The Florida Keys are worlds away from the theme parks of Central Florida although they can, of course, be combined. Islets with names like Key Largo, Islamorada, Sugarloaf Key, Key West and South Siesta are linked together by one of America’s top 10 scenic drives, the Overseas Highway. Originally built as a railway by millionaire Henry Flagler: the first train made the journey on January 26th, 1912, with tickets costing $2.60 round-trip. Sadly, the railroad was badly damaged by a 1935 hurricane: however, the disaster gave way to success as the local residents lobbied and obtained the new and now famous road. Their success gives us easy and spectacular access to these magical islands.
Much of the Florida Keys is protected by national and state parks as well as marine sanctuaries to ensure that we can enjoy the islands at their pristine best. Here you will be able to swim with dolphins in both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, snorkel or dive in North America’s only living coral reef, kayak along tidal creeks and through mangrove forests. And when the day is done relax in one of the Key’s fine hotels dining on delicious and ultra-fresh sea food.
The Florida Keys are stunning all year around but the best time to visit them is between December and April when the weather is dry, warm and sunny. If you were wondering why they are called keys not islands, a key is a small low-lying sandy island formed on the surface of ancient coral reefs.
The Florida Keys consists of around 1700 islands extending over 198 square miles but only 43 of these are connected via the bridges and so most are uninhabited. There are five main centres: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and Key West.
The largest of the Florida Keys, Key Largo is the closest to Miami, just over an hour away. The Key became famous internationally when the 1947 Key Largo film featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was released: today you can cruise the back canals on the original “The African Queen” which starred in the film of the same name. Key Largo is a snorkellers or divers paradise as you explore the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which you can explore by kayaking through the mangroves, setting out in a glass-bottom boat, snorkel or dive. Speaking of diving and snorkelling, all the underwater delights of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary including the Spiegel Grove shipwreck (one of many purposefully skuttled) are at your fin tips. As the island is flanked by the Everglades National Park, it is also a great destination for kayakers, birders and anglers. The island is also known for its dolphin therapy programmes and you can have a very special visit to the Island Dolphin Care where you can observe a dolphin training session, view the aquaria and interact with a dolphin.
Made up of six islands, Islamorada is the home of some of the best sport fishing and saltwater fly- fishing in the world. Think sailfish, bonefish, snook and redfish, it is possible to catch all these and more during your stay. But if you are not yet a fisherman, do still stay a while to visit the Keys History and Discovery Center to learn about the early sportfishing legends, Henry Flagler’s Over-Sea Railroad as well as the art and nature of the keys. You can hand feed tarpon or visit one of Florida’s original marine mammal parks, the Theater of the Sea. Wander around these family-owned lagoons and lush tropical gardens see and interact with dolphins, sea lions, rays, turtles, alligator and parrots many of which have been rescued. You can also visit the History of Diving Museum including a 16th century treasure chest, the Indian Key Historic State Park, a former quarry, now the Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park and the tropical forest of Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park.
In the middle of the Florida Keys, Marathon is best known for the iconic Seven Mile Bridge that is the lynchpin of the Overseas Railway. It is a 10-mile-long family-oriented island community with private waterfront vacations homes and family-centred beach resorts. As well as the bridge, Marathon is renowned for its Seafood Festival usually held in March, the Turtle Hospital, which, as the name implies, is dedicated to the health and rehabilitation of sea turtles and Aquarium Encounters where you can get up close and personal with dolphins, turtles and sharks. Ride a bike or take a train to Pigeon Key to learn about Flagler’s Railway or hike to Crane Point Hammock and see how the early settlers lived. Marathon also offers spectacular boating, sailing and other watersports: it is a really good spot to learn to scuba. You can gain an Open Water Scuba Certification in just three days.
Literally, at the end of the road, Key West is the southernmost part of the United States and the most populous of the Keys with its own airport and Duval Street, one of the most energetic strips of shops, bars and cafés anywhere. Enjoy a cocktail at Sloppy Joe’s, a favourite Key West drinking hole of Ernest Hemingway or join a walking tour to see the island’s intriguing Victoria style homes, gingerbread conch houses, mansions listed on the National Register, gardens and courtyards. Unusually, you might start your tour in the cemetery which not only offers a glimpse into the island’s past but also its quirky humour: one of the gravestones reads “I told you I was sick” and another “At least I know where he is sleeping tonight”.
You won’t need your car in Key West as it is easy and fun to explore by trolley, on foot or by bicycle. Enjoy the open-air markets, historic forts, Bahama Village with its colourful Bahamian-style architecture and panoramic water views, historic forts, galleries and legendary bars. A Key West notable visitor was John James Audubon celebrated by the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. And then, of course there are the beaches and all the associated water sports.
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