With numerous marinas, several small airports, and a few Greyhound stops, the Florida Keys can easily be reached via boat, plane, or bus. Still, the best way to travel here is by car. That way, you’ll be free to go wherever you want – whenever you want. Besides, the drive along the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) is truly worth experiencing. From Homestead to Key West, 128-mile-long route (with its helpful green mile markers) takes you through populated towns, across picturesque keys, and between the shimmering Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
Although the Keys island chain is a year-round destination, summer is the least crowded time to visit, probably because temperatures are fairly high from June to September. Despite the threat of hurricane season, this is an excellent time for water activities, such as snorkeling. While spring and fall are comfortable here and feature several popular events, winter is the peak tourist season. Just remember that lodging rates are inevitably higher between late December and mid-April.
The Keys have several pleasant campgrounds, but for tent and RV campers, the best option is Bahia Honda State Park, which offers three separate campgrounds. Encompassing Bahia Honda Key, this 524-acre park features vacation cabins, picnic areas, three breezy beaches, kayak rentals, and two-hour snorkeling excursions. Bicyclists, anglers, swimmers, and boaters especially favor this park, which also includes a small Sand and Sea Nature Center. Bird-watchers and wildlife lovers can also take advantage of three nature trails, one of which leads to the top of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, a terrific spot to view the entire island and its surrounding waters, including native inhabitants like dolphins and sea turtles. Naturally, reservations are recommended for campgrounds, cabin rentals, boat slips, and snorkeling excursions.
The liveliest area is definitely Key West’s Old Town district, where most hotels lie within easy walking distance of numerous bars, restaurants, shops, art galleries, museums, theaters, and late-night entertainment venues.
As a New Orleans native, I feel a certain affinity for Key West, which boasts a plethora of seafood eateries, late-night bars, live music venues, festive events, and other fun-filled attractions. Sometimes, though, I prefer the serenity of places like Indian Key Historic State Park and Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park – both of which are only accessible via kayak, canoe, or boat. Indian Key, situated on the ocean side of the highway, is ideal for hiking, swimming, fishing, snorkeling, and diving, while visitors to Lignumvitae, located on the bay side, can enjoy, in addition to outdoor activities, a ranger-led tour of a virgin hardwood hammock and the former Matheson house.
In general, the Middle Keys – the heart of which is the town of Marathon – constitute the best place for families. Here, children will enjoy canoeing in Long Key State Park, swimming with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center, romping through playground and beach areas at both Curry Hammock and Sombrero Beach, exploring the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, and feeding sea turtles at the Turtle Hospital. For a truly exhilarating experience, families can also experience a mile-high biplane ride via Conch Air.
While fishing amid the reefs and shipwrecks of the Upper Keys can be very rewarding, I especially enjoy fishing in the backcountry channels of the Lower Keys, where bonefish and tarpon are plentiful. For snorkeling, I still prefer the shallow-water coral reefs near Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you’ll spy a variety of coral formations and kaleidoscopic fish. Meanwhile, the spur-and-groove Looe Key Reef is an ideal place for both novice and veteran scuba divers, though many divers favor the area around the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a former World War II troop transport ship that became an artificial reef in May 2009. If you require diving certification, consider staying at the Jules’ Undersea Lodge, a one-of-a-kind underwater research habitat that’s open to the public.
The Keys are always in a state of celebration, so festivals are a big part of the culture. Three of the best take place in Key West: the Conch Republic Independence Celebration, which honors the Keys’ mock secession in 1982; Hemingway Days, which celebrates the legendary novelist with look-alike contests and an unusual running of the bulls; and Fantasy Fest, a rowdy bacchanalia in late October that almost rivals Mardi Gras. A few other interesting ones include the Key Largo Pirates Fest, Marathon’s Battle in the Bay Dragon Boat Festival, and the Underwater Music Festival near Looe Key.
First-time visitors should definitely experience Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can sunbathe on the beach, rent canoes and kayaks, take glass-bottom boat tours, and go snorkeling or diving amid the vibrant, offshore coral reefs. Farther south, you can swim with dolphins, visit the History of Diving Museum, and explore Bahia Honda State Park. In Key West, the Conch Tour Train will offer an overview of the city, after which you can explore places like the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. Of course, no visit to Key West would be complete without sampling a slice of key lime pie or experiencing the daily Sunset Celebration in Mallory Square. If you have a bit more time, consider taking a ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park, an island cluster that’s popular among anglers, scuba divers, snorkelers, sailing enthusiasts, and wildlife lovers.
For one of the finest meals you’ll ever have in the Keys, head to Pierre’s Restaurant, an Islamorada restaurant that serves dinner seven days a week. Housed within a gorgeous French Colonial-style plantation, Pierre’s overlooks a bayside beach that’s usually lit by tiki torches. Boasting an exotic Moroccan-style interior decor, the restaurant offers a small but eclectic menu, with well-prepared steaks and seafood, including the divine tempura lobster tail over hearts of palm hash. Consider dining on the candlelit balcony for a truly romantic experience. Of course, my favorite casual eatery is Sparky’s Landing in Key Colony Beach. Here, the atmosphere is friendly and low-key, the prices are reasonable, and the food, from blue cheese chips to bacon-wrapped scallops, is better than you might expect.