Home   Beaches  DONATE

Key West Express, Fort Myers Beach, Florida

The Key West Express is a jet drive-powered catamaran taking holiday-makers from Fort Myers Beach in southwest Florida to Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. Motorists could make the drive, at five hours over the scenic A1A highway, or they could take a relaxing three-and-a-half hour boat ride with stunning Gulf views at 34 knots. Above deck or below, beverage of choice in hand with breakfast or dinner, en route movie or quiet time—it’s the sun seeker’s choice on the Key West Express. The seas can be a little choppy, but the accommodations are comfortable and the boat crew are seasoned.

Key West Express parking lot in Fort Myers Beach, Florida.

The parking lot in this image may not look like much, but it’s the start of something big. Key West Express has three docks in Southwest Florida, and this is the Fort Myers Beach dock at 1200 Main Street. It’s eight minutes past seven in the morning on Thursday, December 16th, 2021, and boarding for Key West has just begun. Better hurry, as boarding the boat no later than 7:30 am is required, as the Key West Express departs the Fort Myers dock at 8 am sharp.

This is the ticket counter for the Key West Express

This is the ticket window at the Fort Myers Beach dock. It’s quarter after seven in the morning, and passengers are walking up the ramp to either pay for parking ($15; credit card only on our travel day) or get boarding passes, or both. The line moved very quickly as travelers listened for the intercom and stepped up to an open window. Passengers have the option to pay for parking when buying tickets online, and if they do so, they will receive their boarding passes at that time.

These are the Key West ferries at sunrise at the dock.
These two diesel-powered catamaran jet-boats sit ready for passengers in the Matanzas Harbor. Boarding is now complete for the Key West Express and ferry-goers are taking their seats inside. The Key West Express vessel, on the right, is the flagship vessel of the Key West Express fleet. The Big Cat Express, on the left, has many of the same features as the Key West Express, though the latter is larger and faster.
This is the Big Cat Express dockside.

The Big Cat Express is nearly identical to the flagship Key West Express boat. The Big Cat measures 155 feet, while the Key West measures 170 feet. The Big Cat is used in the off-season and in the shallower Marco Island port as it has a draft of 4.5 feet, whereas that of the Key West is 5.5 feet. The beam on this boat measures 34 feet, and the beam of the larger boat is 38 feet. The Cat has a cruising speed of 33 knots, and the Key West has a cruising speed of 34 knots.

This is the San Marcos Boulevard Bridge.

Matanzas Harbor is beautiful in the morning, as seen from the top deck of the Key West Express ferry in the Key West Express dock in Fort Myers Beach. In the background is the Matanzas Pass Bridge, which connects San Carlos Boulevard between San Carlos Island and Estero Island. The Bridge also has a walkway, with crosswalks and signals at both ends of the bridge for pedestrians. The concrete barrier is waist-high and many people use this walkway.

The top deck of the KWE ferry is really windy.

This is the top deck of the Key West Express ferry, just before disembarkation for Key West, Florida. The bow of the ship shows the ship’s communications array and the orange life rafts. The top deck is completely open and the wind is a force to be reckoned with up here. Getting up and down the steps between decks can be a challenge after the ship gets underway. Also, most folks wear jackets up here.

This is the middle deck, which is mostly shielded from the

This is the middle deck aboard the Key West Express, and this deck has both interior and exterior seating. There is a “head” on this deck, as well. Frequent announcements from the boat captain will remind passengers to “keep one hand for yourself, and one hand for the boat.” This means that if you have a beverage or luggage in one hand, the other hand needs to be free to hold onto a rail or a pole when moving around the ship.

This is the bar on the KWE ferry.

The bar on the Key West is located at the foot of the stairs on the bottom deck. There is ample seating both at and around the bar. Adult beverages are available right after boarding and are served throughout the trip until about a half hour prior to reaching shore. The boat captain will come over the intercom to announce “last call" at that time. The ship loses connection to the Internet during the voyage, so passengers should carry cash for their purchases. Otherwise, voyagers can settle their credit-card tabs when the boat regains Internet service.

This is the galley, where passengers can get food.
The galley is right next to the bar. Hot food, snacks, soft drinks, water, and sundries are available for purchase here. A decently stocked condiment bar is just out of view. There are breakfast sandwiches, bagels and cream cheese, and waffles. For lunch or dinner, travelers can get a cheeseburger, hot dog, pizza, and chicken fingers. Snacks include granola bars, Frito chips, chips and nacho cheese, popcorn, cookies and peanuts. Cards, games, and seasickness pills are here too.
This is the "head" on the first deck.

The boat trip to and from Key West is three to four hours long. The “head,” as the ferry’s captain calls it, is located toward the aft end of the ship on the first and second decks. Note the rails all over the ship; these are an absolute necessity for moving around a rocking boat. Be sure to pick your feet up when entering the head, as there is a raised threshold. The toilets are push-button and the water pressure is low. These washrooms are somewhat bigger than airline privies.

Key West comes into view on the bottom deck.

Key West is coming into view just before noon, three hours after setting off from the dock at Fort Myers Beach. At this point, it’s very important to listen for the captain’s announcements over the intercom; especially passengers with carry-on luggage. The ship’s mates may come around one last time to collect trash. The ferry takes a little while to dock, so even then it will be a few minutes before folks can exit. The captain will ask for tips on behalf of the ship’s mates.

Passengers debark for the ferry terminal on Key West.
At 12:15 passengers were leaving the ship, headed toward the Key West Bight Ferry Terminal, Flagler Station, at the corner of Caroline and Grinnell streets. There are many amenities at this terminal; and at the time of this writing, all persons inside the terminal were required to wear masks. The Key West Express is under federal rules, and as a result, all passengers must wear masks unless eating or drinking. Some passengers signed up for the Conch tour train, which was waiting for them at the terminal.
Passengers are leaving the terminal.

The Key West Bight Ferry Terminal is all decked out for Christmas. (A “bight” is a recess or curve in a shoreline.) A lot of disembarking passengers had bicycles waiting for them in the rack while others rode them right out of the terminal. Parking for cars on Key West is difficult and expensive while bike racks are located everywhere. There is a lot to explore right around the ferry, including Simonton Street Beach, but for now, it’s lunchtime.

This is Sloppy Joe's Bar on Key West.

Sloppy Joe’s Bar is at the corner of Duval and Greene streets. Duval Street is a destination in itself as there are shops, restaurants, and taverns; and is only a few minutes’ walk from the ferry terminal. Located at 201 Duval Street, Sloppy Joe’s appeared in its current form on May 5, 1937, though it had opened on the day Prohibition ended across the street as the Blind Pig. Twentieth century writer Ernest Hemingway was a frequent customer as he lived on Key West until 1939.

This is the interior of Sloppy Joe's Bar.

Sloppy Joe’s has live music all day; this image was taken at 1 pm on the Thursday before the tourist season would start. Island-goers meandered from bar to table in this open-air establishment seeking drinks and lunch. Some spend a few minutes looking at Papa’s Wall, which commemorates Hemingway’s time on Key West. This is one of the livelier and noisier sections of Sloppy Joe’s, and there is a quieter room off to the left: the Tap Room.

This is the Tap Room at Sloppy Joe's.

Joe’s Tap Room still has features from the old 1917 building that Sloppy Joe’s moved into after its original lease ran out across the street. This building still has its jalousie doors (louvered doors) and its stamped tin-sheet ceiling, which is shown in this image. Food from the entire menu can be ordered from the bar and brought to one of the outside tables. Some diners at this restaurant, being on Key West, might find that the food is a little more expensive here than on the mainland.

This is a Sloppy Joe's sandwich.

This is the namesake sandwich at Sloppy Joe’s: the Sloppy Joe sandwich. After a few years, the Blind Pig became the Silver Slipper when owner Joe Russell added a dance floor. A Havana, Cuba, club owned by Spaniard Jose Garcia and frequented by Papa and Russell sold drinks and icy seafood, rendering the place a mess. Thus, Sloppy Joe’s was born, egged on by Hemingway. This sandwich was $9.95 and included a pickle. The mouthfeel was bready and the meat filling was spicy.

The shrimp po-boy sandwich.
This is the shrimp po'boy sandwich, served on Cuban bread with Cajun bistro sauce, at $15.59. This sandwich also includes a lime wedge and a pickle. The shrimp were hot, crispy and delicious with the sauce. The total bill for the two sandwiches, water to drink, and tax was $27.51. Sloppy Joe’s has a variety of appetizers, salads, and burgers. There are many places on Key West (and in Cuba too) where Hemingway left his spirit, but Sloppy Joe’s is a good place to start.
This is the street view of the Tap Room.

The Tap Room has small tables with tile tops for al fresco dining. It’s a real treat to watch the passersby along Duval. Ernest Hemingway had a home for about ten years at 907 Whitehead Street near the lighthouse. Another Ernest Hemingway haunt was the Annex in Petoskey, Michigan; now called City Park Grill. His family had a cottage on nearby Lake Walloon, where he spent his summers as a boy and young man and where he recuperated from his injuries during World War I.

This is the nitro-powered ice cream shop.

The Wicked Lick Ice Cream place is located at 335 Duval Street, just down the block from Sloppy Joe’s. This is the home of craft ice cream, frozen with liquid nitrogen. The company states that while it has the old standbys of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, the shop has flavors like maple bacon, tarragon vanilla, and peanut butter & jelly. There is the vegan coconut curry flavor too. The menu also states that Wicked Lick uses the finest creams and cane sugar plus the best vanilla.

Vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, and waffle crisps.

This is the Ice Cream Nachos sundae with two scoops of vanilla and a good drizzle of Torani brand chocolate sauce. Walking into the shop is a lot of fun, and it’s a bit cooler inside than outside. There are fun things to look at. The “nachos” are waffle-cone sections that have great flavor and crispiness. Like most food on Key West, the ice cream here is more expensive than on mainland Florida. Two sundaes, plus two bottles of water, were $20.00.

Time to go back to the passenger terminal.

The Wicked Lick ice creams shop was fun, and Duval Street has several t-shirt shops. Some of the shops offer a variety of shirts in several sizes and colors, plus several designs, that can be printed in a few minutes. The Key West Express, the only ride available back to the mainland, would start boarding at 5 pm, so it was time to head back to the terminal at the corner of Grinnell and Caroline streets. It’s important to get a good place to wait in line as boarding opens up.

The Key West Express is a magnificent boat.

This is the Key West Express catamaran as it sits ready for passengers to return to Fort Myers Beach. According to the company website, each of the company’s two “big cats”  has “state of the art electronics and navigation equipment, all-aluminum body construction, and turbo Diesel engines with jet propulsion.” As far as boat concepts go, the catamaran has been transporting people over the seas for centuries in the Pacific Ocean, and offers stability even in rough water due to its wide beam.

People are heading back to the ferry terminal.

In just a few minutes, passengers will start arriving at the passenger terminal entrance for boarding. Folks will walk up the steps in the center of the image or will take the elevator on the right. The U.S. Coast Guard sets maritime security parameters for facilities like Flagler Station, which is at MarSec Level 1. According to the USCG website, "MARSEC Level 1 means the level for which minimum appropriate security measures shall be maintained at all times."

This is the waiting area for the ferry.
Late afternoon has turned a trickle of ferry passengers into a steady stream. At quarter till 4, the two front rows of the boarding area are already full and the others will fill up in about fifteen minutes. All passengers on the Key West Express must follow federal guidelines, and masks are required. The Express boarding area is dull but comfortable; there are a few vending machines just off-camera plus adequate washrooms. The folks shown here in front will board on the left and will have their pick of seats.
Passengers embark and the return voyage back to the
The Express website says that boarding begins at 5 pm, but at 4:45 the crew opened the door in the waiting area and passengers proceeded to the gangway. Each person was told to have ticket in hand for the crew-people to collect. Boarding went smoothly and most folks were seated by 5:30. The ship got underway at 6 pm, moving slowly at first, and then picking up speed in the Gulf of Mexico. Because seating was tight, the captain asked couples to share their six-seat tables and “make some new friends."
A cheeseburger from the galley.
The Key West Express has a variety of hot food available for purchase, in addition to snacks and all sorts of beverages. The food can best be described as similar to the offerings at a high-school football game. This is the cheeseburger, with added condiments, on a sesame seed bun. (There were no salads or pieces of hand fruit.) Available condiments included packets of mayo, ketchup, mustard and relish. The cheeseburger was $4.25, the nachos were $4.50, and the bottle of water was $3.25.
Well after sunset on the Key West Express.

At about seven o’clock, the ship was well into the Gulf of Mexico, and most folks lost their Internet connection. The ship shows movies and/or television throughout the voyage, The movie shown on screen here is Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018). After the movie ended, the crew turned on ESPN, showing an NFL football game. The movies shown during the morning trip out to Key West were Bruce Almighty (2003) and Night at the Museum (2006).


The Express docked at about 9:45 pm and passengers were allowed to disembark at 10 pm. Again, the captain reminds the passengers of everything they need to know, including that the ship’s mates are looking for tips. The trip back from Key West to Fort Myers Beach was a little longer and choppier than the trip out. Also, now that’s nighttime, a long-sleeve shirt of lightweight jacket is nice to have. Disembarkation was very orderly and smooth.

The parking lot at KWE was well lit.

The walk from the ferry’s gangway back to the parking lot at the Key West Express dock was very short and smooth over well-maintained pavement. Luggage rolled very easily. The parking lot was well-lit, and the parking slots were all well-marked. It was easy to maneuver in the lot to make that left turn back out to Main Street, and then another turn onto San Carlos Boulevard. Even though most restaurants have begun closing for the night, the beach is always open as is the beautiful night sky.

Return to Top

Privacy Policy