Travel Diaries: A Five Day Itinerary in The Florida Keys / by Didier Young

I often mention how I love Toronto throughout every season. It is gorgeous in Fall, brisk in Spring, warm in Summer and magical in winter. However, I will admit that the drop in temperature and the promise of snow did hit hard this year so I was happy to pack up my bags to head to the Florida Keys for five days. While I did visit Miami earlier on this year, this marked my first time in the Keys and Key West, a place so south that the running joke is that it is closer to Cuba than a Walmart.

The Florida Keys are a coral cay archipelago located about 24km south of Miami, starting at the Southeastern coast of the Florida peninsula and ending with Key West, the last of the inhabited islands, and the uninhabited Dry Tortugas. We went in mid-November and the temperatures were at their most perfect with them remaining constantly in the upper 20C. The popular tourist destination is at its lowest occupancy during the summer months but truly starts to pick up at the end of fall and in winter when the temperatures up north drop drastically. The Keys put a big emphasis on preserving their environment, with fishing patterns being altered throughout the year to allow fish repopulation, the presence of a sea turtle hospital and coral facilities. The archipelago is also the home of the endemic Key deer, an endangered subspecies of the white-tailed deer that grows to be the size of a medium-sized dog.

We arrived at Fort Lauderdale International Airport at noon and proceeded to take an hour and a half drive to our lunch spot. The Fish House Restaurant and Seafood market was my first glimpse of the local culture and it did not disappoint. The Key Largo dining establishment has been around since 1982 and it specializes in fresh local seafood.  This is also where I had my first taste of blackened mahi mahi and it was absolutely delicious! The seasoning made for a nicely spiced meal paired with refreshing coleslaw. This was also the place were I had the first key lime pie of the trip. As you guys probably guessed by now, key limes are highly valued in the Keys are you’ll find key lime pie on every dessert menus in the archipelago. We then checked in at Islamorada’s Amara Cay Resort which was recognised by Condé Nast Traveler readers as one of the top destinations in the Florida Keys and it was gorgeous property that was both chic and understated, surrounded by the ocean and lush palm trees. Many properties were severely affected by Hurricane Irma in 2017 but the silver lining is that Amara Cay took this opportunity to expand their outdoors tiki bar in the aftermath. We left the venue that night to head over to Angler and Ale for dinner, and feasted on a meal of coconut shrimp, tomato burrata salad and lobster bacon mac and cheese . This whole trip was quite seafood focussed but I was definitely not complaining about it.

hungry tarpon florida keys

The temperature was lovely in the Keys and I decided to sleep with my balcony door open and the air conditioning off. I woke up the next day to the gentle sunlight streaming through the curtains and the soothing sound of the ocean. After witnessing the rising sun on the peer, our group headed over to the Hungry Tarpon where we fed the tarpons, gigantic fish that jump out of the water of snatch the fish out of your hand, and had breakfast at the restaurant on the marina. After a meal of crepes layered with fried eggs, lobster meat and topped with hollandaise, we roamed on the marina and explored al the different shops. We then headed over to the Marathon Turtle Hospital, a place that treats injured sea turtles and returns them to the wild whenever they are ready to be released. The Florida waters are home to five of the seven known varieties of sea turtles with four of them currently being endangered. Seeing the state of the residing turtles really reminded me of how important it is to make sure to be as eco friendly as possible and to keep our oceans clean and safe for all the creatures living there. Lunch was spent at one of the island’s favourites, the Key’s fisheries where I probably had the best Key Lime pie of the whole trip. That afternoon, we took a tour of the Florida Keys Brewing Co., a local brewery run by a fellow Canadian and had a round of flights and I was pleasantly surprised. I am not much of a beer drinker but most of the offerings were quite enjoyable. Dinner was set across the street at Morada Bay Beach Café, a stunning outdoor Mediterranean bistro café set on the sand. My dinner consisted of grilled yellowtail and a generous portion of truffled mac and cheese. This café really reminded me of Miami for sentimental reasons.

On the third day, we made a quick pit stop at Bahia Honda State park before heading off to lunch at the No Name pub. The pub had a very peculiar decor: it was covered from floor to ceiling in $1 bills. On that trip, we also bumped into two key deers and I managed to feel one’s nuzzle before they both walked away. We then checked in the 24 North Hotel, located at the entry point of Key West and quite close to everything in Old Town. After a few hours of relaxation, we made our way to Mallory Square to enjoy the Sunset Celebration, a nightly Street Carnival filled with food carts and buskers. The square filled with applause as the sun went down and we then headed off to the Turtle Kraals for a tasty meal of crab cake on a grilled lobster tail.

florida keys
florida keys hemingway home
florida keys perry west hotel

Day four started off early as we headed back to downtown Key West and onto a small boat for the Island Adventure Eco Tour with Fury Water. The company offers a variety of water based activities and we started off by having a light breakfast and snorkeling in some shallow waters. The Keys are lucky to have quite a few sandbanks in their proximity which means that you will randomly stumble upon patches of shallow water in the middle of the ocean. Afterwards, we kayaked in the mangrove islands and had lunch on the boat. We lucked out on our way to dry land as we stumbled upon two packs of dolphins. I’ve always had a love for the sea creature so needless to say that I was very excited about the encounter. Once we set foot back on land, we had some free time to enjoy Key West at our leisure. We checked out the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum where the great author lived and wrote for nearly ten years and the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory where we walked in a garden filled with beautiful butterflies and even some flamingos. Given the touristic nature of Key West, the downtown core consists mainly of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops but make sure to stop by Kermit’s Key Lime Shoppe if you’re in the area and you’re looking for some key lime flavoured memorabilia. After freshening up at the hotel, we headed over to The Perry Key West hotel, a gorgeous property at Stock Island Marina, that is now on my bucket list of places to stay at. There we dined at Matt’s Stock Island, the winner of Open Table’s 2018 Diner’s Choice Award for Best Ambiance and I can first handedly say that they were right. The beautiful restaurant served as the perfect setting for our last evening meal and the food was absolutely scrumptious.

florida keys
blue heaven florida keys

After checking out on day five, we went to Blue Heaven for our last meal in the archipelago. My breakfast consisted of a delicious lobster benedict with bacon, avocado and a key lime hollandaise. Of course, we couldn’t end this trip without yet another slice of pie. Blue Heaven is often mentioned by the locals whenever they start talking about their favourite pie in the city and it was as impressive to look at as it was to taste. After the breakfast, we jumped back in our taxi and headed over to the airport, with a sad heart and a head filled with sunny memories.

Florida Keys will always have a special place in my heart. While it reminded me of my native home, it was also such a breath of fresh air. I am glad to know that such a paradise exists a mere three hour plane ride away from Toronto. The Florida Keys are more than just a sunny destination: they are a place where the people truly care for the gifts that Mother Nature has blessed upon them and aim to preserve their environment to the best of their abilities. Much like the Key lime pies that are served here, the Keys are a little slice of Heaven that I will always cherish.