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12 tips for unlocking the Florida Keys

12 tips for unlocking the Florida Keys

The Keys are known for their dramatic sunsets

Three words: Key lime pie.

Yes, the Florida Keys are known for many reasons. For the thriving, well-heeled LGBTI community that live here for one. But the Keys’ greatest selling point? Undoubtedly this perfect, perfect dessert.

Sweet, tart and joyously tangy, the region’s signature dish is like a perfectly balanced cocktail.

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An explosion of vibrant lime in egg yolk, sweetened milk and cream fondant, this incredible dish is served on a buttery, biscuit base.

And the best part: every eatery in the Keys offers a version of this decades-old recipe, all claiming theirs to be the best you’ll ever taste. As such, as you drive down this long, narrow thread of islands – linked by the 130-mile long Overseas Highway – you’re obliged to try them all.

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We recently embarked on our own Key lime odyssey, touring the length and (virtually nonexistent) breadth of this idyllic chain, ending with the southernmost Key: the gay wonderland that is Key West.

Here, we count down 12 tips for an unforgettable trip in this Floridian paradise…

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1 Get your bearings at Amara Cay Resort

One of the chicest hotels in the gorgeously-named ‘village of islands’ Islamorada, Amara Cay Resort feels super clean and new after a recent refurbishment. My stylish suite, with its serene cream walls and slate tile floor, was the size of a large flat. In fact, it was the biggest room I’ve ever stayed in – and more than big enough for a family of four or five.

During my stay, I was casually awoken by a gorgeous sunrise (most of the rooms have an ocean view), after an excellent night’s sleep in a king size bed. Beats being woken by the sound of traffic and/or rain in depressing London.

Creative seafood dishes are available in the hotel’s exclusive restaurant Oltremare, including some opinion-polarizing conch recipes – this tropical marine mollusc isn’t for the faint of heart!

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2 Sample traditional Floridian cuisine at Marker 88

Another of Islamorada’s biggest draws, Marker 88 is known for its colorful, exotic salads, meaty fish and mouth-wateringly tender steaks. Our beachfront meal-turned-live cookery lesson, courtesy of renowned chef and Keys native Bobby Stoky, was so exceptional, we gave the restaurant its own review, which you can read here. For lunch options, try Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen and Bob’s Bunz – both serve Americana-style guilty pleasures in cool, diner-like environments.

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3 Sail the African Queen

Film fans take note, for random movie trivia lies herein. In the Key Largo stretch, you’ll find the African Queen, a charming 1912 steamboat available for canal cruises daily; the boat was made famous in the 1951 film of the same name starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Coincidentally, Bogart also starred in the 1948 film noir Key Largo, set in the area – as such, the third Humphrey Bogart Film Festival will be taking place on the island from October 21-25 2015.

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4 Educate yourself at the Turtle Hospital

Just over halfway down the Overseas Highway you’ll find the humbling and immensely popular Turtle Hospital. This nonprofit organization rehabilitates injured turtles, while offering visitors laid-back but informative tours of the facility; we got to see a live turtle surgery, which was a surprisingly emotional experience. One of the nicest elements of our visit, meanwhile, was the charming enthusiasm of the staff, whose love and adoration for this fascinating species is plain to see.

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5 Bike the Seven Mile Bridge

The bizarre, picturesque geography of the Keys comes to the fore with a bike ride across the impressive Seven Mile Bridge, where an expanse of azure blue seems to swallow you whole. Make a quick pit stop at Seven Mile Bridge Bike Hire to pick up your bikes beforehand.

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6 Sink a beer at the No Name Pub

The most authentic-feeling Keys moment of our trip was a lunch of to-die-for coconut shrimp, in the company of gruff, seafaring locals at the dark and dingy No Name Pub. This no-frills tavern is memorable for its ceiling and walls, which are covered in dollar bills donated by punters over the years, all containing handwritten notes.

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7 Relax at the Gates Hotel Key West

A fitting introduction to the affluent, stylish crowd who call Key West home, the boutique Gates Hotel Key West is a smart, sleek, medium-sized stopover popular with young professionals. We loved the breezy, nautical-themed rooms, all pristine, luxurious white sheets and reclaimed details, and we practically lived in the huge pool, occasionally venturing to the nearby tiki bar for sumptuously fruity rum-based cocktails.

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8 Absorb some culture at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

Key West is a city of great literary heritage; for starters, iconic gay writer Tennessee Williams used to live here, and as such, there’s a tiny Theater named after him.

Another essential stop off is the Old Town’s Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, at 907 Whitehead Street. It was here that the iconic novelist wrote some of his most popular works, such as To Have and Have Not. By simply soaking up the retro surroundings you begin to feel more enlightened and intelligent.

This gorgeous abode, built in 1851, is a noted example of Spanish colonial architecture; furthermore, the Old Town is known for its charming wooden buildings, and their durability and design reflect the American, Bahamian and Cuban influences felt throughout the city (Cuba is just 90 miles away).

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9 Go Key Lime crazy at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe

We reached peak Key Lime Pie obsession at this colorful Key West stalwart, where you can purchase KLP lollies. Its wonderfully charismatic owner, Kermit, is always fabulously dressed in bright green attire and is something of a local celebrity. Meanwhile, a different side of Keys culture is represented by tanned surf fanatic Paul Menta (very easy on the eye) at his popular Rum Distillery.

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10 Stop and reflect at Mallory Square’s Sunset Celebration

For such a tiny town, this ocean-side plaza is always abuzz with people when the sun goes down. Clairvoyants compete with break dancers, ice cream sellers and fire breathing unicyclists for your attention – but our gaze was transfixed by the glowing Gulf of Mexico, and a never-ending sea of blazing orange. Follow this with some impossibly fresh fish and dangerously strong, sugary cocktails at the nearby Conch Republic Seafood Company, or spicy Cuban cuisine at El Meson de Pepe. For alfresco dining, try Blue Heaven.

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11 Explore Key West’s buzzing LGBTI scene, generally

For an island city of four miles by one, and a population of under 30,000, Key West’s LGBTI scene packs one hell of a punch. (Perhaps because it has one of the highest proportion of same-sex couple households of any US city).

The Bourbon Street Pub is known for its international roster of flawless go-go boys, the New Orleans Guest House for its clothing-optional pool parties, and both Aqua and 801 Bourbon Bar for their riotous drag acts. There are also a wide range of gay hotels in the city, including the cavernous and very raunchy Island House [above] in the Old Town, and across the road, the stunning Alexander’s Guesthouse, where sun-kissed guests lounge around in casual nudity. Meanwhile, Pearl’s Rainbow used to be a ladies-only guesthouse, but now opens its doors to all.

For more insight into the city’s gay scene, read our interview with Key West expert Stephen Murray-Smith here.

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12 Go paddle boarding

From snorkeling to sailing, there are an array of water-based activities to choose from in the Keys, but one of our favorites was stand up paddle boarding. We opted for a two hour session with a guide from Lazy Dog Adventures, and to our complete surprise, discovered this laid-back, relaxing ‘sport’ can be picked up almost immediately. Although we almost fell off when something huge and scary swam beneath us… If you’d rather get up close and personal with marine life in a contained environment, try the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park back in Key Largo.

For more information about Florida Keys, visit www.fla-keys.co.uk.

Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to Miami and is offering return Economy fares from £657 per person. For further information contact www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770. This fare is available for selected departures during 2015. Prices given are correct as of today and are subject to change.

Rooms at Amara Cay Resort start at $169 (€151, £108) per room per night.

Room at Gates Hotel Key West start at $249 (€222, £159) per room, per night

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