Florida Keys

A Tropical Paradise in the Southern Part of Florida

The Florida Keys consist of around 1,700 small islands in the southern part of Florida. They are basically little coral rocks covered in lush mangroves. It is like a little piece of tropical paradise. The very tip of the Keys, called Key West, is famous because of Ernest Hemingway. The famous writer of books like For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro while living in Key West. In this article, I share my recommendations for the best sights and excursions in the Florida Keys.

Nowadays, 'The Keys', as they are often affectionately called, are popular holiday islands. Loved by Americans but also by tourists from all over the world. The islands are strung together like a string of pearls, and the few yet stunning beaches give it a tropical vibe. Even boasting a proper coral reef.

But these islands also have a history of fierce native Americans and notorious pirates. Not to mention an actual shark and turtle factory and a history of slavery. There's not much left of all that, except for Hemingway's books which serve as a tangible memory. And his favourite pub, Sloppy Joe, in Key West.

Go to the Southernmost Tip of Florida

The southernmost tip of Florida.

The striking coloured rock is one of the most photographed objects in all of Florida. This is the southernmost tip of Florida and is perfect for a photo. It's been that way for decades.

See the Sun Set in Key West

You know, rounding off a day trip to Key West with a sunset at Mallory Square's special promenade is just about perfect. You often have street performers there, entertaining the crowd until the sun goes down. Which they celebrate every day. With a drink in your hand, you can watch the sky slowly turn red. It's the perfect end to a day.

Snorkel with Wild Dolphins

Dolphins roaming the waters of the Florida Keys.

If you would rather see these graceful animals in the wild, you can hop on a dolphin tour. You get on a boat and specifically look for wild dolphins, keeping a safe distance from them. Unless they come over to you. Then you're allowed to jump in the water with a snorkel and see the animals up close. While they curiously look back at you. Just ask on-site about the possibilities.

Snorkel at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

The underwater life at John Pennekamp Coral Reef in the Florida Keys.

Although it might not be one of the most stunning coral reefs in the world, its location and the abundance of fish still make it quite a special experience. The most famous reef can only be accessed by boat at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. You can also check out aquariums with fish that are found in these waters, so you can take your time and enjoy the view.

Another option is Looe Key, where coral also grows around a small island. And it's usually less crowded there too. If you're up for it, Dry Tortuga is also great for snorkeling, with usually fewer tourists around. Anyone wanting to truly experience the Keys should definitely take a peek underwater as well.

Dive into the Past of the Calusa

Do you know the remote island of Mound Key? It is a really unique place. Archaeologists reckon it was used by the Calusa as a military base and ceremonial centre. But the crazy thing is, that the island is completely man-made. The Native Americans piled up shells for decades and filled them with a kind of clay. Slowly, whole chunks of land started to appear. They even built canals and fish traps - you can still see both of these today. The same goes for replicas of their handmade tools and pottery. The area's been declared an archaeological park and the only way to get there is by boat.

Dive at Dry Tortuga National Park

So, a lot of tourists come to Dry Tortuga National Park for Fort Jefferson, a fort that was never finished. But it's also a great spot for diving to explore over a hundred shipwrecks that are lying around. And if you're into camping, there's a small campsite (booking required) that guarantees some peace and quiet when all the other tourists have cleared out. You can actually reach the park by both seaplane and ferry. The plane tends to arrive at times when the island is relatively calm, like early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Visit Bahia Honda: the Most Beautiful Beach in the US

Bahia Honda in the Keys.

Every year, the Americans choose their most beautiful beach. Bahia Honda was the winner in 1992. Go see it for yourself. It's one of the few sandy beaches in the Keys and it can get really crowded. But in the morning, it's usually quiet. People often spot dolphins on the beach. You can camp at this island, so you can explore the area properly. Another contender is Islamorada.

Go Parasailing at the Keys

You know, if you ever fancy seeing the islands from above, there are different places where you can go parasailing – usually from a beach. Only then do you get to fully appreciate how the little islands stretch out like a chain along Florida's coast. The contrast between the blue water, the green islands, and the sky is just pretty special.

Go to Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West

Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West.

Ernest Hemingway was a regular.  Sit at the bar and drink. But it did result in some beautiful books. If you are visiting Key West, you should definitely stop by Sloppy Joe's Bar. Have a drink. Most importantly, take some time to reflect on life, the joys of life, and of course, the vacation. You could also try the 'sloppy joe', a typical American dish. It's a hamburger bun filled with beef, onions, sweetened tomato sauce, and spices.

Sleep in an Underwater Hotel

Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo Undersea Park is the first underwater hotel in the world. They have actually sunk a bunch of tanks right in the middle of a lagoon, and you can only reach them by diving. The view from the windows is a bit limited, but it really gives you that Jules Verne kind of vibe, especially when it starts getting dark.

Visit the Sea Turtle Hospital

The Turtle Hospital in Marathon at the Florida Keys.

The Turtle Hospital in Marathon is very worthwhile. This place has been open since 1986 and its sole purpose is to take care of sick and injured sea turtles and get them back into the wild. It's pretty amazing! When you visit, you can actually see how they treat these magnificent creatures. They weigh them, take some blood, and in the afternoon, they even feed them shrimp and squid. They also educate visitors about the turtles' natural habitat and the challenges they face throughout their lives. You won't believe it, but these turtles have to deal with human waste and even tumors, which affect a staggering 50 per cent of them. The hospital is located in the lovely little village of Marathon.

Go Deep Sea Fishing

The 'Keys' are one of the better spots to bag the bigger types of fish. You can go deep sea fishing for sea bass, sailfish, marlin and tuna. Full-day trips are especially popular, with all the focus on the size of the catch. Just ask around for the charters that head out to sea every day.

Rent a Sailboat

The Florida Keys are perfect for a sailing trip. And if you feel like exploring on your own, you can just rent a boat easily. It's the best way to discover this exotic part of the United States. You can even take sailing lessons if you want. Just make sure to prepare well and get in touch with the provider beforehand, so you don't get any unexpected surprises.

Search for the Florida Key Deer on Big Pine Key

A deer at the Florida Keys.

Even though it's just a subspecies, the Key Deer is different from its close family because of its size. The National Key Deer Refuge is like an oasis in the busy Keys. It shows us what the islands must have looked like in the old days and how nature adapts to changing conditions.

Discover Key West Aquarium

The Key West Aquarium was one of the first places to let visitors 'touch' the animals, so you can get an idea of what a stingray feels like. Or a starfish. They have several 'touch-tanks' where you can meet the animals that live in the sea around Key West. You'll be amazed by the variety of creatures swimming around the Florida Keys. They also offer guided tours and scheduled feedings for sharks and sea turtles.

Celebrate Wild Fantasy Fest in Key West

The Fantasy Fest at Key West.

This party usually takes place in October and it is like the polar opposite to the tropical carnival parties in the Caribbean. The streets of Key West are then flooded with people dressed in the most extravagant outfits, or sometimes hardly anything at all. You could also win some seriously big cash prizes if your costume is one of the top picks.

The Calusa

Not many people know that the islands were originally inhabited by the Calusa. But because the furthest point is closer to Cuba than to Florida, it has a strategic location for navigation. According to the books, modern history starts in 1513. The Spanish conquistador Ponce de León is the first white man to set his sights on the islands. After a short exploration of present-day Key West, he leaves.

However, he does see many bones left behind by the Calusa. He calls it 'Cayo Hueso' (Island of Bones). His crew takes about a hundred and sixty sea turtles as a supply. And thus, the name for one of the most remote islands, Dry Tortugas, is born. Nowadays, it is a National Park.

Countless diaries tell tales of pirates who lived in the Florida Keys in the 18th and 19th centuries. They set their sights on the galleons transporting gold from Cuba and win one battle after another. In 1820, the US claims the islands. A few years later, the American government decides to fight the pirates in the Keys. This paves the way for the first settlers. But a new problem arises immediately. The Calusa quickly get rid of these white settlers. Slowly, the newcomers gain the upper hand, especially when the islands are connected to each other one by one via a road.

The Overseas Highway

The Overseas Highway unlocks island after island. It is a 205-kilometer-long road that connects the mainland of Florida with islands like Key Largo and Key West. A large part of the highway was actually built on the remnants of the old Overseas Railroad, which was wiped out by a hurricane in 1935. It is a delightful drive. Take your time, maybe stay near Key West to catch the sunset and have enough time to explore different islands.

Back in the day, go-getters from the northern US tried their luck with all sorts of plantations on these islands - lemons, pineapples, even hardwood. There even was a shark factory on Big Pine Key around the 1920s. They used the leather from the sharks for sandpaper mostly. Some new residents got into sponge diving, while Cuban immigrants set up cigar factories. Quite the mix of cultures, and it's still there to this day.

Now, the underwater world there is pretty interesting. You won't find a tropical reef around these islands, but there's a pretty subtropical coral reef. Scientists have spotted nearly 600 species of fish and over 60 types of coral (including red and brain coral) around the various coral beds. They reckon those corals have been forming for like 5,000 to 7,000 years. And around the coral, you will find all kinds of sponges, shrimp, and crabs.

The Overseas Highway offers many places to stop and take it all in. Most people aim for Key West as their final destination, but some go further and head to the lesser-known islands like Dry Tortuga, even taking boats or seaplanes. Some people drive up and down in a day. Others take a whole week to explore the area. 

Best Time for Florida Keys

This area can be visited all year round. In the summer, it can get really hot, well above thirty degrees Celsius or 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The ocean water is nice and warm though. But it is also high season, so it is busier.

The best time for diving or snorkeling is usually September. Even though it's the start of the hurricane season. But the water is slightly warmer than the rest of the year, while most tourists have already left. Another option is May, when the water is usually calm enough for underwater activities.

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