Saturday, October 29, 2011

Best beaches in Key West featuring Fort Zach beach

Key West is not famous for its beaches but there is one exceptional beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park – which everyone calls Fort Zach beach.

Here’s all the essential information about beaches in Key West and about visiting Fort Zach and then lots of photos.

If I don’t like Fort Zach what are the other options?

The only other beach really is Smathers Beach which is 500 feet long and has lots of commercial water sports companies there.  It’s got nice sand and it’s fine if a bit boring.  It’s a 5/10 beach where Fort Zach is a 8/10 beach. 

After Fort Zach beach and Smathers Beach you've used up all your Key West beach options.  That's it.  Then you need to go out of Key West and up the Keys.  The best beach anywhere in the Keys is Bahia Honda which has won ‘best beach in the USA’ awards and is fantastic – a classic blue sea, sandy Caribbean beach. 
Bahia Honda beach is at mile marker 36.8 oceanside (that is, it’s 36 miles from Key West – about an hour’s drive.

So, now let's return to the best Key West beach: Zach Taylor beach.

How do I get there?
It’s fairly close to Duval and the main downtown area – just less than a mile.  It’s great to cycle there (10 mins from Duval), or walk (30 mins - hot and sweaty walk in the summer, but still rewarding if you are a walking kind of person) or drive.  There is a big car park just by the beach.

So while it’s not far from the centre of town it is away from all shops – there is only a small café at the beach.  So basically bring everything you’ll need as you can’t ‘pop’ to the supermarket!

Do I have to pay an entrance charge?
Yes, it’s a state park – the charge is from $4.50 for a car, $2.50 if walking.

Is the walk from town to the beach nice?
Yes it’s great.  I recommend you visit the Eco centre on the way (free) to learn about Keys sea life.  Some great exhibits there and pretty educational.
Also go to the Fort itself – see next.

So what about the Fort itself?
It’s a surprisingly impressive / big (i.e. at least 500 yards long, the whole park covers 87 acres) fort well worth visiting. And historic - building work started in 1845.  And there are lots of massive Civil War cannons.

It’ll only take 15 minutes to see the whole thing.  Once you have paid to get into the park, visiting the fort is free.

What’s the beach like?
Amazing Australian pines surrounding the park.  Beach runs for 500 metres. The sand can be more ‘pebble like’ and sharp up one end of the east-west beach (the east end), so that end is less busy as a result.  If you don’t like the rough sand go up the other end where it’s softer (ie more like sand!).

Does it get busy?
Yes, it’s the local’s favourite too so go during the week if you can.

Is there a café or restaurant?
There is a friendly café serving water, basic cooked food and snacks and ice cream etc.  Nothing fancy.

What do you recommend for food?
Come after lunch or bring your own picnic.  There are many tables, sheltered under the Australian pine tress, with BBQs too.

What is there to do at Fort Zach beach?
  • Walk to the Fort itself (5 minutes to the Fort from the beach)
  • Snorkel is good idea – when I was there a snorkeller saw a barracuda in the very shallow water very near the water line
  • Walk along the Australian pine wood and back (only takes 10 minutes but you see lovely views out to the reef and of Key West harbour).
  • Enjoy the sun, of course!
Can you see the sunset?
Yes, it’s a great place to see the sunset.

What are the facilities?
There is a decent toilet with running water, where you can change.
There are full height showers in 2 or 3 places dotted in the park.
There is a chair and towel hire service – for about $30 per day for the lot.

What’s the swimming like and the water.
It’s fine and loads of people are in the water.
The water is shallow for a bit and then gets deeper.  It’s absolutely NOT Caribbean ideal sand and blue water though – actually pebbles and sharp coral, which makes getting into the water a bit slow and painful, then seaweed.  
The water near the shore is really hot so you’ll need to go a bit out for a more refreshing temperature.

How good is it really?
It’s great, a really beautiful beach.  Lovely views out to the horizon of... nothing!  
If you are in Key West for longer than 3 days then it’s worth a visit for half a day or a few hours.  Definitely add a visit to the eco center and the fort itself as well as the beach, they are both on the way.

More tips
If you've visited Fort Zach beach or you are an experienced local then please leave a comment, below. Many thanks.

Hope you enjoy my photos - all taken by me in September 2011.

At the entrance to  Fort Zach park. 

Fort Zach park sign at entrance

Fort Zach directions - check out the Fort to the right as part of your visit to the beach.

Inside Fort Zach - looking towards the harbor.

From the ramparts of Fort Zach itself out to the reef.

The walls and moat of Fort Zach

Fabulous brickwork of Fort Zach.  Not sure how old these bricks are but the construction work started in 1845.

The cafe at Fort Zach beach and the food on offer.

A weekday at 5pm in September at Fort Zach beach - pretty quiet.  It's not always like this!

Fort Zach beach up one end can be a bit sharp and not soft sand.

The Australian pines at Fort Zach beach.

One third of Fort Zach beach.

Fort Zach beach - does what it says on the tin! - Fishing, Picnic and Sunset

Friday, October 28, 2011

Key West, Provincetown, Palm Springs - which resort is best and most beautiful?

In the battle of the resorts which of the big 3 wins? Key West vs. Provincetown vs. Palm Springs?

If you’ve not visited and want some help deciding, I’ve been to all three (I'm actually in Palm Springs as I write this post) and here I present my highly opinionated and very biased review of all three!

I suppose you think that because I am a Key West blogger, then Key West will win – but not necessarily.  Read on to find out!.....

Let’s do this by category and we’ll start with the weather.

It’s a vital consideration for a vacation and whilst all three are known as sunny locations the weather is very different between the three.  Basically, it totally comes down to when you are travelling.

Provincetown – it’s balmy and wonderful, and just perfectly warm from June to September.  Whilst Palm Springs and Key West can be brutally hot and / or humid in these months, Provincetown is perfect for these months.  However, even a month outside of that it can be chilly, wet and overcast in Ptown.

Key West – it’s the only one of the three which is tropical so it’s ‘big weather’ – more varied, more interesting and more rain!  The weather can be very challenging in the summer (June to end October) if you don’t like thunderstorms or humidity.  Having said that, during this time it’s quieter and cheaper and I had a great time when I visited in September 2011 – read my review on the weather then and how it impacted my vacation.
If you are visiting Key West in the great weather months (beginning of November through May) then the weather is fantastic and the nights warm.  At this time most visitors wear shorts day and night – which you cannot say of Palm Springs (at night).

And Palm Springs for weather.  It’s reliable in the months when the others are not – for example, when I visited in October 2011 the weather was cloudless, and at mid to high 80s with low humidity perfect for 5 whole days.  Key West had bad, rainy weather during this period. Yuck!

So, here’s the year broken down with the ideal place to visit:
June to mid Sept – Provincetown
Sept to November – Palm Springs
November to March – Key West
March to June – Palm Springs

I’ll make this a mega quick summary of the top attractions of each:

Provincetown – wandering the quaint streets and cute shops, art galleries, eating, watching the sea, whale watching from Provincetown harbour

Palm Springs – going up the Mount San Jacinto aerial tramway (or cable car, from altitude 2500ft to 8500ft in 12 minutes), drive around town seeing the modernist mansions, eating, playing golf

Key West
The clear winner by a long way of things to do in town.  You can easily keep occupied for a week without a car and without leaving the island.  Wandering the streets to see the houses and trees are a joy.  Lots of tourist stuff like –trolley tour, Hemingway house, light house, Key West art and history museum, aquarium.  The list goes on.

Then there’s Key West’s extensive bars and restaurants, and the gay/drag scene.  It’s been a lively place for visitors from out of town for over a hundred years.

This is an important points: The beauty for me is NOT needing a car for the whole week and so being able to walk everywhere (i.e. very relaxing).  Whilst you can walk Ptown, there’s not enough in town to keep you busy so you’ll need to drive at some point.  Evan more so for Palm Springs, you’ll definitely need a car.

Provincetown – the 100 miles of pristine beaches, coves and harbors down Cape Code.  Amazing.

Key West – Day trip to Dry Tortugas (island 2 hours away towards Cuba). All the attractions 100 miles up the pencil thin Florida Keys, including dolphin and turtle rescue centers, 7 mile bridge, and the best beach in the USA.  Amazing.

Palm Springs – the San Jacinto Wilderness alpine forest, all the high desert including Anza-Borrego desert state park and Joshua Tree national park (which is an hour away).  Amazing.

So they both have mighty natural backdrops – Ptown and Key West the expanse of the ever changing ocean; Palm Springs the expanse of the desert valley and the imposing mountains.  All with lots to do. So which is best?  

It’s a fight out between Ptown and Palm Springs I think but with Key West close behind.

With any three, there is easily enough to do to keep you occupied and busy for weeks, if you want to be busy that is!

This is where personal viewpoints and prejudices will really come into play.  Here we go.  I’ll try and sum up the vibe for me as a visitor (i.e. not a local):

Palm Springs: it’s known for retirement, golf and money.  And that’s pretty much what comes over to the visitor.  I came here after a week in San Diego and the contrast was amazing – there really are a lot of old people having fun here!

It’s a man made oasis in the desert.  So as a result it’s a little artificial, artificially perfect if you like because of its perfectly manicured streets and trees and grass.

It’s not a party town – it’s pretty quiet and restrained.

There are wide avenues and lots of palms and it’s all very spread out.  This is a car town (albeit with no traffic congestion) and so lacks a genuine centre like the other two.

Provincetown – is trendy, arty, summer town with an influx of partying youths in the summer months.  Its youth and art makes it feel younger than the other two.  Because it’s a walking town, with lots of locals that live local and walk around, it feels really friendly.  They claim to be the doggie capital of the US and I would not disagree.

Key West – is a party town.  

From fantasy fest to bikers, every week there is a unique event in town.  

There is masses of history – from pirates through the Cuban influence.  It’s a working harbour.  Because it’s a very small island and everything revolves around Duval it’s very very friendly and you really get a feel for the community – even as a first time tourist.  It’s the busiest evening and night life of the three resorts in terms of bars and restaurants and clubs – all year round.
The winner?  All depends on you!  (see below)

Ok then….
If weather is really really important to you and you don’t care for much else – go to Palm Springs as it’s the most reliable weather

If you want a cuter more village like feel with frequent trips to stunning beaches and cliffs, and you don’t want it too lively or crazy at night – go to Provincetown

If you want a busy, fun packed time and want a very busy bar scene, with a few beaches here and there,  then go to Key West.

Personally, I relax the most in Key West because of having no car.

So for me, yes, it’s Key West and then Ptown – because they are both a bit funky, younger, trendier, and a little flawed.  Palm Springs is too old and too perfect and too much of a clique.

I think Key West is friendliest.  The walking culture, the drinking culture and the small town layout make it feel more like a community.  People say hi and talk to you (a lot!).

If I could I’d visit them all every year I’d do this (these are the best months to visit each):
February  - Key West
Late August or early September – Provincetown
Late October or early November – Palm Springs

What do you think?  Leave me a comment and give your view.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Key West expert's quiz

Fancy you know your way around Key West?

Ok, well here's a Key West quiz.

It's based on the signs of Key West.

What cafe in Key West is this?
Answers will be posted here in the next few days.
What shop is this the sign from?

Easy one - what shop does this sign belong to?

Tricky one - what beach in Key West is this?

What house is this?
And the final question - as you drive back up the Keys to Miami, what number of miles does the final mile marker by highway 1 read?

Answers soon....

How did you do?

Top 4 pictures from my September 2011 vacation

Here are my favorite pictures (all taken by me) of my Key West vacation in September 2011.  For the first time ever, I visited Key West alone.  I had a blast - Key West is so friendly.

Here's some of my best....

For more pictures of Key West go to my Key West Flickr:

where you'll find only pictures of Key West and the Florida keys. (and only taken by me)

Yes I do go on vacation other places than Key West....

Here's the proof I vacation elsewhere to Key West.  I took an October trip to San Diego and also Palm Springs - a comparison of Key West vs Palm Springs will follow in another post coming soon.

For now, some San Diego pictures that bear a (fleeting) resemblance to Key West!....

San Diego Maritime Museum ship Star of India vs Key West Bight schooner Western Union

This is San Diego's Mission Beach Crystal Pier vs Key West's White Street pier. (ps this was a thick coastal fog which lasted  4 days and brought the temperatures down to the 60s - don't get that in Key West!!!)

This is Old Town San Diego's Old Town Mexican Cafe vs Key West's Duval Street Old Town Mexican restaurant.

Battle of the Best Beaches: This is San Diego's Coronado Beach vs Key West's Fort Zach beach (ok, not very similar!!)