a singer/songwriter that moved to Key West about forty years ago and he came up with the idea to create his own genre of music. So, he mixed country and western with reggae and created some solid gold hits.

Now Margaritaville is a song. It’s not about a not a drink, it’s not a place, but it is considered to be a state of mind by Buffet. That state of mind means wearing flip flops and tank tops, riding scooters and just relaxing. It means letting all your hair down and living an island life. I think Jimmy was on to something here. He opened a restaurant that serves margaritas and “cheeseburgers in paradise”, (another famous Jimmy buffett song.) Margaritaville is truly fun for the whole family, as they say here, it’s “for parrot heads and parakeets.” You can even get a t-shirt that says the same thing. By the way, even though the dress code in Key West is beach casual, restaurants require a shirt and shoes, (at least a t-shirt and flip flops), and all bars require shoes.

Just west of the northern end of Duval Street is Mallory Square, the perfect place for a beautiful view of the sunset. Even the cruise ships have to out of here by six o’clock, so everybody has a view of the sunset. The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square is one of the island’s main attractions. 365 days a year, everyone gathers for arts and crafts, street performers, food and fun…and most importantly, the day’s dynamic finish. It’s almost like a carnival and something you won’t want to miss while you are here!

While you are at it, you most certainly will want to taste the local cuisines of Key West. Now where here else can you buy key lime pie on a stick, no less! Or learn how to make conch fritters! I’m no chef, but I know good food when I smell it. And what I smelled at the Conch Republic Seafood Company was top of the line seafood, especially when it comes to those fried conch fritters.

There’re two different kinds of fritters; the local version, which is very simple, and what the locals like; then there’s the second version, mixed with breading, which is the version more for the tourists. They use the Queen Conch, the pretty shell you always see around Key West, a species that lives in deeper water. It produces a blonde meat that’s pounded to make the fritters and mixed with all kinds of great seasonings and bread crumbs. Next the fritters are fried in hot oil until they’re a delicate brown. You dip the fritter in a little key lime mustard or orange horseradish marmalade…and enjoy. Delicious!

When it comes time to restore your energy, you’ll want to head out to a tiny, privately owned island just off the coast of Key West on Sunset Key. This is home to the Westin Cottage Resort. It’s totally private, totally peaceful, and totally yours – well, for a few days anyway. And, it’s only a 5 minute boat ride from downtown Key West, directly across from the main Westin resort.

The rooms and suites at Sunset Key are really geared towards multiple families. You can get a one-bedroom cottage, all the way up to a four-bedroom cottage. If you’re staying with a family of friends, each family can have their own private bedroom, while having a kitchen they share. Here, you really can achieve that “Margaritaville” laid-back, flip-flop, tank top state of mind. With a trip to the spa for a massage, coupled with champagne and romantic poolside dining at the well-named, Flippers or in Latitudes where the menu highlight is usually the catch of the day, you’ll know you’re in paradise for sure.

The Westin resort is set up with luxurious amenities and they can arrange endless activities for your enjoyment. You can take a sea plane out to the Dry Tortugas National Park, enjoy a snorkeling tour and you can bring a picnic lunch with you to be “at one” with nature! Around the resort, there’s a lot of snorkeling at the reef, the diving is excellent, and activities from para-sailing, to sunset sails, private boat rentals, charter fishing, and all kinds of excellent water activities. What a way to spend the day, and true to its name, Sunset Key produces the most magical sunsets this side of Key West.

Key West offers a world where the weather is perfect and where your family can find adventure. You’ll learn about the fascinating history of the Keys, and where you can walk in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, Harry S. Truman, Tennessee Williams, and of course, Jimmy Buffet! “Just slipping away in Margaritaville…”