Last updated on June 5th, 2021 at 03:22 pm
I’ve been a frequent visitor to Key Largo, Islamorada and Key West for more than 30 years, but until I visited the Florida Keys in a sailboat, Marathon was a place to drive through as quickly as possible before crossing the Seven-Mile Bridge and sliding into whatever fun awaited in Key West.
Marathon is the third most-populated community in the Keys, but it doesn’t look like much from the road. A few low strips of shops, Publix, Walgreens, Home Depot, a lot of concrete block.
What you cannot see from U.S. 1 is the beating heart of Marathon and the Keys: a thriving marine community centered around Boot Key Harbor, where the city manages 226 permanently attached moorings. At $22 per night, you can’t beat the price for a safe place to tie up, get a hot shower, receive mail and do laundry, as we have done on several visits in our Catalina sailboat, Sonas.
Boaters wishing to rent a dock have plenty of other places to choose from, including the members-only Marathon Yacht Club and slightly upscale Faro Blanco Resort on the bayside, the Marathon Marina at the entrance to Boot Key Harbor, and Skipjack Marina, tucked into the northeastern end of the harbor past the mooring field.
Together, marinas in the 10-mile stretch of Marathon have nearly 1,200 wet slips for permanent and transient boaters. Additionally, there are dozens of acceptable places around Marathon for boats to drop anchor for free. Marine businesses abound. Boaters connect and find services using a “radio” program on VHF Channel 68 that begins at 9 a.m. daily.
The protected harbor at Boot Key is an ideal jumping-off point for boaters wishing to sail to the Bahamas, Cuba or into the Caribbean, and many do just that, staying in Marathon until the wind looks right to cross the Florida Straits and Gulf Stream. It’s a perfect stop to and from Key West, by boat or by car. It’s possible to take a day trip to Key West by bus from Marathon. The two-hour bus ride on the Lower Keys Shuttle is only $4 each way.
Anglers also find much to love about Marathon: Billfish and tuna run offshore in winter; tarpon gather around bridges and docks in spring, and dolphin fish (more commonly known by their Pacific name, mahi-mahi) bite in summer. Florida Bay off Marathon is the world’s largest stone crab fishery, and Florida spiny lobster hide in the rocks offshore.
Because it hosts so many residents and visitors in love with the sea, Marathon’s attractions are suitably maritime: a sea turtle hospital, a dolphin research center, a beach with a view of Sombrero Key lighthouse, a ferry to Pigeon Key where builders of the overseas railroad to Key West once lived, kayaking trails, deep-sea fishing trips, and several restaurants boasting the fresh local catch, and a thriving local music scene with playlists heavy on Jimmy Buffett and other seafaring folk-rockers.
Even if you aren’t visiting Marathon by boat, it’s worth a stop to soak up the “real” Keys, where boaters and anglers live and play.
Things to do in Marathon
An easy walk from the city marina, the Turtle Hospital tour is more educational than fun. The mission is to rescue, treat and return injured sea turtles to the sea. Be warned: Some sea turtle illnesses are not pretty. Green turtles are susceptible to fibropapilloma, a benign but frightfully unsightly tumor. The veterinarians at the hospital surgically remove and treat these tumors, but there is no cure or vaccine for the virus that causes this disease. Turtles that have been hit by boats or entangled in fishing line are often permanently disabled and disfigured. The hospital also treats turtles whose digestive systems have been impacted by human trash. And, for a happier story, they also rescue and release hundreds of cold-stunned turtles each winter. Reservations are encouraged. Admission: $17 adults, $13 ages 4-12, under 4 free. [2396 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050] Read more about the Turtle Hospital.
Just a short walk from the city marina on the bayside is this 63-acre park, the largest parcel owned by the Florida Keys Land Trust. This is an ecological treasure, a Keys hardwood hammock, where you can take a hike, launch a kayak, look for wildlife including key deer, sea birds and butterflies, watch the sunset, or learn a little Florida history from the volunteers who run the tram and lead tours. Many of the volunteers live on boats nearby. The original house owned by Bahamian settlers George and Olivia Adderley is the oldest house in the Keys outside of Key West, and a fine example of how people lived here in the early 20th century. The park is named for the property’s second owners, horticulturalists Francis and Mary Crane. Their home on the point is also preserved. Among the most unusual things to do in the Keys is at this park: Dangle your feet in the clear water of the tidal pool and minnows will give you a fish pedicure. Tram ride, tours and pedicure included with admission. $14.95 adults, $12.95 senior and military, $9.95 ages 5-13, under 5 free. 5550 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL 33050
The focus here is on research and education more than entertainment, but the dolphins are entertaining, and the center sells several levels of dolphin interaction, including an opportunity to “shake fins” and an all-day “trainer for the day” which includes swimming with dolphins. Often, marine scientists and research assistants are on hand to talk about their work on dolphin communication, cognition and behavior. For those of us who see dolphins regularly in the wild, it’s enlightening to learn more about dolphin behavior. Three sea lions, several parrots and a few iguanas also live there. The center works with a local veterinarian to control the invasive iguana population by neutering, marking and releasing them. To visit from our boat, we called a local taxi company. They offer a $7 flat rate anywhere in Marathon. Admission: $28 adults, $25 military/veterans, $23 ages 4-12, under 4 free. Discounted admission available online. 58901 Overseas Hwy, Grassy Key, FL 33050
One of the few sandy beaches in the Keys, this C-shaped public park is an easy and scenic dinghy ride or kayak paddle from Boot Key Harbor through Sisters Creek to the Atlantic. The curved beach with its view of the Sombrero Key lighthouse has a real island feel, more like the beaches in Hawaii than in Florida. We tied up our dinghy on the creek side of the park and enjoyed a sunny beach day and ocean swim. The park has picnic pavilions, beach volleyball courts, and restrooms. Kayaks can easily launch from the beach. The water on the creek side is calm and shallow, great for kids. To get there by car, turn south on Sombrero Beach Road and follow it to the end. Sombrero Beach Road. Read more about Beaches in the Florida Keys
This small island at the end of what’s left of the original Seven-Mile Bridge is a designated National Historic Landmark. In the early 1900s, workers who built Henry Flagler’s railroad to Key West lived in an encampment here. They gave Marathon its name, the story goes, because building that original “bridge over the ocean” was such a marathon. For now, Pigeon Key is only accessible by boat because the old bridge is closed for repairs until sometime in 2022. The Pigeon Key ferry leaves at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. from Faro Blanco for $15 per person. In addition to a tour of the historic buildings, the island boasts some excellent snorkeling just offshore, nature hikes, bird watching, and fishing. Bring your own snorkel gear and dive flag and pack a picnic to make a day of it. The ferry dock at Faro Blanco is walking distance from the marina’s dinghy docks. Faro Blanco: 1996 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050. Read more about the restoration of the Old Seven Mile Bridge
Restaurants and bars
If there’s one spot in Marathon not to miss, it’s this home of the “world famous” lobster reuben sandwich, made with Florida lobster tail, sauerkraut and swiss on rye. They claim to sell thousands of these sandwiches a month. Don’t worry if a reuben doesn’t float your boat. Keys Fisheries has the freshest seafood — hogfish, snapper or mahi depending on the season, and Key West pink or Gulf white shrimp – cooked to perfection. Check the daily specials on the board before you order at the window, and take notice of the daily theme, because you’ll be asked a question instead of your name for order pick-up. Listen to what’s called out and try to match the people to their faves. I was surprised when a couple in their 20s picked up an order for “Simon & Garfunkel” as their favorite musical artist. Their grandparents were kids when that folk-rock duo was popular. Local beers including my favorite, Iguana Bait, a honey hibiscus kolsch from Florida Keys Brewing, are on tap in the breezeway bar. Or head upstairs to the tiki bar where you can order stone crab claws in season for $3 each, peel & eat shrimp, or oysters on the half shell. The tiki bar has a daily happy hour with drink and appetizer specials, and you can bring your meal from Keys Fisheries upstairs to catch the breeze. The tiki bar has live music on the weekends. To get there from our boat, we tied up our dinghy at the city marina dock and walked across U.S. 1. Fresh seafood and signature fish and crab spreads are available to from their seafood market and online. 3502 Gulfview Ave, Marathon, FL 33050
If you crave sushi, this is the place. For other seafood, we were not impressed. Castaway styles itself as upscale and expects you to make a reservation. We didn’t, and we ended up in the back of the cavernous, mostly empty restaurant next to a boisterous band of local fishermen and women in a booth with no view. The seafood is fresh, though, and much of it is sourced locally. You can try lionfish or conch sushi in addition to your basic sashimi, maki and nigiri, but it’s pricey. We opted for the local catch. I made the mistake of ordering my fresh snapper with the recommended sauce, and it came swimming in so much cream I could not even see the fish. To get here, we took a taxi from the marina, available within Marathon for $7 flat rate per trip. 1406 Ocean View Ave, Marathon, FL 33050
Although it has not been legal to harvest conch in the Keys since the mid-1980s due to overfishing, conch matches key lime pie as the Keys’ most iconic food. Conch meat now comes from the Caribbean, but even the traditional fisheries in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos are stressed, according to Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. While it is impossible to get a straight answer from any restaurant server about where their conch comes from, there are lots of places to try conch fritters in the Keys. The Cracked Conch offers every possible twist on this delicacy: fritters, conch salad (similar to ceviche), conch chowder (spicy with a tomato base), conch strips and conch steak marinated, pounded thin, breaded and fried. It’s worth the visit to Cracked Conch for the honky-tonk Keys atmosphere. We sat in a breezy side patio with a fountain at the center surrounded by a wooden fence sporting a sign: “No Diving Shallow Water.” The water was about two inches deep. The Cracked Conch is walking distance from the marina. 4999 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050
Don’t let this unassuming concrete-block building fool you. This is the place in Marathon for breakfast. The tables are tucked behind the building in a lovely shady garden and under a large open-air tiki. You can start your day right with a bloody mary loaded with a shrimp skewer or a strong mimosa along with your eggs and bacon, sausage or ham. Check the board for daily specials. If you’re lucky, they’ll be serving their Stone Crab Benedict. Beware: This is a cash-only business, even in our post-pandemic cashless society. We had to walk to BJ’s Farm Market about a quarter-mile away to get cash from a sketchy ATM before we could eat there. The cinnamon raisin French toast was delish. The Stuffed Pig is in front of Keys Fisheries at 3520 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050
For a genuine local experience and fried fresh seafood or a satisfying greasy burger, Dockside is a must. Talented local musicians play there nightly, and the locals hang out at this bar with a great view of the Boot Key mooring field. The night we went, we were treated to “gypsy country” by a group called The Lost Sailors, but they said that’s just what they were calling themselves that night. The band’s name and its playlist changes according to which musicians show up to jam together. We rode our dinghy to Dockside and tied up to an old, creaky dock that shifts when you step on it. I said it was a drunk test: If you end up in the water, you had too much beer. We stayed dry and enjoyed the music. 3520 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050
With daily food specials and live local music from 6-10 p.m. most nights, this is another fun hangout for locals. The music is generally a solo musician or small band playing blues or country music. Locals like the Overseas Pub for its variety: Mexican Monday, Irish Tuesday, barbecue Thursday, fish fry Friday. Brunch on the weekends. The full bar serves a good variety of local beers, and there’s a package liquor store attached. 3574 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050
A band called Four Sheets to the Wind plays often at this poolside bar with the typical Keys mix of folk rock and Jimmy Buffet, often with four-part harmonies. The small restaurant offers daily specials (Taco Tuesday, Wing Wednesday, Greek Thursday) and hand-tossed pizza along with live music a few times a week. The bar makes an excellent rum runner, a Keys concoction of rum, banana and blackberry liqueurs, grenadine and fruit juice. Skipjack’s unheated — cold! — pool is open to bar and restaurant guests. From the marina, this is a cab ride. It’s close enough to take the dinghy, but the resort does not have public dinghy docks. When you’re there, take a walk along the marina’s docks, where you are likely to see Boot Key’s resident manatees. 19 Sombrero Blvd, Marathon, FL 33050 TripAdvisor ratings
Our next visit to Marathon
There’s a nightly sunset celebration at this tiki bar on Knight’s Key with a spectacular view of the Seven-Mile Bridge from the upper deck. This spot is on our to-do list for next time. It’s a taxi ride from the marina. 7 Knights Key Blvd, Marathon, FL 3305
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