HOW TO SPEND 9 DAYS IN THE KEYS

Lobster season is practically the jumpoff to the American holiday season. Fanatics migrate to Florida, namely the Keys, from all over the world to dive into the deep blue and hunt some “bugs.”

This popular sport season commences with the renowned two-day madhouse called “mini-season,” which falls on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July each year. Mini-season was originally established by Florida in 1974 as a way to reduce the conflict between recreational lobster hunters and commercial lobster fishermen.

The boat density during mini-season can be 900 times the density during the regular lobster season (2003 North Carolina State University study). While planning Mike's big birthday trip this year, we decided to forego the madness and wait until regular lobster season opens on August 6.

We set our sights south for lobstering, fishing and soaking up the sun in one of our most treasured destinations. 

Accompanied by our friends, Kevin (“KB”) and Laura Jo, we rented a big, yellow two-story house in Marathon, which we suitably christened “the Canary Castle,” complete with a boat dock, pool, propane grill and a deep freezer. The perfect setup for some adventurous twenty-somethings looking to slay some serious fish, limit out on langustas and drink the obligatory breakfast beers.

I'm highlighting the best of our 9-days down south for you to consider as you start packing your bags (Fall is a great time to visit!).

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  • Lobstering. Florida's regular lobster season is always August 6 through March 31. You don't need to be a master diver to get involved in this obsession. Often times lobster can be found in shallower waters hiding around structures, under rocks and coral heads and in holes. Know the rules and regs before you go (the wardens will end your trip real quick), grab your snorkel gear and get out there. 
  • Grilling and chilling. Incredible restaurants seemingly dot every mile marker along U.S. 1, serving up the best of fresh, local seafood. Breaking the bank down here can happen quickly. For us, having a rental with a pool and grill were on the “must” list. Nothing beats jumping into a cold pool after baking in the sun and salt all day and then firing up the grill for a little sunset surf and turf under the swaying palms, featuring your own fresh-caught lobsta-tails. And you don't even have to change out of your swimmies. 
  • Offshore fishing. There isn't much convincing needed here. These waters host the world's best fishing and, for avid backcountry anglers, getting out into the deep blue is a different kind of saltwater therapy. Trolling weedlines, horizon hunting for birds, running and gunning. The thrill of the hunt is the real deal out here, accompanied best by some classic rock blaring through the Bose.

    The mahi run slows down toward the end of summer, but we hammered down and bagged some schoolies, struck jackpot at a red grouper hole and reeled in a few tuna snacks.
  • You never know what you're going to catch. While many target fish species have natural "seasons," there's a chance of catching any species at almost any time of the year around the Keys. Mike nonchalantly landed his first tarpon while cleaning fish on the dock in this murky canal. 
Juvenile tarpon are often found in stagnant backwaters like this stale, murky canal.

Juvenile tarpon are often found in stagnant backwaters like this stale, murky canal.

  • Support the locals. Wanna know the best restaurants that have it all? Ask a local. Sometimes you'll discover the off-the-map gems that you won't find in your review site search results. For some island-life-inspired brews, Florida Keys Brewing Co. and Islamorada Beer Co. embody the local vibes and serve up creations like Run Aground Brown Ale and Channel Marker IPA.
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  • Head south, find dives. Dive bars, that is. Take a spontaneous day of gypsying down to Key West with no real agenda except spontaneous exploration. Even if you're a seasoned Keys-hopper, venture outside your usual haunts and you may be surprised at what you'll discover along the way. 
No Name amber red

No Name amber red

Our first stop was the oldest bar in the Lower Keys. No Name Pub on Big Pine Key, renowned for being “A nice place if you can find it.” $90,000+ dollar bills cover the ceiling and walls, a tradition that began in the 1970's when so much illegal money was passing through the Keys and everyone loved to spend it. We revealed our mission to Linda, our rockstar bartender, who gladly pointed us south to Geiger Key Marina, an Old Florida fish camp. The tiki hut is tucked away off Big Coppitt Key where the paradise views are best served over a couple of ice cold Kaliks and fish tacos.  

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  • Get Key Weird. Key West, where the odd and freaky is what keeps people coming back. World famous Duval Street, Mallory Square sunsets, unspeakable things and, oh, the chocolate-covered Key Lime Pie on a stick. One night in this southernmost town will scratch your party itch and more often than not, send you away with a hangover souvenir. Side note: the Key West Express is my absolute favorite way to travel here for a weekend.
  • Fish tacos at Garbos Grill, Key West. Perhaps the best fish tacos I've had anywhere, these are worth a standalone highlight. Garbos Grill can be found hidden behind Grunts Bar in an Airstream trailer, slinging handhelds. Huge portions of fish, mango salsa, red cabbage, cilantro, fresh jalapenos and house-made caribbean sauce. I'd go back to Key West just for these.
PSA: wear sunscreen, kids.

PSA: wear sunscreen, kids.

  • Journey to the Dry Tortugas. This adventure was hands down the highlight of our trip (read more here). Tacked on to the back end of a fishing day, we voyaged 70 miles west of Key West to the Dry Tortugas National Park which is made up of seven small islands. Fort Jefferson, a sophisticated symbol of American history, stands tall on one of the islands, surrounded by the beautiful turquoise waters. The six-sided, three-tier brick fort was constructed from 1846-1875, built to protect the southern coastline of the U.S. To get here, bring your own boat or hop on one of the ferries or seaplanes that ventures out from Key West.
special thank you to my cuz, Richard Fernandez.

special thank you to my cuz, Richard Fernandez.


 

The moral of this story is just go to the Keys. There's no shortage of adventure there and, most of the time, it will happen naturally if you just let it. Put down your phone, be present and enjoy this treasure of a place. 

Thank you, Florida Keys, for never failing to deliver.

What are your favorite things to do and places to see in the Keys? If it's your first trip, report back and share your experience with me!