Tag Archive | Catmandu

Guide to Tiki Bars of Marathon

Since Kay and I moved to Marathon, Florida, over a year ago, we have enjoyed exploring many of the tiki bars in the area by dinghy and by car. Why tiki bars? Tiki bars are bars in tiki huts. Tiki huts, in general, are magical. The Florida Keys are very hot in the summertime, and somehow the air under a tiki hut is always 5 – 10 degrees cooler than outside. Plus they look exotic and you feel like you are on vacation whenever you are hanging out in a tiki bar. Tiki bars do not have air conditioning, but they all have ample air circulation on all sides and fans are installed so they are comfortable all year around.

What defines a tiki hut? A tiki hut has a cypress log frame, open sides, and a palm thatched roof. Traditional, native American “chickee huts” are the same, except a chickee hut has a raised wooden floor. Fun fact: tiki huts or chickee huts built by Florida’s Seminole and Miccosukee tribes are exempt from the Florida Building Code and can be built without building permits. 

Disclaimer: not all of the bars reviewed in this article are actual “tiki” bars, but they are still fun places to visit. Also, the list is not complete since there are so many of them and we have so little time. So please enjoy this article with a cold adult beverage in hand, and it will be okay. 

Here is our guide starting — roughly — with our favorite bars in Marathon that are close to Safe Harbor Marina / Boot Key Harbor, and then expanding outwardly. Look for the hyperlinks in this article and click on them to get more information, like their web addresses, street addresses, phone numbers, and menus. Note that every restaurant in the Keys seems to specialize in seafood since it is so abundant here. 

Sunset Grille. Located at the eastern end of the Seven Mile Bridge, Sunset Grille offers perfect sunset views, a huge menu of food and specialty drinks, its own pool, and a pool bar. The sturdy dinghy dock was rebuilt after Hurricane Ian last year, and is about a mile by dinghy from the marinas. The restaurant plays Jimmy Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville in the background all day. Service is always fast and friendly. Sunset Grille is the perfect place to go with friends and family. 

Burdine’s WaterfrontBurdine’s is a smaller tiki bar restaurant with simpler fare on the second floor of a marina and fuel dock building. Burdine’s is best known for having the best french fries in the world. On the menu, they are “fresh hand-cut fries sprinkled with their special fry dust.” Burdine’s also has some tasty vegetarian entree options, and deep fried key lime pie. The restaurant is directly on the channel leading from the ocean to Boot Key Harbor, and boasts a floating dinghy dock. Sunset views are also amazing from this second floor tiki bar, and one can often see dolphins transiting the channel.

Castaway. Down one of the canals around the corner from Burdine’s is Castaway. To get there by water, you have to already know where it is, since you have to take some twisty turns. The restaurant is known for dishes made from lionfish, which is an invasive species. You are doing the Keys a favor if you take the lionfish out of the water and eat them. The dinghy dock at Castaway is sketchy, but it exists. Only the outdoor bar is decorated in the tiki bar motif. 

Dockside. Dockside is the dive bar where you go to become a local. Situated on the waterfront on the southern edge of Boot Key Harbor, Dockside has the perfect floating dinghy dock, happy hour from 3pm – 7pm, and live music seven days a week. During happy hour, Bud Lite is only $2.50, wine is $3.25, and well drinks are only $4. You can have rounds of drinks, happy hour appetizers, and live music, and be hard pressed to spend $20 apiece. I would know, I have tried many times! But Dockside is so low key that it doesn’t even have its own website. It can only be found online on Facebook. Dockside is not a true tiki bar, since it doesn’t have a thatched roof. However, Dockside scores high for its location, waterfront views, low prices, good music, and the Keys vibe. 

Lazy Days South. If your boat is docked at Safe Harbor Marina, you will surely patronize this tiki bar on a regular basis. Lazy Days is conveniently located only 60 feet from our boat and sits between the marina pool and the marina docks. In fact, bathers can get pool service by ringing a ship’s bell that the bar has installed outside. Lazy Days has a good happy hour, but is not a true tiki bar because it does not have a thatched roof. Also, their docks are not particularly dinghy-friendly since they are fixed rather high off the water.

TJ’s Tiki Bar. TJ’s Tiki Bar is an upscale tiki bar located on the bay side of Vaca Key and is a part of the Tranquility Bay Beach Resort. There are great sunset views that frame the famous lighthouse at the nearby Faro Blanco Marina. TJ’s is on the water, but the docks are for watercraft rental only. Most of the seating is on an uncovered patio, and there is often a singer / guitar player providing live music. TJ’s is not a true tiki bar because it does not have a thatched roof. It is also the most expensive tiki bar we have been to. I once got a $28 charge for a veggie burger. I thought it was mistake … and it wasn’t.

Porky’s Bayside BBQ. Like TJ’s, Porky’s is also on the bay side of Vaca Key, but is much more low key and affordable than TJ’s. Instead of specializing in seafood like the other restaurants in Marathon, Porky’s specializes in pork barbecue. However, they have good size menu to satisfy almost every palate. Porky’s is a true tiki bar that is easily identified from the Overseas Highway, and has several dock slips on the water. New for 2023, Porky’s just opened an 18-hole mini-golf course, the only mini-golf course in Marathon.

Barnacle Barney’s Tiki Bar. Hidden behind The Hammocks Resort on the bay side is Barnacle Barney’s, a hidden gem. It is a very cute bar on the water with friendly servers that is open to the public, but you cannot bring a boat here and it is not a true tiki bar because it does not have a thatched roof. No official website. Happy hour is 4 – 6 and the prices for drinks and appetizers are great. 

Keys Fisheries. A true tiki bar on the second floor of a fish market, Keys Fisheries is another favorite of the locals. It is walking distance from the City Marina, which is very handy if your boat is on a mooring ball there. It is also on the bay side. Enjoy adult beverages while watching the fishing boats bring in their catches at the marina below. 

Island Fish Co. Turning toward the north / east end of Marathon, Island Fish Co. is a true tiki bar on the bay side that is the only restaurant that can be reached by land, sea, and air. There is a helipad on the north end of the parking lot.

Sparky’s Landing. On the north / east end of Marathon is one of the best tiki bars in town. A true tiki bar on the ocean side, you can take your dinghy to their dock, but you would have to cross five miles of open ocean to get there. Sparky’s Landing has a very large menu that includes excellent brick oven pizzas. Their live music offerings are the best quality music acts in town, and include Marathon’s former mayor, singer/songwriter John Bartus. Like Sunset Grille, Sparky’s Landing is a great place for groups. 


“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
― John Muir,

“Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”
Mary Oliver
, Poet

In The Other, a 1971 novel by author Thomas Tryon, a pair of twin boys learn a game from their grandmother, and even though the novel goes to a very dark place, I love that game. I’ve remembered it through all of these years and practice it often. It goes like this: you stare at some living thing for a long time and imagine that you can see what it sees and feel what it feels. If it’s a bird, you can experience flying and feel the wind in your feathers, feel the drafts lifting you up by the wings, imagine how it feels to swoop out over the water and soar on the breeze. In the novel, the boys practice on each other and it doesn’t end well. But try it sometime. Pick a seagull or a pelican and take it for a spin.


Being retired, I feel that it is finally okay to spend time bird watching. It’s probably not okay to spend time imagining that I’m a bird, but the mind wanders and that’s what happens. From the cockpit of my boat, I can see seagulls, ibises, pelicans, cormorants, egrets, ospreys, and anhingas – sometimes all at once sitting on a large piece of debris in the harbor. They all sit together as if they are one flock. Birds have rules, usually. One bird to a piling, and only one. But a line of different species crowds together on the rusting train car, squawking and fussing.

Pelicans on pilings: One per piling, that’s the rule.

Pelicans: My favorites are the pelicans. They are huge, with brown bodies and white heads folded down into their necks. In the air, they soar without flapping, graceful as scarves on the wind. But when they spy a fish in the water to capture and store in their massive throats, they become clumsy bundles of feathers, feet and beaks, crashing headlong into the water with a messy splash. It takes them a second to straighten out their limbs, toss the fish into their expandable throats and sit quietly, composing themselves. I’m going to make a slow-motion video of the pelican plunge and set it to the sound of a World War II bomber plane. These antics make me laugh out loud sometimes.

Pelican on a piling near the fuel dock at our marina.

Ibises: These social birds fly together to a designated tree on land right at sunset. We’ve seen it again and again; they gather in the branches and rest there overnight. The coordinated timing is remarkable. They all seem to know when it’s time to go. White ibises have bodies shaped like footballs and long, pink curved beaks, although the beaks are straight until juveniles reach adulthood. These birds are the playboys of the bird kingdom. Males have multiple girlfriends, and mate often with a variety of females. However, a male will build a nest for one particular female and defend it while they raise their chicks.

Anhingas and Cormorants: These birds look very similar in the water. They swim around in a “seated” position, low in the water with just their heads and necks sticking out. They are similar in size, and both birds tend to sit on a perch with their wings unfurled. They don’t have oil glands like other sea birds, so they dry their wings by hanging them out. The lack of oil is an advantage in making deep dives for fish. Anhingas have pointed beaks and seem to be wearing snazzy silver jackets, while cormorants have hooked beaks and wear basic black.

Anhingha, in its snazzy jacket.

Egrets and Herons: My father was proud of being able to identify birds by their minor characteristics. My sisters and I would tease him by asking what color the bird’s eyelashes were, or how many toenails they had. I guess I have come full circle: I know the difference between great egrets and great (white) herons is in their leg color. The white phase of the great blue heron is found only in Florida and has light colored legs. The great white egret has black legs. We have both here in Marathon, and we have some cranes that also look similar. They are tall, graceful, majestic. They can stand perfectly still on one leg in the shadow of the mangroves as we drift by in the dinghy.

I’m not very good at identifying the birds; I have a brother-in-law who can tell you what bird it is if you just send him a picture. But these are my few favorites, and I do love to waste my time watching them.

Marine mammals

Manatees: There are manatees at the marina for the winter. We are warned not to feed them or provide fresh water (you should see them lap up the freshwater leaks, as if the water they live in is too salty for their taste). Manatees are huge blobs of elephant-gray blubber, sometimes eight or nine feet long. They are shaped like giant loaves of Phil’s French bread, adding a flat tail, fins for front legs and a pig-like snout. When you see one in the water, it looks like an oval hump of seaweed until it raises its nose to breathe. In spite of this ugly description, manatees are actually cute. They have adorable faces.

These water-logged blimps are also mysterious and shy. We know they are here, but no one knows how many there are, and they’re nearly invisible when they hang out at the bottom of the harbor. Is that a rock, a seaweed pile, or a manatee? One day, a large adult floated for hours near the back of our boat, and we were convinced it was dying. It moved very little except to breathe. Our next-door neighbor, an ER physician, told us it was normal manatee behavior, related to mating. I guess they play easy to get, just waiting for a suitor to wander by.

Dolphins: When the dolphins come, they stay for a while. They never come alone, but in groups of two, three, sometimes five. They slide through the water in graceful arcs, silent and dignified. We have seen one or two fly completely out of the water in a frenzy, but that is rare. Mostly, they travel from south to north in our harbor, showing their dorsal fins every 30 feet or so. Twenty minutes later, they are gone, and I feel fortunate to have seen them.

When I see dolphins, like the one just in front of the dinghy, I feel like this.

I don’t know why people love the dolphins so much. People gather on the railing of the dockside restaurants to point them out, and the kayakers rush over to get a closer look. As far as I’m concerned, they are royalty – the lions of the ocean – honoring us with their presence. I know when I’ve been blessed.

A little video clip of dolphins in our harbor, by Phil.

How to Be Happy

For twenty years or more I’ve been trying to write an article titled, “How to Be Happy.” I may finish it one day, and I think I’ll put something in there about hanging around in nature. My happiest times in childhood were spent wandering through the woods in Connecticut and in California. Getting up early to catch rabbits in the backyard or deer next to our campsite brought enormous surges of joy. Sadness has no place in the woods. The birds won’t let it rest there.

So it’s not surprising that I spend time looking for wildlife in the Keys. It’s a different kind of wilderness here than I am used to, but the expanse of water just past the cockpit, the shadowy green of mangroves on either side of the harbor, the amazing oranges and fuschias of the always spectacular sunsets; they call to me. There is a lot to learn under the water and in the salty creeks where turtles and iguanas hang off the low branches. There are tiny deer in the islands to the west that I have never seen. I have a lot to do.

Sunset with cormorants drying their wings

It’s just past five now, time for the ibises to be gathering and flying off toward land. There’s a small manatee next door. We just saw him poke his snout up to drink fresh-water drips from the boat in the next slip. Maybe later there will be dolphins.

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
― John Muir, “John of the Mountains,” American Naturalist and Environmental Philosopher