Stock Island, Key West
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.