1-Week Florida Keys Itinerary
The Florida Keys are one of the most unique areas in the entire United States and perhaps of the best tourist destinations within Florida. Spend your days exploring the turquoise Caribbean waters and your nights experiencing the culture of the Conch Republic. This Florida Keys travel guide will highlight some best activities, hotels, and restaurants to visit during your trip that I personally experienced. The itinerary is scuba diving focused with 6-days of word-class diving on its famous wrecks and reefs — click here for more information on scuba diving in the Florida Keys. For the top-10 things to do in the Florida Keys, click here.
What are the best things to do in the Florida Keys?
The Florida Keys are world-renowned for it fabulous scuba diving, snorkeling, boating, sailing, fishing, kayaking and basically anything that can be done in or on tropical waters. Of course it is not just water sports, there are plenty of other unique activities on land as well. History buffs will find Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas fascinating. Foodies will enjoy sampling the amazing cuisine of the keys with lots of fresh local seafood and its signature key lime pie. Key West is the cultural capital of the keys with plenty of art, nightlife, entertainment and shopping. For those looking just to relax by the water and soak in some island vibes, you can find that everywhere in the keys. First time visitors are surprised to learn that these islands have very few beaches and the ones they do have are small — this is because the keys are mangrove islands and without these small trees, the islands would quickly be washed away.
Map of the Florida Keys
Where are the Florida Keys?
Stretching from Soldier Key in the east and the Dry Tortugas in the west, this coral cay archipelago is made up of approximately 1,700 islands. The keys are located on the very southern tip of Florida near Miami and is the southern most point in the continental United States. Connected together by the Overseas Highway, the keys are broken up into 4 different and distinct sections:
- Upper Keys: From Key Largo to Islamorada, this area is known for its scuba diving and fishing.
- Middle Keys: The heart of the keys and where Marathon is located, this area is known for its laid-back atmosphere.
- Lower Keys: Starting at Seven Mile Bridge, this area is known for being the least populated part of the keys and for its nature and wildlife.
- Key West: The end of the Overseas Highway and the largest city in the Keys, this area is known for its history, culture and nightlife.
When is the best time of year to visit the Florida Keys?
While the keys are a fantastic trip anytime of year, here is a helpful guide to determine when is best for you:
- Late-December to April: This is peak tourist season and the prices will be at their absolute highest, however the weather should be perfect. January is the coldest month of the year.
- May to July: While the summer months are very hot and humid, visitors during this time year will be rewarded with fewer crowds and great deals. July is the hottest month of the year.
- August to October: While hurricane season technically lasts from June to November, these 3 months are the most likely months for hurricanes with September being the peak.
- November to Late-December: Perhaps the best combination of perfect weather, good deals, few hurricanes and thinned-out crowds.
How many days should you spend in the Florida Keys?
While the keys can be seen in just a one or two days — I recommend spending at least 1-full-week to take in all the laid back atmosphere, water sports, history, food, culture and beauty of these tropical islands. Here is a 1-week/10-day itinerary and travel guide for the perfect Florida Keys scuba diving vacation.
- Day 1) Arrive in Florida
- Day 2) Drive to Key Largo & First Dive
- Day 3) Scuba Diving & Islamorada
- Day 4) Key Largo Scuba Diving
- Day 5) Overseas Highway & Explore Key West
- Day 6) Dive the USS Vandenberg & Explore Key West
- Day 7) Dry Tortugas National Park
- Day 8) Big Pine Key Scuba Diving & Marathon
- Day 9) Marathon Scuba Diving & Miami
- Day 10) South Beach & Fly Home
Detailed Florida Keys 1-Week Itinerary (10-Days)
Day 1) Arrive in Florida
Fly to Florida and spend the night somewhere in the southern part of the state. The cheapest and most convenient airport option for visiting South Florida and the Florida Keys is the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) — Located just 30-miles from Miami’s world-famous South Beach. Other airport options are Miami International Airport (MIA), Palm Beach International Airport (PBI) and Orlando International Airport (MCO). For most people, the best option for a direct non-stop flight would be either Orlando or Miami.
If driving from the north, a stop at Boudrias Groves located in Fort Pierce between the Turnpike and I-95, is worth checking out. While the building looks a bit run-down from the outside, it is nice inside and makes a great quick stop if you’re craving local Florida oranges, grapefruit or tangerines. They also have freshly squeezed juices in small bottles and large jugs. While the staff was friendly, the prices were slightly higher than other local Florida citrus places I have been to but it was still good.
Depending on when your plane arrives, you can choose to stay at a hotel somewhere between the airport and the keys or just drive directly to Key Largo/Islamorada. Those with earlier flights might want to consider checking out some of sites around South Florida or even spending an additional night in Miami.
Spend the night in South Florida or Key Largo/Islamorada.
Day 2) Drive to Key Largo & First Dive
Eventually all roads south merge into US1 also known as the Overseas Highway, the only road in or out of the Florida Keys. The first island you will arrive at is Key Largo, FL which part of the Upper Florida Keys. We found Key Largo somewhat disappointing as we did not feel it had the same authentic “island vibe” as some of the other keys we visited on this trip. One theory we came up with is that since it is the closest key to Miami and the mainland, many tourists come here for quick trips and just to say they visited the keys without exploring further down. As a result the prices for food and drinks were much higher than even just the next key down — so staying in Islamorada is a better idea.
However, the real reason to visit Key Largo is its world-class scuba diving.
Do an afternoon 2-tank wreck dive on the USCGC Duane — Click here to see some of the top scuba diving sites in Key Largo, “The Diving Capital of the World”.
We stayed at Rock Reef Resort which is less than 3-miles south of the marina and dive boats, making it the perfect location to explore the area. The hotel is the quintessential Florida Keys resort — small, locally owned and with a friendly staff. Choose between stand-alone cottages or standard hotel rooms (some with complete kitchens). While the interior decor was slightly dated, our room was clean and very comfortable. Because the resort is on the bayside of the island makes this an excellent place to watch the sunset and their pier, complete with cabana, has the primo vantage-point. One of the highlights of the resort are the free kayaks which you can launch right from their small private beach to explore the shallow waters surrounding Key Largo — go just before dusk and watch the sunset from your kayak. A small pool, hammocks, boat slips for rent and a quirky bonsai garden round out the other amenities worth mentioning. The prices were very fair for the quality of the resort so I would highly-recommended.
For those staying at the Rock Reef Resort, Sal’s Ballyhoo’s restaurant is conveniently located directly right across the street. They feature a great beer selection, very good conch fritters and lots of local seafood. A great option for your main course is the shrimp and tomatoes, which is Key West pink shrimp over a fried tomato and covered with a basil cream sauce. We also got the Florida stone crabs which is traditionally served cold, something people might not be aware of or like. Without a doubt the highlight of the meal was their fabulous key lime pie with meringue which ranks as the second best we had during our visit to the Florida Keys. Our waiter was very friendly but did not drink or eat seafood thus could not recommend anything on the menu, something we found very amusing. The only issue I had with this place is the prices were fairly high (as with most restaurants in Key Largo), but the quality of the food is good enough that I can recommend this place.
Spend the night in Key Largo or Islamorada.
Day 3) Scuba Diving & Islamorada
Do a morning 2-tank wreck dive on The Eagle — Click here to see some of the top scuba diving sites in Islamorada.
The Pinecrest Bakery, located between US1 about half-way between Rock Reef Resort and the marina, will quickly become part of your morning ritual during your stay on Key Largo. This 24-hour Cuban-American bakery is a Miami-based chain offering fabulous pastries, empanadas, desserts, sandwiches, fresh juices and of course coffee (especially Cuban coffee). Spanish is the first language of much of their staff, so be prepared to order by pointing and even if you don’t get what you want it will probably still be good. Get it to go or sit outside if the weather is nice. The prices were great for the quality of the food so I can highly-recommend.
After your morning dive, you will have plenty of time to explore some of the sites just south of Key Largo, most notably the town of Islamorada, FL. Comprised of 5 different island and known as the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World”, we found Islamorada to be one of our favorite areas we visited on our trip. Being so close to Key Largo I would recommend staying here instead and making the short drive each day to Key Largo for scuba diving.
The first stop is the the quirky History of Diving Museum. Those fascinated by the history of diving will love it, the average scuba diver will find it interesting and those who have never dove might be tempted to get certified after visiting. The highlight is the treasure room featuring a 70-lbs silver bar from the lost Spanish galleon Atocha. There is some redundancy with some of the exhibits and eventually all the old metal diving helmets start looking the same, but I still had a good time. Plan to spend about 1-hour exploring the museum and gift shop.
I was really excited for our next stop Robbie’s Marine, famous for its wild tarpon feeding, but this place was a massive let down. There is a small admission fee to enter the feeding area and a separate cost to purchase a bucket of 5 frozen-fish (if you wish to participate). In theory you are are supposed to dangle a fish above the water and a massive tarpon will leap out and grab it right from you hand while a cohort snaps an Instagram-perfect photo (don’t worry as the tarpon don’t have any teeth). Unfortunately the area is infested with aggressive and mean-as-hell pelicans who are not above stealing the fish right from your hand for an easy ill-gotten meal — Worst of all these S.O.B.’s bite… and hard! Some in our group resorted to pelican “guard-duty” while we each attempted to feed the tarpon but to no real success — of our 5 fish, 3 went to the pelicans. There are shops, a restaurant, bar and other actives here which looked OK but we only did the tarpon feeding so I cannot review those aspects. Even though it is a quick 15-minute stop, my advice is to skip the tarpon feeding.
A good option for a quick and inexpensive lunch on Islamorada is Bayside Gourmet, which came highly-recommended by a local. They offer tasty soups, salads, pizzas and sandwiches at very reasonable prices considering the quality of the food. The highlight of the meal was the lobster bisque which alone is worth the stop. The above-average meringue-topped key lime pie for dessert is the perfect way to end the meal.
A great place to watch the sunset while having a tropical drink on Islamorada is Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana Bar, make sure to grab a seat overlooking the water. We started with their “World Famous” key lime colada and I can definitely recommend it. After the sun goes down, make your way over to the Florida Keys Brewing Company. Even if you don’t like beer, this place is a lot of fun and well worth checking out. We counted 21 different beers on tap — all with funky names, all unique and all brewed right in Islamorada. I loved their signature mermaid tap handles. I would suggest getting a flight of five 4-ounce pours so you can try a wide range of different beers, everything from ales to sours. The outdoor beer garden is absolutely fantastic, with colorful lights, tropical plants and plenty of laid-back island atmosphere. If they don’t have any live music that night, entertain yourself a game of cornhole, giant Jenga or hula-hoops.
Spend the night in Key Largo or Islamorada.
Day 4) Key Largo Scuba Diving
Do a morning or afternoon 2-tank dive on the USS Spiegel Grove — Click here to see some of the top scuba diving sites in Key Largo.
In the Key Largo marina you might have noticed a 100+ year-old tiny steamboat that looks out of place and from another era. This is the actual African Queen boat used in the 1951 classic movie of the same name starring Humprey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn and directed by John Huston. You can get close to this amazing piece of film-history and snap a few photos for free but hardcore fans will want to consider paying for a canal cruise.
A good place to have lunch after a day of scuba diving or just to watch a football game is Sharkey’s Pub & Galley Restaurant. Located on the south-side of the canal and in the same building as Rainbow Reef Dive Center, this is a local dive bar with lots fresh seafood on the menu. I would recommend the conch fritters as an appetizer. For dinner, The Fish House is a good option especially for those who have not yet had their fill of seafood. I love the interior decor of this place with fishnets and funky Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. To start your meal I would recommend the fresh Florida lobster bisque and conch fitters. End it with their above-average key lime pie topped with meringue. Another food option on Key Largo is Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill — Located right on the water with great views this place unfortunately has a corporate feel. While the food and drinks were fine, we thought that it was a tad expensive for the what you got, so skip it.
We didn’t find much nightlife on Key Largo, but for those looking to go out the best options are the the afore mentioned Sharkey’s and the Caribbean Club. Located right on the water, the Caribbean Club claims to be where the 1948 classic film Key Largo was filmed; although in reality only a few establishing exterior shots were actually filmed in Florida and the original Caribbean Club building has since burned down twice… Of course those are just minor details as the bar is filled with memorabilia related to film and its stars: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson. This is also a Green Bay Packers bar for all those cheeseheads out there! The bar itself is an old fashioned dive bar and is a great place to watch the sunset. I would still recommend this place even though the drink prices were fairly high. Take note that they only accept cash. We also visited Snook’s Bayside Restaurant & Grand Tiki located right on the water. While this place had a nice atmosphere, with burning tiki torches and cabana bars, it still had a slightly corporate vibe to it. Worst of all the drink prices were very high so we left after only one drink, skip this place.
Spend the night in Key Largo or Islamorada.
Day 5) Overseas Highway & Explore Key West
Wake up early and begin the 100+ mile drive from Key Largo to Key West on US1, AKA the Overseas Highway. Road trips don’t come better than this as the Overseas Highway is easily one of the top-10 scenic drives in the entire USA and has been designated an All-American Road (the highest recognition possible) by the National Scenic Byways program established by Congress. Roll-down the windows as you drive over the bright turquoise and blueish-green waters of the Caribbean stretching out as far as the eye can see. In certain places you can still see the original historic train bridges built by Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway and completed in 1912. The overseas railroad was partially destroyed by the category-5 Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 and what was left of it was sold to the State of Florida and converted for automobile use. The old Overseas Highway was eventually replaced with the new one in the 1980s.
With a total of 42 bridges connecting 44 different islands, the entire drive takes about 2.5 hours — if driving non-stop and depending on traffic, but you will likely want to make a few stops along the way. A great roadside attraction to checkout is the Rain Barrel Village on Islamorada, you cannot miss it — just look for “Big Betsy” a giant Lobster statue out front. This is a collection of rustic open-air antiques stores, gift shops, cafes, art galleries and gardens. Even if you don’t go inside, definitely stop to take a photo next to the giant lobster. As soon as you pass Marathon you will come to the most famous stretch of the highway, Seven Mile Bridge — This is the largest segmental bridge in the world and separates the middle and lower keys. Other points of interest along the way is Bahia Honda State Park (which has the Florida Keys best beach) and National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key (the largest island in the keys).
The Overseas Highway ends at Key West, which is southernmost city in the continental United States and is closer to Havana, Cuba than Miami. This city itself is loaded with unique history, great food, raucous nightlife, art and wild chickens roaming the streets. It is also the capital of the so-called “The Conch Republic”, created when the city seceded from the United States in 1982 to protest roadblocks setup by the US Border Patrol — today you can see the blue flags of this micronation flying everywhere throughout the Florida Keys. While some may be put off by the hordes of tourists, specifically cruise ship passengers that invade Key West on most days, we found it to be a lot of fun… especially if you can get away from all the gift shops and tourist hotspots — seriously, how many t-shirt shops can one small island possible have? Spend some time strolling down some of the smaller side streets and admire the architecture of the old houses set amongst tropical plants and trees.
Once you arrive in Key West, check into your hotel. We stayed at the Best Western Hibiscus Motel on the southwest side of the island and it is a great option when factoring in location, amenities and price. The staff was helpful and rooms were large and clean. The inviting courtyard has a large saltwater pool surrounded by palm trees, comfortable loungers and makes a great spot to relax away the day. At reception they have ice water infused with fruits which makes a refreshing drink on hot days. Included in the cost is an above average continental breakfast with make-your-own-waffles. Most importantly it is less than 1.3 miles from Mallory Square, meaning it is within easy walking distance from all the major sites in Key West. Parking is free and since Key West is best seen on foot, just park your car and don’t move it until you checkout.
After you checkin, grab some lunch at the Banana Cafe. This is a French bistro with a Florida Keys twist and was hands-down the best meal we had on our entire trip. The Florida Lobster Eggs Benedict which comes with a butter-poached lobster, avocado, key lime hollandaise sauce on an English muffin is a definite highlight; as is the la pesto shrimp which is a savory crepe with shrimp, tomato and a lemon-basil pesto cream sauce. End the meal with what was the best key lime pie I had ever had, topped with raspberry sauce and whipped cream. Prices were great considering the quality of the food. I would highly-recommend.
After lunch head over to the most famous attraction in Key West related to its most famous past-resident, The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. Even if you have never read a Hemingway novel (something I am guilty of) this is a fascinating place to visit. This Spanish colonial style house was original built in 1851 and Ernest Hemingway lived here from 1931 until 1939 with his second wife Pauline — it is also where he wrote much of his most well known work. Only cash is accepted and the price of admission includes a 30-minute guided tour, the quality of which depends on the guide you get; so make sure to walk through the house again to read some of the displays, look at the photographs, admire the art and snap a few pictures. Highlights of the home include his writing room, pool, gardens and of course the famous 6-toed cats which freely roam the property. Plan to spend about 1-hour in total here.
From the Hemingway home, walk north along Whitehead Street to the intersection of Fleming Street, this is the beginning of US1 (mile marker 0). Snap a photo next to the sign and continue north on Whitehead until you reach the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum on the left at the intersection of Greene Street. Here you can see an extensive collection of artifacts and treasure from the wreck of Spanish galleon Atocha, which sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. The small museum can be done in about 30-minutes and features cannons, pottery, everyday personal objects and of course treasure of every kind… Gold bar and silver bars, jewelry, coins and more! There is a rotating exhibit on the second floor which is included with the general admission.
Before the sun begins to set, make your way over to Mallory Square and join the other tourists for the nightly “Sunset Celebration”, a party complete with artists, food vendors, musicians and other street performers. On your way, grab a drink or two at Red Fish Blue Fish to bring with you. This place had the best drink specials that we found near the square plus a good selection of beers on tap and specialty cocktails.
Once the sun finally goes down, it is time to checkout some Key West’s famous nightlife. The epicenter of that is without a doubt Duval Street, Key West’s answer to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Grab a drink and bar-hop until you find a place, music or live entertainment that fits your mood. Note: While it is technically illegal to walk around with open containers of alcohol anywhere in Key West, this law is (for lack of a better word) ignored, so many people will get their drink “to-go”. Just be smart, polite and don’t act an idiot and you shouldn’t have any issues.
With so many bars and restaurants to choose from, it is impossible to list them all, but two deserve special mention. The first is Sloppy Joe’s Bar at the intersection of Greene and Duval Street. This is one of the most famous bars in the world because of its association with Ernest Hemingway. I ordered what I was told was his favorite drink and got something pink and fruity that I don’t believe for a second Hemingway would have actually drunk. The bar itself, while nice, is super touristy and that is reflected in the prices. My advice is to stop in for just one drink (so you can say you did) and proceed to the next spot.
A half-block away is the second place worth mentioning, Captain Tony’s Saloon. This is the original location of Sloppy Joe’s and is where Hemingway did most of his drinking when he lived in Key West. Sloppy Joe’s moved from here to their current location in 1938 when the landlord increased the rent $1 per week; supposedly the owner and customers picked up the entire bar, including their drinks and barstools, walking everything to the new location at the stroke of midnight. The bar has somewhat of a macabre history and is said to be haunted. There is a large tree inside that was used to hang at least 17 people, 16 of them for piracy. The current building was built around this gallows tree in 1851 and served as the towns ice house and morgue. When the building was renovated in the 1980s, workers found about 12 bodies buried directly beneath the floors, although there are certainly others that remain yet undiscovered. Look for the gravestones of a young woman named Elvira who died in 1822 and Reba who died in 1950. With all this colorful history plus countless dollar bills and bras hanging from the ceiling, this is definitely a place worth checking out… if you don’t mind drinking while standing on someones grave.
Spend the night bar-hopping your way back towards the hotel and checking out as much of Key West’s nightlife as you can possible handle.
Spend the night in Key West.
Day 6) Dive the USS Vandenberg & Explore Key West
Spend the morning doing a 2-tank wreck dive on the USS Vandenberg — Click here for more information on that dive as well as others in Key West.
Mere feet away from the dive boat is the Conch Republic Seafood Company, a fast and convenient option for lunch if starving after a busy morning of scuba diving. The location is perfect, overlooking the marina and makes a great place to watch the boats and people go by. The conch fritters were the best thing we ordered. For my main course I got the shrimp stuffed with crab and wrapped in bacon but the shrimp was overcooked so it was not that good; someone else got the catch-of-the-day sandwich and said it was fine. Strangely, we were told that we couldn’t get the drink specials on our side of the restaurant which was a bizarre policy I still don’t fully understand. Overall it is on the touristy side, the food is so-so and the prices are fairly expensive so I cannot recommend.
Across the street on the corner is the original Kermit’s Key Lime Shoppe, which is frequently rated as having one of the best key lime pies in the entire Florida Keys. So we ordered a slice to see for ourselves — while the pie was not bad, it wasn’t great either. We had much better pies on our trip so this one would rank towards the bottom of my list. Don’t get me wrong, it was still good and made a nice mid-day snack, it just wasn’t among the best. We sat outback in their beautiful tropical patio complete with fountains, orchids and koi pond. They also sell many key lime related products including soaps, creams, oils, snacks, sauces, salsas, jellies and more.
A free site worth snapping a photo or two at is the Southernmost Point of the Continental US Marker, located where Whitehead and South Street both meet and end. There is usually a line to take a photo, the length of which varies on the time of day, so expect to wait a few minutes. Technically Key West isn’t even the southernmost island in the keys (an honor that goes to Ballast Key) and this exact point isn’t even the southernmost point on Key West itself… but why let a little things like “facts” get in the way of a good tourist attraction? Plus its free, so who’s complaining?
If you have time you might want to explore some of the other historical sites around Key West such as Fort Taylor, The Truman White House, Art & Historical Society, Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, Lighthouse, Cemetery or take a sunset cruise.
Spend the night in Key West.
Day 7) Dry Tortugas National Park
Located about 70-miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most isolated and difficult to get to National Parks in the entire United States. The vast majority of the park is open ocean with the least disturbed coral reefs in the keys, abundant sea life, tropical birds and shipwrecks. There are 7 small islands which make up less than 1% of the total area of the park and are the westernmost islands of the Florida Keys. The archipelago was first discovered in 1513 by Spanish explorer Ponce de León and named for both its lack of fresh water (“dry”) and its abundance of sea turtles (“tortugas” in Spanish).
The centerpiece of the park is Garden Key and the magnificent Fort Jefferson, an unfinished pre-Civil War fort that is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas. While the middle of the ocean might seem like a bizarre place to build such a huge fort, in the 19th-century it was one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North America — and fortifying this “advanced post” would help secure this important military asset for ships patrolling the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. The fort is most well known for its use as a prison and is where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned after he was convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln when he set the broken leg of assassin John Wilkes Booth. Dr. Mudd spent 3-years here before he was pardoned after his heroic actions during a yellow fever epidemic while a prisoner at the fort. Overtime the military importance of the fort waned and the cost of maintaining it could no longer be justified. Today, the fort and park together are one of the best tourist attractions in the entire State of Florida that should be on everyones bucket-list.
Getting to the Dry Tortugas National Park is a challenge as it is only accessible by either boat, seaplane or helicopter — if you don’t have your own, you will need to hire someone to take you. There are several boat charter companies offering single or multi-day private tours, fishing, wildlife viewing, sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving trips. Seaplane Adventures is the only company offering permitted seaplane service to the park with half and full-day options. While hiring a charter or seaplane is likely an unforgettable way to experience the park, it is also very expensive. The cheapest and most common way people get to the park is on the 110’ catamaran ferry Yankee Freedom III offering day-trips to and from Garden Key — this is how we got to the Dry Tortugas and our experience from beginning to end was fantastic. My only criticism is that I wished we could have spent more time at the actual park but I guess I will just have to come back.
|Here is a summary of the daily ferry schedule:|
|Depart Key West||8:00am|
|Arrive at Garden Key/Fort||10:15am|
|Depart Garden Key/Fort||3:00pm|
|Return to Key West||5:15pm|
|Here is a breakdown of your time:|
|Boat trip (each way)||2-hrs 15-min|
|Time at Garden Key/Fort||4-hrs 45-min|
|Total time (from check-in to returning to Key West)||10-hrs 15-min|
While the cost might seem expensive, it is actually a pretty good bang-for-your-buck — Included in the cost of the ferry ticket is your admission to the National Park, breakfast, lunch, snorkel gear and a 1-hour guided tour of the fort. Those with a National Park America the Beautiful Pass can present it at check-in to receive a $15 refund for each member of your group.
The boat itself is very comfortable, clean and the crew was absolutely amazing. The cruise to and from Garden Key was smooth and relaxing — I would recommend sitting outside on the upper deck so you can best take in the views of the bright-blue Caribbean waters. For those prone to seasickness, the boat supposedly has a motion control system that dampens the effects of the waves but they also sell Dramamine onboard if it is a particularly choppy day. The food, while simple and served buffet-style, was much better than anticipated. For breakfast they had things like cereal, bagels and fruit — for lunch it was sandwiches, chips and cookies. Don’t expect anything fancy. Premium food and drinks such as burgers, pizza, candy, popcorn and ice cream can be purchased at the galley. There is also a cash-only bar selling beer, wine, cocktails and frozen drinks… but only on the way back to Key West.
While at the park, spend the day wandering the ruins and ramparts of Fort Jefferson — Highlights include the lighthouse, several large guns/cannons, Dr. Mudd’s cell, magazine, hot shot furnace, moat and moat wall. Some will want to spend the day relaxing on the beach, birdwatching or snorkeling in the crystal clear turquoise Caribbean waters — Bring your own snorkel gear or use their equipment free of charge (diving is not allowed as you cannot bring scuba tanks on the ferry). Besides a small visitors center and cash-only gift shop within the fort, there are no other facilities on the island.
Camping directly next to Fort Jefferson for one or more nights is a tempting prospect for those who wish to spend more than just a few fleeting hours on this tropical island paradise. The ferry can take campers to and from Garden Key but advanced reservations are required and often book up 6-12 months in advance. The ferry has a limited number of camping spots available each day so you need to make sure they have space on both the day you wish to arrive as well as leave. The camping is primitive, meaning that you will need to bring everything with you, including all your food and water.
After you dock back in Key West grab a fast meal before driving to Marathon. Bad Boy Burrito is a quick food option that is both fresh and local. There is no indoor seating so order right at the window and get it to go or eat at one of the outside tables. I got the Key West pink shrimp burrito with roasted pineapple habanero sauce, pico de gallo, radish, cabbage and queso fresco and it was very delicious. Prices were slightly high but the quality of the food was very good so I can recommend it.
Make the 1-hour drive to Marathon and stay at Captain Pip’s Marina & Hideaway, reception closes at 5pm so call if you will be coming in late. This is a fantastic little Florida resort that is ideally located on Knights Key with a few restaurants and bars within easy walking distance. Their reception building was destroyed by Hurricane Irma and as of 2020 a trailer is still used for checking in/out — but all of the rooms themselves have been recently remodeled and are extremely nice. We stayed in the “Starfish Efficiency” room which was very large, had views of the marina and came with a full kitchen. Besides a small pool, grill and hammocks, they have rental options for fishing poles, paddle boards, jet skis, kayaks, bikes and boats. They can also help arrange activities like parasailing, snorkeling and charter boats. The only issue we had is that the Internet connection is extremely slow but that is just a minor complaint. Best of all, the prices were great for such a nice resort right in the middle of the Florida Keys — I would highly recommend.
Spend the night in Marathon.
Day 8) Big Pine Key Scuba Diving & Marathon
Marathon, FL is a city spread out over 13 islands and is the second largest city in the keys. It is ideally located right-smack-dab in the middle of the Florida Keys and is just a 1-hour drive from both Key West and Key Largo. The city got it name from railroad workers struggling non-stop day and night to complete the Florida East Coast Railroad. Today, Marathon is one of the best places to stay in the entire keys, not only for of its perfect location, but because the laid back island atmosphere and affordable prices. Marathon also makes the perfect base for also exploring and diving the lower keys.
Do a morning or afternoon 2-tank wreck dive on the Adolphus Busch Sr. — Click here to see some of the top scuba diving sites in the lower keys.
Either before or after todays dive, The Turtle Hospital is the best activity in Marathon that doesn’t involve getting on a boat. Look for their iconic turtle ambulance parked out front. This small non-profit organization is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing endangered sea turtles back into the wild. They offer 1-hour guided tours where you get to meet their current patients (sea turtles undergoing rehabilitation for release) and permanent residents (those that cannot be released for medical reasons). The tour itself is very informative, chalk-full of turtle puns and ended with us feeding the sea turtles ourselves. Don’t forget to check their website to see if there are any public turtle releases while you’re in town. Best of all, you visit helps to support a good cause — highly recommended and I guarantee you will have a shell of a good time.
For lunch or dinner, Burdines Waterfront is one of the better food options in Marathon and is within easy walking distance from Captain Pip’s. A little off-the-beaten path, this tiki-themed restaurant with waterfront views and live music, serves burgers and sandwiches — however the best thing on the menu without a doubt is their amazing fresh hand-cut fries. They are also known for their fried key lime pie which was very unique and a change of pace from the traditional key lime pies you find just about everywhere else in the keys. While certainly not fine-dinning, the prices are good and the atmosphere is laid-back, so I can recommend it.
Directly next to Captain Pip’s is Porky’s Bayside Restaurant and Marina, a good option for late-night drinks and live music. Located on the water under a giant tiki hut, they have a solid beer selection and a bunch of creative tropical cocktails. Our bartender was fantastic and a big reason we liked this place so much. The food looked good so next time I am in the keys I will have to come back and try it.
Spend the night in Marathon.
Day 9) Marathon Scuba Diving & Miami
Do a morning 2-tank wreck dive on the Thunderbolt (the earlier the better if flying home the next day) — Click here to see some of the top scuba diving sites near Marathon.
If you are flying home the next day, schedule todays dive and tomorrows flight with safety as your primary priority. Do this by making the interval between your final dive and your flights departure time as large as it can possibly be — For maximum safety, it is recommended that this interval be no less than 24-hours. Don’t forget to note the time when you surface for the final time.
After a busy morning of diving we went to the Key Fisheries in Marathon for lunch. Order at the window, give the name of your favorite cartoon character, wait for that name to be called when your food is ready and eat outside on picnic tables by the water — you’d figure a place with a setup like that would be cheap but it’s not at all. The Key Fisheries is world-famous for their lobster reuben, which was named the best sandwich in the entire state of Florida by People Magazine — however I was somewhat skeptical that the Florida spiny lobster would pair well with rye bread, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing… turns out I was right. While it wasn’t bad I can think of a lot of better ways to eat a lobster, especially for $23. We ended our meal with their key lime pie but it was frozen so it ranks as the most disappointing of our trip; to be fair though, once it thawed out it wasn’t bad. When I go back to the keys I am willing to give this place a second shot by ordering a more appropriate seafood sandwich, but for now I cannot recommend this place.
As this articles primary focus is the Florida Keys, I will only briefly touch on the Miami-leg of the trip.
Make the 2-hour drive to Miami, FL and spend some time taking in the Cuban culture of Little Havana along Calle Ocho (“8th Street” in Spanish). Afterwards head to the Wynwood Walls art district to check out the brightly painted walls. For dinner eat at an authentic Cuban restaurant before experiencing some of Miami’s famous nightlife. Spend your final night staying in one of the historic art deco hotels in South Beach.
Spend the night at a historic art deco hotel in South Beach.
Day 10) South Beach & Fly Home
Wake up in South Beach and spend the day relaxing on Florida’s most famous beach as well as strolling along and admiring the architecture of the historic Art Deco District. An excellent Miami food option for breakfast, lunch or dinner is the Yardbird Southern Table and Bar located in South Beach.
After a 1-week trip through the Florida Keys and experiencing some of the worlds best scuba diving, it is finally time to head home. If flying home, make sure that it has been at least 24-hours since you surfaced from your final dive.