Island Living in the Florida Keys
Imagine a lifestyle so sublime and so removed you’ll swear you’re on a deserted isle somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean. Throw in some “R & R”, snorkeling, palm trees, and reggae music and you’ll have all the ingredients for fun in the sun in the Florida Keys!
From the time you arrive in Key Largo on the Overseas Highway (AKA Highway 1), you’ll enter a world of endless beauty, fascination and intrigue. What never ceases to amaze me is that this is an island destination which is less than 60 miles from downtown Miami and is totally accessible by car! Not only that, but you can easily cover the entire length of the Florida Keys from Key Largo to Key West in barely over two hours–but be sure to watch out for the crocodile crossing as you approach Key Largo and be careful to observe the speed limit!
If you’re looking for your accommodation, remember that all addresses in the Florida Keys are basically referred to as “Oceanside” or “Bayside” depending on what side of the road they’re on, and normally list the Mile Marker as well, so it’s pretty easy to find what you’re looking for (mile markers begin at “0” in Key West and get progressively larger as you drive north up Highway 1 towards Miami, with Mile Marker 112 delineating the Dade Country Line just above Key Largo). Another word to the wise for first-timers in the Keys–there are only four grocery stores from Key Largo to Marathon, so it’s definitely a good idea to stock up on any essentials you may need while you have the opportunity to avoid any unnecessary backtracking.
When you first stop at the Florida Keys Visitor Center in Key Largo, you begin to get a sense of the multitude of activities which awaits you and your family along this scenic roadway. The Florida Keys are very much a vacation paradise but there is also a homey feel to this chain of islands which is connected by more than 40 bridges like a Caribbean necklace, and stretches for more than 126 miles. There are romantic tales from days of old of swashbuckling pirates, buried treasure, and even hostile Indians, and as always depending on the time of year, there is the threat of tropical storms, dangerous hurricanes and unpredictable seas.
When the Overseas Highway was finally completed in 1938 and later modernized, it opened up a whole new world of vacation pleasures… from world-renowned bonefishing and scuba diving to eco-tours, wicker inns and epicurean delights of every kind (but you seafood lovers are in for a special treat!). One thing’s for sure, no matter where you go in this panoramic island setting, you’ll be surrounded by aquamarine water which stretches as far as the eye can see and seems almost too beautiful to be real, with drifting currents of so many hues they seem to resemble a peacock’s tail.
Key Largo, the first of the Florida Keys you reach coming from Miami, may be only an hour’s drive from South Florida’s two major airports, but believe me, it’s a world away in terms of attitude and lifestyle. Sandwiched in between Everglades National Park to the west and North America’s only living coral barrier reef to the east, Key Largo is best known as the “Diving Capital of the World” but it’s also home of the African Queen, the boat made famous in the 1951 movie of the same name which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. One more thing…Key Largo is definitely a place to R-E-L-A-X and play. And don’t forget lobster season which begins around the end of July–it’s been said that some twenty-five pounders roam these waters in search of protection at the Key Largo Marine Sanctuary!
The famous underwater Christ Statue at John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park seems to beckon visitors from all over the world whether they be nature lovers, kayakers, birders, or just plain folks in search of a well deserved vacation. If you’re one of those who enjoys nature, you’ll definitely want to visit to Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park where you can take a peaceful stroll through an enchanted tropical forest.
Once you get settled in at Key Largo, as the locals will tell you, it’s even harder to leave. There is a wide assortment of restaurants, bars, and beach bistros to keep you occupied, so it doesn’t take long to fall in love with this vibrant, fun-loving island community. Snappers Waterfront Restaurant, Sundowners on the Bay, CafÃ© Largo, Snook’s Bayside, and the Key Largo Conch House are a few of the popular eating establishments you might want to try while you’re in the area.
Just down the road from Key Largo is the quiet community of Tavernier which is home to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center and Harry Harris Park (Tavernier is actually a short distance from Tavernier Key where 18th century wreckers once searched the reefs at night for booty from ships which had run aground and sunk). Tavernier is the perfect choice for visitors who want easy access to Key Largo and Islamorada dive sites and activities. For boating enthusiasts, Tavernier Creek Marina provides excellent access to Florida Bay as well as the Atlantic Ocean. There are also abundant opportunities for diving, snorkeling, shelling, swimming, and fishing.
If you like fishing, you’re really gonna like the next island jewel in the Florida Keys chain. Islamorada proudly bills itself as the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World” and for good reason! This may be the only place on Earth where you can catch a blue marlin or sailfish in the morning, then venture onto the flats in search of an elusive bonefish, permit, tarpon, snook or redfish in mere inches of water.
About a third of the way down the island you’ll come to World Wide Sportsman (owned by Bass Pro Shops) which sells everything you’ll need for saltwater fishing! In addition to fishing tackle, World Wide Sportsman has a marine department, Everglades aquarium, art gallery and Zane Grey Lounge to help put you in the fishing mood. You can reserve a charter fishing guide or wet slip for your boat, and even buy drinks, ice, and bait. Right next door is the World Famous Islamorada Fish Company Restaurant, and if you want to see some big fish up close, be sure to take the kids down to the docks at the end of the day to see the live tarpon feeding!
If you’re not a fisherman, don’t despair…there are plenty of other things to do on this fun-filled island. You can go kayaking, sightseeing, sign up for an eco tour, or take the whole family to visit Theatre Of The Sea where you can swim with dolphins and other sea creatures in a controlled marine environment! Divers and snorkelers will enjoy the History of Diving Museum and music lovers will relish in warm, tropical evenings spent on the lawn of TIB Amphitheater at Founder’s Park.
Long Key State Park offers visitors a wonderful opportunity to meander along lush, tropical nature trails and Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park gives tourists a rare glimpse into Florida’s unique island history dating back to the early 1800’s.
Whatever your pleasure, a trip to Islamorada would not be complete without sampling some of the local island cuisine. Succulent fresh seafood is served everywhere from island tiki bars and dockside fish houses to lively beachfront cafes and secluded island bistros. The Green Turtle Inn (since 1947) has been a longtime local favorite and Uncle’s Restaurant offers scrumptious fine dining in a relaxed, low-key atmosphere. For something different, you may want to check out Hog Heaven Sports Bar & Grill or Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana. Serious shoppers will have no problem finding plenty to do with numerous boutiques and galleries selling unique gifts, apparel and art. The “Catch You Later” sign which you pass as you’re leaving the island is a pleasant reminder that you’re always welcome on Islamorada, which is actually comprised of six islands rather than just one (those being Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Lower Matecumbe Key, and the offshore islands of Indian and Lignumvitae Keys) …no wonder this “Village of the Islands” is such a popular vacation destination!
As you continue making your way slowly down Highway 1, you’ll pass over a series of bridges, all with breathtaking views, while you cross over Fiesta Key, Long Key, Duck Key and Grassy Key. If you have a chance to stop, some of the best bonefishing in all of the Keys can be found at Long Key State Park which is open from 8 a.m. until sundown 365 days a year and also has full-service campsites overlooking the Atlantic.
Duck Key is more of a secluded island with luxury resorts where vehicles can cross over the island’s canals by way of picturesque arched bridges and Grassy Key is a small, peaceful Key which is located just minutes from the heart of Marathon. While you’re on Grassy Key, you might want to visit the Dolphin Research Center which offers tours, swims with the dolphins, and much more!
Marathon is only about a 30-minute drive in all from Islamorada and offers yet another tempting smorgasbord of vacation and leisure activities. This quaint tropical village has new parks, a newly renovated airport, and perhaps best of all, a beautifully landscaped 12.6-acre public beach called Sombrero Beach, which is complete with walkways, picnic grounds, and a roped swimming area.
The “Old Florida Keys” lifestyle is alive and well at the nearby Crane Point Museum & Nature Center, where visitors can get away from modern civilization by hiking through a lush tropical hardwood grove. The Old Seven Mile Bridge is another scenic spot which is listed on the National Historic Register, but no vehicles are allowed since the bridge is utilized strictly as a walking and fitness path. As if that’s not enough, just a few miles offshore, the deep blue waters of the Florida Straits are teeming with billfish, tuna and dolphin.
And if you are looking for a special restaurant where you can spend an hour or two or the evening, there is no shortage of first-class dining with Island Fish Company, Annette’s Lobster & Steak House, Butterfly CafÃ© at Tranquility Bay, 7 Mile Grill and Cantina at Hawk’s Cay all in close proximity.
When you’ve had enough of tourist stops, you can always move on to the Lower Keys where you can snorkel and dive over coral reefs, ride a bike down deserted roads, or take a backcountry fishing adventure! Big Pine Key is the largest of the Lower Keys and is best known for its RV parks, lovely campgrounds, and out-of-the-way vacation homes. Just up the road a bit, Bahia Honda State Park offers vacationers a chance to enjoy some real solitude along with beautiful white sandy beaches and abundant wildlife. Perhaps the most unique attraction in all of the Lower Keys is the National Key Deer Refuge where a protected small subspecies of Virginia white tail deer ranges over 2,300 acres of mostly undeveloped pine forest habitat (but be careful to drive slowly through the refuge while the caution lights are flashing, particularly late at night and in the early morning!). The Lower Florida Keys are a melange of stunning islands with exotic-sounding names such as Summerland Key, Big Torch Key, Little Torch Key, Cudjoe Key, Sugarloaf Key, Big Coppitt Key and Saddlebunch Key. In fact, all are within an easy drive to Key West and are laced with a picturesque network of sandy lagoons and mangroves, making this one of the most scenic nature-viewing stops along Highway 1.
If you’ve made it this far, believe it or not, you’re only a short hop or a little over six miles, from the main attraction in the Florida Keys…the granddaddy of them all, Key West! After all, when most people think of the Florida Keys, Key West is usually the first thing that comes to mind. The very name conjures up images of Old Town, Conch houses, Duval Street, Audubon, Truman, Ernest Hemingway and enchanting Caribbean nights…not to mention bizarre shops, tipsy bars, historic hotels, sunset cruises, voodoo spells…and who can forget the biggest draw of all, world famous Key Lime Pie, which seems to be sold on almost every street corner?
Southernmost Point USA, located at the end of Whitehead and South Streets, which is marked by a large red, yellow and black “Conch Republic” buoy and is only 90 miles from Cuba, always draws a large crowd of photograph seekers and what would Key West be without all those bright, meandering roosters crowing their way down bustling, crowded sidewalks? (the roosters–and hens I’m told, were set free by city proclamation after cock fighting was banned way back in Hemingway’s day, and have become a colorful trademark of this eclectic southernmost city ever since). Hourly tours are available during most of the year, with the exception of major holidays, at The Hemingway Home & Museum, Audubon House & Tropical Gardens, Heritage House Museum & Robert Frost Cottage, and Harry S. Truman Little White House. Other major tourist points of interest include the Key West Aquarium, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, Shipwreck Treasures Museum, Butterfly & Nature Conservancy, and Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. The Wharf District on Front Street is the departure point for Sunset and Fort Jefferson Cruises, but no matter where you venture in Key West’s Old Town Historic District, you’re likely to see free-spirited Conch tours, mopeds, trolleys, bicycles and scooters of about every possible size and description whizzing past. Sloppy Joe’s Bar, Captain Tony’s Saloon (Hemingway’s original hangout), the Green Parrot Bar, and Hog’s Breath Saloon are some of the better known watering holes, but there are plenty of open-air bars, sidewalk cafes, and uptown bistros vying for your attention as well in about a 4 or 5-block radius as you walk along Duval Street from Greene and Caroline Streets up past Fleming and Southard. Stately homes, gingerbread mansions, quaint hotels, and centuries-old churches line the palm-lined streets, giving Old Town Key West a charming mix of old and new, not unlike a Caribbean-style French Quarter in New Orleans with white picket fences, tin roofs, painted shutters, and fresh island breezes thrown in.
But that’s not all …Key West has a multitude of cultural attractions and events throughout the year, such as theatre, musicals, performing arts, concerts, symphonies and art galleries. There are also numerous antique shows, food tours, walking tours, festivals and literary seminars to keep you busy. On any given day, you can walk the streets and watch as an assortment of pub crawlers make their rounds (Key West is famous for Jimmy Buffet “Parrotheads”, Fantasy Fest revelers, and Bahamian Junkanoo performers, among others), or you can always visit one of Key West’s convenient public beaches and spend a little time fishing, swimming, sunbathing and snorkeling. There’s even a Key West Golf Club located just off Overseas Highway right before you come onto the island if you want to hit the links. Come to think of it, Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys pretty much have it all when it comes to tropical vacations… sometimes just the thought of sitting under a swaying coconut palm tree and watching the warm, turquoise water drift by is enough to make you wish you were there already. The Florida Keys and Key West really are the stuff of which legends are made…here’s hoping we see you and your family in the Keys real soon, so you can begin discovering this unique national treasure for yourself!