Key West See And Do
Better known for its offshore reefs and onshore bars than its beaches, Key West is not the place to go with visions of endless sandy strands strewn with conch shells (despite what advertising brochures might lead you to believe). The island's shoreline is mostly coral, so the few sandy beaches that do exist here have had some assistance in coming to fruition. That said, there are a handful of sandy spots to unfurl your beach towel for the day. The state park at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic Site (called Fort Zach by locals) offers the prettiest and most appealing beach on the island, fringed by pine trees and with some decent snorkeling just offshore (there are also lots of shaded picnic benches and freshwater showers). Smathers Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island, is the largest public beach and the place to rent a surf ski or catamaran to ply the shallow waters. And don't miss South Beach, a small patch of sugary sand located near the Southernmost Resorts development. It appears private at first glance but is, in fact, open to the public.—Updated by Terry Ward
Dry Tortugas , Florida
Tel: 305 242 7700
These seven islands 70 miles west of Key West are a snorkeler's dream. The colorful coral reefs just a few feet offshore are populated by tropical fish and Queen conchs (there are free maps at the ranger's office). Back on land, you can tour Fort Jefferson, America's largest 19th-century coastal fortification. The fort was begun in 1846 but never completed despite three decades' worth of construction. It most famously served as a prison where John Wilkes Booth's unknowing accomplice Dr. Samuel Mudd was incarcerated (and later pardoned for his services during a yellow fever outbreak). The entire archipelago has also been designated a wildlife sanctuary to protect the nesting grounds of the sooty tern here; January is peak time for sightings.
There are two ways to reach the Dry Tortugas: by sea and by air. Taking the swoony 40-minute flight over the Gulf of Mexico is the faster but more expensive option (from $229 per person; 305-294-0709; www.seaplanesofkeywest.com). By sea, the high-speed ferry Yankee Freedom takes a couple of hours and can be choppy (bring Dramamine), but it's much better value ($159 per person including breakfast, lunch, island tour, and snorkel gear; 800-322-0013; www.yankeefreedom.com).
907 Whitehead Street
Key West , Florida
Tel: 305 294 1136
Ernest Hemingway is the most famous of the freshwater Conchs (the term of endearment for a Key Wester who wasn't born on the island), and he lived in this limestone mansion from 1931 to 1940. The house itself was built by a marine architect and salvage wrecker in 1851. The rooms all contain antiques and memorabilia from Hemingway's world travels. The chandelier collection was shipped from Paris by Pauline (the second of his four wives), and Hemingway wrote some of his best-known works (A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not) in the surprisingly small study dominated by a large deer head. The best way to see the interior is by taking one of the organized tours that leave from the entrance every 15 minutes. The guides are salty fun, but their embellished stories should be taken with a shaker full of it: Hemingway's onetime secretary has questioned the authenticity of the house's current furnishings, and the much-repeated tale that the troop of 50 or so six-toed cats on-site are descendants of a pack of Papa's own pets has come under scrutiny as well. The extra digit must have made them extremely good swimmers, since Hemingway's own herd lived at his home in Havana.
Open daily 9 am to 5 pm.
The Key West marina is packed with fishing boats available for charter. Dream Catcher Charters will take you out into the flats, the four-foot-deep waters around the Keys that are filled with tarpon, ladyfish, and barracudas (888-362-3474; www.fishingkeywest.com). For deep-sea fishing for amberjacks and cobia, Mr. Z Charters offers half, full, and even three-quarter day tours (305-296-0910; www.keywestfishtales.com). For snapper and grouper, head farther back up the Keys to Islamorada and call Richard Stancyzk at Bud'n'Mary's marina (800-742-7945; www.budnmarys.com).
1 Whitehead Street
Key West , Florida
Tel: 800 868 7482 (toll-free)
Tel: 305 296 2051
Originally a WPA project in the 1930s, this huge aquarium is swimming with barracuda, eels, parrot fish, stingrays, and other exotic creatures that live below the surface in Key West. Visitors can pet a live shark during daily feedings or hold a starfish at the touch tank.
701 Passover Lane
Key West , Florida
Tel: 305 292 8177
This 19-acre site jammed into the center of Old Town dates back to Key West's 19th-century heyday, when the shipwrecking industry (salvaging goods from sunken ships) made it briefly America's richest city. Estimates put the cemetery's permanent residents at up to 70,000, most in vaults aboveground because of the high water table and solid coral bedrock that prevent the standard six-feet-under. The cemetery is both a fascinating time capsule—the opulence of some of the older graves underscores the town's onetime economic prominence—and an amusing catalog of Conch eccentrics. Look for Edwina Lariz, whose stone reads "Devoted fan of singer Julio Iglesias" and B. P. Roberts, who moans eternally "I told you I was sick." Pick up a guide to the graves in Walking & Biking Guide to Historic Key West by historian Sharon Wells (www.seekeywest.com).
Open daily sunrise to 6 pm.
Duval and Front streets
Key West , Florida
Locals avoid it and tourists flock to it, but there's still a lot to love about Mallory Square. Vendors selling everything from hand-painted coconuts to conch fritters set up shop in the brick, waterfront area, while tourists take in classic acts like the tightrope walker or the one-man band that looks like something straight from a Dr. Seuss fantasy. Amid all the kitsch, you can find some treasures for sale, too, like intricate palm-frond baskets woven by a man who's been a Mallory Square fixture for decades. Sunset is obviously the time to go, and the scene continues for about an hour afterward, as sailboats pass close to the docks for a photo moment and the sky glows with the day's last color.—Updated by Terry Ward
There are two key shutterbug sites in Key West. Mile Marker 0, at the junction of Fleming and Whitehead streets, is a small green sign that marks the southern tip of U.S. Highway 1, a full 2,390 miles from its northern terminus in Fort Kent, Maine. The second is the squat red, black, and yellow barrel-shaped marker at the tip of South and Whitehead streets, which marks the closest you can get to the southernmost point of the continental United States (the actual point is part of a naval base). Word to the wise: Taking pics for tourists is a local moneymaking scheme, so the helpful people who offer their photography services will most likely expect a tip.
524 Front Street
Key West , Florida
Tel: 305 292 1113
Don't be put off by the Errol Flynn–ish music piped onto the sidewalk and the hokey gift shop—this attraction is a trove of pirate treasure. Pat Croce (onetime president of the Philadelphia 76ers) and his daughter collected this impressive haul of more than 500 pirate-related items and now display it in a smart, engaging multimedia museum. Look for one of only two extant Jolly Roger flags as well as the only authenticated pirate treasure chest in the world. Adults will pick up fascinating nuggets like the fact that dandyish Black Bart was a teetotaler, but it may be scary for little ones: The disembodied animatronic heads and the superbly atmospheric room where Black Beard whispers the story of his demise into your headphones could shiver their timbers.
Open daily 9 am to 7 pm.
Key West , Florida
As a place to dive, the Keys may not measure up to, say, Belize, or off the shores of Phuket, but a surprising diversity of underwater creatures and wrecks can be found just a short boat ride from the island chain's shores. Waters are warm enough for a shortie wet suit most of the year (snorkelers can usually go without), and visibility is often well beyond the 50-foot mark. Add to that highlights like the Florida Keys Wreck Trek and its many sunken shipwrecks, frequent dolphin sightings, and the Keys' docile and abundant nurse sharks. Key West offers scores of snorkeling excursions ranging from day trips to sunset snorkeling outings with companies like Fury Water Adventures (305-294-8899) and Sebago Watersports (305-292-4768). And divers have been flocking here in even greater numbers thanks to the 2009 scuttling of the Vandenberg wreck seven miles off Key West to form an artificial reef. The wreck is the largest in the Florida Keys and sits keel down in 140 feet of water, with shallower areas for less experienced divers to explore. Two companies making regular trips to the Vandenberg are Dive Key West and Subtropic. For something more adventurous still, book a live-aboard dive trip with Spree Expeditions; you'll travel 70 miles offshore to the Dry Tortugas for some of Florida's most pristine diving.—Updated by Terry Ward