More to Florida Keys than just Key West
One afternoon during a recent visit to the Florida Keys, I photographed my wife as she swam with stingrays and other denizens of the sea in an enormous tank of water, and then gingerly shoved live fish through a small opening in a plexiglass wall to feed hungry sharks on the other side.
The island chain that stretches in a gentle curve southwest from the tip of Florida combines close-up encounters with nature with quirky touches of crass commercialism.
Throughout the limestone islands, landscaped parks abut shops selling sandals, shells and T-shirts (“four for $10”). Recreational vehicle and trailer lots lie in the shadow of upscale resorts. An environmentally conscious tattoo artist donates half a month’s income to coral reef restoration.
Key West offers a variety of tempting things to see and do, from funky and fashionable to historical and hysterical. But my wife, Fyllis, and I had another goal: We wanted to see if other islands in the Keys have enticing attractions that warrant a look. We found plenty.
For starters, there’s the setting itself: dots of land so narrow that we could watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean, stroll across the highway and see it set hours later into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Keys include some 1,700 islands, only about 40 of which are inhabited. The journey by car from the first island, Key Largo, to Key West — about three hours driving time without stops — follows the 113-mile Overseas Highway, U.S. 1.
Almost immediately after leaving the mainland, travelers are immersed in local atmosphere. Bridges and piers are lined by fishermen seeking their dinner. Boats harbored in marinas are available for deep-sea fishing excursions and rides to snorkel and dive sites.
The popularity of water sports becomes immediately evident on Key Largo, the first island you reach while driving south from the mainland.
Film buffs associate it with the 1948 motion picture starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. While several tourist spots claim they had a part in making of the film, most scenes were shot on a sound stage in Hollywood.
Nearby is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which covers 178 square miles of coral reefs, mangrove swamps and seagrass beds.
Divers and snorkelers enjoy close-up encounters with more than 50 varieties of multihued coral and 600-plus species of fish, while landlubbers can identify resident and migratory birds.
Other state park amenities include rental canoes, kayaks, snorkeling, glass-bottom boat tours, hiking paths and two manmade beaches.
Many people are surprised to learn that there are few stretches of inviting sand in the Keys. That’s because reefs east of the islands reduce the beach-building action of the surf.
Fortunately, there are some inviting exceptions. Anne’s Beach on Lower Matecumbe Key is fronted by an elevated wooden boardwalk that meanders through a wetland hammock.
White-sand Sombrero Beach, set against a backdrop of grassy lawns shaded by palm trees, is a favorite among locals because of its isolated location off the main drag.
Many sun worshippers rank the baby-powder-soft sand at Bahia Honda State Park among the best anywhere.
The fact that there are relatively few outstanding beaches on the Keys has its upside: more time to discover other treasures. One of these is the variety of animals encountered in the wild and at national refuges and state parks.
Most appealing is the tiny and adorable Key Deer, a subspecies of white-tailed North American deer found only in the Keys. The miniscule animals, listed as endangered, stand about two feet tall. Most live on Big Pine and No Name Keys, in a federal refuge.
The misnamed Blue Hole on Big Pine Key, an abandoned quarry that’s no longer a hole but a freshwater lake, is home to wading birds, turtles, numerous fish and a resident alligator.
During spring and fall migrations, refuges provide habitat for more than 250 species of birds. While I’m no ornithologist, I enjoyed searching the sky for winged visitors with intriguing names like sooty shearwater, brown noddy and dark-eyed junco.
At the Florida Keys Wildlife Bird Center on Key Largo, birds recover from accidents or disease. Those nursed back to health include a peregrine falcon, red-shouldered hawk and roseate spoonbills.
Sea turtles are patients at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, which treats animals that have been injured and, when possible, returns them to the wild. The facility even has its own Turtle Ambulance which, on occasion, visitors will spot on a rescue mission.
Our tour included views of the examination and surgery rooms, and face time with 74 resident reptiles, as turtles are classified, including those identified as Brianna, M&M and my namesake, Victor.
A personal favorite site was the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, a preserved pocket of thatch-palms that represent the natural habitat of the Keys. We began our visit in the museum, viewing exhibits that range from a 600-year-old dugout canoe and early Keys explorers, to remnants of pirate ships and a realistic, simulated coral reef cave. Then we checked out the labyrinth of nature trails, wild bird center and butterfly meadow.
Bridges for walking, biking, fishing
Another part of the Keys story is the Seven Mile Bridge, completed in 1912 as part of the railroad built by industrialist Henry Flagler to connect the Keys to the mainland.
After the demise of the railroad, the bridge became part of the Overseas Highway. Since a new span was built alongside it in 1982, the old structure has been a favorite route for walkers, bike riders and so many fishermen that it’s referred to as “the longest fishing pier in the world.”
Fishing from bridges and boats is so popular that I have included it in “Victor’s laws for people who wish to live in the Keys.” Other rules: Own a boat. If you don’t know how to fish, learn. Develop a taste for all kinds of seafood. Relax.
That last admonition was spelled out on a roadside sign I spotted, which succinctly summarizes perhaps the greatest appeal of the Keys: “Honestly now, what’s your hurry? You’re here!”
If you go
During the pandemic, facial coverings are required in all Florida Keys businesses as well as outdoors when social distancing of six feet or more is not possible.
I recommend staying on Marathon Key, located near the midpoint of the archipelago. The Skipjack Resort & Marina (19 Sombrero Blvd., Marathon) has a pleasant tropical feel and overlooks a golf course. Its private marina offers boat docking, charter fishing, diving and snorkeling tours. Rates begin at $145 a night. For more information, visit skipjackresortmarathon.com or call (305) 289-7662.
Appropriately named Tranquility Bay Beachfront Hotel & Resort (2600 Overseas Highway, Marathon) is set among 12 acres of lovely landscaped grounds, with a private beach, three heated swimming pools and a putting green. Accommodations are in hotel rooms and two-and-three-bedroom villas. Rates start at $200 a night. For more information, see tranquilitybay.com or call (844) 489-9665.
Not surprisingly, seafood is the highlight of many restaurant menus. It doesn’t get any fresher than at the Clawsa Blanca, perched above a seafood market (3502 Gulfview Ave., Marathon).
The menu at this pleasantly disheveled eatery and bar is limited but the options are fresh off the boat and bargain-basement priced. They include stone crab claws ($3 each), tasty smoked fish dip ($5) and steamed clams in garlic butter ($9.95). For more information, call (305) 743-4353.
While the Cracked Conch Café (4999 Overseas Highway, Marathon) offers a full menu, not surprisingly it specializes in serving meat of the sea snail for which it’s named.
Owner Joe DeConda explained that conch (pronounced conk) may be prepared every way that veal is. For him, that includes Parmesan (with marinara and cheese), Capri (tomatoes, cheese and basil), and Marsala (marsala wine and mushrooms). All come with several sides ($24.95). For more information, visit conchcafe.com or call (305) 743-2233.
To book the one-hour Coral Reef Snorkel Encounter ($65), contact Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters at (305) 407-3262 or visit floridakeysaquariumencounters.com.
If you’d like to plan a trip to the Florida Keys, get started by calling (800) 352-5397 or visiting fla-keys.com.