When the Florida Keys, a 120-mile chain of islands off the Sunshine State’s southernmost tip, decided to stage a ceremonial “secession” from the U.S. in 1982, the Conch Republic was born; you can even get your passport stamped with a novelty Conch Republic stamp. Since then, the world has taken note that the Florida Keys are unlike anywhere else on Earth.
Connected by the 110-mile Overseas Highway, The Keys extend from Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, and the Lower Keys to Key West. There is much to see and do on each island, making it worth the two-and-a-half hour journey from Key Largo to Key West to explore each island’s unique offerings.
Key Largo is a haven for eco-tourism. Along its southeastern-most border, Key Largo abuts Everglades National Park, a 1.5 million-acre subtropical wilderness. Glide over sawgrass and hammocks (tree covered islands) through the “River of Grass” on an airboat (boats with Cadillac engines and airplane propellers) for a chance to see Florida panther, deer, muskrats, and alligators. One of the highlights of The Keys is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater preserve in the U.S., is teeming with marine life, a massive coral reef, and the Christ of the Abyss, an eight-and-a-half foot, 4,000-pound bronze sculpture of Jesus Christ located at Key Largo Dry Docks reef and only accessible via snorkeling tours. Visitors can tour the underwater park by joining snorkeling and SCUBA tours or hopping aboard a glass bottom boat. The park also rents kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards for visitors to get an up close view of the mangroves. Avid divers can also stay at the two-room Jules Undersea Lodge, which requires SCUBA diving 21 feet to the hotel where guests sleep with the fish.
South of Key Largo is Islamorada, which is comprised of Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Lower Matecumbe Key and the offshore islands of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key. Those who love to fish can indulge in Islamorada, considered the sports fishing capital of the world thanks to its diversity of marine life and the world’s highest density of professional offshore charter boats. Whether you partake in backcountry sport fishing to catch bonefish, tarpon, snook, or redfish or saltwater fly fishing for sailfish or both, you can take your catch to local eateries and have it steam, fried, or blackened to perfection. To learn more about life under the sea, head to the History of Diving Museum, a museum dedicated to all things diving, including artifacts, antiques, books, documents, photographs, and oral histories. Then, get up close and personal with marine life at Theater of the Sea, a family-owned mammal park that offers the chance to swim with bottlenose dolphins. Visitors can also enjoy close encounters with California sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, stingrays, alligators, and more. After a day of exploring, there are plenty of places to eat local seafood and sip sundowners on the waterfront like Lorelai Restaurant and Cabana and Hog Heaven Sports Bar & Grill. Spot the mermaid at Mile Marker 82, and you have found Lorelai Restaurant and Cabana, a casual restaurant open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that is famous for is mesmerizing sunset views. Tucked in a protected cove, Hog Heaven is a relaxed restaurant by day with seafood and barbecue and a party place at night with live deejay and bands helping revelers dance the night away.
Meander further south to Marathon, which is comprised of a trio of keys: Vaca Key, Fat Deer Key, and Grassy Key. With 1,200 wet slips and 1,200 dry slips, the middle keys are marine friendly and an ideal place to bring your boat or charter one. Visit The Turtle Hospital, the world’s only licensed veterinary hospital dedicated to treating sea turtles where the turtles are rescued, rehabbed, and released, and see the Florida Reef, the U.S.’s only living coral barrier reef. Drive along the famous Seven Mile Bridge, which connects Knight’s Key in Marathon in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. The original bridge, completed in 1912, is open to pedestrians and bicyclists only. The adjacent, modern Seven Mile Bridge, is for vehicles. Don’t miss a visit to the Dolphin Research Center, a nonprofit research and education center that affords visitors the chance to see dolphins and sea lions during behavioral sessions and the chance to swim with dolphins.
A trip to The Key’s isn’t complete without visiting Key West, which is populated with charming Victorian homes and cottages, bustling bars and shops on Duval Street, the Hemingway Home and Museum, where Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway wrote many of his famous works (keep an eye out for the descendants of the legendary six-toed cats), and the iconic Southernmost Point buoy, which marks the southernmost point in the U.S. If you haven’t already, make an excuse for a rest stop to sample one of The Keys’ most legendary delights, key lime pie. The iconic yellow-hued pie made of key limes and condensed milk nestled on a graham cracker crust, is on the menu at many restaurants and bars across The Keys. Two of the best places to try the tart and tasty treat include Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo and Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe (there are two locations in Key West: one on Key West Bite near the cruise terminal and the other on bustling Duval Street). A trip to The Keys isn’t complete without a ride on the Conch Tour Train, a 90-minute ride through Old Town Key West that allows riders to hop on and off at three stops, Station Depot for shopping and food, Truval Village for attractions like the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and Southernmost Point buoy, and Flager Station, right behind the lively Mallory Square.