It’s easy to blow a lot of scrillas on a vacation day. But luckily money-versus-happiness isn’t a fixed ratio — the amount of happiness you can have in a day isn’t determined upon the amount of greenbacks you slap down. Here are some ideas for enjoying Key West for under $50 a person. Please note that restaurants may change their happy hour specials, and those changes may not be reflected here.
Romance for 2: Total $49.50 each
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park – Get playful at Ft. Zach with some of the best beachfront snorkeling in town. You might also want to walk the grounds of the Civil War-era fort there, and play hide-and-seek amongst the historic cannons and hallways. Entrance fee $6.50, snorkel and mask rentals $15 each. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, www.floridastateparks.org/park/Fort-Taylor, 601 Howard England Way.
Half Shell Raw Bar – The ambiance here isn’t classic romance, but sitting on the deck at the historic waterfront, watching the tall ships and fishing charters, makes for an unforgettable evening. It also doesn’t hurt the mood having fresh oysters, which are considered an aphrodisiac by many. Share a few plates of the most celebrated seafood in town during happy hour, from 4:30 to 6:30. A dozen oysters: $9. Half-pound Key West pink peel-and-eat shrimp: $7.50. Add in $20 for two drinks and a nice tip, and you’ve got a pretty outstanding $37 meal. www.halfshellrawbar.com, 231 Margaret Street.
Higgs Beach Pier – Sneak away from the Mallory Square revelers for an intimate walk down Higgs Beach Pier. Dangle your feet over the water while watching the sun sink below the ocean horizon, illuminating your faces in the warm glow of evening. 1000 Atlantic Boulevard.
Better than Sex – End the evening — or at least the part of it that takes place outside of the hotel room — with a sensual chocolate wine drink, a sexy coffee or a decadent dessert in this romantically lit dessert-only restaurant. $27 for two specialty dessert concoctions. Reservations recommended, www.betterthansexkeywest.com, 926 Simonton Street.
Bromance for 3: Total $34 each
Edward B. Knight Pier – (formerly White Street Pier). The 1,000-foot pier is a favorite among land-based fishermen. Also known as the unfinished highway to Havana, it makes for an excellent afternoon visit, whether as part of a jog, a skate or just to scope out the seas and Higgs Beach next door. If you are here on a fishing vacation, bring your pole and try your luck. A pier permit is free for Florida residents, or $17 for non-residents. South end of White Street.
Dantes Key West – The swimming pool here comes with a waterfall, tiki bars and plenty of party atmosphere. The view often looks like it’s straight out of a Spring Break movie. Take in the sun, soak in the pool or play beer pong. If you have skills, they’ll probably draw the attention of a few new friends. Make sure to plan for happy hour, weekdays from 4 to 8 p.m. for $3.50 Jagermeisters and Fireballs, $3.75 dark and stormys, and $4 Jameson. Let’s just say all three of you have two drinks each, with a nice tip to your poolside bartender, that’s about $30.
Mr. Z’s – Any successful night on the town must include a hearty meal in the early stages, and this is as good a time as any to eat to you heart’s content. Mr. Z’s serves up a bit of Philly right off Duval, with renowned $7 cheesesteaks and $2.50 pizza slices. One of each for all three is just $12 a person with a tip. www.mrzskeywest.com, 501 Southward Street.
Bull & Whistle – Go to the second floor of this long-running Key West establishment. It’s time for some bro-bonding over a few games of pool. There’s also a balcony with a great view of the heart of Duval, which is great for scoping out the scene and deciding where to go next. On the roof is the clothing-optional bar Garden of Eden. That’s up to you. Meanwhile on the second floor, a drink and some quarters for the table should run you about $12 each. 224 Duval Street.
Girls’ Day Out for 4: Total $40 each
Smathers Beach – At Key West’s biggest beach, you can be as active or lazy as you desire. Up the pace and start a beach volleyball game, or for something a little less strenuous, simply spread a towel out on the sand. It’s all free, but if you want to lay down extra money, there are kayaks, wave runners and paddleboards galore. 1000 Atlantic Boulevard.
West Martello Tower – When you’ve soaked in enough sun, stroll through the tropical trees and flora within the ruins of this Civil War fort. Sit amongst the Monarchs in the butterfly garden, explore the orchid pavilion and take in the diverse and soothing nature planted here by the Key West Garden Club. It’s a free and peaceful diversion, especially on a hot day. www.keywestgardenclub.com, 1000 Atlantic Boulevard.
Salute! On the Beach – Stroll next door from Martello to Higgs Beach and this Italian-Caribbean cafe. If you’re lucky there will even be live music on the patio. Salutes is a great place to get a little shade and order up their Antipasti Platter, with everything you’d expect plus roasted garlic cloves. For $25, it’s big enough to keep four people occupied for a while. This is a great place to sample a mojito, too. $20 a piece should cover it all. saluteonthebeach.com, 1000 Atlantic Boulevard.
Mallory Square – There is no way to describe the energy in the air at Key West’s daily Sunset Celebration, except for festive, romantic and grandly entertaining. Wrap up the last two hours of daylight here by watching the street performers, and don’t forget to try a rum drink served in a coconut and shop for some matching souvenir hand-crafted bracelets. $20 per person should cover those two items, or save it to make today a super-cheap excursion on the town. www.mallorysquare.com, 400 Wall Street.
Family Exploration for 4: Total $30 each
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center – With a 2,500-gallon reef tank of living corals and tropical fish, this makes for a great first stop for island exploration and getting the kids enchanted by the marine world. A lion-fish tank, educational exhibits and an excellent short film complete the first leg of today’s journey. Free for everyone. floridakeys.noaa.gov/eco_discovery.html, 35 East Quay Road.
Fausto’s Food Palace – Time to pick up some sandwich-making materials at this locally run grocery store, that always has an array of fresh and healthy breads, cheeses meats and veggies. No need for a cooler, you’re going for a picnic next. Sandwich suggestion: baguette bread, tomato, Brie cheese and ham, with a sprinkle of black pepper. We’ll assume you can pick out some simple ingredients and drinks to properly satisfy all four of your tastes for $30.
Higgs Beach – Time to see the fish up close at this sandy beach that slopes gently into a protected ocean bay. Unfurl the beach blanket and fix up your picnic feast. Once everyone is fueled up, rent two masks and snorkels to share for $15 each, then float calmly around the pier pilings for the best marine life viewing. If swimming isn’t your style, you can sit in the water and look through the mask, or just build sandcastles on the beach. 1000 Atlantic Boulevard.
Key West Wildlife Center – Turn attentions from the water to the skies, and see some of the Keys’ native birds up close. On 7 acres just across from Higgs Beach, the Wildlife Center includes a nature trail by a rare freshwater pond and two aviaries, including one full of rescued and relocated Key West free-roaming chickens. Look for native herons, ibis and other birds passing through, or catch a glimpse of the ones the center has rescued and is rehabilitating. The price is also right: free. www.keywestwildlifecenter.org, 1801 White Street.
Solo Traveler or History Buff: Total $39
Pelican Path & Bahama Village – Wandering through Old Town Key West’s historic architecture and rich, tropical gardens could keep one busy for months. There’s always a hidden alleyway to be found, with a few gypsy chickens running past and a new kind of flower to be identified. For a little more structure and history, download the Pelican Path walking tour created by the Old Island Restoration Foundation and learn the stories behind 51 historic buildings. You can even use your phone for more details on each site. And yes, it’s free. http://www.oirf.org/images/pelicantour.pdf, 305-507-0300.
Blue Heaven – Treat yourself to some shade and lunch at this funky and favorite Bahama Village hangout. Sit at the outside bar and and socialize with the locals or wander the artistic grounds while waiting for your meal. You can even challenge a new friend to a game of ping pong. Try the shrimp melt with local pinks and the Key lime pie, of course. Their cocktails are custom, just like the wild chickens that roam through the seating area. Plan on $20 for a full-out splurge. www.blueheavenkw.com, 729 Thomas Street.
Custom House Museum or Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum – Across the street from one another, the dueling museums are two of Key West’s finest. The imposing red-brick building opened in 1891 as the customs house, post office and district court. Today it offers two floors of art and cultural exhibitions for just $7. Across the street, two iron cannons lead you into a world of piracy and Spanish gold, including 85,000 artifacts, many of which are from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, as Spanish galleon that sunk off of Key West in 1622 and was recovered by Mel Fisher in 1985. $12. www.kwahs.org/visit/custom-house, 281 Front Street; www.melfisher.org, 200 Green Street.
Tropic Cinema – This comfortable retro-style theater maintains an interesting and acclaimed mix of mainstream and indie flicks. A statue of Marilyn Monroe greets you out front, and inside a comfortable lounge and bar make for a great place to relax and socialize prior to the show. $12 for a ticket. www.tropiccinema.com, 416 Eaton Street.
Something Different for 2: Total $0 each
San Carlos Institute – As far back as 1871 the San Carlos was a center for José Martí and Cuban exiles launching their independence movement for Cuba. Today it’s still the quintessential destination to learn about the rich Cuban heritage of the Keys, and includes a museum, library, art gallery, theater and school. To visit this priceless history is free, but we strongly suggest leaving a donation. www.institutosancarlos.org, 516 Duval Street.
Peppers of Key West – Heat is the name of the game at this boutique hot sauce store. Sample habanero, jalapeño, ghost, jerk, barbecue, asian marmalade, and hundreds of other sauces. The sampling is free, but you’ll end up leaving with at least one bottle in hand. www.peppersofkeywest.com, 602 Greene Street.
African Cemetery at Higgs Beach and Key West AIDS Memorial – Stunning stories of tragedy, hope and faith can be found at two Higgs Beach memorials. The African Cemetery is the resting place for prisoners rescued from the illegal slave trade in 1860. Unfortunately by the time the ship was intercepted, many of the souls on board were too sick to survive. But today the site serves as a celebration of the human spirit and a tribute to the 12 million Africans taken as prisoners during the Middle Passage. The AIDS Memorial personifies Key West’s philosophy of “One Human Family.” The names of those connected with the town who fell to the epidemic are etched into the granite, which also stands as a reminder of the acceptance and love the town gave to those who came seeking refuge. Both sites are free. africanburialgroundathiggsbeach.org, keywestaids.org, corner of White Street and Atlantic Boulevard.
Key West Cemetery – Wandering a cemetery might sound a little morbid, but throughout its 19 acres there are journeys in both contemplation and entertainment. On the lighter side, there are humorous sayings on a number of headstones. On the heavier side, there are dedications to the USS Maine tragedy and Los Martires de Cuba, for those who fought in the 1868 revolution. Entry is free. For a printable walking tour, see http://www.keywesthistoricmarkertour.org/Cemetery.php?Search=1&ProductCategoryID%5B%5D=23. www.friendsofthekeywestcemetery.com, 701 Pauline Street.