Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Bay, the Florida Keys are the perfect Caribbean getaway without ever leaving the states. The archipelago’s verdant islands are strung together by 42 bridges over tranquil turquoise waters. Here the days are measured in sunsets and are filled with activities on, under or beside the sea. Each night, you can dine on succulent fresh seafood like stone crab, hogfish and Florida lobster. Since all the islands in the Keys share these traits, it’s not surprising that visitors tend to lump them together as one large version of Key West. However, each town has its own distinct vibe and attractions. The question is, which Key is right for you?
Sunset in the Florida Keys — Photo courtesy of Bob Krist/Florida Keys News BureauKey Largo, the first of the Florida Keys, is only an hour-long drive from the Miami and Ft. Lauderdale airports--perfect for a quick day trip or weekend excursion. As you head south along the Overseas Highway, you’ll feel the stressors of the mainland slip away as easily as you slip into your flip flops. Here you’ll find weekend warriors escaping to their second homes and a passionate diving community. While you can dive anywhere along the Keys on North America’s only living coral barrier reef, Key Largo has justly earned the title of Dive Capital of the World.
A diver explores a portion of the artificial reef Spiegel Grove — Photo courtesy of Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau/HOThe area boasts the most diverse dive portfolio along an underwater universe teeming with sea life and mounds of colorful coral formations. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (America’s first underwater park), the 11-foot bronze statue Christ of the Abyss and one of the world’s best wreck dives (the USS Spiegel Grove) are just a few of the adventures that await. Numerous dive operators offer beginning to advanced certifications and daily trips to the reef.
Photo courtesy of Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News BureauDriving into Islamorada, the land starts to drop away, and you may find yourself slowing on the bridges, captivated by the stellar views. The Village consists of six different islands--Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Lower Matecumbe Key and the offshore islands of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key. Known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, the convergence of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay have lured notable anglers like Winston Churchill and former President George H.W. Bush. At spots like Bud N' Mary’s and Robbie’s marinas, you’ll find a fleet of highly sought after recreational fishing captains.
You can have an exhilarating off-shore experience chasing big game fish like blue marlin and dolphin or a quieter backcountry expedition for tarpon and snook. The flats that are renowned for the light tackle fishing are also perfect for boardsports. Islamorada has recently become a hub for kiteboarders with two of the best launch points--Whale Harbor and Anne’s Beach.
Less commercial than the rest of the Keys, Upper Matecumbe is the downtown of Islamorada with charming mom-and-pop boutiques and art galleries. The third Thursday of each month the Morada Way Art Walk fills the half-mile stretch between the Hurricane Memorial and Green Turtle Restaurant.
Photo courtesy of Bob Krist/Florida Keys News BureauLocated mainly on Vaca, Fat Deer and Grassy Key, Marathon is a 10-mile-long family-friendly city. Situated in the middle of the island chain, it’s a convenient spot to cool your jets. You can easily take a day trip to Key West, as well as explore the most tangible relics of Flagler’s ill-fated Overseas Railway. You can walk or bike across the Old Seven Mile Bridge, which once carried the train, to the former camp for the railroad workers, Pigeon Key. Eight historic structures still remain from the camp, and a guide shares what life was like there in the early 1900s.
About 10 miles further south, the white sandy beaches at Bahia Honda State Park have made many a best-of list. You can snorkel in the shadow of the iron-trestle railroad bridge or take the steep trail to the top of the bridge for the perfect sunset perch.
Shaking the flippers of a dolphin at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key near Marathon — Photo courtesy of Bob Krist/Florida Keys News BureauMarathon also offers two unique opportunities to learn about the local wildlife. You can swim with the dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center or take an educational tour of the Turtle Hospital. You'll get a glimpse behind-the-scenes of the rehabilitation area and a chance to feed the permanent residents.
The Southernmost House in Key West — Photo courtesy of Rob O'Neal/Florida Keys News BureauMile markers are often used as addresses on the Overseas Highway, and Key West is zero. Here you’ll be closer to Cuba than to Miami, and you can feel it in your bones. It’s as if your skin senses the change in latitude with every tropical breeze. A veritable metropolis compared to the rest of the island chain, the Southernmost City even has an international airport. Cruise ships dock here most days setting forth thousands of tourists on morning excursions.
Key West wears many faces for different people: party town, artist’s retreat, writer’s haven, historic treasure trove, architectural find and more. The infamous “Duval Crawl,” a pub crawl through the rollicking late-night watering-holes, is a popular pastime. In the Upper and Middle Keys, most restaurants and bars shut down before midnight, but in Key West, you've got until 4 am to get your groove on.
During the day, that same mile-long stretch is a pedestrian-friendly collection of funky boutiques, art galleries and museums. Tired of walking? You can rent a bike or scooter, or take one of the many trains and trolley tours.
Photo courtesy of Bob Krist/Florida Keys News BureauAt the Ernest Hemingway House, you can get in touch with your inner writer. Perhaps you can compose a limerick about the urinal-turned-fountain that the author brought home from the original Sloppy Joe’s Bar? At the Mel Fisher Museum, you can marvel at the perseverance of the treasure hunter. His sixteen-year quest for the 1622 Nuestra Señora de Atocha netted over 40 tons of silver and gold, Columbian emeralds and other artifacts.
The tiny island is home to three Civil-War-era forts. Fort Zachary Taylor shadows one of the best beaches on the island. Fort East Martello Museum is an eclectic collection of oddities such as Robert the haunted doll and the found object metal sculptures by Stanley Papio. Fort West Martello’s red crumbling brick structure has been transformed into a tropical oasis by the Key West Garden Club.
No matter which Key you choose, the sign you see on the highway when leaving the Florida Keys says it all: “Back to Reality.”