I was so stinking excited to check one Florida destination off my list. I’ve probably been to the Sunshine State 50 times in my 30 years, no exaggeration, but I’d never made it so far south as the multicolored waters of the Florida Keys.
After the months of no sleep and thinking and talking about nothing but KEEN round the clock, SVV and I had long-planned a post-conference vacation where we could do a little diving, lounge in the sun and take care of our rapidly growing reading lists (yes, we’re dorks). The Keys seemed like just the place. But first things first: How do you start in planning such a trip to a place comprising 800 islands?
I knew I wanted to start from the top and drive the full length of the 113 miles that spans the Keys. After all, it’s not a vacation if it doesn’t involve a road trip! So we booked our flights from Nashville to Miami, just a quick two-hour trip if we were to fly direct (we took the cheaper option and stopped over in Atlanta). I was shocked to learn that Miami is only an hour by car from the beginning of the Upper Keys. News to me. And it gave us a chance to grab some much-anticipated Latino food in Miami at food truck-turned-brick and mortar restaurant Latin House Burger & Taco Bar en route (delicious!).
But back to our actual vacation. We started in Key Largo, which has the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world, to get our fins wet. We were in luck in that the current and swells subsided just in time for our dives; two days before, there had been no boats going out. (More underwater coverage in the weeks to come.)
But after two nights in the Upper Keys, I was ready to arrive in the more idyllic isles of Big Pine and the Lower Keys. What no one tells you about Key Largo is that it’s full of a whole lot of strip malls and commercial establishments (don’t listen to the Beach Boys…lies, all lies). It was far from the sleeping fishing villages we had envisioned prior to losing our Keys virginity—which was fine; we were just there to dive after all. But if you’re not a diver or a snorkeler or are not traveling with kids, I would likely recommend skipping a stay in the Upper Keys and heading straight to the Middle Keys instead.
Next, we spent a night in Marathon, primarily to visit the Turtle Hospital, which was both a heartwarming and heartbreaking experience to see the pain humans can inflict upon such majestic creatures—but also to see what scientists are doing to save and rehab them. I wish we’d had time to visit Islamorada, simply because it sounds dreamy and pictures of Anne’s Beach (Mile Marker 73.5) make it appear as if it lives up to its name. But there’s never time to do everything, especially not in a week.
Then it was off to Bahia Honda and on further to Big Pine Key, both places that elicited a sigh of relief: This is the Keys experience we were hoping for. We spent some time in the state park’s narrow patch of white sand then hopped in a two-seater for a paddle through the mangroves with Big Pine Kayak Adventures, which was one of my favorite parts of the entire vacation.
Finally, we arrived in Key West for the last four nights of our trip, and the true relaxation began. I always pictured in my head that Key West would be this major party destination, and while it’s true it has some awesome restaurants and some great bars (dive, gay, clothing-optional, you name it), I absolutely loved this island the most and would plan a trip back without hesitation.
Our days that followed on Key West included some diving, a lot of eating and even more drinking. We saw the mark Hemingway left behind (six-toed cats and all). We lounged 100 feet below the ocean’s surface with Lost Reef Adventures on the biggest wreck in the world that recreational divers can visit. And did I mention we ate a whole lot of food (key lime pie included)? That seemed to be the bulk of our time in Key West.
And then we flew home via Atlanta once more, arriving in Nashville to 29 degrees—rare for this time of year; it was 65 when we left a week earlier—a third of the temperature from the 92 it had been that morning in Key West. And reality set in: Winter’s here, and I want to be back in Florida to wait out the cold months.