The Marathon Seafood Festival calls itself the Original Marathon Seafood Festival to emphasize it’s the real deal – indigenous and authentic.
Florida has more than 30 seafood festivals; the Keys have at least two others.
But the Marathon Seafood Festival is the oldest seafood festival in the Keys. It was founded 40 years ago by commercial fishermen, and it’s the fishermen (members of the Organized Fishermen of Florida) who catch and cook all of the seafood. Their wives bake the key lime pies and desserts, according to event coordinator Leah Luckin.
The event, now the second most popular festival in the Keys after Key West Fantasy Fest, has grown to include music, a fine art show, boat show, rides and games and booths selling products ranging seagrass hats to sculptures made from old lobster traps. There are more than 200 vendors.
Seafood, fresh off the boat, however, is the real reason more than 25,000 people are expected during the two-day festival.
The most popular item is a Florida lobster dinner. Last year, more than 2,000 pounds of local spiny lobster was served.
The lines are also long for stone crab, shrimp, fish, conch fritters and chowder. (More than 50 gallons of conch chowder will be served cup by cup that weekend, according to event statistics from past years.)
The festival will serve kegs and kegs of beer and many gallons of wine along with all the sides including hush puppies, cole slaw and French fries, and, of course, Key lime pie.
This year, a headliner has been added to Saturday night: Tito Puente Jr. and his band, who are sure to get a mambo line rocking.
2019 Admission TBA. Last year, admission was $5, children under 10 admitted free. No pets.
Directions: Head south on the Overseas Highway to Mile Marker 49, the Marathon Community Park, 200 36th St., which is the ocean side of the road. There is some free parking around town, but the schools and churches charge for parking as a fund-raiser. Many offer shuttles.
Traditional hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (possibly later, “as needed,” according to event organizers) Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. It gets crowded: “The earlier you get there the better,” says event planner Luckin.
Where to stay: The Marathon Seafood Festival occurs in middle of the busy spring-break season, so rooms will go for their highest rates. The most reasonably priced accommodations will be in 1950s-era mom-and-pop motels, which dot the Keys. While not luxurious, many retain a lot of Keys character. Also consider booking rooms in either the Lower Keys (Big Pine Key and adjoining islands) or even the Upper Keys (Key Largo.)