When people ask about the top sights to see in the south Florida area including Fort Lauderdale and Miami, I always advise them to try and make some time to go down to the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys are the string of islands just south of the Florida mainland and runs 120 miles from end to end. Fort Lauderdale and Miami are fun but for a relaxing change of pace, the Florida Keys is the place to be. For snorkellers and scuba divers going to south Florida, I would consider Florida Keys a must. The waters around Key Largo are a protected marine park with a very healthy fish life and offer the best diving in the US. Key Largo is the first town as you enter the Keys after crossing the bridge from the mainland. It can be reached from Miami in an hour and from Fort Lauderdale in an hour and 45 minutes. Once the bridge from the mainland is crossed, the change in pace is noticed immediately. There is much less traffic and people just seem more relaxed in the Florida Keys compared to the mainland.
Key Largo is the main scuba diving town with many dive shops. There is even an underwater hotel with two guestrooms for adventurous types. This was a former marine research unit that was converted to the hotel. Islamorada and Marathon located more west are also top scuba dive locations. For those who are not into diving, there are numerous shops with colorful local arts and crafts. One collection of shops has a giant statue of a spiny lobster out in front. For more fun, there are two dolphin centers, one in Key Largo and another near Marathon where visitors can interact with captive dolphins. Dolphin programs should actually be booked well in advance since they are extremely popular.
There are sign markers along the main US number 1 highway that mark each mile along the 120 mile route. Most addresses in the Florida Keys along the main highway will actually refer to which mile marker they are located near. It’s a very efficient way to navigate. It takes about 3 hours to drive from Key Largo to the far end at Key West but more than likely, visitors would want to stop off at numerous locations along the way for shopping, photo opportunities or just admiring the scenery. The scenery gets better as one heads out more west, especially near the bridges that connect the islands. A common sight to see are locals fishing off the bridges and numerous pelicans standing on the posts like permanent fixtures. One of the most spectacular sights is the seven mile bridge which is the world’s longest segmented bridge.
The Florida Keys are not really known for its beaches with the exception of Bahia Honda Park which is even further west in the lower keys. The snorkeling in this area, especially Looe Key, is among the top sites in North America. The city of Key West at the far end of the Florida Keys is the largest community in the islands and a stay here for a night or two is well worth it. The downtown area full of restaurants, bars, boutiques and shops is a funky, fun place to be. There are hotels along the water as well as numerous B&Bs inland. We stayed at the Quality Inn near the entrance of the city and had no problem getting downtown since there is a very convenient bus system that runs throughout Key West. We chose to leave our car at the hotel and use the buses because parking can be limited in the downtown area. A very neat way to tour the city is to rent scooters which are very common in the streets here. With the scooters, we criss-crossed the city and saw the wonderful colonial houses in the residential streets including Ernest Hemmingway’s house.
The seafood is predictably very fresh in restaurants everywhere in the Florida Keys. Some local specialties not to be missed are conch, local spiny lobster and a few varieties of the local fish including snapper and grouper. Of course, one must try the real, authentic key lime pie that originated in the area. Each restaurant has a slightly different recipe but in general, the authentic key lime pie here is not as sweet as the commercial brands sometimes found in the rest of North America.
Hotel accommodations suit every budget in the Florida Keys from simple motels to top notch resorts. The last town back in the US mainland is Florida City and it has some very affordable hotel accommodations with well known chains such as Comfort Inn, Hampton Inn and Best Western. This is another option for some travelers, especially those who are scuba diving in Key Largo as Florida City is only about 20 minutes away if hotels in Key Largo are fully booked or at high season rates.
The Florida Keys has a way of enticing visitors back during return visits to south Florida. Its slower pace helps balance things out against the crowded and crazier styles of Fort Lauderdale and Miami. I have been to the Keys three times and will definitely return there again.