Chat with a local in the Florida Keys and you'll likely hear a similar story often repeated. The storyteller talks of traveling here for a vacation and never going home, of calling time on their corporate life back home in New York (or Chicago, or Cincinnati...) and moving down to the Keys for a simpler, slower, and sunnier life.
Even if you're not quite ready to make the move yourself, let the locals (both born-and-bred, and transplanted) guide your trip. Here, we introduce you to a few of them, and how to experience their Keys:
Have a Drink with the Locals
Home to dozens of souvenir stores, tour providers, and rowdy bars, mile-long Duval Street is the only part of Key West many visitors see. Rather than crawling between touristy Margaritaville and Sloppy Joe's, head to the Green Parrot on Whitehead Street. The building housing this local favorite has stood since 1890 and was, for a period of time, a submariners' bar. The distinct sense of Key West kitsch that you'll find across the island is on proud display here, too, with a haphazard collection of clutter adorning the walls and a sign over the bar that says "no sniveling."
Further up the Keys, on Ramrod Key, you'll find another favorite local hangout: Boondocks Grill and Draft House. The bar runs a variety of specials: weekday happy hours from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; 49-cent wings on Mondays, and $2 mimosas on Sundays. There is live entertainment most nights and, if you're lucky, you might catch a show by "trop-rock" band Mile Marker 24. Band leader Howard Livingston left his corporate career in Chicago to settle in Key West.
Take a Tour: Guided or DIY
On Key West, almost everyone knows David L. Sloan. A Texas native, Sloan moved to Key West nearly 20 years ago when he started the island's first ghost tour. He has since sold the original tour, but now runs the more interactive Ghost Hunt, in which he leads small groups through the Old Town’s "Dead Zone" using ghost hunting equipment. Tours ($27) last 90 minutes and leave from Kelly's Caribbean Bar & Grill, itself thought to be host to at least eight different spirits.
If ghosts are not your thing, you can create your own tour, with a little help from Sloan. A prolific writer and historian, Sloan is also the author of 10 books including Key West Bucket List. This whimsical book steers visitors to experiences both typical (play with a Hemingway Cat, for example) and offbeat (visit the cemetery at midnight). You might not be able to check every challenge off the list, but your efforts will be more memorable than riding an open-air tourist trolley. If you manage to make it to the final item on the list (have a drink with the author), you'll be treated to a goldmine of information about local life in Key West.
Visit the Turtle Hospital
Around 10 years ago, Bette Zirkelbach quit her high-paying career in Pennsylvania to settle in the Keys. What makes her story unique, however, is that she dedicated her life to the survival of the area's sea turtles. Zirkelbach is now the manager of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Founded in 1986 as the first hospital of its kind in the world, the Turtle Hospital rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured sea turtles releasing them back into the wild whenever possible. Over 1,400 turtles, including loggerheads, hawksbills, and leatherbacks, have been rescued over the years. Thirteen turtles, however, are unable to be released back into the wild and so remain at the hospital as permanent residents. The hospital offers guided tours of its facilities every hour for $18. Tours last 90 minutes and include an educational presentation, as well as an introduction to the hospital's adorable reptilian patients.
Get Out on the Water with a True Conch
Born and raised in the Florida Keys (making her a true "conch"), Sarah Michael learned how to drive a boat before she could drive a car. Key Largo is all about getting out onto the water, and Michael's tour company, Florida Keys Eco Tour, based in Islamorada, offers the opportunity to do just that. From snorkel adventures, to fishing tours, and sunset cruises, Michael's 23-foot hurricane deck boat accommodates up to six people and can be chartered for $100 per hour.
Thanks to the Florida Keys Tourism Development Council for introducing us to the Keys locals.