Key West and The Florida Keys Vacation Guide

If you are still searching for moments of excitement and discovery but in socially distant destinations much closer to home, plan a vacation in the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys are an archipelago of 1700 tropical islands stretching about 120 miles off the southern tip of mainland Florida, between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

With warm temperatures and sunny skies, the Florida Keys are great to visit any time of the year. Given that Miami is a big and crowded city, it is better to fly directly into Key West International Airport. However, Ft. Lauderdale/ Miami is often cheaper to fly into, and it allows you to drive through the famous Overseas Highway and explore the northern Keys by road.

Sucheta Rawal in Key West
Make sure to check out the murals and street art around Key West

More Than Just Beaches…

It is true that most people come to the Florida Keys for the beaches and resorts, while that is not all that the Florida Keys offer. In fact, there are no beaches in Key West so you may want to stay in the other Keys or Miami area. The history, architecture and food are bigger highlights here.

There is a Bohemian vibe to the city of Key West, with colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, orange colored Framboyant trees, Cuban cafes and rooster running around the crosswalks. Whenever possible, stay away from the crowded bars and enjoy a socially distant vacation in the Florida Keys at these places…

Oceans edge Key West marina
Water sports are included with your stay at Oceans Edge Key West

Oceans Edge Key West

First, check in to a spacious resort away from the hustle and bustle of Old Town Key West. Suites with separate living rooms and private oceanfront balconies overlook a contemporary marina at Oceans Edge Key West in Stock Island. The property is gated, has free parking, and a free shuttle for whenever you want to pop over the narrow Cow Key Channel into town for dining or sightseeing.

Also, there are a number of activities included in your stay at Oceans Edge Key West so you could easily spend a day here swimming, paddle boarding, biking, kayaking, snorkeling, or take a fishing charter into the sea.

Hemingway house cats
Resident polydactyl cats at the Hemingway House gift shop

Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

If you are a fan of literature and cats, the Hemingway House in Key West is a must stop. The home of Ernest Hemingway is a walk-in museum where guides lead you though his life’s important events, while about 60 polydactyl cats roam free through his bedroom, pool and gift shop! Due to COVID-19, the number of people allowed indoors is restricted and masks are mandatory.

Ernest Hemingway books
The Old Man and the Sea is is one of Ernest Hemingway most famous works. It tells the story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba.
Key West butterfly garden
Watch butterfly up close at the conservatory in Key West

Key West Butterfly Garden and Nature Conservancy

Next, the small butterfly conservatory in Old Town Key West is one of the most beautiful place for nature lovers. Picture being surrounded by 50-60 species of colorful butterflies frolicking on tropical plants and pink flamingos, some even settling on your clothes! A walk through the glass enclosed butterfly garden takes only a few minutes, but if you are in awe like me, you would want to relax and admire these little creatures for a few hours.

Key west food tour
Take a socially distant walking food tour in Key West

Key West Food Tour

When you want to know where to find the best local seafood or world’s best key lime pie, follow a resident food expert. Seafood Lover’s Food Tour led by Key West Food Tours is a perfect way to sample sangria, royal red shrimp, spiny lobster and conch, while learning about the history and culture of the place, and getting some exercise along the way! Set aside 3-4 hours for the tour and plan to walk along the famous Duval and Petronia streets. The woman-founded food tour company specializes in showcasing mom and pop restaurants you may otherwise not hear about.

Florida Key lime pie mystery novel
Here’s a good mystery novel to inspire your travel and tastebuds in Florida.
Up the keys ecotour in Florida Keys
Key deer are native to the Florida Keys

Up The Keys Eco Tour

In general, visitors tend to stay in the Key West area and take a day trip to explore the other Florida Keys. If you want to check out some of the hidden gems along the way and stay away from the tourist traps, book a private eco tour with Kim Stamps from Up The Keys. Kim knows exactly where the local wildlife (look for key deer, turtles and cormorants) hang out. Wildlife refuges, lighthouses, historic neighborhoods and mangroves are a few spots you will stop at along the Keys, while also learning about the railroad and trading history of the Conch Republic.

Florida Keys have manmade white sandy beaches
Enjoy the white sand beaches at Isla Bella Beach Resort

Isla Bella Beach Resort

End your Florida Keys vacation relaxing at the white sand beaches of Isla Bella, a 24-acre lush Mediterranean style resort located in the middle keys in Marathon, Florida. The five star destination resort boasts 5 swimming pools, spa and fitness center, on-site water sports, fishing pier, marina and stunning Atlantic Ocean views from all 199 one to five-bedroom rooms and suites. Sit under the cool shade of coconut trees, resting your feet in sand, while watching the evening sunset.

If you do feel like venturing out of the property, visit the nearby Turtle Hospital in Marathon where you can learn about rescue and restoration.

Historic streets of Key West are great for walking
Look around the historic homes in Key West

Play It Safe

Finally, the Florida Keys and Key West reopened to visitors June 1, 2020 with county ordinance requiring that facial coverings must be worn by visitors and residents while in business establishments and other public settings where there is a roof overhead. Keys officials’ messaging also encourages visitors to take personal health responsibility and embrace protective measures such as social distancing and frequent handwashing.

Key West is the southernmost point in the continental USA
Beat the crowds and go early in the morning to the southernmost point landmark.

Isla Bella Beach Resort and Oceans Edge Key West adapted a new “Safeguarding Our Guests” strategy meticulously crafted to adapt and implement precautionary hygiene protocols directed by the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations, American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) “Safe Stay” initiatives, along with State, Federal and local guidelines to ensure that a clean, safe and healthy environment is provided for guests and staff. The Keys visitor website at fla-keys.com offers comprehensive COVID-19 guidelines for visitors planning a vacation.

11 Fun Things To Do in Myrtle Beach

“Are you going to play a lot of mini golf?” smirked my boyfriend, as I told him about my planned trip to Myrtle Beach, sponsored by the tourism board.

And hey, it’s not a bad question. Actually, Myrtle Beach is known as the “Miniature Golf Capital of the World,” with over 50 courses to choose from.

But that’s not what I would be focusing on for my trip. Instead, my goal was to go beyond the guidebook to discover Myrtle Beach activities beyond the green. And while I did spend time around the “Grand Strand” — Myrtle Beach’s waterfront strip showcasing 60+ miles of beaches — I added other atypical experiences to my itinerary.

Stay: North Beach Plantation

This luxury resort sits on the Atlantic Ocean in North Myrtle Beach. Onsite you’ll find pretty much everything you could need: beach access, free Wi-Fi, restaurants, a 2.5-acre waterpark, multiple indoor and outdoor pools, a hot tub, a fitness center and incredible spa (tip: get the Fijian Ritual!) and more.

myrtle beach

Along with two towers full of various sized condos, they have standalone villas and vacation rentals with shops dotting the blocks, giving it a suburban neighborhood feel. It’s large, and there’s a free shuttle that can help you get around if needed.

Tip: Spring for the waterfront views, especially as even the one-bedroom condos have balconies. They’re actually pretty budget-friendly for what you get, especially if you go in September (about $200 or less per night!).

Airbnb also offers a slew of great Myrtle Beach options! Click here to snag $40 off your first Airbnb stay!

So what kinds of Myrtle Beach activities exist beyond mini golf? Check out the video above. Then, scroll down to read my trip highlights (so you can add them to your itinerary, too!).

1. Savor Local Wine Culture

While typically vineyards in the US grow grapes like chardonnay, merlot and pinot grigio, in South Carolina there’s only one variety that flourishes: the muscadine. There are over 300 varieties of muscadine, many of which you can try at La Belle Amie Vineyard in Myrtle Beach.

I never expected Myrtle Beach to have a vineyard and winery. A tasting room maybe, but actual rows of grape vines next to olive bushes? I felt like I was in Italy.

Or France, as they also sell wine from their family vineyard in the South of France. You can read the full (and inspiring) story of how that partnership came to be here.

Vicki Weigle, La Belle Amie Vineyard’s owner, believes you only need to know two things about wine: if you like it or if you don’t. This fun philosophy can be felt throughout the property, including Wine Wednesday’s live outdoor music and the creative wines with fun names offered at the tasting bar. How about a glass of “What Was I Thinking?” or an “Ice Queen” ice wine made without freezing the grapes?

By the way, it’s just $5 for six tastings + surprises like mulled wine and wine slushies. Yum!

2. Learn A New Water Sport

There are so many water sports to choose from in Myrtle Beach! Two on my itinerary were new to me: wakeboarding and surfing.

While inclement weather cancelled the wakeboarding, I did visit Shark Wake Park to see what the course looked like. It’s a controlled pool with ramps if you’re up for doing tricks. Cables pull you as you try to stand on what looks like a snowboard. Sitting back and watching the advanced wakeboarders is also an option.

I did get to try surfing near Springmade Pier at the softest beach I’ve ever stepped on with Jack’s Surf Lessons.

Wow, was surfing hard! The waves were pretty high — about three feet — so it definitely presented a fun and exciting challenge for a newbie.

Actually, here’s me (below) standing for 0.3 seconds until I came crashing down so hard I lost my GoPro to the Atlantic Ocean despite it being on a headstrap tied into my hair. I just hope a school of fish has found it and is putting it to good use. Sigh.

myrtle beach

Despite the technical issues, I had a lot of fun trying something new. Plus, Jack is such a cool, laid-back dude he had the group laughing the whole time.

Just leave the GoPro on the beach unless it’s really affixed.

3. Indulge In Some Boozy Brunch

You know those beautiful wood accented spaces with high ceilings and lots of natural light flowing in? And maybe a case of colorful macarons beckoning you to stay a while? That’s Croissants Bistro & Bakery.

And while they do make some incredible baked goods (salted caramel brownie, anyone?), you also won’t want to miss their savory fare. Of course, shrimp and grits is a local favorite, especially as these grits are laced with pimento cheese. Make it a boozy brunch by adding on a mimosa or Bloody Mary with your choice of vodka!

4. Get High (Literally)

Myrtle Beach’s boardwalk stretches for 1.2 miles along the waterfront, showcasing quirky restaurants (some jokingly claiming to be the “8th Wonder of the World”), arcades, various Ripley’s Believe It Or Not attractions, rides and more.

While a walk down this wooden stretch is a must on a list of Myrtle Beach activities, another way to take it all in is with a ride on the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel.

The giant enclosed Ferris wheel takes you 200 feet high for an aerial perspective of the beach and boardwalk.

While I rode the SkyWheel during the day, I was told by many locals it’s actually best at night when it’s all lit up.

Tickets are $14 per person.

5. Stretch It Out (On The Beach)

A true highlight of my trip was doing a morning yoga class on the beach with Dawn Yager, owner of Shanti Yoga. I love yoga anywhere, anytime; but there’s something truly therapeutic about going through Sun Salutations while actually being washed in the sun’s loving glow.

myrtle beach

I must have felt inspired, because I held Crow Pose for my longest time ever! Just a few simple shifts like moving my gaze beyond my hands and digging my fingers into the ground helped so much.

Tip: If you’re visiting during September, Shanti Yoga offers discounts on classes at their Myrtle Beach studio for National Yoga Month.

6. Photograph The Gorgeous Live Oaks

You can see Live Oaks draped in Spanish Moss all over Myrtle Beach; however, in historic Conway — a city founded in 1732 located about 25 minutes from the coast — you can take a tour of them.

They’re so whimsical; the gnarled branches adding a gothic beauty to the area. In Myrtle Beach they’re prevalent and protected. You can wander the very walkable neighborhood yourself using the free Historic Trail guide (pick it up free at the Conway Visitor Center). Additionally, here is a link to a self-guided Conway tour using a map and/or QR codes.

Tip: After seeing the gorgeous trees, take a walk along the Waccamaw River on the 1.5-mile River Walk.

7. Savor The Local Craft Beer

While Myrtle Beach isn’t a craft beer hub, it does have some quality beer offerings. Hop heads can check out New South Brewing, featuring a large tasting room with plenty of space to chill with some board games and a nut brown ale, or talk suds with the brewmasters.

While they don’t have flights, 6-ounce pours are only $3. Also, there are tastings included when you book a tour in advance ($7).

If you try one beer only, make it their famous “White Ale.” The brew is a take on a classic Belgian wheat ale, with notes of coriander and citrus.

They’re also known for their canned beers; in fact, their slogan is “The beer from here. Hand crafted. Hand canned. Hands on.” You can purchase a 6-pack to-go ($9) or create a mixed case ($30).

Tip: The local grocery chain, Lowes Foods, features a Beer Den with craft beers on tap and a growler program!

8. Wander Brookgreen Gardens

I love wandering without a plan, especially when that wandering involves being immersed in lovely live oaks, inspiring sculptures and gorgeous gardens. Brookgreen Gardens is that place, a sculpture garden (the country’s largest) and wildlife preserve featuring thousands of acres of nature.

Take a pontoon ride on the onsite creek to see alligators and osprey while learning about the property’s rice farming heritage (cultivated by past African and Indian slaves). Made up of four former plantations, one pre-Brookgreen Gardens homestead was actually home to Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia.

While the tour was interesting, my favorite part of the visit was just wandering the gardens without a plan, taking moments to regroup and admire Mother Nature.

9. Bird Watch In Huntington Beach State Park

Nearby is another natural beauty: Huntington Beach State Park. The two main attractions in this 2500-acre park are the beach and the trails, including a nature walk and a boardwalk over the marsh.

myrtle beach

Oh, the Marsh Boardwalk! One of the most peaceful places I’ve ever seen and one of my favorite Myrtle Beach activities. I spotted so many birds — egrets, herons, cormorants — as well as a variety of crabs dancing in the mud. I stood in silence and awe for a good 30 minutes just taking it all in.

Here’s a printable birding checklist for the park if you want to create a fun challenge for yourself! According to the park, a full day of bird watching could very well get you 100 different species sightings.

10. Try Hook-To-Plate At Wicked Tuna

You’ve probably heard of farm-to-table; but what about hook-to-plate?

Murrells Inlet is where many locals — especially local restaurants — claim the freshest seafood in South Carolina comes from. At The Wicked Tuna they make use of their uber fresh location, employing their own fleet of fishing boats to head out each day and catch what’s served on your plate.

Fresh catch, lobster tails and sushi rolls are all part of the fun, typically with a twist. While the pan-seared scallops might be dressed in a cauliflower puree and tamarind brown butter, a soft shell crab might be topped with cilantro oil and sweet potato flakes.

I was obsessed with my “Dragon Egg” appetizer: a halvedavocado filled with cream cheese, smoked salmon, blue crab, king crab and spicy crab and gowned in tempura sweet potato, spicy mayo and sweet glaze. Paired with my wasabi- and basil-laced “Wicked Lemonade” (pictured above), my taste buds were certainly dancing.

Everything was superb, complimented by a prime waterfront view from the patio!

11. Indulge Your Inner Carnivore

The name River City Cafe may sound simple; but actually, this meat-focused eatery has a dizzying list of delicious burgers you must try.

While I was tempted to try their Short Rib Cheeseburger featuring short rib meat mixed with prime beef, I had to savor the “Kitchen Sink Burger.” This enormous sandwich showcases two patties topped with chili, hickory-smoked bacon, grilled onions, spicy jalapeños, mushrooms, Swiss and cheddar cheeses, lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard and mayo. And that’s not all. That setup is then placed neatly (yea right) between two grilled cheeses, accompanied by fries, onion rings and coleslaw.

Luckily this was a trip full of active Myrtle Beach activities!

Turkey, chicken and veggie burgers are also available for those seeking a healthier meal.

What are your favorite Myrtle Beach activities beyond golf? Have a travel question? Please share in the comments below!

~ By New York city based award-winning travel blogger, Jessica Festa. Find her at Jessie on a JourneyFacebookTwitterGoogle+ and Pinterest. This post originally appeared on her blog

12 Days of Christmas – Pear Custard Pie

Hear’s another recipe to keep your Christmas kitchen aroma!

Pear Custard Pie

Streusel

  • 1/2 cup Original Bisquick® mix
  • 1/4 cup old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon butter or margarine, softened

Pie

  • 1/2 cup Original Bisquick® mix
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 medium fresh pears, peeled, sliced (about 3 cups)

pear custard pie

HEAT oven to 350°F. Spray 9-inch glass pie plate with cooking spray. In small bowl, stir 1/2 cup Bisquick mix, the oats, brown sugar and nutmeg. Cut in 1 tablespoon butter, using pastry blender (or pulling 2 table knives through ingredients in opposite directions), until crumbly. Set aside.

In small bowl, STIR 1/2 cup Bisquick mix, the oats, brown sugar and nutmeg. Cut in 1 tablespoon butter, using pastry blender (or puling 2 table knives though ingredients in opposite directions), until crumbly. Set aside.

In medium bowl, STIR all pie ingredients except pears with wire whisk or fork until blended. Pour into pie plate. Arrange pears evenly over top.

BAKE 25 minutes. Sprinkle streusel over pie. Bake 12 to 15 minutes longer or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on cooling rack 30 minutes. Serve warm. Store in refrigerator.

~ Courtesy of Janice Leary at St Frances Inn, Florida. 

12 Days of Christmas – Turtle Dove Cheesecake

TURTLE DOVE CHEESECAKE

  • 24 OREO Cookies, finely crushed (about 2 cups)
  • 6   Tbsp.  Butter or margarine, melted
  • 1   Pkg.  (14 oz.)  Caramels
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup chopped Pecans
  • 3 Pkg.  (8 oz. each)Cream Cheese, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1   Tbsp.  Vanilla
  • 3 eggs
  • 2oz.  Dove Chocolate

Turtle Dove CheesecakeHEAT oven to 325°F.

MIX crumbs and butter; press onto bottom and 2 inches up side of 9-inch spring form pan.

MICROWAVE caramels and milk in small microwaveable bowl on HIGH 3 min. or until caramels are completely melted, stirring after each minute. Stir in nuts; pour half into crust. Refrigerate 10 min. Refrigerate remaining caramel mixture for later use.

BEAT cream cheese, sugar and vanilla in large bowl with mixer until blended. Add eggs, 1 at a time, mixing on low speed after each just until blended. Pour over caramel layer in crust.

BAKE 1 hour 5 min. to 1 hour 10 min. or until center is almost set. Run knife around rim of pan to loosen cake; cool before removing rim. Refrigerate 4 hours.

MICROWAVE reserved caramel mixture 1 min.; stir. Pour over cheesecake. Melt chocolate as directed on package; drizzle over cheesecake.

~ Courtesy of Janice Leary at St Frances Inn bed and breakfast, St Augustine, Florida. 

Florida’s village by the sea

I discovered Delray Beach totally by accident (and what a pleasant one it was!). My husband and I were recently won a trip to Hollywood, Florida on The Marriage Ref. Up until now the only Hollywood I knew of was in CaliforniaJ. After some investigation, I found out it’s a Miami suburb resort town where people getaway for the weekend to play golf, relax on the back or pamper themselves at the spa. Works for me!

While looking for things to do near Hollywood, I discovered Palm Beach County. Delray Beach is located 20 miles south of Palm Beach, 28 miles north of Ft. Lauderdale and 50 miles north of Miami.  It is by far, my favorite small town in all of South Florida! No wonder Delray Beach was named All-American City in 1993 and in 2001, the only city in Florida to receive the award twice. (Only 10 communities in the U.S. receive this award each year.)

With a population of 60,000 (more than that of the entire country of Iceland), there is a very strong community feeling in Delray. Being greeted by familiar faces at restaurants and shops is commonplace. People who have live here once come back to stay for good. The surprising fact is that the average age of the citizens in Delray use to be 74 in the 1980’s & is closer to 40 now. Younger people are deciding to bring up their families in this small, organized and unique town which boasts numerous beaches, hotels, restaurants, spas, fitness centers and art galleries. Travel Holiday magazine voted Delray’s Beaches as the top public beaches in the southeastern United States for swimming and one of the top 35 beaches in the entire country!

So what makes Delray so special? The Downtown Development Authority has taken upon to put Delray on the map. They keep coming up with new and creative ways to attract visitors and entertain residents.  The key word is “grand”.

The marketing promotion is themed differently each month in Delray and there are merchant specials, activities, promotions and events based on the theme. An example, March is Savor the Flavor month where five blocks of East Atlantic Avenue are closed off for Florida’s largest dining table at Savor the Avenue serving 1000 guests. Think about Thanksgiving times 100! The restaurants create their menu, serve the food at their location on the avenue. It is yet another of Delray’s efforts to bring the community closer together.

Tastemakers of Delray Beach is a 5 hour long restaurant crawl held every August. For only $25, foodies can sample food and wine at 24 downtown Delray Beach restaurants, each representing a different country from around the world.

In December, Delray puts up a 100 foot tall Christmas tree. Made up of metal arms and decorates with 15,000+ LED lights, elves, historic scenes and a toy train, the tree is yet another example of how the community comes together every holiday season. There are also festivities with Santa arriving by chopper, live concerts, and kid’s activities.

I guarantee a trip to Delray Beach will have you coming back for more. What I like most about this town is that it had a small town charm, friendly people and easy accessibility, yet there is so much to do and see that you will never have a dull moment.  This Florida’s Village by the Sea or the Hamptons of the South will not disappoint you, so make sure you plan a trip there next time you are in South Florida.

(Photos courtesy of the Delray Beach Downtown Development Authority.)