paradise

Key West: My Guide to the Conch Republic

If the craziness of Miami has you longing for more laid-back vibes, the Florida Keys are just a short drive away. Key West, the southernmost island, fits the bill nicely with Duval Street bars and gorgeous sunsets in Mallory Square. I highly recommend Key West if you prefer flip-flops over heels, beach coverups to slinky dresses, and dive bars to bottle service. You can easily do this place in a couple of days (perhaps tacked onto a Miami trip) or spend an entire week. Only 90 miles from Cuba (technically closer to Cuba than Miami), this island actually makes you feel like you are in the Caribbean when you're really still in the U.S. No passports needed which makes it a tad easier to access. But there are a couple of items I'd like to address:

  1. Key West is not known for its beaches. That doesn't mean you won't find any, they are there, they are just not the pristine white-sanded beaches you envision when you think of the Caribbean. And actually, you can find prettier beaches at other Florida destinations.
  2. Key West airport is very small so don't expect flights to be cheap. This is especially the case over holidays and school vacations, unfortunately.

But don't let the facts deter you. Simply opt for some quality pool lounging and rent a convertible and hit the road (for the most scenic drive in the U.S.) from Miami or Fort Lauderdale where flights are much, much cheaper. Once you've made it over the final bridge in the keys, here's what you should do:

 

SEE

Duval Street- This mile-long street is Key West's main street that's full of restaurants, bars, cafes and shops. Definitely take a few strolls up and down and bar hop along the way. No need to chug that beer though--with a lax open container policy you can bring it with you to your next watering hole (plastic cups only!).

Mallory Square- The best place to catch one of Key West's beautiful orange sunsets. Live performers, carts selling everything from drinks that light up to Christmas ornaments, and happy people out enjoying life makes this a perfect place to start your night. Be sure to Google the time of sunset and plan to arrive at least 30 minutes before to watch the bright orange circle get sucked into the sea.

Southernmost Point - A life-size buoy marks this spot. Must get a photo with the view in the background. On a clear day you can spot Cuba (just kidding, but you are only 90 miles away).

Ernest Hemingway House - If you don't mind lots of free-roaming cats, and 6-toed ones at that, then visit the famous American writer's home where he lived from 1931 to 1939 and arguably wrote some of his best work. (907 Whitehead St.)

 

EAT

La Creperie - Both the sweet and savory varieties abound on the menu at this cute little cafe. The owner is from Brittany, France so you can expect these to be as authentic as they get without going to France. (300 Petronia St.)

Margaritaville - I mean, When in Rome! This Jimmy Buffett outpost is the original and in my mind is therefore the best. It offers live music most nights starting at 8p so why not enjoy your Cheeseburger in Paradise and order that Boat Drink? (500 Duval St.)

Ana's Cuban Cafe - A little hole in the wall near the Southernmost point serving up delicious made-to-order sandwiches, Cuban delights and breakfast. (1330 Simonton St.)

Kelly's Caribbean Bar & Grill - For any fellow aviation enthusiasts this is the place to visit because it is the original Pan Am headquarters back when Pan Am was the first American airline to fly an international route - Key West to Havana. The casual restaurant is also the location of the Southernmost Brewery offering beers brewed on the premises. (301 Whitehead St.)

Glazed Donuts - The gourmet donut shop craze made its way to the southernmost point of the continental U.S. to bring you both classic flavors as its name suggests and more adventurous flavors like Key Lime Pie (of course) and candied bacon. Espresso drinks too. Closed Mondays. (420 Eaton St.)

La Te Da - A classic choice if you're looking for a more upscale dinner on a charming, candlelit patio. (1125 Duval St.)

 

DRINK

Sloppy Joe's Bar - If there's only one place you go to while you're in Key West make it this iconic establishment. Casual bar by day, live music and dancing by night. (201 Duval St.)

Captain Tony's Saloon - Jimmy Buffett fan or not, this dive bar is a must with bras hanging from the ceiling and business cards covering the walls. Sometimes you'll catch a one-man band and his guitar and other times you'll spend way too much time trying to toss a coin over your shoulder and into the mouth of the fish that rests on top of the sign outside. (428 Greene St.)

Hog's Breath Saloon - Another Key West icon with, you guessed it, live music. Belly up to the outdoor bar and feel like you're in a treehouse. Don't be surprised if you get pulled into a conga line; this place can get rowdy but in a good fun kinda way. (400 Front St.)

Louie's Backyard - For a more refined evening, opt for glass of wine with a gorgeous view of the water. Head upstairs for said view and ask for a table on the balcony. You won't regret it. (700 Waddell Ave.)

Sunset Pier - Head to this colorful dockside spot for an ice cold boat drink and sit back and enjoy the sunset. (0 Duval St.)

 

SLEEP

Casa Marina - Off the quieter end of Duval Street is this grand Waldorf Astoria resort. The pool/waterfront area is one of the prettiest on the island and you can go swimming off the dock into the ocean (a plus when the shore is protected by coral reef). You even get popsicles delivered to your lounge chair. If you're worried about being too far from the action, perhaps a pedicab ride will change your mind. (1500 Reynolds St.)

The Reach - Located next door to the Casa Marina is another lovely Waldorf Astoria resort. Much smaller than the Casa Marina, especially the pool and waterfront, so guests at this hotel are welcome to use the facilities at the Casa Marina if they so wish. (1435 Simonton St.)

The Westin Key West Resort & Marina -  Located steps away from Mallory Square, this hotel is a great option if you prefer to be close to all the action. There is no beach here, but the pool is inviting. Guests can choose to have breakfast dockside at the property's restaurant, Latitudes, and watch the ships pull in. (245 Front St.)

Southernmost on the Beach - If the above options are a little too pricey, try for this stylish hotel. From appearances, it looks more like an inn but offers hotel amenities. It is located, as the name suggests, on one of the few beaches on the island just steps from the Southernmost Point. (508 South St.)

 

Last but not least, if you're lucky enough to be able to visit Key West during the holidays, I highly recommend you do so. Flights and accommodations are pricey but you're guaranteed endless merriment. Palm trees are decked out with Christmas lights, lampposts are decorated to look like candy canes and there are numerous New Year's Eve countdown celebrations to choose from (a pirate sliding down the mast of a schooner....um, yes please). Plus, Duval Street shuts down to traffic to allow for a big party in the street. I promise, this experience will not disappoint.

Whether or not you visit during the holidays, Key West really makes you leave your worries behind and gives you a taste for Jimmy Buffett/Ernest Hemingway-inspired life. It is a crazy but amazing little place that should be on everyone's bucket list. I mean, who can turn down a boat drink while taking in the gorgeous sunset? After all, if we weren't all crazy we would go insane.

Views for days on the drive down to the Keys

Views for days on the drive down to the Keys

The Southernmost Point was getting a fresh paint job unfortunately!

The Southernmost Point was getting a fresh paint job unfortunately!

Gorgeous tropical views abound in Key West

Gorgeous tropical views abound in Key West

Cruise ships docked near Mallory Square
Cruise ships docked near Mallory Square
A Key West sunset
A Key West sunset
Key West decked out for the holidays
Key West decked out for the holidays
Sloppy Joe's on Duval Street is a true Key West tradition
Sloppy Joe's on Duval Street is a true Key West tradition
Captain Tony's for all you Jimmy Buffett fans out there

Captain Tony's for all you Jimmy Buffett fans out there

The original Pan Am headquarters, wow!

The original Pan Am headquarters, wow!

The beautiful Casa Marina Hotel

The beautiful Casa Marina Hotel

The grounds and pool area at the Casa Marina

The grounds and pool area at the Casa Marina

The pool area at the Reach Resort 

The pool area at the Reach Resort 

The Westin Key West Resort & Marina
The Westin Key West Resort & Marina

The BVI's Part Two: Island Hopping and Painkillers

As I began to tell you in my last post, the British Virgin Islands make the picture-perfect island paradise-- crystal clear water, white-sanded beaches, palm trees galore and rum flowing like water. This area of the Caribbean is especially known for being a boater's paradise and anyone would quickly understand why. The islands are grouped pretty closely making it great for island hopping, and the trade winds and calm waters make for perfect sailing weather. Expect to see lots and lots of catamarans and monohulls sailing about as well as expensive mega-yachts practically dripping in cash floating on by. A popular way to spend your time in the BVI's is by chartering a catamaran with a skipper to take you around for the week, which will absolutely be the way I spend my next vacation in the BVI's. Most boats depart from Road Town or Sopers Hole in Tortola or from nearby St. Thomas and you can work with the skipper to customize your itinerary for the week. Some even include meals cooked by your skipper, but the best advantage is being able to wake up in a different place and explore any island, bay or cove you wish. It is important to note that while the boats are very nice, they don't offer the most spacious accommodations and lack many amenities you would get by staying on shore. Unless, of course, you're a millionaire then the boat can be as lavish as you wish.

If you prefer the comforts of being at a resort, that's totally fine, but I still encourage you to get out and explore as much as possible. Thankfully, there are many resorts and charter companies that offer daily boat rentals and there is a reliable and efficient ferry service within the islands of the BVI's and also between the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. For more information on the ferry service, including ferries that can bring you within the BVI's but also to the USVI's, as well as schedules, visit this website. This website is also helpful with FAQs regarding ferry service.

Now that we've established the basics, you're probably wondering where you should go once you hit the high seas. Well, the options are just about endless and could keep you busy for weeks. If you have only a week like I did, you will need to prioritize. I wanted to get as much out of the BVI's as I could so I decided to stick to those islands. Plus, I had been to some of the islands of the USVI's before. Here are the must-sees.

Note: if you decide to go to the USVI's don't forget your passport! You will need it going to/from the British and American territories. 

 

VIRGIN GORDA

The island where the millionaires vacation, therefore home to the most luxurious resorts in the BVI's. A quick 20-40 minute ride from the Trellis Bay ferry dock in Tortola depending on what part of the island you're going to. Includes 3 ferry stops-- Spanish Town (the main part of the island), Leverick Bay and Bitter End.

The Baths and Devil's Bay - Located a short cab ride's distance from the Spanish Town ferry dock, at the very southern tip of the island, is this national park the island is known for. The geological phenomenon consists of a collection of giant boulders left over from volcanic lava creating grottoes you can swim and walk through, as well as a white-sanded beach with some of the bluest water in the Caribbean. Note: Since it is a national park, there is a small entry fee but it includes use of facilities and a locker to store your belongings as you climb through the rocks. To access the Baths, hike downhill for about 15 minutes to the locker area where you can store your clothes and belongings. Climb through the caves, crawl between rocks and wade through water before ending at the beach. End your day after hiking back up with a refreshing drink and a snack (tostones, anyone?) at the Top of the Baths restaurant located near the taxi stand. (Virgin Gorda ferry, Spanish Town stop)

Important note: The Baths can get really crowded especially on days that cruise ships are docked in Tortola, so it's worth checking that handy schedule again to know when to go. Here is the link.

cave at the baths
cave at the baths
boulders in the baths
boulders in the baths
sailboat in devil's bay
sailboat in devil's bay
devil's bay beach
devil's bay beach

Bitter End Yacht Club - This resort offers accommodations but is better known for its sailing school and its large collection of watercrafts for rent. Learn how to sail, windsurf or hop in kayak, Hobie Cat or Boston Whaler for a few hours. The choice is yours, but whatever you do be sure to stop and marvel at the enormous sailing yachts. If you're lucky you will catch a 200+ foot sailing yacht giving birth to a couple of vintage wooden Chris Crafts out of its hull. (Virgin Gorda ferry, Bitter End stop)

Saba Rock Resort - Located on a small island just off the shore of the Bitter End Yacht Club, this resort has a fun bar and restaurant. Nothing fancy, but is a cool spot especially during happy hour. Catch the free water shuttle from Bitter End. (Virgin Gorda ferry, Bitter End stop) 

 

JOST VAN DYKE 

About a 30-minute ferry ride from West End ferry dock in Tortola, this little island is one not to be missed for its authentic, relaxing Caribbean vibe. Despite its fame to many travelers, it still remains an unspoiled oasis. The ferry lets passengers off in Great Harbour, but I recommend visiting this island by charter if you can.

Soggy Dollar Bar - Located in White Bay, this little beach shack got its name from boaters who would throw anchor offshore and from wading through the water to reach the bar their dollars would get soggy, ha-ha. Now they accept credit card and there are waterproof devices to keep dollars dry, but there is still no dock in sight making for a fun and sand-bar-like experience. Luckily, the water is as warm as bath water and you don't need much for a day on the beach here. Be sure to stop at the bar for its famous painkillers, a potent drink made with rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, cream of coconut and freshly grated nutmeg. The bartender is amazing to watch as he lines the bar with cups and mixes the drinks like something out of the movie Cocktail. This place, and the beach it's located on, is truly one of the best experiences in all of the BVI's. (White Bay)

white bay
white bay
soggy dollar bar
soggy dollar bar
soggy dollar painkiller
soggy dollar painkiller
white bay
white bay

Foxy's Tamarind Bar - Not far from the ferry dock is this famous beachside institution. Stop in for a house-brewed beer and a bite to eat while jamming to live calypso music. You may even catch Foxy himself, who is a celebrity around these parts, on the guitar. After the sun goes down this place turns into a big party with a mix of islanders and boaters alike. (Great Harbour)

Foxy's Taboo - On the quieter, eastern side of the island you will find the smaller of the two Foxy establishments. Located dockside in a picturesque bay, this restaurant offers up much of the same fare and brews as the original location in Great Harbour but on a more quaint and relaxing scale. (Diamond Cay)

Bubbly Pool - A natural Jacuzzi located on the Northeast part of the island, formed by waves crashing against a rock formation. When it's high tide and there are waves on the North shore of the island, the water comes rushing in and creates bubbles as if you're in a jetted tub (on calm days and low tide, not so much). From Foxy's Taboo, a 20-minute hike brings you to the swimming hole. Bring a picnic and plan to spend some time enjoying mother nature's wonders. Shoes recommended. Watch out for the poisonous trees, marked by red paint and/or a sign.

So if you're staying on land or if you're on a boat, the goal remains the same-- explore, explore, explore. I stress again that these islands are a must-see to get a feel for the BVI's. Since every island has a different vibe, it's important to see as many as you can and you will find the one that suits you best for for a future trip. Of course if you end up doing a private charter or boat rental, there are many other smaller cays to be found and bays to tuck into. You will be more nimble if you don't have to rely on ferries but ferries do a pretty good job of getting you where you need to go if you prefer to stay at a resort. And that I don't blame you sometimes, there are some very luxurious ones out there! Now, what are you waiting for? Get a move on and plan your trip to the BVI's, or have me do that for you, because Britain is calling!

Sandy Cay
Sandy Cay

The BVI's: A Little Slice of Britain in the Caribbean

Cane Garden Bay
Cane Garden Bay

As the weather starts to cool down in the Northeast, it's time to start thinking about swapping snow for sand. One of my favorite winter destinations happens to sport red telephone booths and belong to Her Majesty. No I'm not talking about London, although we all know how much I love that city, I'm talking about a little British Overseas Territory called the British Virgin Islands. Despite its ties to Britain, the culture is more Caribbean than British but you can expect to meet a lot of Brits vacationing here as well as other well-seasoned travelers decked out in their pastels sipping on painkillers. It's worth noting, though, that there is definitely more sophistication and wealth in the air here than other Caribbean islands, making this destination a pricey one in the high-season. Regardless, this place should be on your bucket list for the beauty alone. The BVI's are located in the Caribbean Sea just east of Puerto Rico and primarily consist of the islands known as Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada but also include various smaller islands and cays. Tortola is the largest and most populated island in the BVI's therefore it's where you'll find the main airport, Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport a.k.a. Beef Island Airport. It's located on the East End of the island (technically on Beef Island which is connected to Tortola by a bridge) just a few minutes from Trellis Bay, and despite being the "main" and/or "international" airport it is relatively small. In fact, the only jet service is via private charters so most of the commercial aircrafts are small puddle jumper propeller planes. Your best bet is to fly direct to nearby San Juan or St. Thomas and then hop on a puddle jumper for your last leg which is quite the scenic ride. Note: If you're freaked by hopping on a plane this small, I always like to think the smaller the plane, the better the destination (in regards to the Caribbean anyway)!

It's important to note that cruise ships stop in Tortola occasionally, although not nearly as much as their American neighbor of St. Thomas. Still, the island can get crowded when ships are docked but if you plan it right you can avoid the ship crowds. This website is super helpful and has accurate and up to date ship schedules so you can plan your day's activities accordingly. Trust me, it's so worth it. Regardless of the crowds, Tortola is a wonderful island worth visiting and here are my recommendations on what to do there.

 

SEE

Cane Garden Bay - Think beautiful turquoise waters, white powdery sand lined with palm trees and steep green hills in the distance. That is what you will find at this beautiful, peaceful beach. Enjoy a leisurely walk along the shore, a refreshing swim in the clear water or just relax with a good book. There are beach shacks offering light fare and refreshments as well as clean facilities and lounge chairs with umbrellas for rent. Note: I highly recommend going on a day that there won't be a cruise ship in port because it gets extremely crowded and takes away from the ambiance. 

Callwood Rum Distillery - A perfect end to your day at Cane Garden Bay, stop in at this family-owned working distillery to sample some of the rums made from the island's sugar cane. It is walking distance from the beach or your taxi driver will happily make a stop here for you. The facility is rather small so you won't need much time here, no more than 30 minutes, but it's fun to have a taste of the various rums they make and purchase some to take home. (Cane Garden Bay)

Road Town - Not necessarily a must-see, this town is the capital of the BVI's and where you can stock up on provisions, wander through souvenir shops, and grab something to eat. It is also where the ships dock and is one of the places you can catch a ferry to nearby islands or charter a boat. Stop into Pusser's Pub for a bite to eat and a drink. Despite being a chain, you can rely on good pub grub and a lively atmosphere. (Pusser's Pub, Main St. Across from the Docks)

 

EAT

Red Rock - Casual, outdoor atmosphere overlooking a marina with good food and great service. There is just about something for everyone on the eclectic menu which includes seafood and pasta. Reservations suggested. Closed on Mondays. (Penn's Landing Marina, Waterfront Drive, Parham Town, East End)

The Sugar Mill - Romantic candlelit dinners in a tropical garden of an old sugar mill, this place is slightly more upscale, by island standards anyway. You'll find a good wine list, an ever-changing menu centered around delicious seafood and friendly service. Reservations recommended. (Sugar Mill Hotel, Little Apple Bay, East End)

The Last Resort - Sometimes the journey is part of the experience, which is the case for this lively restaurant located on a tiny island in Trellis Bay. This restaurant is only reachable by boat but landlubbers don't fret-- there is a boat service from the Trellis Bay ferry dock. Just look for the random land phone, pick it up and someone on the other end will send a boat for you. This open-aired restaurant is best for its live music and good-humored entertainment on Thursdays and Fridays. (Bellamy Cay, Trellis Bay)

Pusser's Restaurant - Known for its red telephone booth on the dock, this place is also located on a small island and provides a water taxi from the Trellis Bay ferry dock. Open-aired and on the beach, you can't go wrong. Food is Caribbean-style and dishes include local seafood and jerk chicken. Order a painkiller made with Pusser's Rum, and they will let you choose the potency. The dessert menu is interestingly presented in a red ViewMaster, who remembers those from the 80s? Reservations suggested. (Marina Cay) 

D' Best Cup - This casual café has some of the best coffee and breakfast on the island. The cappuccinos and breakfast sandwiches do not disappoint. I am sad to report the Trellis Bay location by the ferry dock has closed down but the two other locations remain. (Village Cay Marina, Road Town & Soper's Hole Wharf & Marina)

 

STAY

Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina - Located about 10 min by boat from the East End of Tortola lies a small island called Scrub Island, which is home to this luxurious Marriott Autograph Collection resort. Since the resort is the only thing on this island, guests feel like they are staying on a remote, private island yet have easy access to the main island of Tortola thanks to the resort's private water shuttle. Operating on an hourly schedule to/from the Trellis Bay ferry dock, the water shuttle makes it possible for guests to explore Tortola or catch a ferry to another island. The resort also offers private boat rentals from their marina incase you don't want to adhere to a ferry schedule or want a custom itinerary. The best part of staying here is definitely the expansive views from the infinity pool overlooking the gigantic yachts docked in the marina but other highlights include the resort's North Beach, a warm welcome by the staff offering rum punch, and pizza night at the market on Tuesday's.

Note: North Beach is actually located on the other side of the island, about a 10-min walk from the main resort but worth it because it tends to be incredibly quiet and peaceful. The sand in the water is rocky due to a coral reef, so water shoes are recommended if you plan to swim in the sea. Otherwise there is a small pool to cool off in.

Rates start at around $350/nt for a standard room in the off season and can go up to as much as $600/nt during the winter. Sometimes you can catch a deal on Jetsetter, so be on the lookout. For more info on the resort visit their website.

When you're planning your trip, definitely dedicate a full week to this beautiful place and longer if you can. Trust me, you will want some time for both island hopping and relaxing on a chaise lounge sipping your rum drink of choice. I guarantee once you experience this place you will be longing to get back. My next post will be all about island hopping to the other beautiful islands in the BVI's, in my opinion the best part of vacationing here, so stay tuned!

Cane Garden Bay

Cane Garden Bay

The view from the beach in Cane Garden Bay

The view from the beach in Cane Garden Bay

Beach shack restaurants

Beach shack restaurants

Rum distillery

Rum distillery

Clowning around at Callwood Distillery

Clowning around at Callwood Distillery

Scrub Island Marina
Scrub Island Marina
view at Scrub Island
view at Scrub Island
infinity pool at Marriott's Scrub Island

infinity pool at Marriott's Scrub Island

North Beach Scrub Island view

North Beach Scrub Island view

north beach
north beach
Viewing the dessert menu at Pusser's

Viewing the dessert menu at Pusser's

Rock lobster at the Sugar Mill

Rock lobster at the Sugar Mill