The American Tropics: Florida Keys
I am in Key Largo on a diving trip. We traveled here by car and I am always surprised at how the Keys feel like a sweet reward for an hours-long driving effort. As you cross the bridge from Florida City into Key Largo, you know you are leaving the mainland behind. You are suddenly surrounded by mangroves, palm trees and turquoise waters dotted with boats. You can’t help but look for dolphin, shark and the occasional salt water croc disrupting the flat seas. Your blood pressure drops to something near normal as you wait for the beauty to only increase along the Overseas Highway.
This trip we dove Molasses Reef in John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park. The park was created to protect the beautiful reef which borders the Keys and this was my first time scuba diving there. We went to a site called “the Aquarium” on a spectacular day. There’s a lighthouse on the surface (more of a buoy) with many dive boats hovering over the reef. Once you descend you understand why. There are so many colorful tropical fish here it is like looking at an aquarium. This is definitely some of the finest scuba diving the U.S. has to offer.
Afterward we sunsetted at Snook’s Bayside Tiki Bar & Grill. It’s an approachable waterfront grill with comfortable seating areas, dinner tables and a waterfront facing bar to appreciate the view. A band played Buffett style melodies as we sampled their signature offerings. Though this was our first experience with Snook’s, we ended up spending many hours here on multiple occasions. It is definitely a quintessential Keys experience.
As a Floridian, I have spent a lot of time in the Keys – a few times in Key Largo, Islamorada and many times in Key West. I will summarize some local recommendations below.
The Florida Keys: Key Largo, Islamorada & Key West Accompaniments:
Food Choice: Seafood
Music: Jimmy Buffett
Fashion: Tommy Bahama
Warm breezes, pastel cottages and tropical flowers abound on land, surrounded by coral reefs covered in shallow, turquoise water. The Florida Keys are a connected island chain, best experienced by car. It is only by driving on the Overseas Highway, consistently voted one of the top ten scenic drives in America, that you get a sense of this beautiful subtropical area. Though now home to pricey real estate, it has managed to retain its original feel of a rustic island hideaway. As the road slips past long bridges suspended over crystal clear waters, you get the strong sense you have left the continental United States and are now in the Caribbean.
There is still some of the kitsch of old Florida – Betsy the giant lobster, the small 1960s motels and the dolphin statues – but there is also a world-class tropical resort environment as well. Along the way, stop in Key Largo, Islamorada and Key West. You can drive the length of the keys in a little over 2 hours without traffic, but you may want to stop in some of the stunning waterfront restaurants and bars along the way.
- Key Largo As the gateway to the Keys, Key Largo is a transitional island. There is still a lot of traffic and useful roadside amenities, but the further you drive, the more of an island experience you encounter. Palm trees, Bougainvillea and hibiscus increase as you head west. Some of the best boating and diving can be done here, with lots of waterfront eateries to enjoy.
- The African Queen – See or cruise in the original boat from the movie, now located in the Port Largo Canal at the Holiday Inn Marina
- John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park – snorkel the famous Christ of the Keys statue or dive the spectacular Molasses Reef
- Sunsets on the Water – order fine seafood and a rum drink at any of the establishments mentioned below to ease your way into the Keys
- Snook’s Bayside Tiki Bar & Grill – Nice outdoor seating, accessible by land or sea, great sunsets
- The Conch House – beautiful Victorian house, tropical gardens, outdoor seating but not on the water
- Sundowner’s – great outdoor patio for your first rum drink to recover from the ride.
- High End – The Moorings – luxury hotel prices for private cottages, tropical seclusion
- Moderate – Hilton Key Largo – reliable Hilton quality surrounded by nature and a beach
- Budget – Holiday Inn Key Largo – On a marina canal, good if you plan to spend your time diving or fishing and need easy access to the boats
- Islamorada Situated mid-Keys, Islamorada is a hidden gem, frequently snubbed by revelers on their way to Key West. It is known as the Sport fish Capital of the World and also known locally for the Holiday Isle Tiki experience, the giant Bass Pro shop with Islamorada Fish Company and the sunset culture of Key Largo, continued. As usual it is punctuated with tropical, boat friendly, waterfront establishments.
- Theater of the Sea – an old Florida version of Seaworld
- Hemingway’s Boat – Inside Bass Pro Shop, really!
- Morada Bay Beach Cafe – the monthly Full Moon Party is a cultural experience not to be missed – food, drink, bands, fireworks and a Bahamian Junkanoo parade
- Islamorada Fish Company – kinda touristy but feels newer, try the second story bar at Bass Pro Shops, has on old-time explorer’s library feel
- Morada Bay Beach Cafe – tiki torches & beachfront seating, gourmet, make reservations for sunset, try their electric lemonade drink
- Holiday Isle Tiki Bar – rustic & a little kitsch – try the treehouse style tiki bar on the beach
- High End – Hawk’s Cay (Duck Key) – on its own island
- Moderate – Cheeca Lodge – a large complex with well done tropical decor, stunning resort style waterfront area
- Budget – Hampton Inn Islamorada – low prices, beautiful waterfront area, right off the highway
- Key West Key West is the crowning jewel of the Florida Keys including Duval Street, a tropical New Orleans experience. The furthest west, it boasts a history of maritime exploration, drug running secession ambitions and literary inclinations. It is best explored by scooter or bicycle. Its narrow streets are lined with pastel cottages, frequently accented by tropical flowers. Famous inhabitants included Jimmy Buffett, Ernest Hemingway, John Audubon and Harry Truman.
- The Hemingway House – Beautiful tropical setting, literary history, intriguing feline inhabitants
- Mel Fishers Treasure Museum – Spanish galleon treasure discovered in the famous Atocha shipwreck
- Duval Street – the Bourbon Street of Key West, lined with bars and restaurants
- Pepito’s – a Cuban restaurant, just off Mallory Square. Not waterfront but authentic mojitos served in a beautiful courtyard
- Sloppy Joes/Captain Tony’s – a bar on Duval, not waterfront but where Hemingway, Jimmy Buffett & JFK hung out (separately, of course)
- Blue Heaven – creative gourmet offerings, famous for breakfast but also not on the water
Key West Cottage, 5/15, taken by Diann Corbett
- High End – Little Palm Island – only accessible by boat, private seclusion & tropical luxury
- Moderate – Casa Marina – historic Henry Flagler hotel, elegant & understated, great outdoor bar
- Budget – The Westin – great location near Mallory Square – walk to see the famous cat man at sunset
Three More Keys Attractions
- The Seven Mile Bridge – This is the longest spanning bridge in the Keys and is a memorable experience to cross. Part of it was featured in the movie True Lies and blown apart for one of the scenes. You can stop at a parking area and walk on the old bridge. Looking down into the water I have seen nurse sharks and stingrays.
- Key Deer on Big Pine Key – They can’t be seen from the main road but can only be seen from neighborhoods in the sanctuary area at dusk.
- The Dry Tortugas – You can take a ferry out to historic Fort Jefferson where soldiers were once quarantined with yellow fever. It is isolated in pristine waters and also includes a great snorkeling experience around the island.