In a league of its own, the Florida Keys has an island vibe that makes you want to kick back and relish life – all at a much slower pace than on Florida’s mainland. With the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico on the west side, each island in this dangling string has its own personality. You’ll find great places to snorkel, fish, kayak and indulge in all sorts of water sports, as well as plenty of wildlife sightings along the way. Friendly bars and restaurants, ranging from fish shacks to fine dining, and a growing art scene, round out life in the Keys.
1 It’s the Lifestyle
Maybe your stay is only for a few days, but the main reason to visit the Keys is for its island lifestyle, and even a city slicker can easily fall into the rhythm and start promising themselves they’re moving here first chance they get. (Ask any local; they’ve heard the story many times.) Life slows down abruptly once you step foot onto this chain of tropical islands, so throw away any well-planned itinerary and just go with the flow.
2 Gone Fishing
Serious fishermen have been coming here for decades, and novices are always welcome. Take your pick: deep sea fishing out in the Atlantic Ocean, backcountry angling in the Florida Bay or bonefishing in the shallows of the flats. You’ll find top-notch fishing guides who know where the fish hang out so get ready to reel in a boat load.
3 Key Lime Pie
A signature taste, the Key lime pie has been around these islands since early Bahamians settled here more than 100 years ago and made pies with the juice from the islands’ citrus. Evolving over time, the creamy, sweet-but-tart dessert was made with either a traditional or graham- cracker crust and topped with either meringue or whipped cream. The debate goes on as to which is better, but you can decide for yourself. The pie is served at restaurants throughout the Keys, but the place local’s most often recommend is Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen on Key Largo.
4 Paddle Time
The mangrove islands that sprout up off the main keys are ideal for kayakers on the lookout for Mother Nature’s children. Spot waterfowl like herons and egrets hiding in the tangled prop roots of the red mangroves and peer into the clear waters to see fish and crustaceans in their natural habitat. Outfitters provide kayaks, and guided trips are an ideal way to get acquainted with the islands’ natural side.
5 Diving Deep
The most popular dive and snorkel spot is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off of Key Largo, where the reef gets all the attention. Stingrays, angelfish and barracuda are found here along with fan and boulder corals. For the more adventurous divers, shipwrecks and artificial reefs are plentiful in these southern waters as well. And for landlubbers, the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada can answer any questions about the sport’s past.
6 Lobster Lovers
Home to the Florida spiny lobster, the Keys is the place to get the freshest lobster dinner. But if you’re up for an adventure, you can catch your own in the wild during season, August through March. Most popular is the season’s kick-off, a two-day mini-season held the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July. Rules and limits on your take apply, so know before you go.
7 Seafood Feast
In all of Florida, the Keys is probably the best place to find the freshest seafood. Stone crabs are brought in from October through May and you can watch boats being unloaded at the Keys Fisheries in Marathon. Buy them at the adjacent market or enjoy them in the restaurant. On Stock Island just before crossing the bridge to Key West, Fishbusterz is where shrimpers and fishermen sell their catches. Look for yellowtail snapper, hogfish and all sorts of grouper, along with plump Key West pink shrimp and spiny lobsters in the market’s display case.
8 Tiny Deer
For nature lovers a sighting of a Key deer makes a trip through this chain of islands so rewarding. In the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key, your chances of spotting the smallest North American deer are good. The Key deer live only in the Florida Keys and are known for swimming between islands. Residents are often surprised when they pop up in backyards.
9 Eclectic Accommodations
Nestled behind tropical greenery off U.S. Highway 1, the one road through the chain, are some really cool properties. Fishermen seeking luxury can book at the Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada, where U.S. presidents have stayed during fishing trips. Boaters arriving by sea dock near their room or bungalow at La Siesta Resort & Marina on Islamorada. Romantics find hideaways tucked amongst blooming bougainvillea at Key Largo’s Kona Kai Resort, where escaping from life’s daily routine is totally possible. The whole family can hang out at Hawk’s Cay Resort on Duck Key, a water-sports mecca. And for accommodations on the sand, book a two-level beach house at Tranquility Bay Beachfront Hotel & Resort in Marathon.
10 Island Rentals
No kidding! Although it might be a bit extreme for most of us, you can rent a whole island. Seabird Key near Marathon is one option. The 10-acre island’s Old Florida-style cottage with its wraparound porch makes the perfect tropical getaway for a group of eight. Loll in a hammock strung between coconut palms or explore the surrounding waters in the 19-foot Boston Whaler provided for guests.