The Florida Keys – Unlocking Holiday Bliss
A year divided into steamy summers, thunderstorms, and mild winters. The third-largest coral barrier reef in the world. Sandy white beaches. A glittering ocean…you’d be forgiven for mistaking this 200-island strong archipelago for another Caribbean destination. But far from being in the Bahamas or Jamaica, this slice of paradise can be reached without leaving the United States, stretching southward from the Florida peninsula. Connected by 42 bridges of the epic Overseas Highway, the Florida Keys is an exotic attraction. The most famous (and longest!) of these bridges, the Seven Mile Bridge, spans the water from Bahia Honda to Marathon and provides exhilarating coastal views. The tropical climate and clear, turquoise waters of the Keys invite you to snorkel, dive, and swim your way through a trip here. The awesome bridge network and tropical island feel makes the Keys a perfect road trip getaway.
In this article, we will lead you along the thrilling route across bridges and islands. While this is a highlight in and of itself, we’ll also let you in on a few top tips off the beaten path that you won’t want to miss.
Florida Keys: Key Largo
Once you leave the Florida mainland, Key Largo is the first island you will reach on your Keys adventure. Sure, the area itself may be pretty crowded with hotels, motels, and souvenir shops, but Key Largo has a splendid worst-kept-secret up its sleeve: the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Nothing short of magnificent, this area is absolutely worth a visit, particularly for water sport enthusiasts. What’s more, Kay Largo is also known for its dolphin therapy programmes.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake, but this vibrant underwater world may just take the biscuit. Home to the largest coral reef in the United States and with the title of the first underwater park in the country, John Pennekamp State Park provides a unique glimpse into underwater life.
With its spectacular corals and array of tropical fish species, sea turtles and even manatees, this park lives up to the highest of expectations. Entrance will set you back just $8 per vehicle and an additional $0.5 per person. Once you’re in the park, marvelling at the under the sea environment is perhaps best done on a journey with a glass-bottomed boat. A two-and-a-half-hour tour by catamaran costs $24. During this time, you get to experience the underwater world like never before – coral reefs and schools of fish as far as the eye can see. Plus, you stay dry!
For all the water babies out there, snorkelling is the way forward. To get up close and personal with the underwater world, there are several options. On-site, you can rent or buy equipment, including snorkels and fins. Tours of one to one-and-a-half hours run regularly and cost just $30. This way, you get to have an even more intimate experience of the colourful corals, various kinds of fish, and with some luck you may even spot some turtles and other sea creatures.
Another way to see the coral reefs is by diving. Experienced divers can swim up to the underwater bronze statue, Christ of the Deep. Diving courses are offered, but they are very expensive, and run over longer periods of time. But if you do have the time and the budget, a diving course is both a fantastic experience and a long-term investment. You can even get scuba certified here!
If a boat ride is more your style, there are plenty of kayaking and canoeing options in the park. Several providers offer a range of tours and rentals, either by the hour, by half-day or by the day. Guided tours are a super educational way to get closer to nature – both physically and mentally. During the tours, you will learn about the local mangrove forests, as well as the ecosystem and diverse wildlife of the Florida Keys.
Florida Keys: Islamorada
This section of the Florida Keys captivates with its beautiful beaches and attracts many anglers. Robbie’s Marina is an especially popular tourist destination, and the absolute highlight is the tarpon feeding. Tarpons are huge fish that can grow up to 2.5 metres in length!
At the Marina you can also book tours and rent a variety of watercraft including kayaks, fishing charters and jet skis – everything is available. In addition, you can shop for some arts and crafts and antiques at the stores of Robbie’s Open-Air Market.
You can reach the Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park via the harbour. This park impresses with its untouched tropical nature. The Matheson House on the island serves as its visitor centre. In keeping with its aim of preserving the area, the island only accepts guests on guided tours.
Florida Keys: Key West
This city and its eponymous island are the largest in the Florida Keys, and the city also marks the southernmost point in the continental United States. The anchored Southernmost Point Buoy marks this very spot. Don’t miss the chance for a picture with it! From the buoy, Cuba is a mere 145 kilometres away – a stone’s throw, if you’re particularly athletic!
Key West exudes a laid back, Caribbean atmosphere. Colourful pastel houses line the streets and look particularly striking as the sun sets. In fact, you may very well experience one of the most beautiful sunsets of your life here in Key West. Sunset celebrations at Mallory Square are somewhat of a ritual. Cosy up in one of the many restaurants or cafés in the square and enjoy breathtaking views – perhaps with a cocktail in hand?
We highly recommend exploring Key West on foot. Though some popular spots, such as Duval Street with its rows of bars and souvenir shops, may seem touristy at first, you’ll surely be convinced of their awesomeness once night falls and the parties begin.
The Key West Shipwreck Museum and the Key West Museum of Art & History are well worth seeing when in town. The latter is located in the former Customs House. Another popular museum is Ernest Hemingway House. The writer spent part of his life in this Colonial style house, and you can explore the house during a guided tour.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park is situated in the southwest of the island. Originally built to protect the town, the park now combines beautiful scenery with local history. Here, you can find out all about the importance of Key West during the Civil War. Once you’ve learnt a thing or two, head down to the beach for a swim or a snorkel. Admission to the park is just $6 per vehicle.
Florida Keys: Dry Tortugas National Park
Floating in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park is a veritable treasure trove of ocean adventures. From Key West, you can travel the 110 kilometres west either by seaplane or by boat. If you decide to travel by ferry, admission comes as part of the travel ticket. When using the seaplane or a private boat, the $15 entry fee must be paid on arrival. If you have a U.S. Park Pass, the annual pass to national parks and other historic sites in the States, admission is free.
In total, Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of seven different islands, and there are countless opportunities to snorkel and swim. This hardly comes as a surprise, as, contrary to what you might expect from a ‘Dry’ park, 99% of the national park is covered by water!
Garden Key is home to Fort Jefferson, which was interestingly never completed! We recommend visiting the on-site information centre to learn all about the history of the fort as well as the surrounding underwater world.
If you take one piece of advice from this article, make it camping out on Garden Key! You will never spend the night under such a clear, starry sky again. Just remember to pack all the essentials – you even need to bring your own water.
Keen kayakers and crazy canoers will love a quest to Loggerhead Key, the largest island in Dry Tortugas. Bring along your own vessel or access Loggerhead Key by private boat. Snorkelling and kayaking are the catch of the day on this fascinating island.
Deep underneath the waves, divers can go searching for Windjammer Wreck. Lying among the seashells and sands since 1907, this impressive Norwegian Avanti ship sank on its way to Uruguay from Pensacola. At the visitor centre, you will receive a laminated map to help you find your way underwater. X marks the spot!
The subtropical island of Bush Key offers an array of wildlife unparalleled in the national park. Here you will spot birds that cannot be found anywhere else in the United States. Due to the ever-changing watery conditions, this island is sometimes accessible by foot from Garden Key, but sometimes only by kayak or canoe.
It’s important to note that you can only visit this island between September and February. In the spring and summer months, sooty terns and brown noddies breed here. These species must be protected, which is also why you can only walk along the path encircling the island.
An exotic escape along the magical Keys is bound to be a Florida highlight. This Caribbean island chain is an oasis for snorkelling, kayaking, and swimming. Key West is the historic heart of the Florida Keys and offers many attractions reaching from beautiful beaches to exciting museums and historic sites. For nature lovers, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Dry Tortugas National Park are absolute highlights of every road trip along the Overseas Highway. Whether you are into attractions, history, underwater sports, or just kicking back with a delicious cocktail, Florida has the key to unlock holiday bliss!