If Florida is a state apart from the USA, the Keys are islands apart from Florida – in other words, it's different down here. This is a place for those escaping everyday life on the mainland. You'll find about 113 mangrove-and-sandbar islands where the white sun melts over deep green mangroves; long, soft mudflats and tidal bars; teal waters and a bunch of charming polite society castaways.
Key West is still defined by its motto – One Human Family – an ideal that equals a tolerant, accepting ethos where anything goes and life is always a party (or at least a hungover day after). The color scheme: watercolor pastels cooled by breezes on a sunset-kissed Bahamian porch. Welcome to the End of the USA.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Florida Keys.
John Pennekamp has the singular distinction of being the first underwater park in the USA. There’s 170 acres of dry parkland here and over 48,000 acres (75 sq miles) of wet: the vast majority of the protected area is the ocean. Before you get out in that water, be sure to take in some pleasant beaches and stroll over the nature trails.
Key West’s biggest darling, Ernest Hemingway, lived in this gorgeous Spanish Colonial house from 1931 to 1940. Papa moved here in his early 1930s with his second wife, a Vogue fashion editor and (former) friend of his first wife (he left the house when he ran off with his third wife). The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and The Green Hills of Africa were produced here, as well as many cats, whose descendants basically run the grounds.
This excellent museum, set in a grand 1891 red-brick building that once served as the Customs House, covers Key West's history. Highlights are the archival footage from the building of the ambitious Overseas Hwy (and the hurricane that killed 400 people), a model of the ill-fated USS Maine (sunk during the Spanish-American War) and the Navy's role in Key West (once the largest employer), and the 'wreckers' of Key West, who scavenged sunken treasure ships.
Key West locals have a love-hate relationship with the most famous road in Key West (if not the Keys). Duval, Old Town Key West’s main strip, is a miracle mile of booze, tacky everything and awful behavior – but it’s a lot of fun. The ‘Duval Crawl’ is one of the wildest pub crawls in the country. The mix of neon drink, drag shows, T-shirt kitsch, local theaters, art studios and boutiques is more charming and entertaining than jarring.
Take all those energies, subcultures and oddities of Keys life and focus them into one torchlit, family-friendly (but playfully edgy), sunset-enriched street party. The result of all these raucous forces is Mallory Sq, one of the greatest shows on earth that starts in the hours leading up to dusk, the sinking sun a signal to bring on the madness. Watch a dog walk a tightrope, a man swallow fire, and British acrobats tumble and sass each other.
A visit to this small, interactive aquarium starts with a free 20-minute guided tour of some fascinating marine ecosystems. There are also more immersive experiences, where you snorkel in the coral reef aquarium or the tropical fish–filled lagoon. More controversial are the 'animal encounters' and 'touch tanks' where you can handle shallow water marine species and touch stingrays (the barbs have been removed). The stress of human interaction can be detrimental to the well-being of aquatic creatures.
The 965-acre Long Key State Recreation Area takes up much of Long Key. It’s about 30 minutes south of Islamorada, and comprises a tropical clump of gumbo-limbo, crabwood and poisonwood trees; a picnic area fronting a long, lovely sweep of teal water; and lots of wading birds in the mangroves. Two short nature trails head through distinct plant communities. The park also has a 1.5-mile canoe trail through a saltwater tidal lagoon and rents out ocean-going kayaks (two hours single/double $18/22).
This park, with its long, white-sand (and at times seaweed-strewn) beach, named Sandspur Beach by locals, is the big attraction in these parts. As Keys beaches go, this one is probably the best natural stretch of sand in the island chain. There's also the novel experience of walking on the old Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, which offers nice views of the surrounding islands. Heading out on kayaking adventures (from $12/36 per hour/half day) is another great way to spend a sun-drenched afternoon.
To get his railroad built across the islands, Henry Flagler had to quarry out some sizable chunks of the Keys. The best evidence of those efforts can be found at this former quarry-turned-state park. Windley has leftover quarry machinery scattered along an 8ft former quarry wall, with fossilized evidence of brain and staghorn coral embedded right in the rock. The wall offers a cool (and rare) public peek into the stratum of coral that forms the substrate of the Keys.