Little Palm Island, Florida
Nestled between the Florida mainland and Key West, and just past the Seven-Mile Bridge, lies the Lower Keys, a collection of tiny islands that prove just how much the towns and vibes vary across the state of Florida. Much of the Lower Keys seems untouched and unspoiled, but never as much so as on the tiny private escape of Little Palm Island.
The resort at Little Palm Island is one of the best in the country, with exquisite accommodations, great food and one of the best beaches in the entire stretch of the Keys. As expected, a stay at this tony resort is pricey and might be more than the average person is looking to spend on a beach getaway. The good news is that the resort, while private, is not entirely closed to visitors. Private boats can dock for the day in the resort's marina (call the dock master at 305-872-2524 for information). In return, guests can take advantage of the resort's facilities, including the pool, watersports equipment and sandy beach. This is a great way to relax on the famed beach without the steep price tag.
Still can't swing this escape to paradise? There is plenty worth seeing in the rest of the Lower Keys. Wildlife watchers might catch a glimpse of some of the Keys' native animals, including Key deer, eagles and egrets. Scuba divers and snorkelers can explore the magical living coral reef. Most of the area's beaches are private, like that of Little Palm Island, but there are a few sandy shores worthy of a day trip.
It's not only the laid-back lifestyle and slower pace that make the Lower Keys a little different. Residents here even have a different way to mark locations and addresses. As many of these spots are off the beaten path, expect to get directions by mile markers (or MMs), which are displayed on small green signs that tell the distance from Key West along U.S. Highway 1.
As with any warm-weather destination, the streets and beaches are at their most crowded during the winter. While the rest of the country is battling Mother Nature, the winter months bring the driest season to the Lower Keys. The temperatures are mild, ranging from 60 F to 70 F, and more comfortable than in the hot, hot summers. Also, the mosquitoes are a little less aggressive and slightly less bothersome during the dry season, though they rarely disappear altogether. But mosquitoes, however annoying they may be, still can't cast a shadow on lovely, languid Little Palm Island.
Most Romantic Accommodations
Little Palm Island
Web site: www.littlepalmisland.com
Little Palm Island is a hidden treasure on a tiny private island accessible only by private boat or airplane. From the minute guests step foot on the island, it is clear that this resort is in a class entirely its own. Discreet accommodations can be found in 28 bungalows scattered across the island. The suites exude a rustic elegance with a rich Polynesian flair, and rooms feature special touches like a whirlpool tub and bamboo-fenced outdoor shower. Some things you won't find in the rooms include telephones, televisions or alarm clocks, which adds to the feeling of total relaxation. There are plenty of activities to fill the day, but lounging on the white sand beach seems to be the most popular choice.
Best Bed & Breakfast
Web site: www.thebarnacle.net
With only four rooms for rent, this B&B is restful and inexpensive - a great combination for a Lower Keys getaway. Rooms are simple and provide all the necessities, such as air conditioning and private baths. The Ocean Room is aptly named for its panoramic view of the sea. The house sits on a private beach, which is the perfect place to cool off after taking out the free bicycles or kayaks for an adventure. Couples seeking total peace and quiet, with a price tag lower than that on Little Palm Island, will appreciate the isolated feeling and kid-free quiet - children under 16 are excluded from the fun.
Best Scuba Hangout
Looe Key Reef Resort
Web site: www.diveflakeys.com
The rooms may be plain and the appearance similar to the typical motel, but it's the atmosphere and the organized dive trips that keep scuba aficionados coming back to this out-of-the-way spot. Guests can get up with the sun and head out to the motel's boat ramp for a diving excursion to nearby Looe Key. Upon returning at night, divers convene at the Tiki Bar to compare stories of their underwater adventures.
Houseboat Vacations of the Florida Keys Inc.
Web site: thefloridakeys.com/houseboats
For travelers tired of look-alike hotels and beach getaways that seem to be stuck on repeat, there is a way to shake up a trip to the Keys. Instead of checking in to a hotel, try checking out a houseboat. Houseboat Vacations in the Upper Keys rents out a fleet of houseboats that can sleep between six to eight passengers. With a fully equipped kitchen, hot-water shower and rooftop sun deck complete with a gas grill, there is little missing from these floating accommodations. Boaters are limited in travel distance and must stay 20 miles from the Florida Bay shoreline, but the company also rents small motorboats for a speedy trip to a restaurant, state park or nearby beach.
Food & Drink
The Dining Room at Little Palm Island
Web site: www.littlepalmisland.com
At the dining room on Little Palm Island, diners have two seating options: the chic inside dining room or the terrace overlooking the beach. But it's not just the view that keeps the rave reviews rolling in for this gourmet fusion restaurant, aptly called "Floribbean." This exotic blend of Florida, European, Asian and Caribbean flavors makes for really tasty meals. Breakfast favorites include lobster hash and eggs Benedict. Lunch hits include conch chowder and a variety of salads, and the dinner menu features Florida's favorite local catches, including lobster and grouper, and a heavenly slice of Key lime pie for dessert. One word of advice: The prices are steep, but the experience is worthy of breaking the bank.
Best Local Flair
Web site: www.mangrovemamasrestaurant.com
From the outside, Mangrove Mama's is little more than a roadside shack, complete with a few animals wandering around outside under a patch of shady banana trees. Inside, visitors are surprised by the purely Lower Keys vibe and tasty food. Mangrove Mama's serves two square meals a day - lunch and dinner - and bar snacks for that in-between time. The straightforward menu lists plenty of fresh fish, steaks, ribs and even some vegetarian options. And, of course, you can top off the meal with a slice of Key lime pie.
Best Waterside Bar
Geiger Key Smokehouse
Web site: www.geigerkeymarina.com
The Smokehouse is part of the Geiger Key Marina, a stop-off point for local fishers, hungry boaters and tourists returning from fishing excursions. This waterside restaurant serves sandwiches, salads and soups, but they are best known for their tasty fresh fish sandwiches. Each night of the week the restaurant hosts a different theme dinner, including meatloaf on Mondays and turkey on Thursdays. Customers can finish off their dinner with a cold one from the Tiki Bar. On the weekend, there are special events to spice things up, including festive pig roasts, beachside barbecues and live music.
Best Pub Grub
No Name Pub
Web site: www.nonamepub.com
For a bar literally papered in dollar bills, the No Name Pub came from humble beginnings with a sordid history. Since it opened in 1931, this building has been used as a general store, bait-and-tackle shop, pub and even a brothel, for a short period in the late 1930s. It wasn't until the 1950s that the pub took on the name No Name Pub and started building a reputation as a local watering hole and, later on, a pizza joint. Today, visitors still come for the beer, the company and the pizza, which the restaurant promises is the best around.
Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary
Web site: floridakeys.noaa.gov
This underwater destination lies about seven miles off Big Pine Key and is reachable only by boat. Plenty of tour outfitters organize snorkel and dive excursions to this popular spot. Even seasoned divers and snorkelers are blown away by the living coral reef, which is home to a staggering 150 different types of coral. The coral is amazing enough and on top of that are the myriad tropical fish that call it home. Remember the cardinal rule of diving and visiting underwater habitats: Look but don't touch the fragile coral or any of the creatures living under the sea. Take a picture instead to preserve the memory of this magical place.
Best State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Web site: www.bahiahondapark.com
While the Florida Keys are noted for undersea adventures and perfect beach weather, not all the beaches are wide enough for comfortable lounging, or even a game of Frisbee, or feature water deep enough for swimming. The inexpensive entrance fee to Bahia Honda State Park buys a day's worth of sunning on one of the Keys' best beaches and a choice of swimming locales - either the Atlantic or the Florida Gulf. In addition there is a concessions stand with a snack bar and gift shop and places to rent kayaks or organize fishing or snorkeling trips. Don't want to leave? Reserve one of the campsites or cabins located in the park and wake up in the morning right back on the beach (reservations at 305-872-2353).
Best Dolphin Experience
Dolphin Research Center
Web site: www.dolphins.org
Some sea-life water shows have a tendency to feel more like sideshows and often leave visitors wondering if the animals are healthy and treated well. Not so at the Dolphin Research Center, a nonprofit organization that brings humans and dolphins together for safe-and-sound interactions. This makes the center a great day-trip choice for dolphin lovers who adore the friendly creatures but hate to see them cooped up or mistreated. The center runs events that let guests meet and greet the dolphins with a hardy fin shake, swim with the dolphins or spend the day as a dolphin trainer-in-training.
Best Day Trip
Little Palm Island truly is like an escape from reality, and a rustic, removed and serene one at that. But it is also a tempting 30 miles from Key West, a place that provides a very different kind of escape. Key West is notorious for a number of reasons, just a few being the wild partying on Duval Street, the exuberant sunset festival by the water and the vibrant gay scene. Key West is a great day trip from your paradise island and offers variety in dining, shopping, art and even history that is wildly different from Little Palm. Spend your day shopping or cozy up at the bar with a frozen drink and prepare to hear a few stories from the locals; the quirky cast of characters who call Key West home can tell some great tales of their favorite place and give you insight into the island's distinctive personality.
Miami's South Beach is a year-round hot spot.