Hi! My name is Saniya Pradhan. I’m a junior in the Honors College at FIU, and I study International Relations and French. This project allowed me to spend a lot of time in one of my favorite places in Miami, and I learned many new things along the way. This travel guide is in no way exhaustive, in fact I’m sure it only just scratches the surface of the island’s rich history and what it offers. This guide is ultimately based off my own experiences, the words of Joan Gill Blank, and conversations with people who live, work, and go to school there. We can consider this a low budget, COVID-friendly guide for the island.
Key Biscayne, actually not a key at all, is a barrier island, or a constantly changing deposit of sand that forms parallel to the coast (according to the NOAA). Our Key was formed about four millennia ago, when a fierce hurricane tore through the eastern coast of Florida and caused a strip of land to separate from the mainland. Along the Western coast of this new island grew mangrove trees, which brought about the growth of other plants, and eventually the arrival of small marine animals and mammals. – (JGB) .
Key Biscayne is separated from mainland Florida by Biscayne Bay, an important habitat for marine flora and fauna. Barrier islands are incredibly valuable for protecting against extreme weather, yet they are constantly shifting, appearing, and disappearing. Human activity has caused many barrier islands to erode away at alarming rates. In order to protect Key Biscayne environmentally, we must curb harmful activities such as ship traffic, hard levees, infrastructure projects, damming, and dredging.
On his quest for the fountain of youth, Juan Ponce de Leon came across a lush, green island bearing fresh water, where he and his men could fill their canteens and quench their thirst. He named the island Santa Marta and claimed it for the King of Spain. Santa Marta was later renamed Key Biscayne after a shipwrecked sailor from the Bay of Biscay was found on the island.
It would be impossible to get into the complete history of the island, so I will give a short overview before focusing in on a few interesting points.
Before Ponce de Leon ever set foot on the barrier island, it was inhabited by the Tequestas, part of the powerful Calusa Nation. They established a village with a fishing and whaling operation. His arrival marks the beginning of the colonial history of Key Biscayne. It marked the shift from indigenous population to settlers, and what was once a harmonic, peaceful environment became opened up to the evils of colonization and commercialization.
In 1940 the Matheson family donated 800 acres of their land on Key Biscayne to Dade county in order to form Crandon park. In exchange for this, they wanted a causeway to be built to the island. In 1947 the Rickenbacker causeway was opened, and this allowed Key Biscayne to open for large-scale residential development. The early 50s saw the development of a post office, schools, and residential areas.
In the 60s, Key Biscayne was under the national eye. Kennedy and Nixon famously met at the Old Key Biscayne Hotel after the 1960 election loss by Nixon. In 1969 Nixon buys his Florida White House. This is where he spent most of his time as the Watergate scandal unfolded.
In 1991 Key Biscayne was incorporated as a new municipality in Miami-Dade, and the very next year was the year of Hurricane Andrew. As a barrier island, Key Biscayne is our main protection against extreme weather, but it is also extremely vulnerable. Bill Baggs state park took the brunt of the storm, but one benefit was that the hurricane wiped out all the non-native vegetation.
Key Biscayne is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, as well as a rich source of South Floridian history. The rate of commercialization is alarming to many, although there are efforts to preserve as much natural beauty and history as possible.
According to the site World Population Review, the population of Key Biscayne in 2021 is 12,682 people. In a place so richly diverse as Miami, Key Biscayne is a glaring example of the racial and economic inequality around us. It has a median household income of $226,086, and a racial composition which is 96.63% white.
The Village has its own fire department, police department, and public education system. In 2004, it completed a new civic center with indoor multi use courts, swimming pool, and a musical theater program.
Ricardo De La Blanca, or Ricky, is a freshman at Fordham University studying Business and International Relations. He moved to Key Biscayne with his family a little over 10 years ago from Venezuela, and he grew up and went to school on the island. He’s sharp with a passion for history, and a few interesting projects up his sleeve. One of those is an effort to raise awareness for and restore a forgotten Key Biscayne landmark.
After moving to the Key, Ricky immediately fell in love with the island life, and started reading whatever history books he could find, including the book I’ve cited by Joan Gill Blank. As kids, he and his friends heard about an abandoned house in Calusa Park, and they started going there for fun, until Ricky became curious about the old house and started to do his own research.
The Calusa playhouse is located at the entrance of Calusa Park, and if you’ve been to the park you’ve probably passed by it, and maybe wondered what an abandoned house is doing in the middle of Key Biscayne.
While working for Islander News, he wrote an article about the Calusa playhouse, which got picked up by Telemundo, and led to him meeting the renowned historian Joan Gill Blank. She showed him her old house, which was almost identical to the Calusa playhouse, but had unfortunately been abandoned for too long and beyond hope of restoration. Ricky said he hopes he can avoid losing any more monuments in this way.
In his article, Ricky writes “Built in 1917 by the Matheson Coconut Plantation, its original purpose was a barrack for the workers. It was not originally located in Calusa Park. In its early days, the shack was situated in present-day Grand Bay. The shack served multiple functions throughout its lifespan, ranging from sleeping quarters to a church, a school, and a hurricane shelter. In 1956, it was incorporated by the Key Biscayne Music and Drama Club to begin its career as a live theater stage.
Under the management of Music and Drama Club, the shack was uprooted and moved to the spot it holds today and was renamed the “Calusa Playhouse.” For 40 years, it has hosted musicals and plays. The Calusa Playhouse has greeted over 40,000 guests over the years, and has staged hundreds of acts.”
Unfortunately, complications following Hurricane Andrew led to a complete abandonment of the Calusa playhouse. Ricky started cleaning out and working on the house on his own and made it his goal to raise awareness about it in hopes of restoring it and perhaps one day converting it into a museum for the island.
According to Ricky, the history of Key Biscayne is so complex and interesting, yet most of its residents are not aware of it since many of them immigrated here from Latin America only in recent decades. This means that places like the Calusa playhouse are relatively unknown and not cared for.
His next steps are to build credibility and awareness, in order to actually start work on the house. He plans to reach out to the Historical Heritage Society of Key Biscayne, as well as the Matheson family, who still own the property which the house lays on. In the meantime, it’s all about spreading the word and building up support among the villagers as well as residents of Miami. I urge you all to check out his article on Islander news and his interview with Telemundo! (linked below)
The first landmark is probably the most popular spot on the island, and it’s where I’ve spent the majority of my weekends this year. Crandon Park is a vast swath of land in the northern half of the island which offers many recreational activities. The park includes green spaces (see below), beach, trails, and a pathway that runs along the coast, perfect for walking, running, skating, biking, etc. Crandon beach is definitely my favorite in Miami, because it’s much less crowded than most other beaches, and it feels further removed from the city. The green spaces have both covered and uncovered picnic areas which include tables and grills. There are cabanas, many pathways to walk around, and even an open-air café (see below).
Cape Florida lighthouse & Bill Baggs
This lighthouse, located in Bill Baggs state park, is a symbol of Key Biscayne, and it can be seen from even the northern part of the coast. Unfortunately, due to COVID, tours and visits up the lighthouse are currently unavailable, but I was fortunate enough to go up my freshman year and take in the gorgeous blues of the limitless sea and sky. In his book The Prince of Los Cocuyos, Richard Blanco describes his personal connection to the lighthouse, having gone there with his family every year since he was a kid. The feeling of comfort and peace he found seeing (and hugging) the lighthouse is one that I can relate to after living in Miami for a few years, and I believe every resident of Miami should make their way down to the lighthouse at least once!
Frankly, the whole thing is green. As you drive down the key, you’re surrounded by the happy green of the sea grapes and the lush green grass.
Crandon park zoo
What was once the Crandon Park zoo is now used by residents and visitors as a place to relax and go for a walk. After multiple hurricanes, and the onset of new zoos in Miami, the zoo closed. Its ruins are still up, and the location has been turned into botanical gardens, an intersection of manmade structures and natural beauty.
Bill Baggs state park & Crandon park
Along with a beach, a lighthouse, and a number of trails, the Bill Baggs state park and Crandon park offer green spaces and picnic tables.
Driving on and off the island is only possible via the Rickenbacker Causeway, but the drive always promises lovely views of the water. A car and two feet is all you really need, but if that’s not possible there are other options —
The public transportation available on the key includes bus, light rail, people mover, and paratransit services, and bus #102 circulates around the island and connects to Brickell. The route and schedule are posted on the Bus #102 (Route B) webpage.
The closest access to the Metrorail is at the Vizcaya station.
Freebee is an app-based shuttle service which is completely free! There are two blue shuttles which circulate around the island, with a pickup every 20 minutes. My only complaint here is that at the moment, freebee mostly serves the residential and commercial portion of the key, so you could take it to get food or drinks but not to the beach.
This Middle Eastern restaurant is located on Crandon Blvd, and it offers a pretty large selection of salads, wraps, platters, as well as some Middle Eastern snacks, drinks, and ingredients. I ordered a veggie wrap and couldn’t stop myself from buying boxes of their tzatziki sauce and olives! The wrap was perfect to pack up and take to the beach, and the tzatziki and olives made yummy additions to my snacks in the following days. The owners are friendly, the food is fresh and well-priced, what else do you need?
True to its name, this café is located along Crandon Beach, and offers covered and uncovered outdoor dining. The seating area of Openseas Café is charming and extremely fun, with many games such as jumbo jenga, connect 4, checkers, and cornhole. Their menu is pretty typical to Miami, with a variety of local and Caribbean dishes. If you’re hungry I recommend the fish tacos, and for a quick refresher definitely try the frozen lemonade. It is exactly what you need while roasting under the Miami sun. The café is a short walk from anywhere on the beach, but they also offer beach service, and will deliver food and drink right to you!
Ayesha Saffron is a great option for fine dining on Key Biscayne. This Indian restaurant has three locations in South Florida, and one of them is located on Crandon Blvd. They offer a wide array of dishes from India, including chole bhature for the vegetarians or lamb khorma for the carnivorous.
Nice Twice Consignment Corp Key
One activity for a rainy day: thrifting! It is one of my favorite ways to have fun and get to know a city. Nice Twice is a consignment, vintage, and second-hand store, perhaps the only one of its kind on Key Biscayne. Adjacent to the post office, the store is a bit hidden away, but it is worth the search. They always have a variety of cool and unique pieces. They also offer shoe repair, alterations, dry cleaning, and more.
The one thing everyone sees on Key Biscayne are groups of people biking on the island and the Rickenbacker causeway. One easy and affordable way to get in on the fun is with LimeBike. Just download the app, and you can find, unlock, and rent a bike. The bikes are then easily returned to any LimeBike station.
I will leave you with the words of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her foreword to Key Biscayne, “What [Joan Gill Blank] shares with us is that the small island of Key Biscayne is a microcosm of the large world we live in – historically, environmentally, and politically.”
Blank, Joan Gill. Key Biscayne: a History of Miamis Tropical Island and the Cape Florida Lighthouse. J.G. Blank, 1996.
“Crandon Park Zoo.” Abandoned Florida, 13 Jan. 2021, http://www.abandonedfl.com/crandon-park-zoo/.
De la Blanca, Ricardo. “Did You Know… KB History: The Calusa Park ‘Shack.” IslanderNews.com | Locally Owned & Operated, 9 Jan. 2021, http://www.islandernews.com/news/did-you-know-kb-history-the-calusa-park-shack/article_ffbaeffe-f97b-11e9-a4c4-47d46d032c84.html.
“Key Biscayne, Florida Population 2021.” Key Biscayne, Florida Population 2021 (Demographics, Maps, Graphs), worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/key-biscayne-fl-population.
Miami, Ayer y Hoy : Los Secretos De Key Biscayne. YouTube, 3 Feb. 2021, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwGmNbOH2wI&ab_channel=Telemundo51Miami.
“Transportation.” Village of Key Biscayne, keybiscayne.fl.gov/index.php?submenu=_transportation&src=gendocs&ref=Transportation&link=Transportation.
US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Is a Barrier Island?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 5 Mar. 2021, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/barrier-islands.html.