Florida Keys & Key West Overview
The Florida Keys — the continental United States’ southernmost island chain — are characterized by a balmy subtropical climate, breathtaking natural beauty and a uniquely laid-back atmosphere that seems to be a world away from big cities and every-day cares.
Beginning just south of Miami, the Florida Keys are divided into five regions: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine and the Lower Keys, and Key West. Each region has its own special flavor, attractions and museums, historical and cultural offerings, flora, fauna, restaurants with local seafood and other specialties, fishing, diving, watersports and boutique-type shopping experiences.
The islands are connected by the Florida Keys Overseas Highway’s 42 bridges — one almost 7 miles long — over the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Visitors to the Keys will find vistas of blue sea and sky, edged with tall palm trees and olive-green mangroves. Sharing this eco-paradise are white herons, roseate spoonbills, pelicans, ospreys and countless underwater creatures including endangered sea turtles.
The coastal waters of the entire 125-mile-long island chain, including its shallow-water flats, mangrove islets and coral reefs, are designated the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the continental United States’ only living barrier coral reef. The sanctuary’s indigenous population comprises more than 6,000 species of marine life and plants.
Keys residents who live among the island chain’s natural wonders are committed to protecting and nurturing them. Many impart their earth-friendly mindset to visitors, encouraging them to share the local passion for conservation while having memorable vacation experiences.
The longest island of the Keys chain, Key Largo shares its name with the famous movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall — portions of which were filmed there. Bogart's Key Largo connection still is evident today as visitors can take a ride on the African Queen, the actual boat he skippered in the movie of the same name.
But Key Largo's star attraction is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater preserve in the United States, now incorporated within the National Marine Sanctuary.
Located at mile marker 102.5, Pennekamp offers a variety of water-related activities including scuba, snorkeling and glass-bottom boat excursions to the coral reef. Key Largo also boasts a number of off-park dive charter companies that conduct dive trips, with many showcasing the famed underwater “Christ of the Deep” statue. A few even feature underwater weddings, where the entire wedding party gets wet as the happy couple ties the knot.
Newlyweds can choose to remain submerged for their honeymoon at an underwater hotel in Key Largo, spending the night with full amenities among the marine life of the Keys.
Key Largo also is home to the Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy ship that is one of the biggest vessels ever purposely scuttled to create an artificial reef, and the Coral Restoration Foundation that pioneered coral reef restoration and manages the world's largest coral nurseries.
Visitors also can explore the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center where dedicated experts rescue and rehabilitate ill, injured and orphaned wild birds.
Islamorada is the centerpiece of a group of islands sometimes referred to as the "purple isles." Measuring 20 miles long and in some places barely 150 feet wide, the community encompasses Plantation, Windley and Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys.
Known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, Islamorada is heralded for its angling diversity and features the Keys' largest fleet of offshore charter and shallow-water "backcountry" boats.
The Keys boast more sport-fishing world records than any other angling destination on the planet, according to the International Game Fish Association. Anglers can find sailfish, marlin, dolphin (the fish, not the mammal), kingfish, snapper, barracuda, grouper and more in the ocean. Tarpon, bonefish, permit, redfish and other species thrive in the shallow coastal waters.
Numerous high-profile figures, including past U.S. presidents and British royalty, have visited Islamorada to enjoy sport fishing and to compete in acclaimed fund-raising fishing tournaments.
The Islamorada area also features eco-tours, watersports such as stand-up paddling and kiteboarding, tennis facilities, bicycle trails, historic hikes, beautiful vistas of both the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay, opportunities to swim with dolphins and stingrays, and a typically quirky Keys recreational activity: hand-feeding tarpon from the docks at Robbie’s Marina.
Prime attractions also include the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District that spotlights the art galleries and restaurants at Morada Way between mile markers 81 and 82. As well as welcoming visitors throughout the year, the popular arts district is the site of the Third Thursday Art Walk each month that features fine art, live music and culinary offerings.
Marathon is a renowned boating and family destination and is centrally located at the heart of the Florida Keys between Key Largo and Key West.
Marathon also is home to Crane Point, a 63-acre land tract that is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the Keys. This ecological and cultural treasure was once the site of an entire Native American village. Attractions include an intriguing museum, the historic Adderley House and several nature trails. Visitors also can see the Marathon Wild Bird Center, a rescue and rehabilitation center for sick or injured birds.
Marathon’s Dolphin Research Center, an acclaimed nonprofit marine mammal research and education facility, provides visitors an opportunity to swim and interact with the resident dolphins. Marathon also features The Turtle Hospital, a veterinary center dedicated solely to treating sea turtles that is open to the public for tours.
And while feeding marine life is not permitted in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, visitors can swim with and feed the fishes at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters in Marathon.
A drive across the modern-day Seven Mile Bridge (actually 6.79 miles long), one of the world’s longest segmental bridges, leads to the Lower Keys. But visitors shouldn't pass up the chance to tour Pigeon Key, a small island lying beneath the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge. A 2.2-mile section of the old bridge leading to Pigeon Key, now reopened to pedestrian recreation after a multiyear restoration, is a prime spot for walking, jogging, cycling and sunset viewing.
Pigeon Key once housed workers who built Henry Flagler's Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad in the early 1900s. While the rest of the Keys have evolved through the years, this tiny island is now a national historic treasure, complete with a museum chronicling the railroad’s construction.
Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys
The sheer sweep of the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico is readily seen from the Bahia Honda Bridge. Bahia Honda State Park is a prime example of the Lower Keys' natural beauty.
For more than 60 years, the region of Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys — from the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge at Sunshine Key to Stock Island — has advocated the responsible use and preservation of the vast natural wonders found there. That focus on the environment has earned the region the title of the Natural Keys.
The Lower Keys are noted for Looe Key Reef, rated by many as among the most spectacular shallow-water dive sites. To the west of Looe Key, the 210-foot island freighter Adolphus Busch Sr. rests on the ocean floor as an artificial reef, providing additional habitat for marine species and an intriguing site for divers.
Big Pine Key also features a national refuge for miniature Key deer, tropical forest and even a few alligators. The 2-acre fruit farm Grimal Grove, billed as the first and only breadfruit grove in the continental United States, can be found on Big Pine as well.
On Summerland Key, Mote Marine Laboratory’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration is an innovator in reef restoration.
In addition, Stock Island is home to a burgeoning arts and restaurant scene and is known for its colorful seafaring heritage.
Outdoor activities in the Lower Keys include both inshore and offshore fishing. Popular nature tours, many by kayak, offer unforgettable opportunities to view migratory and wading birds and unique flora and fauna.
Key West is the final stop on the Overseas Highway, where the land ends and meets the sea amid 19th-century charm and contemporary attractions. Continental America's southernmost city, situated closer to Cuba than to Miami, is characterized by quaint palm-studded streets, century-old mansions and a uniquely relaxing way of life.
Key West has nurtured world-renowned literary talents including Ernest Hemingway, whose home is a museum, and Tennessee Williams, also the subject of a museum. Today, scores of notable authors reside either full- or part-time on the island. The flourishing visual arts community is evidenced by the many galleries exhibiting artwork in varying styles and mediums.
Visitors can enjoy environmental attractions and eco-experiences, a wide variety of watersports and excursions, lush public gardens, culinary tours and classes, historic sites and an overflowing calendar of festivals and special events. Popular stops include the intriguing Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, the “vacation White House” of former President Harry Truman and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, where visitors can discover artifacts and treasures from two Spanish galleons sunk off Key West in 1622.
Nightlife is lively and varied, with offerings ranging from live music at area watering holes to theater and comedy performances, popular drag shows and concerts by regional and national talents.
At day's end in Key West, crowds gather at Mallory Square to experience the nightly "sunset celebration," a tradition that locals share with visitors. While musicians, jugglers, acrobats and other performers provide entertainment, the sun sinks slowly below the horizon as sunset cruise boats sail by in Key West Harbor.
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
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