Everything you didn’t know you needed to know about Key West
We are often asked by friends to suggest things to do and places to go when they visit Key West for the first time. We put this together to help you plan your perfect island vacation.
No beaches, no waves
Well, yes, there are a few. But if you’re dreaming about long walks on deserted sandy shores looking for sea shells or sipping coffee in the morning with a view of the ocean, best book your vacation for the Outer Banks, Miami or Sanibel.
Key West is a coral island protected by the Florida Reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. Our Atlantic Ocean has few waves. The ocean off Key West most often looks as smooth as a great lake. Without waves, there’s no sand and no sea shells and no surfing. Any sand you see on Key West beaches was trucked in. Really.
Four beaches to check out: Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Smathers, Higgs and South
Not much in the way of waterfront views
Unlike other coastal cities, Key West historically made use of its waterfront for commercial fishing and working businesses. Land is at a premium on this tiny island, so we make use of every square inch.
A few of the hotels up near the Seaport and Mallory Square and a handful of condos along the Atlantic side have some waterfront views, but those aren’t our claim to fame. The ultra-exclusive Casa Marina Resort is about as close as one can come to the stereotypical “island paradise resort” you might be imagining.
For heaven’s sake do not bring – or rent – a car
You won’t find parking. Anywhere. And if by some miracle you find a space on the street, it’s likely to have “residential permit only” striping. You’ll get towed in a heartbeat if you try. There is limited – think none – paid parking, one or two public, paid lots; a handful of private paid lots and hefty price tags on all. Daily parking can run in excess of $50 for eight hours.
Think about the child’s game of musical chairs: There’s one less parking place than there are cars in Key West – and tourists drive around and around and around thinking they’ll actually find a place. Unlikely.
Anyway, you don’t need a car. Most everyone here walks or bikes. Maybe a scooter or street-legal golf cart. Call Uber or Lyft or a taxi. Better still, use the Duval Loop bus. It’s free; hop-on-hop-off; and it goes where you’re most likely to go. Locals use it all the time.
If you haven’t ridden a bike in a couple decades or never driven a scooter, consider not taking them up in Key West. Our streets are narrow, our roads congested and learning to ride either means taking your life in your hands. Best stick with walking or public transportation.
We are a working town
We are not, despite the best advertising to the contrary, a “resort.” We are a working town with schools, courthouses, city commissions and all the stuff that comes with a real city doing real city things.
We just look like Disney World. Why should you care? Because when you wander around our beautiful town, please refrain from doing so down the middle of the street or stepping off curbs without looking or biking down a one-way street. You’ll get yourself killed at worst. At best, the locals will swear (usually through a strained smile) as they slam on the brakes to avoid sending you to the hospital.
We aren’t crime free, but darn near
Key West is a safe place to wander at will pretty much anytime of the day. There’s really no such thing as a “bad” part of town – except outside the Duval Street bars in the wee hours when the tourists have had more than a wee bit of adult beverages.
We don’t have much in the way of muggings, robberies or drug dealers (at least not openly on street corners). Nor do we murder each other. In short, be smart, don’t be careless, but don’t be fearful. I walk or bike the island alone, at night, when I need to.
Iguanas, chickens, cats and dogs
We’ve got lots of all four. We love the chickens, cats and dogs. The roaming chickens are protected, the cats may have six toes and the dogs are welcome pretty much everywhere. We hate the iguanas. Dirty, nasty things that aren’t native to Key West; no natural predators; breed like crazy; carry Salmonella, eat every flower and fruit. Came as stowaways to Key West aboard boats – or most likely, released by irresponsible pet owners. You may coo and say “Awwww, look at that.” We don’t. Dare I say it? We’re happy to see them squashed by cars and shot with pellet guns.
Tip big, please
20 percent to start. Our service and retail workers usually have to take on three jobs to cover the rent. And, we’re still recovering from Hurricane Irma in September 2017, when much of the rental housing for regular people was either destroyed or “transformed” into vacation rentals that cost more per month than your annual mortgage payment back home.