You really haven't seen Florida until you've seen the Florida Keys, a 125-mi/200-km archipelago of approximately 1,000 coral islands at the southern end of the state.
The residents who have settled in the islands have much to do with the area's distinctive character: They're a mix of salty sea dogs, artists, retirees, musicians, drinkers, hippies, writers and free spirits of various sorts. To best appreciate them, you've got to slow yourself to the Keys tempo. Sadly, during the past decade more and more commercial development has raised property values, displacing many locals, but the waters are still calm and turquoise, and diving, snorkeling and swimming are as pleasant as ever. Plan on staying a couple of days at the minimum.
Note: The Florida Keys sustained serious damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Recovery efforts will take months or even years. Travelers should investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit.
Starting at the northeastern end of the archipelago (just south of Miami), the first major island is Key Largo. Like the others, it's sandwiched between the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the pale green waters of Florida Bay. If you're looking for locations from the Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson film Key Largo, you won't find them—it wasn't filmed in the Keys—but you can see some movie stills at the Caribbean Club Bar, one of the island's most popular watering holes.
Those interested in scuba diving and snorkeling should visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, off Key Largo. Other worthwhile spots farther down in the Keys include Looe Key Reef, near Big Pine Key, a great spot for novice divers, and the Adolphus Busch, a freighter that was intentionally sunk to create a dive site.
Taking the Overseas Highway out of Key Largo, you'll soon reach Tavernier. Bird lovers might plan a stop at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, a convalescent home for pelicans and other winged creatures that have been injured. Next stop is Islamorada, a center for sportfishing in the Keys. Islamorada is also home to Theater of the Sea, the second-oldest marine park in the country (after Marineland in St. Augustine).
Lignumvitae Key can only be reached by boat, but it's worth the trip to see the fascinating Botanical State Park. Long Key is home to Long Key State Park, a good place to swim or snorkel, especially if you need a break from driving.
Grassy Key houses the Dolphin Research Center, one of several facilities in the Keys that allows visitors to swim and interact with dolphins.
Marathon is the next town, the largest in the Middle Keys. The famous Seven Mile Bridge begins just beyond Marathon and yields great views of the surrounding ocean. When you crest a tall section that allows boats to pass beneath, you can see the highway stretching off across the sea. To one side, you'll see the remains of another bridge. It carried the railroad in the early 1900s and, later, the original highway. (The first bridge truly earned the Seven Mile moniker; the current one is slightly shorter.)
Midway across, you'll see Pigeon Key, which is reached via the old bridge. The early-1900s buildings on the island once housed bridge workers and today are home to a research center and a museum about the Seven Mile Bridge. Get there by walking, biking or by taking a shuttle bus—you can't drive to Pigeon Key. On the south end of the bridge, stop for a swim at Bahia Honda State Park—it has the best swimming hole in the Keys, as well as excellent camping. Another old railroad bridge there has been preserved as a historic structure.
Big Pine Key is the next major island—it's best known as the home of the miniature Key deer, which reach a maximum height of 28 in/70 cm—not much bigger than a medium-sized dog. The deer were once found throughout the Keys but are now largely confined to Big Pine. They were nearly hunted to extinction, but since the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge, their numbers have stabilized. As a part of the effort to preserve the deer, speed limits are low on Big Pine and rigorously enforced. To get a look at the deer, drive along some of the quieter roads around sunset. They can often be spotted on lawns in residential areas. Though they're quite tame, do not feed them. Feeding by visitors in cars makes the deer more likely to congregate near the roads, where they run the risk of being struck by vehicles.
As the highway crosses Cudjoe Key, watch for Fat Albert, a blimp soaring overhead at a height of 1,400 ft/427 m. It carries radar equipment used to monitor aircraft and boat traffic (including drug runners) and a transmitter that broadcasts TV Marti to Cuba.
Detour off the highway at Sugarloaf Key to see the Perky Bat Tower. The weathered wooden structure was built in the late 1920s by a developer who hoped that the specially designed tower would attract bats to eat the mosquitoes that were discouraging humans from spending time on the island. The bats never came, but the tower remains. Just beyond Sugarloaf is Key West, the southernmost and most famous of the islands.
For more information on the Keys, visit http://www.fla-keys.com.
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