Key West is the final frontier in the long chain of islands that form the Florida Keys. Its offbeat sense of humor and tropical setting have long attracted those in search of a messy, rum-soaked escape. And no wonder: Key West boasts some of the most jaw-dropping and laid-back beaches in the world – some of which haven’t changed a lick since their buccaneer days. Read on for our local insider tips on the Conch Republic.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is home to the island’s only “natural” beach, formed of coral pebbles that crunch – satisfyingly – underfoot. No one can resist the calm, Caribbean blue waters: schools of parrotfish and yellow snapper dip in and out of the shallows; hulking loggerhead turtles, clawless spiny lobsters and sleek bottlenose dolphins can be spotted further out to sea. Once upon a time, Key West was known as the Shipwreck Capital. The treacherously shallow reefs here today sank scores of unsuspecting ships, later looted for gold and treasure by the island’s salvagers. Recommended by local insider Alli Griffiths
Not to be confused with Miami’s party beach of the same name, Key West’s South Beach offers a very different vibe: you go there to relax. This small slip of sand, surrounded by shallow waters, is a family favorite – thanks to its abundant lounge chairs and pretty, pastel shells that beg collecting. But if that all sounds dull, there’s no shortage of windsurfing and jet ski opportunities should the fancy strike. South Beach lies right off Duval Street, the main downtown drag where food takes center stage: don’t leave without a frozen key lime pie from Kermit’s, a tart creamy delight, or a classic ceviche from Sloppy Joe’s – Hemingway‘s favorite 1920s haunt. Recommended by local insider Alli Griffiths
Smathers Beach, a paradisiac waterfront, provides every beach-going fix imaginable. Spring-breakers flock here – usually barefoot – to bag the volleyball courts. It’s also where thrill seekers try their hand at parasailing, and where wobbly-legged first-timers steer paddle boards (or at least try to.) Expect to find loners thumbing through dog-eared books in the sun and couples seeking shade under swaying coconut palms. Restaurants may be thin on the ground, but local food trucks make up for it. They serve up affordable, no-frills fare. Translation: burritos, burgers and quesadillas. The only blemish on this otherwise perfect locale is air traffic, as Key West’s only airport lies some 20 minutes away on the south side of Key West. Recommended by local insider Alli Griffiths
Every year, visitors are lured to Higgs Beach, drawn to its sleepy, beach-town sensibility and the salty, addictive whiffs of ocean spray. It’s located just off Atlantic Boulevard, where conch-colored cottages and palm-fringed boardwalks provide a languid oasis. In short, it’s laid-back – even by Key West standards. Both ends of the sandy strip are bordered by a fishing pier. Locals have nicknamed one of them “the unfinished road to Cuba” – a nod to the mere 90 miles of ocean between the two countries. Higgs Pier, on the other side of the bank, offers a romantic vantage point to watch a crimson sun dip down from the purple sky into the pink-tinged sea. It’s a sight best enjoyed with a fruity cocktail (or two.) Pockets aching? Don’t worry. Public toilets and parking are both free. Recommended by local insider Alli Griffiths
Located just off Duval Street, Simonton Beach is small, packing in just 30 people at full capacity. Its stature means it’s off most tourists’ radar. Savvy travelers make a beeline for the sandy dunes here, which include a dedicated swimming area, plus dock chairs you can rent – provided you’re not their 31st visitor that day – to plonk yourself somewhere comfortable and quiet in the glistering white sand. Should hunger strike, fret not. Consider the Lagerheads Beach Bar & Watersports shack for fresh fish on toasted Cuban bread. Or, if you’re after something a little refreshing, head to the seafood grill that overlooks the harbor for cold-water oysters that smack of melon and cucumber. Recommended by local insider Alli Griffiths