There's just something in the water in the Florida Keys. Photo: Johnie Gall

There’s just something in the water in the Florida Keys. Photo: Johnie Gall

Imagine a place so colorfully alive it’s inspired the works of both Jimmy Buffett and Ernest Hemingway: two artists who couldn’t be further from each other on the creative spectrum. At the very end of the Overseas Highway — a stretch of road that snakes all the way from Maine to the Florida Keys — you’ll find a tiny chain of islands that ends at Mile Marker 0.

Key West is the southernmost city in the continental U.S., a land of coconuts, coral reefs and trained circus cats. And if you think that sounds a little off-the-cuff, you’re not wrong.

Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s all that fried conch. Or maybe there’s just something in the water. Whatever it is, there’s just something about Key West that makes you want to stay for good.

Mahi-mahi is a regular catch in the Florida Keys. Visit a boat charter service or bait and tackle shop for information about what you'll need to catch one yourself. Photo: Courtesy of Karl Scherzberg/Maximum Gusto Adventures

Mahi-mahi is a regular catch in the Florida Keys. Visit a boat charter service or bait and tackle shop for information about what you’ll need to catch one yourself. Photo: Courtesy of Karl Scherzberg/Maximum Gusto Adventures

Here, five ideas on how to spend your time in Conch Country (whether you’re a fan of Hemingway or his margarita-loving counterpart).

Go off-shore fishing

Yellowtail in cooler

Yellowtail filling the cooler off Big Pine Key, an island known for its fishing culture. Photo: Johnie Gall

Just 45 minutes north of Key West is Big Pine Key, a quieter island known for its fishing culture.

Whether you bring your own boat or charter one, Lower Keys fishing is not to be missed. Once your line is in the water, you’ll catch everything from yellowtail to grouper, sailfish to tarpon, mahi-mahi to snapper.

Just be prepared for the sun, and protect yourself with plenty of water, performance fishing shirts and giant straw hats.

Speaking of fishing, Ernest Hemingway found solace and inspiration in the sport when he lived and worked from Key West. In 1938, he caught a world-record seven marlin in one day. Another time, he landed a giant 468-pound marlin in just 65 minutes. His sport-fishing escapades inspired one of his most famous works, The Old Man and the Sea.

Visit the Hemingway House

Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West during the most prolific period in his writing career. Photo: Johnie Gall

Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West during the most prolific period in his writing career. Photo: Johnie Gall

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway left quite a legacy in Key West, and you can hear about all about the legends at the Hemingway Home, a house built by a salvage wrecker in 1851 and later lived in by Hemingway.

There are personal touches everywhere, from his big-game hunting trophies to the massive swimming pool one of his disgruntled wives built there to replace his beloved boxing ring.

Free tours of the Hemingway Home museum include encounters with the 40-50 descendants of the author's six-toed cat. Photo: Brandon Scherzberg

Free tours of the Hemingway Home museum include encounters with the 40-50 descendants of the author’s six-toed cat. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Scherzberg

Keep an eye out for the 40-some six-toed cats who live there, all descendants from a feline Hemingway was gifted by a sea captain.

It’s definitely worth waiting around for a free tour of the house.

Go for a hike

Wake up early before the heat and humidity set in and take a walk at the National Key Deer Refuge (key deer are dog-sized whitetails, an endangered species that can only be found here) or Blue Hole — both offer the chance to see snakes, alligators and native birds.

Explore Downtown Key West

Downtown Key West is a culture clash of art, music, food and distasteful T-shirt shops. Photo: Johnie Gall

Downtown Key West is a culture clash of art, music, food, and distasteful T-shirt shops. Photo: Johnie Gall

They say it’s Austin we need to keep weird, but nothing can compare to the wackiness of downtown Key West.

From trucks encrusted with fake coral reefs to fresh seafood meals practically plucked from the sea in front of you, there’s nothing dull about this town. Wait in line to take a picture at the Mile Marker 0 sign or check out the distasteful shirt shops on Duval Street. If you’re more into art, visit the Wyland Gallery or swing by the true Margaritaville.

Many restaurants along the waterfront in Key West have their own fishing boats, so you know your fish tacos are as fresh as it gets. Photo: Johnie Gall

Many restaurants along the waterfront in Key West have their own fishing boats, so you know your fish tacos are as fresh as it gets. Photo: Johnie Gall

Then, head over to the daily Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Dock, where you can drink freshly cracked coconuts, deep-fried conch, watch the street performers and catch a show from Dominique the Cat Man, who has trained his feline actors to walk on tightropes and jump through fire. His eccentric, over-the-top and baffling show is not to be missed.

Snorkel or dive the coral reefs

Snorkel trips leave daily from any of the Keys, including Bahia Honda State Park. Photo: Johnie Gall

Snorkel trips leave daily from any of the Keys, including Bahia Honda State Park. Photo: Johnie Gall

The Florida Keys are home to the only living coral reefs in the continental U.S., and they are teaming with life.

Every snorkel company boasts they know where the best reefs are, but you can’t go wrong with a visit to the Looe Key area, a protected marine life sanctuary where you’ll see Elkhorn and Star coral, sea turtles, blue tang, barracuda, spotted eagle rays and if you’re lucky, a dolphin or bull shark.

Be prepared for encounters of the marine kind while snorkeling in the Florida Keys. Photo: Karl Scherzberg

Be prepared for encounters of the marine kind while snorkeling in the Florida Keys. Photo: Courtesy of Karl Scherzberg

Snorkel trips leave out of Bahia Honda State Park daily.