The bridges. The beaches. The pie. Driving down Highway 1 from Florida’s mainland through the Florida Keys has become one of America’s great road trips. While there are now alternative ways to reach the coveted destination of Key West (via plane or boat of the cruise ship and ferry variety), there’s plenty to see elsewhere, and if you have the time, it’s always nice to have the freedom and flexibility of using your own vehicle.
These were my favorite spots along our drive:
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
This was our very first stop in the Keys as we were on the lookout for a place to picnic. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to budget more time for this beautiful Key Largo park, which is well known for diving and snorkeling and offers kayak rentals, glass bottom boat tours and fishing spots. Still, it was the perfect spot to enjoy our lunch.
After eating on Canon Beach, we took a short, pretty walk along the Grove Trail (one of three trails at the park), which led us straight to a field of avocado and Key lime trees. (We *may* have snagged a couple souvenirs.) We then hopped back in the car to check out Far Beach, on the other side of the park, before continuing on our way.
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen
A huge fan of Key lime pie, I couldn’t wait to sample as much as possible while in the Keys. This delicious dessert is only truly authentic when it’s made with juice from actual Key limes as opposed to Persian limes (the variation more commonly seen at stores throughout the rest of the US).
After spending an inordinate amount of time researching the best places to get our fix, we decided on Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo for our first taste. Originally opened in 1976, there is now also a second location, Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen II, to help keep up with the demand on this tiny but formidable restaurant. You’ll find the original location on your right as you head toward Key West and the second location on your left as you’re heading back up toward the mainland. With the consistency of an icebox pie, this ended up being my favorite of the trip.
The Wooden Spoon
Speaking of tiny but formidable, we had an amazing breakfast at this local favorite in Marathon. Think of the last great diner meal that you had, raise the bar a few inches, and you have the Wooden Spoon. Even though I was completely stuffed after my killer Eggs Benedict, we tried the Key lime pie here, too. (When in Rome!)
Tranquility Bay Resort and Spa
We lucked into a room at this beautiful Marathon hotel that would normally be outside of our price range during a sale online. It was still a bit of a splurge for us, but well worth it. The property offers traditional hotel rooms as well as 2 and 3-bedroom condos, some right on the water, which seemed perfect for larger groups or families.
There are two restaurants on-site, a small beach, a sunset viewing area with lounge chairs, two pools, an exercise room and even a putting green. In addition to enjoying the space itself, basing ourselves partway down the Keys instead of at either end was conducive to exploring many different areas during our short stay.
Right across from Tranquility Bay, this Cuban restaurant offers delicious and inexpensive breakfast and lunch options. Don’t miss the café con leche.
Bahia Honda State Park
After hearing rave reviews about this park located between Marathon and Key West, we budgeted an entire day to explore it, and we weren’t disappointed. We opted to buy snorkels instead of renting them as the costs were pretty similar and we figured they’d be good to have during the rest of our trip.
After entering the park, you’ll come to a T in the road. To the left you’ll find campsites, a beach area and the Silver Palm nature trail. Heading to the right will lead to more campsites and beach areas in addition to the main parking area, the nature center, a concession stand (closed when we were there) and access to the old Bahia Honda bridge, a main feature of the park.
Instead of hanging out at the beach right off of the parking lot (facing Highway 1), we crossed to the one located on the other side of the bridge access, which was a little quieter and a fun spot to snorkel despite the relatively strong current.
This was the perfect morning pit stop on our way into Key West from Marathon. Baby’s is the southernmost coffee roaster in the USA. I picked up some Breakfast Roast to take home with me and it’s delicious. We also had great customer service here – always appreciated!
For me, the best part of Key West was simply walking around in the sunshine, taking in the character of this vibrant island. Being the nerdy bookworm that I am, our visit to the Ernest Hemingway house was also a highlight of the day. The $14 entry fee included a guided tour that was informative and funny.
I was admittedly less impressed with some of the other main tourist spots, such as sunset at Mallory Square and the “Southernmost Point in the USA” buoy monument, both of which were a little too crowded for me to fully enjoy. If you’re not in the mood to throw elbows, escape the crowds on the residential side streets. I loved the opportunity to appreciate the island’s tropical and colorful homes.
With more time, I think it would have been fun to dive deeper into the dining and drinking scene, but what we did have was great. On a Cuban food kick, we started our day off with a delicious and inexpensive breakfast at Cuban Coffee Queen (the original location at 284 Margaret St. is where you’ll find the adorable Key West postcard mural, while the one downtown at 5 Key Lime Square has more seating). For dinner, we headed to El Siboney. Located off the beaten path at 900 Catherine St., we feasted on a variety of Cuban staples, including (amazing) empanadas and plantains, and tried our third variation of Key lime pie.
On the morning that we drove back up to the mainland, we had a beautiful start to the day at Sombrero Beach in Marathon. Quiet, spacious and only a couple of miles off Highway 1, it was the perfect spot to relax for a bit before spending most of the day in the car.
The Giant Lobster
Because what says “road trip” more than pulling over to check out a 30-foot tall, extremely (almost creepily) lifelike sculpture of a lobster? Betsy (yes, she has a name) stands guard over the Rain Barrel Artisans’ Village in Islamorada, a collection of small shops and artist galleries selling all things Florida-themed.
Blonde Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory
Our last stop to stretch our legs and grab some Key lime pie (mainly the latter) before crossing back onto the mainland.
Have you road tripped the Florida Keys? What are your recommendations for making the most of the drive? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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