The three-hour drive through the Florida Keys is one of the most scenic itineraries in the United States. The route from Miami to Key West runs over 42 bridges and the further away you get from the mainland, the more visible the change in the landscape becomes. Upon reaching Key West, one finds oneself in a subtropical vacation destination with clear blue waters and white beaches. Whether snorkeling in Key Largo, sport fishing in Islamorada, relaxing in Marathon, or enjoying the unspoilt nature in the Lower Keys, the vacation options in the Florida Keys are as diverse as the people who live there.
According to timedictionary, Key Largo – the largest island in the Florida Keys – was once called “Rock Harbor”. The island was renamed following the success of the 1948 Humphrey Bogart film Key Largo, much of which was filmed at the legendary Caribbean Club , which still operates today. Here you will find a large number of well-known hotel chains, excellent restaurants and also a tourist information center for visitors. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the nation’s first underwater park and attracts water fanatics from around the world.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The diversity of the ecosystem of the Upper Keys is particularly evident here. The shallow water allows divers and snorkelers to spot 40 different species of coral and over 650 species of fish. If you don’t want to go into the water yourself, you can also go on a glass-bottom boat tour or a kayak trip lasting several hours. One of the most beautiful campsites on the island is located in the park.
Islamorada is also called the “sports fishing metropolis of the world” because of the excellent conditions here for both deep-sea fishing on the Atlantic side and for fishing trips to the so-called “flats” on the Gulf side. Many restaurants also offer visitors the opportunity to bring their own fish and have it freshly prepared for them.
The unofficial “capital of the Upper Keys” lures with a wide range of Caribbean resort hotels with beautiful facilities right on the water and is also a popular destination for a short trip due to its proximity to the mainland. A special highlight is the “Theater of the Sea”, where shows and interaction programs with dolphins, sea lions, turtles and other native animals are offered. The idyllic beach “Anne’s Beach” is not only popular with families, but especially with kite surfers, who enjoy optimal conditions for their trend sport here.
Located in the heart of the Florida Keys, the tropical city of Marathon is a successful blend of old-time fishing village, tourist center and nature reserve. Not only because of its central location in the middle of the island chain, Marathon is a particularly popular destination for families with children. In addition to several large resorts, some of which offer childcare, there are also numerous attractions that are specially (but not exclusively) geared towards children.
The outdoor facility “ Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters ” is brand new, bringing visitors closer to the underwater world of the Florida Keys. Several pools with different sea creatures and a natural mangrove channel for snorkeling offer various opportunities to come into contact with the animals. The undisputed highlight, however, is the large “reef tank” in which visitors can feed fish under water and, through glass panes with feeding hatches, also the sharks in the neighboring tank.
Dolphin Research Center
Dedicated to studying dolphin behavior, the DRC offers visitors a variety of ways to learn about the intelligent marine mammals. Since the swimming programs with dolphins are primarily intended to cover one’s own costs, the available slots are limited and it is advisable to reserve an appointment in advance. The facility, which is well worth seeing and on which parts of the old “Flipper” films were shot, is open to visitors every day.
One of Marathon’s most popular attractions is the Turtle Hospital – the world’s only sea turtle hospital. The lobby of the former motel now serves as the Welcome Center and also houses several operating rooms. The former pool forms the infirmary. Interested visitors can take part in regular guided tours (on the hour).
Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys
While the majority of the Keys is relatively densely populated, the Lower Keys around the largest island, Big Pine Key, are largely a nature reserve. Hotels are few and far between, with the exception of a few small lodges and B&Bs. But the wilderness lures with some campsites worth seeing and impressive excursions into the extensive mangrove island world.
Several providers of eco tours by inflatable or motor boat can be found here. A real highlight, however, are half-day tours by kayak, such as those offered from Sugarloaf Key. Here you will also find one of the most curious sights of the whole island chain with the “Fledermausturm”. On the Atlantic side is Looe Key Reef, the most beautiful coral reef in the Keys for snorkelers: with a water depth of only 6 meters, it offers very good visibility and an unbelievable abundance of fish.
National Key Deer Refuge
One of the preserves is the National Key Deer Refuge, which is dedicated to protecting the endemic species of white-tailed deer, the key deer. It’s best to hike along the sanctuary’s trails either early in the morning or late at night to spot these gentle, dog-sized deer. The best way to observe and photograph the animals is from one of the specially equipped observation decks.
Key West – the unusual place
The island of Key West is connected to the mainland via the Overseas Highway and is also known as the “Conch Republic” (translated: “Seashell Republic”). “Conch” is the English name of the large conch native to this area. Around 25,000 people live on the island, which is only 3.2 km by 6.4 km. The affluent tourist region offers a variety of activities, restaurants and an attractive nightlife. One of Key West’s most popular attractions is the spectacular sunsets.
Nightly weather permitting, locals and tourists gather at Mallory Square Dock in Old Town (off Duval Street) to watch the event. Jugglers, fortune tellers, contortionists, musicians and other street performers also compete for attention. The scenery is colorful and exuberant. Numerous restaurants, small bars, live music and a variety of souvenir shops complete the picture. Celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Robert Frost once lived on Key West, and today popular artists and writers are still inspired by the unique flair of the southernmost point of the continental United States.
The island’s marinas offer sailing trips, snorkeling tours and glass-bottom boat trips to discover the underwater world. Deep-sea fishing tour boats depart from the City Marina near Garrison Bight and Roosevelt Boulevard. This is also where the Yankee Freedom III ferry departs, taking visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park , America’s most remote national park . The Dry Tortugas Archipelago is another 100km west of Key West and is home to the mighty Civil War-era Fort Jefferson military fort. In addition to the historical component, the national park also impresses with excellent snorkeling opportunities and a unique bird population. It is also possible to stay in a tent on the small island in the middle of the ocean.
In Key West itself there is a wide range of different accommodations, from simple guest houses to motels to luxury resorts. Key West is particularly well-known for its bed & breakfasts, where you can usually stay in historic, Victorian wooden villas with tropical gardens. The majority of these B&Bs are found on the back streets around Duval Street in Historic West Key West. From here, almost all of the island’s attractions are within walking distance. It is advisable to leave the car here anyway, as many of the hotels that are a little further away offer a shuttle service to Old Town Key West. If you would like to travel independently, you can rent a bike. There are several providers on site.