I had a friend who was disappointed in the Florida Keys. He thought the drive down the Overseas Highway passed too many tacky commercial establishments spoiling the natural beauty.
The Keys are an acquired taste, like beer.
Fortunately (or not), I’ve acquired a taste for both, and one of the things I love about the Keys is where authentic tackiness meets postcard views. And that is at the tiki bar.
Elsewhere, tiki bars hearken back to the 1950s romanticized view of Polynesian culture — carved wooden masks, hula-girl lamps, that sort of thing.
In the Keys, it’s more of a chickee-bar or cabana-bar culture and it’s all about being outdoors and overlooking the water, particularly at sunset.
Keys tiki bars are some of the best places to eat fresh fish and fried anything. They are usually family friendly, because kids at an outdoor table can wiggle and make noise. And they are the epitome of the Keys attitude — sit back, relax, be entertained by fish snapping up breadcrumbs or the passing clouds.
If a Keys vacation were a college major, Tiki Bar 101 would be a required course.
Here are a few classic Keys tiki bars that will help fulfill your requirements:
Holiday Isle Tiki Bar, MM 84, Oceanside, Islamorada
On your way into the Keys, it’s always been a ritual to stop at the funky Holiday Isle Tiki Bar in Islamorada for a piña colada or its World Famous Rum Runner. In fact, Holiday Isle lays claim to inventing the rum runner — back in the ‘70s by a bartender known as Tiki John.
Of course, Holiday Isle lays claim to a lot of things, including Kokomo, the fictional paradise popularized by the Beach Boys.
Back in the day, this bar would get so crowded, you had to park along the swale on the other side of U.S. 1, then walk across. But the crossing was dangerous, and people would get hurt, so they fenced off a sandy parking lot and offered a free shuttle service to get visitors safely across.
Today, there is more parking available inside the Holiday Isle complex, an expansive property that includes multiple motel and a patchwork of snack bars, raw bars, pool bars, beach bars and a new Shula’s Burger. You can rent jet skis on the beach, and there’s a marina next door packed with fishing charters.
Off the beach, there’s a long sandbar where local boaters gather en masse on weekends, providing a real view of Keys living for visitors who stop for a cocktail. And the beautiful people congregate around the motel pool near the tiki bar.
While it doesn’t quite seem to have the old Florida charm it once had, this open-air bar is still a happening place with a magnificent view of Whale Harbor, the sandbar and the ocean. Live music of the funky island genre still packs ‘em in on weekends, and there’s plenty of room to play.
A cherished stop for Keys newbies, the memories won’t escape you. Fact is, you really haven’t experienced the Keys unless you stop for a rum runner at Holiday Isle.
Reviews on Yelp! Are generally positive, but everyone agrees that Holiday Isle is a classic stop in the Keys.
A nearby attraction is the Theater of the Sea, where you see dolphins and sea lions perform, and across Whale Harbor, on the other side of the bridge, is one of my favorite restaurants, the Whale Harbor Inn’s Seafood Buffet ($29.95 for all you can eat, and there’s a lot of it.)
Lorelei Cabana Bar and Restaurant, MM 82 Bayside, Islamorada
For years, the big mermaid sign on US 1 at Mile Marker 82 in Islamorada, has said: Relax, you’re finally in the Keys. Beyond the parking lots, Lorelei’s decks, chickee huts, palm trees and sandy waterfront create an expansive and outstanding place to watch the sunset. Lorelei’s is situated on a lovely mangrove-rimmed bay that is pretty to gaze upon any time of day.
On a hot but breezy summer day, it was easy to get a table at water’s edge and watch the fish battling over bread crusts kids threw in the water as skinny needle fish darted by. An excellent fish dip and a $2.50 draft of Key West Sunset Ale completed the experience.
Lorelei’s is located in a marina that contains an item that belongs in the Florida Funky Hall of Fame — a pink limousine converted into a boat, the famous Nautilimo. It’s parked next door to a mock pirate ship.
Lorelei’s is jammed at sunset in season, but off season, I felt like I had discovered the place.
Chiki Tiki Bar and Grille at Burdines Waterfront,1200 Oceanview Ave, End of 15th Street, Marathon
Unlike Lorelei’s, you have to know about Burdines to go there. To find it, you turn east on 15th Street in Marathon, wind past an old trailer park and stacks of lobster traps, and arrive in a large working marina in a protected harbor. The Chiki Tiki is up a flight of stairs, giving you an excellent vantage point and a superior breeze. Around you are fishing boats, yachts and beat-up live-aboards. In the distance is the broken drawbridge to Boot Key. Across the water, Boot Key is all undeveloped mangroves, populated by the occasional wading bird.
On our visit, just before the start of lobster season, we watched as boat after boat stacked high with lobster traps headed out to sea — a happy sign that this paradise isn’t only about tourism.
Keys restaurants can be expensive, but Burdines is popular for its moderate prices and casual atmosphere — the view and wall to wall license plates comprise the decor. Our fresh dolphin sandwich ($7.95) and Tower of Fries were excellent. Other visitors recommend the burgers ($6.25).
Alabama Jacks,58000 Card Sound Road, Homestead
Card Sound Road is a toll-road through the mangrove swamps where Miami-Dade County meets Monroe County. It’s a wild and remote location in the middle of crocodile habitat, 15 minutes north of Key Largo. Alabama Jacks is a popular place to stop on a drive down to the Keys to help acquire that laid-back attitude. It’s also a destination for motorcyclists, who stop for conch fritters, sweet potato fries and live country music on weekends. I’ve written a separate post all about Alabama Jacks, here.
Sunset Grille and Raw Bar, MM 47.7 Knights Key Blvd., Marathon
Many tiki bars have great sunset views, but it’s hard to beat what you get from Sunset Grille: a wide expanse of water and the sun going down behind the elegant and iconic Seven Mile Bridge.
With its outstanding location, the Sunset can’t help being a touristy stop. The afternoon we were there, everybody was taking pictures and there’s a wall of souvenir T-shirts for sale. But it offers good sandwiches, a beautiful setting and the essential tiki bar experience. And at lunch, at least, prices are reasonable.
Sunset Grill gets and handles crowds. There’s a big bar and restaurant under a tall chickee structure with great views. A few steps below, there’s a pool with a bar and more seating overlooking the water and bridge.
Sunset Grille is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The lunch menu is well-priced – my terrific Cheeseburger in Paradise was $7.99 and the jerk mahi mahi sandwich was $8.99. There are many sandwiches and salads under $10 at lunch. Dinner is pricier with fresh seafood entries from $17 to $29.
The Sunset Grille gives tourists the whole tropical fantasy drink experience with special $19.95 drinks for two, such as the Titanic, which comes in a 48-ounce fish bowl, and $10 mojitos and other frosty tropical choices in souvenir mugs.
My take: You can’t beat the location and view. Enjoy breakfast or lunch, bring the kids for a swim or come for happy hour. This isn’t where to expect your four-star fine dining experience.
Hogfish Bar & Grill
6810 Front Street
This hard-to-find tiki bar is a favorite with locals, both for its funky, friendly vibe and its fresh, reasonably priced seafood.
With a waterfront setting, a big chickee hut and open-air dining, Hogfish is casual and unpretentious; a t-shirt and flip-flops place with seating at long picnic tables. Those sitting dockside get a kick out of feeding the fish. (This is the best use of shrimp tails you’ll ever find.) On weekends, there is live music (and it can get loud.)
Hogfish is famous for two specialties – fresh Key West pink shrimp and a sandwich called the Killer. Neither disappointed. It also offers a good variety of craft beers.
What did we miss?
Of course, I haven’t visited every tiki bar in the Keys: Thanks goodness, there are places still to be discovered. Did I miss your favorite spot? If so, please leave a comment below.
Other nearby things to do in the Florida Keys:
- Print out this mile marker guide to enhance your next road trip to the Florida Keys.
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor
- Biking or walking the Old Seven Mile Bridge
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Indian Key: Kayak into history
- Long Key: Beach camping in the Keys
- Seeing Keys deer
- Cabins, off-the-beaten-track, make a good kayaking base