You're missing out!
Almost 30 million people visited the sunshine state of Florida in the first three months of this year and most plan to return, but how many of them know about the hidden gem that is the Florida Keys?
In recent years Irish and Irish American holidaymakers have tended to beat a trail to well known destinations like Disneyworld, Orlando, Miami and the other well worn paths so beloved by tour operators and sea cruises.
But as some frequent visitors to the sunshine state know (and as first time Irish visitors will quickly discover) one of the most unspoiled and unforgettable parts of the state is the gorgeous Florida Keys.
With it's dependable year round climate – usually hovering around that 70 degree sweet spot – and its friendly locals, the keys really are a world class destination within hours of every US airport.
Fly into Fort Lauderdale or Miami and you can pick up a rental car in a matter of minutes (for a trip down the Florida Keys we strongly recommend hiring a jeep or an open top convertible for a better sea view).
Almost as soon as you arrive you'll be on your way. Both main airports are close to the highways that will take you on a fast paced or leisurely – you decide - drive down through the keys to Key West.
Having recently driven it I can tell you that U.S. Route 1 is one of America's most strikingly beautiful road journeys, a trip that is really a vacation in itself.
Crossing over the wide open sea, with the turquoise water sparkling on either side of you, it’s a highway through the ocean and it will be, I promise you, one of the most unforgettable journeys of your life.
For first time visitors we strongly recommend breaking up the drive by staying at one of the upscale resort hotels or lodges along the route.
We overnighted at the famous Cheeca Lodge and Spa in Islamorada (roughly half way down the keys) and we were delighted we did.
Located on the water's edge with a substantial nine hole, par three golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus right behind it, if golfing isn't your thing there are six lighted tennis courts, sizable adult and family pools, a fully-equipped fitness center and a world class spa offering wonderfully indulgent spa treatments and custom therapeutic massages – you can even elect to go kayaking and snorkeling if you're more of an outdoor pursuits type.
The premiere resort in Islamorada, Cheeca Lodge is celebrating their 70th anniversary in style this year, and we recommend it both as a place of refuge and understated luxury.
The lush tree lined 27 acre property offers an escape from it all that includes an immaculate private beach, soft sea breezes, and the longest private pier on the keys with panoramic views of the ocean.
With 214 well appointed rooms on the property, you'll probably feel as if you're somewhere between the keys and the Caribbean (the oceanfront Tiki bar offers tempting bites and cocktails all day and as the sun sets).
Islamorada means “purple isle” in Spanish, a reference to the purple-tinged sunsets and the fragrant bougainvillea flowers that are native to the Keys.
One place nearby to take in the local color and get a terrific view of the setting sun is at the Islamorada Fish Company, which we checked out on a quick get to know the locality excursion.
Islamorada Fish Company is famous for serving the freshest Florida catch available, which we sampled ourselves in a delicious sit down dinner (you can order at the bar too) at its tiki bar.
Nearby draws include the famous Bob's Bunz, for burstingly flavorful key lime buns, sticky buns and cinnamon rolls, but it's also a terrific place for a low key breakfast and should be a mandatory early morning pit stop on your journey down the Keys.
We recommend taking the most civilized option, loading up on tempting baked goods from Bob's Bunz and scarfing them down with fresh coffee on the open road to Key West.
It's hardly a secret that for decades the coral island of Key West has been a haven for LGBT vacationer's. There are a lot of reasons why it's become one of the world's top holiday spots for this burgeoning market.
Firstly there's the beauty of the island itself, rightly famed for it's location and long days of endless sunshine, but Key West is also quirky and offbeat, making room for artists, writers, painters, filmmakers and their friends.
Top of the list for Irish and British LGBT vacationers in Key West is Island House, a resort and spa for men which is run with the attention to detail and service of a five star hotel, a fact that has won it international plaudits as the top gay resort in the world.
The rooms, which are spacious and immaculate (thank you attentive room service staff) were inspired by the tropical elegance of Ernest Hemingway's home in Havana (in Key West you're just 90 miles from Cuba).
Staff throughout the resort are attentive and thoughtful and the café, which has been rated one of the best in Key West, serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and an overnight menu by the heated poolside, which is open twenty four hours.
The bar offers beer, wine, champagne and impressively strong mixed drinks, including tropical specialties served all day and all night. They even have a free happy hour every evening which is informal and fun and provides an opportunity to get to know other guests.
Honestly, you might never want to leave the resort, which in the free to do your own thing atmosphere of Key West is clothing optional, but in the button downed US usually means shorts and fitted t-shirts.
Rooms are spacious (many face the pool) and the bold interior designs are inspired by Ernest Hemingway's tropical home in Havana. Coffee makers contain regular and decaf Starbucks coffee filter options, a civilized way to wake up each morning.
Another terrific touch is that the daily broadsheets are available free each morning next to the cafe, including The Times and local news, keeping you in touch with the world as you unwind in paradise. It's these thoughtful touches that make the place so unique.
Island House has also given careful thought to every aspect of your comfort with room-darkening drapes to keep the morning sun out and beds so comfortable (with 300 count bed linens) that you'll hardly resist a lie in.
For us though a deliciously strong mojito and the opportunity to float in the pool at night with a light tropical breeze making its way through the nearby trees looking up at a sky full of stars and the rising moon was one of the most memorable moments of our trip. This unforgettable highlight put Key West and Island House on the top of our vacation list.
For family travelers there are a limitless range of options from guest houses to five star hotels. We recommend you begin your search for your ideal location at the official Florida Keys website.
As you would expect there's a lively nightlife scene on Key West, and one of the most diverse in the state. From five star restaurants to upscale drag bars to hole in the wall fish houses (that offer catch of the day menus) the town has got you covered.
First time visitors will also delight in is the seemingly endless blocks of striking 19 century houses that have been meticulously maintained. You share the streets with free roaming hens and haughty roosters (you'll even see them in the trees) who decades ago escaped their confines and created an island community of their own.
Colorful, sometimes rambunctious, and a bit like the character of the place itself, you can hear them greet the morning in a way that lets you know you're far from the stresses and strains of city living.
Local businesses in Key West have noticed the strong uptick in Irish and British visitors to Key West (both the LGBT market and the family vacation markets are booming) and that they tend to be return guests.
No wonder since the weather, the beauty of the place, the endless options for sightseeing, fine dining and entertainment make it the perfect getaway.
One mandatory stop on the visitors trail is The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, located right on Duval Street (the main street in town) and run by the town's delightful “unofficial mayor” George Fernandez.
Here you will step into the world of hundreds of colorful tropical butterflies who will surround and frequently even land on you, in a feast for the senses that will awe you with the beauty of nature all over again. It's the number one tourist stop on Key West for a reason, do not miss this.
Dining options that we highly recommend you consider include the Blue Heaven Restaurant for seafood and their out of this world Key Lime Pie and their superior Key West version of Bananas Foster called Banana Heaven (this time served with homemade banana bread and vanilla ice cream) which is toe curlingly good.
For a fun fish shack experience that is surprisingly high on taste and quality visit BO's Fish Wagon, they make memorable fish tacos and delicious fish sandwiches and the place is charming in itself.
For the best con leche coffee or Cuban Sandwich outside Havana we recommend Sandy's Cafe on White Street. Popular with discriminating Conchs (what the native islanders are known as) and tourists, it's an unofficial community center beloved by all.
After coffee we recommend a visit to the Aids Memorial at the entrance to White Street Pier. It's a beautiful tropical setting and a place of honor away from the noise and bustle of the center of town.
A leisurely sailboat cruise around Key West landmarks at sunset with a drink in hand and a setting sun behind you is something you should not miss. Take the Blue Q sunset cruise with captain Steve and his crew and you'll hear him tell you of the lively history of the town in a way that will bring it all to life. Choose from sunset cruises or all day snorkeling and expect to see dolphins, sea turtles and sometimes even the occasional friendly shark.
Another mandatory stop is The Ernest Hemingway House, the onetime residence of the famed author in Key West. Located at 907 Whitehead Street it's just across from the strikingly beautiful Key West lighthouse and close to the popular Southernmost Point Buoy (marking one of the extreme points of the United States).
Getting to Key West is easy and there's a range of options. You can arrive by air, land or sea. We think the drive down from Miami or Fort Lauderdale is the way to go but other people prefer the ease of a flight.
There is even the Key West Express, a three to three and half hour passenger ferry that departs from Fort Myers year round.
But however you get there, get there. It will be – we promise – your first of many trips!