This post covers our fabulous 4-day Miami to Key West drive, staying in Islamorada with a stop at Marathon to eat some Lion Fish, and spending two nights in cute Key West!
You could drive down the Florida Keys to Key West from Miami, in about three hours, making it a perfect weekend break. But we took our time and also chose to stay about half way back to Miami (in Islamorada) on our last night because the road is only two lanes (one lane each way) in places and we had a flight to catch the next morning.
It can get pretty crowded on Highway 1, especially on weekends, or God forbid, there is a crash, and I didn’t want to risk missing our flight.
We love a road trip in the USA, hubby and I. He gets behind the wheel and navigates on the wrong side of the road (we’re from New Zealand!) and I give him “helpful” advice along the way, which sometimes he finds annoying – whaaaaat 😉
There’s certainly enough to do and see along the Florida Keys to take four or five days – or even longer if you’re the “slow travel” kind and have more time. I would have loved to stay longer in Key West as two nights was barely enough, but if you just want to pop down for a weekend, this itinerary will give you a few ideas.
How long are the Florida Keys?
The Keys stretch 180 km (113 miles) from Miami to Key West and the islands (or keys) are linked by a series of bridges. These engineering wonders of concrete snake across the ocean between mangroves, swooping from sea level to sky, and each key is a little different to the last. And of course the feat of the Seven Mile Bridge is one to take photos of!
As I mentioned earlier, the road to Key West is only one or two-lanes most of the way, so it can be slow going if you get behind some numpty who never checks their rear view mirror, or worse, get caught up in a queue of traffic because of an accident or a break down. (Hence staying closer to Miami the night before our flight).
However neither of those situations befell us and we tootled down from Miami, stopped to meet the folks who work for REEF at Key Largo fighting the scourge that is the lion fish (more on that below), had lunch in the fishing village of Marathon and finally arrived at Mile Zero in Key West a leisurely four or five hours later.
But first: Starting our road trip in Miami…
You can’t see the Keys without first spending a night (or three) in Miami! Even if you’ve been before like we have several times, it’s a great excuse to stay in a different part of this groovy city, check out some new things or revisit the tried and true of South Beach before loading up on car snacks and heading south.
This time we stayed at the YVE Hotel in downtown Miami as we flew in late and wanted to hit the road the next day. It’s located in a great spot if you’re heading off on a cruise too as it’s right there beside the Port of Miami and across the road from Bayside Marketplace which is heaving with restaurants, bars and shops. It was ideal for our one-night stopover. Oh and summer rates start at $99!
But we’ve also stayed in South Beach a few times and really love the vibe, the restaurants and the shopping there. Read my post on what to do in weekend in Miami here >>
Here is my 4-day Florida Keys itinerary:
The distance from Miami to Key West is 165 miles (266 km) so you can see how easy it is to nip down for a weekend, but we wanted to explore a bit more and we had the time.
1st stop: Key Largo
Key Largo is 69 miles from Miami and the first key you’ll come to. It took us about an hour from Miami Airport where we had Uber’d from our hotel to pick up our rental car so we could return it to the same location and fly out at the end of the week.
As part of my research of things to do and see on our Key West road trip, I came upon the topic of the lionfish and the monstrous eco disaster that this very pretty, small, yet venomous, aquarium fish is wreaking on the Keys, the Gulf of Mexico and all the way down to South America. So my first stop was to visit the team at REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) who are trying to battle the plague.
Don’t expect Key Largo to be a metropolis. In fact it’s barely marked a road sign! If you blink you could miss it and suddenly you’re on your way through to Islamorada. Which we did and had to pull off at the next slip road to cross over Highway 1 and come back up.
You may know that Key Largo is home to the quirky Jules Undersea Hotel where you need to don a wetsuit to get to your room and spend the night sleeping underwater (which would freak me out!) and it’s also a great place to learn to SCUBA.
In fact all of the Keys are famous for fishing, diving and snorkeling but they are also surrounded by mangroves so while ocean sports are easy to come by, so too are kayaking and bird watching.
Tip: Sunsets are also something to make time to celebrate on the Keys, so head Gulf side each evening for a cocktail with a view at any of the restaurants or bars around the little marinas or beaches.
2nd stop: Marathon
The next key you’ll come to heading south is Islamorada (where the Netflix series Bloodline is set), but we stopped at Marathon as we were staying at Islamorada on the way back, so saved that for later.
Marathon is at mile marker 48 (heading south to 0, and 115 miles from Miami), and as I was on a quest to seek revenge and eat the infamous lionfish I was recommended to visit Castaway’s for lunch.
Hidden off the main highway on a sleepy marina, I honestly wouldn’t have looked twice at if I hadn’t had the recommendation. In fact we never would have even found it, but I’m glad I had the tip to stop. It’s Marathon’s oldest restaurant and one of the few places where you can get lionfish on a plate.
It’s a bar/slash/diner that looks like it’s been here forever and is frequented by locals. But what makes it unique is that they serve up lionfish as sushi – and use the head and tail for presentation. There may be a billion trillion lionfish eating the native fish out of house and home on the reefs below, but I played my part and ate this one!
3rd stop: Key West
I instantly fell in with love Key West! It’s officially mile zero of Route 1 at the very bottom of the Florida Keys – you can even pose for a selfie by the sign.
The historic part of town is cute and colorful and I could definitely had stayed longer here.
My suggestion is to stay in the old town where it’s just so quaint, and I’d suggest spending two or three nights here.
We arrived around mid afternoon and checked into our hotel (see details below) in a beautiful, refurbished 100-year old two-story wooden house with wrap around verandas. It was located only a couple of blocks from the main street, Duval, which is lined with brightly painted wooden shops and restaurants serving cocktails, key lime pie and fresh seafood, as well as lots of little beachy boutiques for sun dresses, souvenirs and a few art galleries.
3 of the best things to do in Key West
1 I nearly didn’t visit Ernest Hemingway’s house as time was tight, but I’m so glad I did! This should be on your list, even if just to see the 53 cats who live here and are descendants from Snow White, a cat with six toes on each paw given to Hemingway’s son. Just about all of them have 24 toes and I loved them! But the house itself is preserved as his ex-wife left it (he had moved to Cuba when she stayed on here). It’s a fascinating insight into the author and the man.
2 I took a helicopter flight over Key West where I could see some of the famous ships lying wrecked on the ocean floor and which were a huge industry as businesses were set up just to salvage the many ships that wrecked on the coral reefs 100 years ago with cargo that would be valued at $7 million by today’s value. We could see sharks floating in the clear water and flew over the US Army special forces base where guys dressed in black were in the pool – probably practicing near drowning techniques!
3 Eat key lime pie! And believe it or not there are a few ways to make this tart meringue pie… grab a take away version at Kermit on Duval or sit down and enjoy it outside under the trees strung with lights at Blue Heaven. Actually Blue Heaven is definitely worth going to for dinner.
The bright blue wooden shuttered building was once the venue of cock fighting and boxing refereed by local resident Ernest Hemingway. It was a billiard hall and an ice cream parlour in the basement, a dance hall, a playhouse and a bordello on the second floor and since 1992 it’s been a restaurant complete with roaming chickens and a few cats.
Tables are indoors and outside under trees strung with lights. No bookings are made, you just rock up when you’re ready, pull up a seat at the bar where the bartender will make your cocktail of choice and wait for them to come find you.
Where to stay in Key West
I absolutely loved our huge room with lush bathroom in the historic colonial Chelsea House, one of six hotels which is part of the Historic Key West Inns, cute wooden properties within walking distance of everything you want to do, see and eat.
4th stop: Islamorada
On our way back we had a flight to catch about midday from Miami, so opted to stay within 90 minutes of the airport just in case the road got jammed. It was also a long weekend, so you never know! As it happened we whistled through with plenty of time to spare.
We stayed at Islander Resort, a Guy Harvey Outpost. Named after the famous designer, this is an affordable family resort with self catering rooms, two pools and a restaurant located right on the beach. There are barbecues dotted around the site so a good time for groups too – and a coin operated laundry which I availed myself of the minute we arrived!
Things to do in Islamorada
Visit Robbie’s at the end of the bridge just south of Islamorada. This is a fun spot with loads of activities for everyone.
Boating, snorkelling, tarpon fish feeding, shopping among the souvenirs, dining on the water’s edge with a few beers. You can take tours from here or rent your own boat and equipment. You could easily spend two or three hours here. Even if you’re not staying in Islamorada, stop for lunch at Robbies, it really is fun.
Watch the sunset with a cocktail or over dinner at any of the eastern beach restaurants. I grabbed a table on the veranda at Morada Bay along with the many families and friends gathered at tables on the sand in front leading all the way to the shore and watched the sleepy sun drop into the other side of the world while munching on tortillas and guac.
For more information and everything you need to know about the Florida Keys, jump onto www.Fla-Keys.com
My visit to Florida was assisted by American Airlines on our huge 4-week trip and we paid no baggage fees as we were on the one itinerary! Now there’s another tip 🙂Booking.com