Stock Is­land, Key West

Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Easy Trips -

Friends, cou­ples, solo travel

Lo­cal hang­outs, smooth rum, fresh fish

Beach­comb­ing, wildlife watch­ing, no chain ho­tels or re­tail stores Stock Is­land, just across the bridge from the Key West main­land, of­fers a glimpse into what life was like in Key West a few decades ago, with chick­ens roam­ing free across gravel roads, and un­crowded, in­ter­est­ing lo­cal hang­outs to ex­plore.

This neigh­bor­hood is home to COAST (bot­tom left; coast­pro­jects.com), an eclec­tic wa­ter­sport re­pair shop/mu­sic venue/cloth­ing bou­tique/boat­builder that em­bod­ies the in­de­pen­dent and cre­ative spirit of the Florida Keys.

For seafood so fresh you can watch it come off the boat, try Hog­fish Bar & Grill (top photo at left; hog­fish­bar.com), an ope­nair, wa­ter­side restau­rant at the edge of the is­land. It serves up the epony­mous lo­cal fa­vorite – a mild, flaky fish – in a myr­iad of prepa­ra­tions, from ce­viche to hog­fish tacos. Lo­cated about an hour from the Fort My­ers air­port, south of Tampa, these is­lands of­fer an eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tion for an idyl­lic is­land get­away.

Com­mer­cial­iza­tion is se­verely re­stricted on Sani­bel (pic­tured) and Cap­tiva, so there are lots of in­de­pen­dent restau­rants and ac­com­mo­da­tions to choose from, en­hanc­ing the feel­ing of be­ing in a quiet, far-flung cor­ner of the Caribbean.

Sani­bel Is­land's unique ge­og­ra­phy, ori­ented east­west against the main­land in­stead of the usual northsouth, makes it into a kind of scoop for the tides, re­sult­ing in Sani­bel and Cap­tiva hav­ing some of the best beach­comb­ing in the world. Take your trip all the way off the beaten path and stay at one of the Stock Is­land Ma­rina’s boa­tels ( stock­island­ma­rina .com), one bed/one bath house­boats that keep your is­land dreams afloat.

Back on the main is­land, skip the crowds on Du­val Street and head over to the First Le­gal Rum Dis­tillery ( key­west­le­gal­rum .com) for a cock­tail and a brief his­tory of rum run­ning in the Keys. The business was started by a lo­cal chef, and the rum bar­rels are salt-cured in the ocean to im­part a unique fla­vor in the rum, in­clud­ing the tart and de­li­cious key lime va­ri­ety, dis­tilled with lo­cally sourced fruit. Smath­ers Beach of­fers the best sandy, trop­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence on the is­land, which is bet­ter known for its su­perb div­ing. The Bai­ley-Matthews Na­tional Shell Mu­seum

( shell­mu­seum.org), part of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing look at the bi­o­log­i­cal and cul­tural im­pact that shells have in our world.

A great day trip from the is­lands is an ex­cur­sion even far­ther afield to Cayo Costa and sur­round­ing bar­rier is­lands. Cayo Costa is Florida’s least vis­ited state park, and there is a stark beauty to its sparsely in­hab­ited shores. Overnight camp­ing trips can be ar­ranged. Cap­tiva Cruises ( cap­ti­vacruises.com) of­fers a range of ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing trips to Cayo Costa, a sun­set sail and a wildlife-watch­ing cruise.

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