Florida Keys

Florida Keys

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 main islands are connected by the Overseas Highway (Highway 1), an impressive engineering feat that required the construction of 43 bridges, some of them quite long. Most addresses in the Keys are based on mile-marker numbers, which decrease as you go south from Homestead; they reach 0 at the end of the road in Key West.

To best appreciate the panorama of islands and ocean from multiple perspectives, we recommend that you rent a car in Miami and drive the 165 mi/265 km to Key West, then fly back to Miami (or vice versa). Be aware, however, that the road is very heavily traveled, and traffic tie-ups are common. It mostly a two-lane highway, which really makes it a slow trip, so plan at least five hours each way—more if you’re making a lot of stops—or spread the trip out over two days with an overnight stay in the Middle Keys.

Don’t expect endless sandy shores in the Keys. Beaches exist here and there (often at state parks or hotels), but most of the shoreline consists of jungly mangrove trees, outcroppings of coral rock or seawalls adjacent to buildings. The Keys have retained an intriguing rough-around-the-edges feel even as more shopping centers, fast-food restaurants and chain motels have sprung up along Highway 1.

The residents who have settled in the islands have much to do with the area’s distinctive character: They’re a mix of salty seadogs, 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, over 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 still pleasant. Plan on staying a couple of days at the minimum.

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/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. An item from another Bogart film is in Key Largo, however. The African Queen, the boat that starred with Bogie and Katharine Hepburn in the 1951 film of that name, is on a hoist at the Holiday Inn Key Largo Resort and Marina, where it awaits restoration.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo preserves 150 sq mi/390 sq km of ocean, including underwater reefs that harbor an incredible variety of sea life. Because the reefs are so far offshore, you’ll need to take a snorkeling or scuba tour or one of the glass-bottomed boat excursions to see them. Back on shore, the park has a boardwalk nature trail that introduces you to the mangrove environment, and you can rent canoes and boats or lounge on the park’s beach.

Those interested in scuba diving and snorkeling will find other worthwhile spots farther down in the Keys. Highlights include the 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 State Botanical Site, which has a good collection of odd plants that are native to the Keys. Look for the strangler fig, a parasitic plant that lives up to its name by killing the tree it lives on. 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. The center is a refuge for injured, recovering or retired show dolphins and is operated as a nonprofit teaching and research center. Educational tours of the facility are available, and visitors can (for a fee) swim with the dolphins in Dolphin Encounter. If you’d rather just wade in to pet and interact with the friendly creatures, try the Dolphin Splash.

Marathon is the next town, the largest in the Middle Keys. Crane Point Hammock contains an archaeological site and the Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys, a museum and nature conservancy that presents rare plants and animals and Native American artifacts.

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. The refuge headquarters has information about the nearby Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and Key West National Wildlife Refuge, both of which will appeal to dedicated birders.

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.