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Great food + cool hotels in Florida Keys

KEY WEST – Last week I talked about some great activities I took part in during a recent visit to the Florida Keys. Today it’s time to talk about snapper, key lime pie and a run-in with a TV celebrity.
DSCF3352We had some truly magnificent food during our four days in the Keys. I don’t find Florida stoned crab to be as tasty as the Dungeness crab they sell out on the west coast (I grew up in California so I might be biased) but it’s pretty good and nicely presented at The Stoned Crab in Key West. I ordered a whole snapper that was cooked in salt and served rightside up, as if it was swimming across my plate. Not only visually interesting, but firm and fleshy and very, very tasty it was.
Restaurant owner Chris Holland, a very amiable guy and a good story teller, told us that fishermen are allowed to take one claw from a Stone Crab (they grow back) but not both. The government has satellites to monitor fishermen, and the detail is such that they can actually see if a fisherman takes both claws from a crab. Amazing.
IMG_3002The crab was good, but the snapper was sensational. It came baked in salt and was servd upright, as if the fish was snatched from the sea and left in the same position in the oven. Very inventive and hugely tasty.
The seafood is pretty good at The Conch Republic, a casual spot on the marina. And they make an excellent breakfast with spicy sausage and probably the best Key Lime Pie we had all week at Blue Heaven, a fun and artsy spot in Key West where Hemingway used to hang out and where they allegedly had a bordello on the second floor at one point.
They do excellent Italian food at Oltremare, the restaurant at the boutique Amara Cay Resort in Islamorada (more on that in a minute, as well as a bit about the Parrot Key Resort in Key West). The short ribs were spectacularly tender and sweet, while the gnocchi with rabbit also was excellent.
Maybe the best meal of the trip was at Marker 88, where we dined on the beach and snacked on great crab cakes, crispy egg rolls with (for now, anyway) fresh conch and other treats. I tried a bite of the salt and pepper crusted steak and thought it one of the best I’ve had anywhere. I also loved their pasta with seafood, which came in a sauce of olive oil, fresh herbs and a bit of tabasco for colour and heat. Yum, yum. I thought about dabbing a bit of the sauce behind my ears to replace my after shave but was convinced this wasn’t a good idea.
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I also had a fine drink called a, naturally, Hemingway, with aged rum, simple syrup and lime. A manly drink named after a very manly guy. And just the sort of drink I enjoy, too.
One of the women in our group got up to use the washroom and came back stammering about Kyle Chandler being there. I didn’t know who she meant at first as she mentioned the TV show Bloodlines, which is filmed in the area. Then she mentioned he plays Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights, which I adore. I jumped up and snapped a photo of my friend Lesley with Chandler. No, I didn’t ask to have my picture taken with him. It didn’t seem very manly (there’s that word again) and, besides, the guy looked like he wanted to have a beer with his buddies rather than pose for photos with dumb tourists. And who can blame him?

Kermit the piemaker likes to pretend toss fake key lime pies at passing tourists.

Kermit the piemaker likes to pretend toss fake key lime pies at passing tourists.


Oh, yeah, the key lime pie! Almost forgot. It’s a huge speciality in the Keys, as most folks know, this being the centre for growing small, sweet and oh-so-tart key limes. Some folks only make it with whipped cream; others prefer meringue. Some of it can be too sweet, and the quality of the pastry varies a lot. But when it’s nice and tart, it’s a fantastic dessert. I liked the pie a lot at Kermit’s (he learned from his grandmother, who didn’t want to heat her house so preferred whipped cream as a topping, not meringue). But, for my money the best we had on the trip was at Absolute Heaven, a well-known spot in Key West where Ernest Hemingway used to hang out and where you’ll find cats patrolling the grounds, which feature plenty of Florida bric-a-brac and outdoor tables and a bar (where folks can be found drinking at any hour of the day).
Blue Heaven makes perhaps the best key lime pie in Florida.

Blue Heaven makes perhaps the best key lime pie in Florida.


I mentioned the two hotels we stayed at. I liked Parrot Key, where they have a series of small pools and a bit of a beach that’s actually on an inlet and not on the open ocean. I had a large unit with a big porch and colourful chairs and a separate living room area that allowed me to spread out and watch TV while sitting on a sofa instead of in bed.
Parrot Key units in Key West have lovely porches. They have a series of pretty pools, too.

Parrot Key units in Key West have lovely porches. They have a series of pretty pools, too.

The grounds are very pretty, with big porches on units that feel a bit like a Florida plantation. The food was good but not amazing at breakfast. It’s a good location for families, being close to drug stores and chain restaurants and with lots of space. But it’s a few minutes drive and a pretty long walk to downtown Key West, so it might not be for everyone.
A hammock under the palms is a great way to soak up the atmosphere at Amara Cay Resort.

A hammock under the palms is a great way to soak up the atmosphere at Amara Cay Resort.

Amara Cay in Islamorada was quite nice, with a good-sized pool and a sandy beach with hammocks and a ladder you could use to climb into the sea. The rooms were more of a standard size but with a nice, clean, modern feel and not too much Florida kitsch. Ditto for the lobby, which features lots of wood and small basket-chairs that hang from the ceiling so you can float and spin about while you wait for your friends to arrive.

So, all in all, a very fun and successful trip. I already have some ideas for my next go-around, too.

For more information, visit the Florida Keys and Key West website.

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Email me at jim@jimbyerstravel.com. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @jimbyerstravel and on Instagram @jimbyerstravel1

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