Dive, Dine and Drive the Florida Keys: Discovering Van Life

Boyd's Key West Campground

After a few months of working from home, putting in 12+ hour days at a computer, I was ready to travel. I got my vaccination (as an emergency first responder I was able to get mine in January 2021) and with very little notice, decided I needed to get warm in February. The droves of others in the US going stir crazy had also decided to travel stateside (Hawaii was still not keen on visitors in light of the pandemic) so that left Florida for a tropical getaway. Amid mask mandates and travel anxiety, the Keys region was still rife with tourists. Not one to give up (or one to be able to pay $500+ per night for a hotel room) I found a camper van and started to chisel away at a plan for a 10-day vacation in the sun.

van life florida keys
“The Jungle Bridge” parked in Key Largo

Key Largo Kampground

With only 10 days notice until wheels up, there were very few places to “poach” a site for a night or two. Very few meaning absolutely ZERO in a designated campground such as a pretty seaside state park or a known primitive camping area. I found just a few options and booking in the blind, I chose a site at Key Largo Kampground to park for three nights. I figured we’d be underwater and on adventures and having facilities nearby to use the washroom and get water would be handy and luxurious! (Keep in mind, my travel partner and I both weathered the years camping for a living on wildfires, so we don’t mind if we get a bed, running water, and some feather pillows occasionally!) “Camping” at a campground would be easy peasy and relatively cost effective.

Some of the highlights included the ubiquitous camp cats (there must have been easily a dozen near the permanent residences in the campground) and they’d prowl and yowl at night. There was also beach access, but we didn’t utilize it at all.

Key Largo Kampground camp site
Key Largo Kampground site with electric.

Security is taken seriously. We forgot our key card one night in the van after taking a Lyft to go out for drinks and dinner. Arriving after the gate was shut, we had to find out way back in, which for spry, capable younger folks wasn’t too hard, but, for say, an elderly couple, this would have posed a real problem. Barbed wire and chain link fences surround the area for safety. So, you can rest easy there at night!

There were plenty of trees for hammock hanging. All said, the site and the campground were just what we needed. We used very few of the facilities or the grounds, but, with kids or if you wanted the amenities of having a pool, playground, kayak rentals, etc. it would be a fine place to stay for a week in an RV. The nights were still rather hot and we did get a furious downpour one evening, so staying in a tent would be an adventure.

van rental excitement
First time cruising an Econoline through Orlando, totally jazzed.

Rainbow Reef Dive Center

We set up several days of diving reservations with the Rainbow Reef Dive Center. This is easily the largest rental and guide provider in the Key Largo area. We had some flight delays, and thus, missed our first night/wreck dive unfortunately. We also flew carry-on, so we didn’t pack any of our own dive gear or wetsuits and opted to rent. It was affordable and just plain easier when traveling last minute, in a van, short on space.

School of fish underwater
School of fish underwater

The guides and boat captains were all over the map, some were friendly and delightful, others were a little short and crotchety, but overall, the dives were executed safely, the gear was clean and serviceable and we were able to execute four dives with the shop. We saw nurse sharks, squirrelfish, trumpetfish, eels, lots of grunts and other schooling fish, and amazing corals.

Burdine’s

This little restaurant is a vibrant seaside spot with fantastic burgers and drinks. It’s an elevated tiki style restaurant and bar, at a marina. The views are vast out into the ocean and looking at the Over Seas Highway as well. Key Lime Pie here is delish, they also make a deep-fried Key Lime Pie!

History of Diving Museum

This was an unplanned but so incredibly cool stop in Islamorada on the way down to Key West. We saw the sign, looked at each other, and promptly made a (safe) U-turn in our big colorful van. If you’re a history buff or a dive nerd, this place has such an extensive collection of gear and influential faces over the evolution of diving. It’s packed with cool information and collections. I loved all that I learned in the time I spent wandering through the halls, looking at everything from information about the Mariana Trench to Iron Mike to art made by locals on display.

crab dinner in Key West
Crab and salad from The Stoned Crab in Key West.

The Stoned Crab

Make sure to make reservations if you want a standard time to eat at The Stoned Crab. It’s very popular and you can visit with iguanas and tortoises as well as watch ocean life feedings at certain times. The food is wonderful and the atmosphere is fun. There are large patios and outdoor dining, you can even arrive by water as they have docking slips.

Boyd’s Key West Campground

View from the van
View from the van at the Key West campground

Pro tip: Site 48 is considered “inland” but has views and access to the water. This is a large property and about a ten-minute drive from downtown Key West. I highly recommend parking and renting a scooter to make the trek in and out of town. Parking in downtown Key West is sparse and maneuvering a giant van would have been a total drag.

The Little Pearl

This was an accidental find, and I think we happened upon it right before they completely took off with popularity and being “found out.” This tasting menu offered and on rotation is gourmet and delicious, a little bit of a splurge, but is intimate and out of this world. You MUST have reservations prior to expecting to get a seating.

Ft. Zachary State Park

USS Coast Guard Museum

Irish Kevin’s

Sloppy Joe’s