Growing up is tough. Throughout my 3 years of adulthood so far, I’ve come to terms with some of life’s most difficult truths. Like how I’m too old to go trick-or-treating, and that my handwriting isn’t going to get any better.
This past spring, I learned another lesson: I won’t always be able to go on family vacations. This one was particularly difficult for me to accept considering my love for travel (bet you never would have guessed). During my sister’s spring break last year, the rest of my family went on an incredible Royal Caribbean cruise to Key West. It was so much fun to see my hard-working family get to spend a few days in southern Florida’s tropical paradise, but I’d be a complete liar if I told you I wasn’t a little (a lot) jealous. Riding bikes along sunny streets, along pristine coastlines boasting the Keys’ signature blue water, and eating frozen Key lime pie on a stick, it looked like a traveller’s dream come true! Their photos ignited the ol’ travel inspiration, and I became determined to visit the Florida Keys too, one way or another.
Turns out, my wish came true way sooner than I expected.
While on a budget Spring Break trip to Miami with my college roommates, my roommate’s friend, a Miami local, suggested we spend our last full day in Southern Florida to take a road trip down to the Florida Keys. I had no idea what this would entail, but with my family’s photos in mind, I was willing to let our friends take us wherever they wanted to go. So after a quick trip to Publix to get roadie snacks, we were off to the Florida Keys!
Getting to the Florida Keys from Miami
From Miami, it takes about 1-2 hours to get to the first of the Florida Keys, Key Largo, by car.
Another one of our friends who was born and raised in Miami warned us that once we left Miami, it was not safe for us to stop anywhere or get out of the car until we crossed the first bridge into the keys, and that Florida City is especially dangerous.
I trust him, and so I wanted to pass along the info, but I’m also curious if any of you all have had a similar experience or have heard this warning too.
Driving Down the Florida Keys
A road trip down the Florida Keys will take you all the way to the end of U.S. Highway 1. This highway provides overland access to most of the major Keys, and the views of the Atlantic Ocean between the islands make this stretch one of of USA’s most beautiful roads in the world.
Crossing the first bridge from mainland Florida to Key Largo had me giddy because the scenery is just as gorgeous I’ve always imagined. Between tropical forested islands, the water color changes into brighter and brighter shades of blue as you go further down the keys, until it’s practically electric! As the water brightens, it also gets clearer, until we began to see the lighter coloring of coral reefs just below the water’s surface.
Thankfully, the road-builders seem to understand how tantalizing the views are, and have built in several spots where you can pull the car over for view of the neighboring keys and the open sea.
Dockside Lunch at Key Largo… and a Shark!
By the time we made it to the sleepy Key Largo, It was time to stop for lunch, as so we began to look for a restaurant that would give us a ~classic~ Keys experience.
Our stipulations were as follows:
- Has fresh seafood
- Has a waterside view
- … actually those were our only requirements.
Thankfully, there is no shortage of restaurants that check all of those boxes, and that’s how we wound up pulling into the gravel driveway of the Boathouse dockside restaurant. This little side-of-the-road joint had all of the classic Southern Florida charm, with tons of patio space, hanging lights, and bright colored decor. There’s one shack where you order at the counter, and the other is actually a seafood market where you can get your freshly caught fish to go. The prices for the restaurant are pretty steep, but I guess that’s to be expected throughout the Keys. After ordering some blackened Mahi Mahi, we took a seat right by the docks.
While waiting for our food, we decided to walk along the water’s edge to see all of the boats and any possible sea creatures underneath them. After walking for just a minute or two, a willowy movement deep in the water caught my eye. After squinting to make out the shape, I realized it was a shark, and a BIG one too! About 7 feet long, it swam calmly across the ocean floor. It’s long tail waved gently behind it, indicating that it was a docile Nurse Shark.
For a couple of Midwestern land-lubbers, we were obviously shocked and excited, and probably also yelling in wonderment. A few fishermen seemed amused by our enthusiasm, told us that Nurse Sharks love this area, and that they’ve seen all sorts of creatures in this dockyard.
I can only imagine living in a place where seeing sharks bigger than yourself is so normal that you don’t completely freak out (with joy) upon seeing them.
Tarpon, More Sharks, and the Pelicans from Hell in Islamorada
A.k.a. How to see the famous tarpon at Robbie’s for free
When telling our families about the impromptu Florida Keys road trip, their recommendations were almost unanimous: feed the huge tarpon in Islamorada.
Although I didn’t know much about the Keys before arriving, I had heard about this place, mostly from ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’. It’s the place where you buy a bucket of sardines, and then dangle one just above the water for a huge fish, a tarpon, to rise to the water’s surface just before snapping it right out of your hand! Although I’ve seen plenty of people in videos being pulled into the water by these monstrous fish, I was willing to try. At least until our friend from Miami gave us a lot of reasons to not do it.
I am pretty much impartial, and won’t judge whoever feeds them, but in order to pass on a local’s wisdom, here are the reasons:
- The pelicans in Islamorada are devils.
They will wait around the dock for a new visitor to approach with a bucket of fish and will divebomb you to get it. I didn’t see this happen, but I did see pelicans looming all over the place and making people uncomfortable.
- It doesn’t encourage natural feeding behavior from the tarpon.
This is more of an ethical, and therefore subjective issue, but I prefer to refrain from feeding wild animals.
- It costs $2 to go out and see the tarpon, and then another $4 minimum to feed them. There’s an easy solution if you just want to see them without the fee!
There’s actually another dock to the left of the feeding dock (behind the water sports shack and next to the restrooms) that you can stand on for free. This dock has plenty of tarpon swimming around right underneath the water’s surface, and we also saw a few nurse sharks and even a jellyfish while we were there. It’s also far less crowded than the main feeding dock, and no one yelled at us for being there. 🙂
Besides feeding the tarpon, there’s a lot of fun stuff to do on Islamorada. Around the feeding dock, you can find tons of gift shops, wall murals, and a few bars and restaurants. Normally, touristy traps like this aren’t my thing, but the whole place has really fun energy, and I actually didn’t mind walking around and looking at magnets for a few minutes.
Chilling at Sombrero Beach on Marathon Key
As much as it pains me to write such a cliché: a road trip down the Florida Keys would be incomplete without a beach break. (bleh, I just threw up in my mouth- but it’s true!)
And since there is no shortage of beaches throughout the Keys, there’s really no wrong place to go. This makes choosing one a little difficult, but I can give a thumbs up and a recommendation for Sombrero Beach on Marathon Key!
Sombrero Beach is a great beach break option in the Florida Keys because even in the height of summer, it doesn’t get unbearably crowded since it’s a little off the beaten path. Another perk is that it’s one of the only beaches in the Keys where you don’t have to pay to park your car, and when you’re trying to save every dollar possible (like me), that’s everything!
Some of Sombrero Beach’s best features are it’s wide stretch of fluffy, warm sand and it’s calm water. It’s also got a few rocky outcroppings that have a hollowed-out spongy texture, which form little tidal pools for corals and tiny sea creatures.
The only downside to Sombrero Beach is that the water isn’t super clear, so it’s not the best place to snorkel. Overall though, Sombrero Beach was a great place to get in our beach time for the day.
Sunset in the Florida Keys
By the time we left the beach, it was late afternoon, and time to turn around to start heading back to Miami. This doesn’t mean our road trip down the Florida Keys was over- in fact, it was only halfway done!
About 45 minutes in, the setting sun turned the sky into some kind of abstract painting with golds, pinks, and purples. Deciding we couldn’t miss the opportunity to see the sun set over the Florida Keys, we pulled over at one of the many pulloffs, and found a spot over the water that gave us a perfect view of the sun setting over the rushing tide.
Since we still had about 10 minutes to go before the sun actually disappeared, we put on some Cheetah Girls and boogied our brains out right next to the highway. I’m sure we looked like absolute goobers to the people driving past, but who cares! The sun is setting in the Florida Keys and nothing sets fire to your insecurities like dance parties and the Cheetah Girls! Even after the sun set, we kept on dancing like maniacs.
Then it got cold and so we got back in the car to start towards our final destination- the Blonde Giraffe!
Don’t forget the Key Lime Pie!
I think I would’ve deserved to be murdered if I’d gone to the Florida Keys without trying Key lime pie.
And since I’m not dead, it’s safe to assume that I did. In fact, we had what’s been voted the best key lime pie in Florida!
The Blonde Giraffe is the lime-colored store with this claim to fame, and although they sell pretty much every kind of key lime-flavored dessert you could imagine, their award winning specialty is the frozen, chocolate-covered key lime pie on a stick. They’ve got the regular kind, if you’d prefer, but frozen and covered in chocolate is a Florida Keys staple!
It’s not just the pie that makes the blond giraffe special, though. The outdoor seating area… let’s just say… has a lot going on! The whole garden is love themed, so it’s been decorated accordingly with red lights and hearts scattered throughout. There’s even a mini love-lock bridge where you and your lovey can buy a red, heart-shaped padlock and clip to the bridge.
And if you’re not too busy staring into your lover’s eyes, there’s also a few farm animals, like a chicken and a rabbit, wandering around the garden for you to find.
I usually don’t even like Key lime pie, but the blonde Giraffe’s pie on a stick was out of this world! It was absolute perfection! We also got lucky and visited on a night where the place was almost empty so we were able to explore the gardens and look for the chicken to our heart’s content.
I LOVED our road trip down the Florida Keys! My only regret is that we only had a day to enjoy them. They’ve got everything you could possibly want out of a vacation: from glorious beaches, to amazing food, to exciting wildlife spotting opportunities, you could easily spend a week driving down the Florida Keys and back.
This brings an end to my “crazy” college Spring Break in Southern Florida, but if you’re still looking for travel journals to read, you can read all about my adventures in Alabama here! I left for Alabama with my family just 2 days after getting back from Florida, and we were subsequently quarantined there for a few days due to the Coronavirus. It was a perilous time.
See you all later!
Where did she come from? Miami, Florida, USA
Where did she go (next)? Gulf Shores, Alabama, USA