When you don’t have time for days of exploring, you can still get a taste of the Florida Keys with one night at the very first lodging available inside Monroe County – Gilbert’s Resort.
Located on Blackwater Sound on US 1 two miles before you reach Key Largo, Gilbert’s offers a Keys experience less than two hours from Fort Lauderdale or an hour from Miami.
For a recent visit, we paired a night at Gilbert’s with a day of kayaking on a popular Florida Keys kayak route leaving from the Garden Cove launch, just two miles from Gilbert’s.
Our mini-vacation involved a stop at Everglades National Park, a gorgeous Florida Keys sunset from Gilbert’s (which is a great place for sunset watching), a delicious fresh fish dinner at nearby Blackwater Siren and a morning of kayaking to a picturesque shipwreck. All these memorable Keys experiences (and a few more, actually) fit into an unrushed 36 hours, including the roundtrip drive from Fort Lauderdale.
Gilbert’s Resort: The 1950s motel updated
Gilbert’s has been here, on an island with its own exit off of US 1, since the 1950s. It still has a 1950s motel layout, but the rooms were completely remodeled two years ago with stylish modern bathrooms and attractive stone tile floors.
The most remarkable thing, however, is original — the terrific waterfront view from the rooms. All the rooms have big windows overlooking Blackwater Sound and Jewfish Creek, which is also the Intracoastal Waterway. Each room has chairs on the walkway outside the room where you can sit and watch the passing parade of yachts. Our view included a picturesque two-masted schooner aground and slightly tilted. (It’s the Queen Anne’s Revenge II, a boat intended for sunset cruises that never managed to get them going.)
The big business at Gilbert’s is the tiki bar, however, where hundreds of people gather on the weekends including dozens who arrive by motorcycle.
They pick this spot for a good reason. It is surrounded by water, with a beautiful view west to the sunset, a small wading beach and a fringe of palm trees to frame every selfie. Live bands entertain during weekend afternoons and you can rent kayaks, SUPs and Jetskis.
Fortunately, the tiki bar and restaurant are separated from the motel rooms and the lively scene there dies down dramatically after the sun sets.
During shoulder or off-season, rates at Gilbert’s can be $110 to $120. High season makes it less of a bargain at $200 to $300 a night (not excessive for lodging in the Keys at peak times.)
Things that add to the value at Gilbert’s: A good breakfast is included and each adult guest gets a free drink ticket at the bar. There’s an attractive swimming pool (not available to tiki-bar visitors.)
Kayaking at Garden Cove: Visit a wrecked barge or paddle through mangrove forests
At the northern end of Key Largo there’s a free kayak launch site where Garden Cove Road meets the ocean. It’s located two miles from Gilbert’s, so it’s a perfect activity for this quick trip. If you don’t have a kayak, Florida Bay Outfitters (MM 104.5) runs kayak tours here.
From the Garden Cove launch, it’s a 1.3 mile paddle to one of the more intriguing kayaking destinations – a wrecked concrete barge that has enough marine life to be popular with snorkelers.
You’ll know the launch site by the barriers constructed to block boat trailers. You can fit your kayak between them and park right there. It’s a bit of a haul over a rocky beach to the water, so a wheeled kayak carrier is helpful, as are good shoes to handle the rocky terrain.
In addition to kayaking to the barge, you can paddle through twisting creeks, enveloped by mangrove forests in a world that seems wild and untouched. If you’re lucky, you encounter wildlife. On our trip, birds and marine life were scarce and the mangrove channels provided a pleasant but not exciting paddle.
I had found several recommended kayak trails through the mangroves, but I realized my best bet was to use my phone’s mapping app to guide us. We opted for narrower waterways that squiggled off into the mangroves. The larger North Sound Creek carries powerboat traffic, but we passed only a handful of boats.
The highlight of our day kayaking here, however, was paddling out to the wreck of the concrete-barge, which is in shallow open water just off the navigational channel. The barge protrudes several feet out of the water. (You can see it in Google satellite view and you’ll spot it when you get about halfway there.)
Paddling out to the wreck takes you over clear water rarely more than two or three feet deep. Wind and tides may make it tough going at times, but on the day we paddled, neither were a problem. Follow near the navigational channel and you’ll soon see the top of the wreck on the horizon.
Other things to do near the top of the Keys
- Fresh fish is pretty much an essential ingredient to a Keys visit. Gilbert’s does have a restaurant that serves a variety of seafood and other choices, but we opted to dine at restaurant directly across the waterway, Blackwater Siren, 107690 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, 305-780-7382.
This is a waterfront tiki bar, open to the breeze but protected by screens, on the other side of Jewfish Creek. Driving to Key Largo on US 1, you’d never know to stop here (it’s at the Yacht Club Drive exit), but thanks to Yelp and TripAdvisor, plenty of people have found it. We recommend both entrees we tried – the reuben mahi sandwich and a really exceptionally well prepared Mediterranean hogfish.
- Just up the road from the Garden Cove launch is a little-known park, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. Saved from becoming another condo, this park preserves one of the largest tracts of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock in the United States. There are picnic tables and two short hikes — a two-mile nature trail and a one-mile loop. We’ve hiked here before and recommend you come prepared with bug spray.
- We drove a few miles south on the Overseas Highway to make quick stop at the free Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, where we always enjoy walking the boardwalk and admiring the avian patients and residents. The facility took a hit during Irma but is in good shape today.
- On our way south to Key Largo, we stopped to see how Everglades National Park looked after Hurricane Irma. It’s 20 minutes off the direct route to the Keys and the bonus is we always get a milkshake at Robert is Here. (I loved the strawberry passion fruit shake and admired the fruit stand’s even-more-impressive grounds. This year there is an improved enclosure for birds, a paving-stone plaza that eliminate the dusty/muddy ground around the animal yard and additional playground equipment. A stop here is a lot of fun and it’s free – until you succumb to one of those tropical fruits shakes. )
At Everglades National Park, we walked the Anhinga Trail, the most reliable place to see wildlife, but the high water level in mid-December meant there wasn’t much wildlife to see. When the Everglades dry out, birds and gators congregate together around the remaining water holes, and that’s when the Anhinga Trail is amazing. This winter, that probably won’t happen until January or possibly later. On our visit, we saw no wading birds and two or three alligators – a fraction of the usual.)
If you have more time in the Upper Keys
Our 36-hour visit provides just a sliver of a Keys experience. If I had more time, I’d make many stops listed on our popular Florida Keys Mile Marker Guide.
Here are other highlights in the Upper Keys:
Florida Keys trip-planning resources
Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere