This journal starts off in Key Largo and continues through the keys until it ends in Key West. It explores the historical and popular tourist destinations in and around Duval Street. It continues on past Key West for another seventy miles at Dry Tortugas National Park.
by RoBoNC on July 28, 2009
Although US Route 1 ends in Key West, Monroe County actually extends seventy miles west of the town in Dry Tortugas. Dry Tortugas is made up of seven islands accessible only by boat or seaplane. The name "Tortugas" is derived from the abundance of sea turtles in the area and "Dry" comes from the fact that there is no freshwater source. The Dry Tortugas was seen as a vital shipping lane and the US built a fort, Fort Jefferson, on one of the islands, Garden Key, to protect shipping on the Mississippi River. Construction lasted thirty years and was never completed as originally planned. Its biggest purpose served as an "Alcatraz" during the Civil War. Union deserters who were captured were sentenced here along with four people that were implicated in Abraham Lincoln’s death. The fort was abandoned in 1876. Today, it is the Dry Tortugas National Park and because of its location, the most inaccessible National Park, and not to mention, the most expensive to visit. The National Park Service has contracted private companies to provide transportation to the park. It is based on your personal preference which one you choose. The quickest way to the islands but also the most expensive option is the seaplane. The cost was about $225 a person. However, a recent review of the National Park Service’s website has deleted the seaplane service link. The seaplane service may have ended, however a call to the Key West Airport could provide information if this service is still available. I went with the cheaper option, the boat, if you can call it that. Two companies provide boat service to the Dry Tortugas, the Yankee Freedom and Sunny Days. I went with Sunny Days because it was a little cheaper, $145 as compared to $165. They both offer the same trip itinerary, 41/2 hours at Fort Jefferson, continental breakfast, buffet style lunch and complimentary soft drinks, water, and tea throughout the day. They both offer a guided tour of Fort Jefferson (or you can take a self-guided tour) as well as provide snorkeling gear. The boats leave the Key West Marina at 8:00am and return no later than 5pm. The trip takes two hours each way. We grabbed breakfast on board the boat and took a nice enjoyable ride to the Dry Tortugas. The whole fort is open to the public except for a small area where the park rangers’ families reside. There is a gift shop at the fort where you can pick up some souvenirs. Because there is no freshwater in the Dry Tortugas, that means there is no bathroom, either. Bathroom facilities are located onboard the boat. Snorkel gear is issued before you leave the docks and you are allowed to swim around the fort or just relax on the beach. Because of the location of the Dry Tortugas, the islands are sometimes visited by Cubans who are trying to make it to the US. There is even a sign at the Fort that tells visitors that Park Rangers may not always be available if they have an incident of Cubans coming ashore. It takes every Park Ranger and staff member to decontaminate the subjects and watch them as they wait for Immigration authorities. You can see some of the Cuban boats that have come ashore and are now stacked on one side of the island. An important tip before visiting the Dry Tortugas is that if you get motion sickness, bring Dramamine. They will offer it onboard the boat for a fee. I don’t usually get motion sickness, but on the return trip, it took a long time before we got on a boat again. The Sunny Days operates a Catamaran, which was faster than the Yankee Freedom, but we paid for it on the way back. We went to Dry Tortugas in December, which is still winter in Florida, although it doesn’t feel like it. During the winter, the Gulf of Mexico has really choppy waves. We were told as we boarded to head back, that it was going to be a bumpy ride. The entire ride back we were going airborne off of the waves and crashing hard onto the water. People started getting sick and the staff had to escort some people outside on the boat to get fresh air. We brought our one year old son with us. I began to notice my wife getting sea sick from the choppy waves. I began to laugh at her since I never get sea sick. Twenty minutes later, I started getting that feeling. It didn’t take long before my son was passed out in my arms. It took everything in my power to keep my son asleep while I came out of seat every time the boat went airborne. A lady next to me told me to look at the horizon to combat the sea sickness and believe it or not, it helped. I looked at that horizon for about two hours and was so relieved when I saw Key West. The most horrific boat ride was over and my son slept through the whole ordeal. Had I known what the return trip was going to be like, I would have taken the Yankee Freedom and paid the extra $20. Although we beat Yankee Freedom to Fort Jefferson, it was the other way around on the return trip. It was as if the Yankee Freedom cut right through the waves. It was an exciting trip, but one boat ride that I do not want to experience again.
For someone such as myself who loves to visit presidential sites, the Truman Little White House was one that I was not going to miss. Located in the "Old Town" of Key West near Mallory Square sits an average looking white house which became famous due to one man, Harry S Truman. The house was originally built as the home of the base commandant since it was built on the Key West Naval Station. Truman first visited the house in 1946 and he used it as an escape from the winter of Washington D.C. It was commonly called the winter White House until he spent so much time here, it became known as the Little White House. Tours of the house are guided and most of the original furnishings are still there. The tour takes you to the bedrooms of Harry and Bess Truman as well as the office where Truman wrote many official letters and those to Bess when she wasn’t there. Downstairs, the living room contains probably the most famous newspaper in all of history. On display is the famous Chicago Tribune newspaper with the bold headlines, "Dewey Defeats Truman." Truman won the election and the paper became one of the biggest gaffes in media history and the most sought after newspaper among collectors. This house was the site of the formation of the Department of Defense. It is where Truman formulated his Marshall Plan for Europe and issued an executive order declaring a two-week cease fire in Korea which ultimately led to General Douglas MacArthur’s dismissal by Truman. Tours are offered every twenty minutes from 9am to 4:30pm every day of the year including holidays. The Little White House is considered a living history museum and government officials continue to use the residence to this day for government functions. Very little notice is given and it is the only time that the Little White House is closed. In 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell used the residence to open up peace talks between the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Those countries’ flags are still flown outside the residence to recognize that. It is also used a vacation retreat as the Clintons stayed here in 2005 and the Carters in 2007. There is no photography allowed inside the Little White House. There is a gift shop located on the premises which is where you buy tour tickets. A tip is to grab visitor’s guides which can be found all over Key West. Those guides contain coupons which offer discounted rates at the Little White House and numerous other attractions.
If you find yourself in New Orleans in the midst of Mardi Gras, head to Bourbon Street. If you are in Memphis and looking for the Blues scene and some BBQ to go along with it, head to Beale Street. If you are in Key West, where do you go? Duval Street, of course. Duval Street is where everyone and everything is located. Duval Street stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The street is filled with restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and throw in a few museums, landmarks, and you have a busy street filled with tourists who are all looking for a great time. Starting on the south end of the street is the southernmost area in the continental US. Everything on this end of the street attempts to capitalize on this distinction. You can work on your tan at the Southernmost Beach, grab a beer at the Southernmost Café, or stay at the Southernmost Hotel. A block from Duval Street at the corner of South and Whitehead Street stands the Southernmost Point monument. It is a concrete replica of a buoy which has been a tourist attraction since it was built in 1983. It is painted alternating bands of black, red, and yellow and divided by white stripes. It also lets visitors know that not only is it the southernmost point in the US, but it is only "90 miles to Cuba." Walking down Duval Street, there are plenty of shops, mostly T-shirts shops all selling the same designs. Some of these owners can be very aggressive in order to get your business. They don’t put prices on most of their merchandise so they can negotiate the prices instead. Just be stern and be prepared to be followed around the store as you browse. Beside these ruthless T-shirt shops, there are some excellent specialty shops. One of my favorites is Cuba, Cuba, Cuba, which you guessed it, sells everything dealing with Cuba. There are plenty of arts and crafts stores where you can pick up some great handmade souvenirs. With all of that shopping, you will definitely work up an appetite. What better place than at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. Forget the fact that it is a chain restaurant, but rather that this is Buffet country and this is the original Margaritaville. If seafood is what you are looking for, try Jack’s Seafood Shack or Captain Mario’s Seafood Feast Buffet. You can skip the meal and grab a cold beer at one of the many bars. The most famous is Sloppy Joes, whose most famous patron was Ernest Hemingway and today the site of the Ernest Hemingway look alike contest. The food was average, but the beer is ice cold and a great place to stop and relax. Another great bar is Hog’s Breath Saloon, where they bottle their own beer named after the saloon. The bar’s walls are covered in license plates and offers live music throughout the day. It is located a few blocks away from Mallory Square on the north end of Duval Street. The north end of Duvall Street is known as Mallory Square or the "Old Town." Here you will find two museums, the Key West Shipwreck Museum and the Key West Museum of Art and History which is housed in the Old Post Office and Customshouse. This particular area can get very crowded as the cruise ship port is located here. There are many attractions that are located a few blocks each way from Duval Street. The Harry Truman Little White House and Fort Zachary Taylor are near the north end of Duval Street. Tours are offered of the Ernest Hemingway House and the many cats that call it home or you can visit the Key West Lighthouse or the Key West Butterfly Conservatory. Duval Street is also the site of numerous festivals every year. One of the biggest festivals is Fantasy Fest held on the last week in October. It is Key West’s answer to Mardi Gras and it is when they crown the Conch King and Queen. Also around the first week in November, Jimmy Buffet’s Parrot Heads gather for the Parrot Heads in Paradise Convention or the Meeting of the Minds as it is commonly called. If you are in Key West and are looking for a good time, Duval Street is where it is. It could also be called the street that doesn’t sleep or at least until the bars close at 4am.
Key West is filled with hotels from expensive resorts to bed and breakfasts. Prices can vary dramatically depending on the hotel brand name, amenities, and location. We stayed at the Oceanside resort which was a beautiful hotel at a reasonable price, $100 a night, which is cheap for Key West. Sometime this year, the hotel was bought by Marriott and it is now called the Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel. The hotel is in a great location. As you take US1 into Key West, the road T-intersects into Roosevelt Boulevard, which is one of the main streets on the island. As you turn right onto Roosevelt Boulevard, the hotel is immediately on your right hand side. A review of Marriott’s website shows that the amenities are pretty much the same, except for some name changes such as the restaurant. Parking is free and all parking is located on the ground level underneath the hotel with all rooms on the second floor and above. The basic hotel rooms are average in size with beautiful marble bathrooms. For those looking to splurge, the hotel also offers 1, 2, and 3 bedroom suites with the most spacious at almost 1600 square feet. The suites are equipped with the same number of bathrooms as rooms. The rooms are furnished with a desk, sofa, washer and dryer, and dining table. They have a full equipped kitchen with dishes and glasses provided. Under the old management, these suites could be rented or bought as a timeshare. If you are looking to relax, you can take a swim at their private beach or swim in the heated pool overlooking the ocean. The hotel offers a fitness gym on site and less than a mile away is the Key West Golf Club. The two restaurants on site are the Tavern N’Town and the Blue Bar. They offer shuttles to Duval Street and the Key West Airport. Although, I haven’t stayed here since Marriott took it over, I imagine you can expect the same high quality of service that is expected at any hotel carrying the Marriott name. Depending on when you go, a basic guest room is around $150 a night while the suites range anywhere from $240 to $700 a night. This is an excellent hotel located near the water and close to Duval Street, but far enough way to get a good night sleep away from the crowd.
The Florida Keys has always evoked images of pristine blue waters, great fun in the sun, and just a place to get away from your troubles in an atmosphere of where everything is laid back. Ever since the Beach Boys sang "Kokomo", I can picture myself relaxing underneath the sun, drinking a Pina Colada without a care in the world. While most people prefer to fly into Key West or the smaller airport in Marathon, I actually prefer to fly into Miami and drive the 3-4 hours to Key West. Perhaps on a subsequent trip, I will fly into Key West, but being my first time I wanted to see it all. The drive allows you to do that. The Florida Keys are made up of over 1700 islands or keys as they are called. Most of the keys are uninhabitable and they extend from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas, which is seventy miles past Key West. The Keys are broken up into three classes, the Upper Keys, Middle Keys, and the Lower Keys. The trip begins as you enter the tip of the Florida Peninsula on US Route 1. This route begins and ends (depending on how you are going) in Key West, eventually traveling up the eastern seaboard into Maine where it terminates at the Canadian border. The first stop is in Key Largo, part of the Upper Keys. There are numerous visitors’ centers where you can get brochures and book tours throughout the Florida Keys. Key Largo is known as the "Diving Capital of the World" and attracts millions of tourists every year ready to explore the living coral reefs off its shore. This is also a great place to grab a bite to eat and top off with gas. US 1 in the Keys is also known as the Overseas Highway. This highway is a 127.5 mile long road that connects the Keys and includes the Seven-mile Bridge, connecting Knight’s Key to Little Duck Key. Before there were automobiles, the Overseas Highway was originally the Overseas Railroad. However, most of the railroad was destroyed during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Construction of the highway used the existing parts of the railroad. Over time, the road has been modernized and parts of the old road are still standing. Although closed to vehicular traffic, they are now used as walking paths or as piers to fish off of. The Overseas Highway will take you over the rest of the five Keys in the Upper Keys going through the town of Islamorada as you enter the Middle Keys. The Middle and Lower Keys begin to get interesting names. You will begin to cross over Keys with names such as Conch Key, Crawl Key, Fat Deer Key, and Boot Key. Marathon is the third largest town in the keys and the halfway point between Key Largo and Key West. Marathon covers seven different keys and is also a great place to stop before continuing to Key West. We stopped off at Porky’s Bayside, which has great BBQ and a view of the water. Make sure you try a slice of their fried Key Lime Pie. With one hour to go and Key West on the horizon, we entered the Lower keys, which contain more keys than the others. We crossed over No Name Key, Ramrod Key, Sugarloaf Key and Knockemdown Key. As you travel over these Keys, beware of the Key deer. They are an endangered species native to the Keys. Efforts have been made to protect these deer from being killed by moving vehicles by putting up barriers to prevent them from crossing the road. They are able to cross underneath the road instead. Although there are barriers, watch your speed in these protected areas as these roads are heavily patrolled. I was informed while I was there that seeing a Key deer is rare probably due to the low population. I never saw one and if you do see one, consider yourself lucky. After the long but beautiful drive, we entered Key West, the southernmost city in the continental US. Although the road ends here, the Keys stretch for more than seventy miles past Key West to the Dry Tortugas, accessible only by boat. Although, the drive from Key Largo to Key West is only 2 hours, set aside at least 4 hours for meal breaks, shopping, and some great picture taking. Each key is unique and although you won’t cross over every one, you can still access them by boat and if only for a little while, it can be your own private island.
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