For a Miami girl who grew up going to the Keys every chance I got, a visit to a place called the Fish House in Key Largo, where tiny white Christmas lights wrap the perimeter and vendors sell watercolor paintings and coconut shells out front, does not sound like an authentic experience. Frankly, it looks like a tourist trap. But a pal and local Keys dweller swears it’s the best spot to eat conch, which apparently appears on just about every menu along this 135-mile-long archipelago.
It’s Friday night and I’m at the start of a road trip to Key West —and yes I’m hungry. My mission is to check out a recent redo of Harry Truman’s Little White House, a gem of a museum that served as the former president’s office away from the office, but all my friend and I can think of is a tasty platter of seafood. The one thing I can say about the Fish House is it’s conveniently located at mile marker 102, so you don’t have to venture too far into the Keys to whet your appetite.
Inside, the ceiling is low, with more lights—this time in the form of mini chili peppers—hanging pretty much everywhere. Walk straight in and you’ll come face to face with lobster, crab and whatever else the local fishermen brought in that day resting in a large display case (the place doubles as a fish market). To the right is the restaurant. I ask the host, a Santa look-alike, for the best seat in the house, and he points my friend and me to the bar, where paper placemats showcase a map of the Keys. Our boyish bartender backs up my local pal’s claim: “I’ve been working here for years, and we get as many locals coming in as we do tourists,” he says while opening a beer bottle for a sunburned gent at the other end of the bar. “They come for the fresh fish. It’s brought in every day, filleted right here in the back.” Even the smoked fish is prepared on-site. The place opened in 1987, so it has had time to gain popularity—so much so, in fact, that the owners opened the Fish House Encore next door, where the same fresh seafood is turned into sushi.
We order the conch fritters, and they arrive on a simple ceramic dish with a sweet dipping sauce on the side. I’m skeptical; conch isn’t my fave, but I give it a try. It’s evenly breaded, with just a light coating, and rather than tough and chewy, it has a perfect consistency. For dinner I go with fresh grouper prepared Matecumbe-style, a specialty here. Baked and topped with tomatoes, shallots, basil, capers, olive oil and lemon juice, the dish is outstanding and incredibly large. I take my leftovers, and we get back on the road.
Fifteen minutes later, we drive up to the Cheeca Lodge & Spa on Islamorada. I stayed here once before, just prior to a New Year’s Eve fire that shut the place down for more than a year. It recently reopened after a major remodel, and I’m happy to see they kept the same open courtyard out front with swirling palm paddle fans and swaths of full foliage. Inside, there’s a clear path to the back of the property, where a terrace spills onto a narrow beach. I can see Cheeca’s famous wooden pier (another surviving detail); with the soft glow of lights lined on either side and the moon hanging over the Atlantic Ocean, I get that familiar “hooray, we’re on vacation!” vibe.
Upstairs, the room is a great open space with a bed on one end and a full living room on the other; lots of dark woods and tasteful foliage prints give it a tropical vibe. But the jewel here is the balcony, a long, oceanfront perch with a round whirlpool tub in one corner. There’s a shower overhead in case you want it to double as your stand-in shower, but there’s one of those too—right through a glass door next to the alfresco tub. When you need privacy, flowing curtains provide a romantic ambience.
I wake ready for a beachside breakfast with my toes in the sand, and that’s just what I get at the resort’s aptly named Atlantic Edge restaurant. A bountiful buffet has just about everything one can crave at the start of a day, but I go with the healthy choices: fruit, yogurt and toast. The beach is filled with families and lovebirds on their honeymoon, many of them huddled at a tiki hut booking fishing trips or kayak excursions. Afterward, we stroll through the property, and I’m happy to find the man-made lagoon is still there, perfect for kids to practice their snorkeling skills (it’s filled with fish). The Pioneer Cemetery, a historic site where many of the founding families of Islamorada are buried, is also intact. Over-water boardwalks dotted with chaise lounges snake around buildings with privately owned condos. A nine-hole par-3 golf course is the only one on the island, but most folks come here for the water sports—this is, after all, the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World.”
We pick up bikes (for free!) at the activity center and head out to meet Mark Terrill, a local high-school wrestling coach who doubles as a bicycle tour guide here in Islamorada. As fit and muscular as he is tan, this natural storyteller meets us at Hurricane Monument, which pays tribute to the victims of the 1935 storm that devastated the island. Two gentlemen and a couple with a baby join us; the former we learn are locals who heard about Terrill’s tour via friends (locals take a tour? This guy has to be good). We cruise through the Moorings (pictured above), the five-star property next to Cheeca that has served as a backdrop for countless photo shoots (Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret, to name a few) and along two-lane roads that showcase the steel-reinforced concrete-block “hurricane houses” built for storm survivors. “The walls are about a foot thick, and everything is elevated above flood level,” Terrill says. “Still, it’s hard to believe people lived here for years with no fresh water or air conditioning.” As he says this, I feel trickles of sweat across my forehead.
The two-hour tour includes several stops and stories, some unexpected. When we get to the Green Turtle Inn, Terrill tells of the night John Belushi was there, shortly after Animal House debuted. Apparently, he took to answering the phones and taking far more reservations than the space allowed. The place ended up packed to the gills—and Belushi picked up his fair share of drinks.
We wrap with a stop at World Wide Sportsman, an outdoors emporium that boasts a replica of Ernest Hemingway’s boat Pilar in the center. We give Terrill $40 (he does these tours for donations every weekend), part ways and grab a table for lunch on the bayside thatched-roof deck outside the store. It’s a sunny Saturday, and a steel-drum band is playing. We might as well be in the Caribbean. Some folks arrive by boat; others look like they’ve been here a while from the number of empty glasses on their tables. We order grilled mahi sandwiches and cold beers and rest our biking legs.
The ride, meal and music leave us feeling island lazy, so I suggest strolling through some of the tchotchke shops along the Overseas Highway, the main artery that connects the keys. A few miles down the road we find the Rain Barrel Artisan Village. The maze of wooden buildings houses a couple of snack shops and a handful of art studios. At King’s Treasure I pick up a turquoise necklace. Then I find Joan Purcell Galleries; like a mini Gauguin, she creates stained glass and oil paintings that are visual explosions of tropical scenes. A few more stops at random shell shack-type places, and it’s time for a power nap of the ocean-breeze variety.
Come nightfall, the wind picks up. There’s a rhythm to the sound of the breeze, but it may have something to do with the band playing at the Full Moon Party down the road. There on the beach, between the upscale Pierre’s restaurant and the casual Morada Bay Café, are clowns on stilts waving neon bowling pins in a sort of Cirque-du-Soleil-meets-school-carnival way. With drinks flowing freely, some folks dance while others try to drum up interest in a limbo contest, and the overall vibe is that of a funky beach party. This near-monthly soiree happens anytime there’s a full moon.
The next morning we wake up feeling ravenous and ready to see my friend Lindsey, owner of the Midway Café. Painted in island colors of hot pink and periwinkle blue, this coffee spot marks the halfway point (80 miles from Miami) en route to Key West—I should know, I’ve been there enough times to be on a first-name basis with the owner. It’s 11 a.m., so the place is buzzing. Folks are lined up at the counter for a dose of caffeine before running errands or heck, heading to their boats. Lindsey roasts her own coffee here, Key Coffee Roaster, and it’s rich and tasty enough that it’s developed quite a following. People buy it by the pound to take home. We order egg-and-avocado croissant sandwiches and take a seat at a counter in the back. “Hey there!” Lindsey pops out from the kitchen to greet us. “Ready for your morning joe?” She tells us the café has been picking up more lunch business, and I can’t help but think it has something to do with her infectious enthusiasm for … everything.
Fueled up and ready for action, we drive through Marathon Key on our way to Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys. It’s one of the only spots in the Keys with natural beaches, but what I find most amazing is the Old Bahia Honda Bridge—or what’s left of it. It’s a living reminder of Henry Flagler’s dream to build an overseas railroad from Miami to Key West. The project began in 1905 and operated successfully until the 1935 hurricane. Already near bankrupt, Flagler was unable to rebuild the damaged sections, and most of the railroad remains are now what we consider U.S. 1.
We walk a steep trail on the southwest side of the park, past huge iguanas to the top of the bridge, where there’s an amazing view of the highway, the surrounding keys and that famous clear water. On our way back, I walk through a butterfly garden with a view of the ocean 50 or so feet below that’s so spectacular, I head down to the beach to watch shorebirds wade in the shallow water and a new dad help his daughter take her first steps in ankle-deep waves.
In all the years I’ve been coming to the Keys—32 to be exact—I’ve never seen a Key deer, that tiny endangered species only found in the Lower Keys. I make my friend drive through Big Pine into No Name Key because I heard there’s an out-of-the-way place there aptly called No Name Pub. I figure if we don’t find the deer, we can at least have a drink. Moving along a two-lane road, with bushy foliage on either side that occasionally opens up to reveal a sprawling house, we come up empty on both, but I refuse to give up. Since it’s now dusk, one of the best times to spot wildlife, I’m feeling a bit more optimistic.
What follows is nothing short of cliché, but it’s exactly how it happened: All of a sudden, the car halts to a stop and we come face to face with a family of Key deer. One by one, more cross the road. They’re small and cute—maybe 50 pounds—with sweet brown eyes that would definitely score them a callback from a Bambi audition. I’m giddy with excitement because this is years in the making.
Once they’ve moved on, we make a U-turn and head back; only now our four-legged friends are everywhere. They’re on the side of the road, munching on grass. One comes up to our car, a curious look in its eye. I half expect it to say something.
We’re so taken by the deer that we hardly notice the fork in the road where a family is strolling along. I roll down my window and ask about No Name Pub. They point us in the right direction (turns out we’re just around the corner).
The place is small with motor-cycles and picnic tables out front; inside, the ceilings are low and covered in dollar bills. Thin-crust pizzas top most tables, and the horseshoe bar is slammed. The host tells us the wait is an hour, so we take in the ambience and jump back in the car.
We’re tired; it’s been a long day of exploring. Earlier today we finally made it to the Truman Little White House in Key West. After our stop at Bahia Honda, we drove the 37 miles to the Conch Republic, where we were greeted with traffic and sunny skies. I’m an architecture buff, so I’m delighted with the details of the house and the surrounding neighborhood—Conch-style homes with wide porches, metal roofs and wooden shutters. Originally a naval station during the Spanish-American War as well as World Wars I and II, it became the winter home of President Harry S. Truman in 1946. It turns out ol’ Truman wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the two-story waterside dwelling. Thomas Edison set up shop here for six months while trying to invent new weapons for the war effort. JFK lead a summit here with the British prime minister at the time just before the Bay of Pigs. Colin Powell held peace talks with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Even the Clintons and Carters vacationed here (though the Bushes never made it).
In order to preserve authenticity, a volunteer committee was set up to track down objects that filled the house during Truman’s presidency. On eBay and via estate sales, they discovered china, silver, even an old phonograph. But what I find most interesting is Truman’s room. He slept alone, in a twin bed, and had a small sofa set up on the covered porch next door where he could read the newspapers in the morning and nap in the afternoons.
We leave the Little White House feeling famished. My friend Claudia lives in the Keys and recommended La Creperie, a longtime Key West café that recently moved to a new spot. Inside the clapboard building, a horseshoe counter hugs the workspace of a wiry redhead deeply concentrating on making perfect crepes. In lieu of café tables, we sit right in front of her and order one savory and one sweet crepe with the intent to share. We go with a prosciutto, egg, cheese and herbs de Provence variety for the savory and a Nutella, banana and strawberry version for dessert. The redhead carefully pours batter on a griddle, but unhappy with the consistency, she scrapes it off the pan and starts again. Slowly, she pushes around the edges, molding the batter into the perfect shape and size. She’s serious, her thoughts as deep and seemingly plentiful as the freckles dotting her face and arms.
By the time the crepes are done, I expect, at least, a half-smile, a sign of self-satisfaction with a job well done.
“Are you the owner?” I ask. “No, that’s Yolande,” she says, pointing at a short, perky woman with strawberry-blond hair and a wide smile that more than makes up for our cook’s lackluster social skills. Bouncing with energy, Yolande tells me she’s from Brittany, hence the painted hillside scenes of a stone house in the French countryside along one wall. “My mother’s house,” she says nostalgically, pointing to it with her chin. In her early 20s, Yolande followed a boyfriend to the States. Things didn’t get off to a great start, but soon she met a second guy—a stroke of good luck because the two have been married for 30 years. “I looked around [at Key West] and thought, why not?
I realize that same sentiment has guided me throughout this trip. With so many signs to capture your attention as you cruise down U.S. 1—“Feed the tarpon!” “Swim with dolphins!”—you can’t help but say “why not?” and pull over.
Wrapped up in this curious spirit, we say adieu to Key West and begin the return drive. I book a table at Pierre’s back in Islamorada for our last night in the Keys. The two-story white colonial building with blue shutters has wraparound porches that remind me of a Southern plantation home, but I’m told the inspiration was actually West Africa, where owner Hubert Baudoin travels to often. We walk across immaculate teak floors to the first-floor bar area, the Green Flash Lounge. Low-lying Moroccan-style furniture and nautical influences give the space an eclectic feel. I order a glass of wine, but I feel like it should be a cigar and a single-malt Scotch; it’s that sort of place (if I were that sort of girl). Later we climb a grand staircase and walk through doorways covered with hand-carved doors from India to the second floor for dinner. British colonial artifacts are ubiquitous, including museum-quality miniature mahogany sailboats with white-linen sails.
I start with the blue-lump-crab salad with goat cheese and candied walnuts. I can taste the freshness of the dish in every bite. Next I go for the Keys snapper accompanied by a mushroom orzo made with artichokes and leeks. The preparation is warm and creamy, leaving me in a full-bellied, relaxed mood. For dessert I can’t resist banana beignets—but now I really feel like I need a nap. As we stroll back to the car under a clear, moonlit sky, I think about the tub that awaits on the Cheeca Lodge balcony and think, why not?