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The final major region of the Sunshine State is far and away the most natural, encompassing as it does several rare ecosystems and environments, including the unique Everglades, the vast acreage of swamps, marshes and lowlands, otherwise known as the ‘River of Grass,’ that sit over much of southern Florida, creating an enormous wildlife sanctuary. This huge area – in excess of 2,000 square miles – is how all the rivers and lakes to the north drain into the Gulf of Mexico, and it feeds and houses an incredible variety of flora and fauna. It provides a wealth of ways to explore and appreciate it, but is also part of a major ongoing preservation project to protect it against creeping erosion, which could have a devastating effect on the region as a whole.
Immediately to the south, the state becomes a string of shallow tropical islands trailing off the mainland like a jewelled chain for 128 miles. At the end (just 94 miles from Cuba) is the main city of Key West, a former isolated fishing community that was finally incorporated into Florida proper in 1912 when Henry Flagler’s visionary Overseas Railway extension reached it at the end of an incredible seven-year project to connect the Keys via rail and bridge. The railroad was fatally damaged in the great hurricane of 1935, but the route with all its bridges was taken over by the state government, who created the Overseas Highway, an amazing 113-mile drive from Key Largo, the northernmost city in the Keys.
Today the Keys are very much a tourist destination unto themselves, the self-dubbed ‘Conch Republic’ (conch being a major marine mollusc that is a hugely popular dish) where things are ultra-laid back and flip-flops are official wear. Key West was home to Ernest Hemingway for many years, hence it has a reputation for a largely open, carefree attitude, with lots of bars. Florida is very welcoming of the LGBTQ community in general, but especially so in Key West, hence the annual Pride festival each June, among a series of special events that take the city’s party style to a whole new level.
The Keys are definitely the place to come for a totally chilled out Everglades holiday, but they offer a great variety of activities, too, with fishing and scuba-diving top of the list and seemingly omni-present. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off the coast of Key Largo is home to the third-largest coral reef in the world and is a huge draw for snorkellers, divers and boat tours.
Key West is a good three-hour drive from Miami Airport. It does have its own regional airport (just a 45-minute hop from Miami International), but it would be a shame not to do the exhilarating scenic drive along the Overseas Highway, with its amazing bridges and views. Here you can really admire the crystal clarity of the sea and the million variations of turquoise that the sea can provide in a timeless tableau of marine perfection.
As you would imagine, the big story here is all about the natural environment and outdoor activities, from airboats rides to kayaking. There is some great history to explore (native Indian tribes have inhabited the area for thousands of years), and the wildlife is stunning, from the inevitable profusion of alligators and even crocodiles (the only place in the Americas where they co-exist) to the endangered Florida bear and panther, and a rich cross-section of birdlife that attracts birders from all over the world.
You can enjoy a broad swathe of all this at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Clewiston, one of the few towns in the Everglades themselves. Here you’ll find the superb Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, which is a graphic portrayal of the Seminole Indian tribe and its history, and the Billie Swamp Safari, with a terrific array of activities and tours to highlight the local scenery and wildlife. You can even stay overnight in one of their Chickee huts for a truly unique experience.
Everglades National Park covers more than 1.5 million acres of the region (roughly the lower 20 per cent of its full extent) and offers the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America, as well as containing the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere. The Everglades themselves can be accessed from various points close to Miami and Fort Lauderdale (to the east), Naples (to the west), highways 27 and 29 from the north, and right across the southern extent of motorway I-75, which is known as Alligator Alley. In truth, I-75 can be a dull drive, but the more southerly route, Highway 41, part of the Tamiami Trail, is much more interesting, with a number of notable stopping points, including Ochopee Post Office (the smallest post office in the US), HP Williams Roadside Park, the Big Cypress Oasis Visitor Center, Miccosukee Indian Village and the Shark Valley Visitor Center, which has some great tours of the area, including a 15-mile tram trail and observation tower.
In the Keys, Pennekamp Coral Reef is a huge attraction, and you can explore by boat and/or snorkel and diving tours, as well as kayaking around the coast’s mangrove swamps. Key Largo hosts an annual Humphrey Bogart Festival each October, while Islamorada boasts the famous Theater By The Sea, with great animal exhibits, boat rides and a swim-with-dolphins experience. For more Keys history, don’t miss the Shipwreck Treasure Museum in Key West, as well as the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.
If there’s one other must-do attraction in the Keys, it is sunset-watching, which is practically the local sport. Most locations will feature some kind of sundown ceremony, but this is at its best in Key West, where Mallory Square is the party-style epi-centre of the daily festival.
While most of Florida can offer memorable wildlife watching, the Florida Everglades and Keys are where the experience usually goes all the way to 11. You simply can’t go wrong for a memorable adventure in the state’s great outdoors, especially if you enjoy boating, snorkelling or other water pursuits. Everglades City is the gateway to Big Cypress National Preserve, which has a concentrated amount of Floridian wildlife that can be seen on several scenic drives or on a ranger-led tour, including by canoe. The Mangrove Tunnel Kayak Eco-Tour is popular here, as is just watching the fishing boats come in at Stock Island Marina.
In addition to the Florida Everglades National Park, there are numerous other smaller parks and adjuncts to the Everglades that afford a chance to check out the local nature, notably along Highway 41, and virtually any airboat ride will feature the chance to see alligators, turtles and the amazing variety of birds.
Head down into the Keys and the scenery – and wildlife – change to more marine environments, with dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, stingrays and, yes, more birdlife, especially pelicans, which are amusingly numerous hereabouts. Kayaking can get you up close with much of it among the mangroves and other coastal waterways, while Marathon’s Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters has a great cross-section of everything you can see in the area, including sharks and majestic rays. The Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary in Tavernier (just south of Key Largo) is a great example of a number of the animal rescue and rehabilitation facilities right through the Keys, as well as being ideal for seeing plenty of birds up close and personal. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon is another, and the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key (just north of Marathon) looks after dolphins, manatees and seals.
Sports & Activities
As you may have already guessed, all the main activities of this region are going to involve the water, either boating, kayaking, paddle-boarding, snorkelling, diving or any combination of the above. Deep sea fishing, as chronicled by Hemingway, is almost omni-present in everywhere that has a marina and it is some of the best in the world for sailfish, snapper, kingfish, tarpon, marlin, swordfish and redfish.
It’s hard to go anywhere in the Keys that doesn’t offer kayaks or paddle-boards, but you’ll be spoiled for choice in places like Key Largo, Islamorada and Big Pine Key, as well as in Key West. The islands between Marathon and Key West, including Big Pine Key, are some of the most untouched and rustic, and these afford some of the best kayaking, sailing and other activities in the Keys.
There are still a few prime golf courses in the Keys, though, and you can seek these out at Key West, Key Colony Beach and Marathon.
This is not the place to come for big city life or a rich cultural experience. For all the history and heritage of the Everglades and Keys, life here is small-scale and down to earth and it is more about outdoor pursuits than shopping, nightlife or museums. However, the cities all still have their own highlights, albeit just on the micro scale.
Everglades City is the only real significant town-like development in the overall area of the Everglades, and it is a fascinating study in its own right. The Museum of the Everglades is a good starting point.
In the Keys, the main centres are at Key Largo (the first major city south of the mainland), where you should definitely visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical Park, with its six miles of trails; Islamorada, which boasts the Florida Keys History and Discovery Center, as well as Indian Key Historic State Park and the chance to hand-feed tarpon at Robbie’s Marina; and Marathon, home of some of the best beaches in the Keys, plus the quaint Crane Point Museum.
After Marathon, you head across the stunning engineering marvel of Seven Mile Bridge that connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys and reach the terminus city of Key West, with all its eclectic charm. The one thing to do here is to make sure you have your picture taken with the Southernmost point buoy, which marks the most southerly outcrop of the continental USA, but you will also want to take one of the many city sightseeing tours, by boat, bike, jeep, trolley, the Conch Train or even seaplane.
The more adventurous will also want to seek out the day-trip options to Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson, seven small islands 70 miles out into the Gulf that are home to a magnificent 19th century fortress, fabulous coral reefs and crystal clear waters.
While Florida can provide great shopping outlets seemingly at every turn, this isn’t the ideal place to be looking for a major retail experience. Yes, there are gift shops aplenty, and, even though there are no malls, there are still several cute shopping complexes, such as Clinton Square Market in Key West and Rain Barrel Artisan Village in Islamorada. You will even find a handful of upmarket jewellers and boutiques in Key West, which is also famous for its art galleries, of which the Alan S Maltz Gallery and Wyland Galleries are great examples.
But this is more about the offbeat and the wacky more than any fancy shopping expedition. Key West, Key Largo and Islamorada all have great examples of the cute and kitsch and you will see them highlighted by giant lobsters, sharks and cigars (!), so feel free to stop in and browse. Just don’t expect anything on the same scale as the other cities in the state.
For that ‘something different’ factor, look out for Key Lime Products in Key Largo; Seaside Glassworks and Ocean Gardens in Islamorada; Shady Palm Art Gallery in Marathon; and Naples Soap Company, Key West Treasure Chest and The Little Red in Key West.
Dining, cuisine and foodie tips
Seafood, seafood and more seafood. OK, so that may be a slight exaggeration, but if you’re not into fish and shellfish, you may find a far more limited selection than anywhere else in Florida. This is the home of the ubiquitous dessert Key Lime Pie (which you really must try at least once, but probably several times, as there are dozens of different recipes), conch salad, conch chowder and conch fritters, plus stone crabs, which are in season from mid-October to mid-May.
The idea of boat-to-table cuisine is at its fundamental best here, with most restaurants having a local supplier who probably brought their catch in that morning. There is a strong Cuban influence, too, from Key West’s historic period as a major cigar-producing city from its proximity to Cuba. There are still a few cigar producers today, while Cuban cuisine is notable in the bread, coffee and sandwiches, as well as in the use of black beans and yellow rice, plantains and traditional dishes like paella, ropa vieja (beef stew with vegetables) and picadillo (roast pork).
Key West also specialises in pink shrimp, yellowtail snapper, grouper, mutton snapper and mahi-mahi, as well as the spiny lobster, which is deliciously sweet and tender. Like in Miami, you can also take Food Tours of Key West, and these will highlight the great variety on offer, which also include French, Italian and other Caribbean flavours.
If you’re looking for somewhere that epitomises the best Keys dining experience, look no further than Snooks Bayside in Key Largo. Their seafront location (facing the sunset, of course), live music, Tiki bar ambience and great seafood sum up the blissful concoction of location and cuisine. But, once again, there’s no shortage of choice, especially in Key West, where the bars of Mallory Square do a roaring trade!
Why the Florida Keys?
The Florida Everglades & Keys are wildly eclectic, beautifully scenic and deliciously different. If you like anything to do with the sea, the Keys will be your cup of tea, while the Everglades should bring out the inner David Attenborough in everyone.