Florida Keys

Florida Keys Drive, North to South

Florida Keys Vacation SpotThe Florida keys as a vacation spot is both “standard Florida” as well as an escape of everyday life.  I recently took a drive down this island chain, via the Overseas Highway.  I marveled at what had changed…and what had stayed the same from my last visit, roughly 10 years ago.

Key Largo — Enter the Keys

While it’s not really the northernmost island, Key Largo is considered the gateway to the rest of this tropical island chain.  This area changed the most from the last time I ventured down.

Key Largo has always been the most like the mainland, in terms of chain restaurants, chain hotels, and outlet stores.  And, I am sad to say, that this influence is even more pronounced now.  At least in comparison to points south.

Still, there are reminders that this isn’t just a piece of the mainland.  John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is one of them — a diving mecca for the world.  Little motels have still survived here and there, as well as tiny restaurants that boast unique Keys-inspired offerings.  So if you can’t make it to points further south, you can still have a great time in Key Largo.

Islamorada — The Keys Begin

It’s not really until we got to Islamorada that the Keys really started looking like what they are — coral and limestone islands in a sea of ultra-clear tropical waters.  Not to say they don’t look that way in Largo…just that you can’t see the waters from the highway.

But starting in Islamorada, the island spiWaters in the Keysrit begins.  There are more unique places to stay, interesting places to eat, and the icon of the Keys, Theater of the Sea.  Not to mention one of the big draws of the islands — the beautiful waters.

There are plenty of places to pull over on the side of the road and mosey over to the water.  The waters are for the most part pretty shallow in these areas, but clear and warm.   Limestone rocks dot the shore, and if you bring some snorkeling gear, you can see sights below the surface — fish, sea grasses, maybe even a lobster or two at certain times of the year.

If you’re looking for sandy beaches, though, you may be in for some withdrawal symptoms.  Anne’s Beach is in the Islamorada area, once of the few natural sand beaches in the Keys.  However, there isn’t all that much of it (sand, that is).  Still, it’s natural and it’s pretty, so it’s worth a stop.

One restaurant worth mentioning in Islamorada is the Green Turtle Inn.  It’s a shadow of its former self, in that the building that used to be the entire restaurant only about 1/3 is still the restaurant proper.  However, if you would like some lobster mac and cheese, it’s definitely the place to stop  (in a word…YUM)!  The catch of the day is also superb, and the Key Lime pie is still as tasty as ever.  Be prepared for a large tab for your meal, though, as it is pricy.  The food is worth it, though.

Further on Down the Chain — Marathon and Beyond

Marathon is roughly the middle of the drive between Largo and Key West.  It boasts an airport (very tiny) as well as chain stores, restaurants and hotels.  It also boasts some places to stay that are not the standard chains, restaurants that prepare seafood in a variety of delicious ways, and some unique places to shop.

Florida Vacation SpotOh, and the waters here are fantastic for boating, snorkeling, diving, fishing…you get the idea.  I must say that Marathon didn’t change a whole lot since my last visit, even though it passed through some hurricanes since then.  The pace is slower here, more like the “Keys time” that I remembered.  Still, if you are hankering for a Big Mac, you can find one, so it’s rather a pleasant mix of mainland and tropics.

The 7 Mile Bridge is what links Marathon, in the Middle Keys, to the Lower Keys.  It’s a wonderful drive over the stretches of waters that vary from green to turquoise to blue and back again.  Plenty of sea birds float the skies or sit on the wires of the phone and electrical lines.  And while the phone and electrical lines aren’t the most scenic, they are necessary.  And, they are only on one side of the bridge.

Bahia Honda Key is on the other side of the bridge, and Bahia Honda State Park takes up a good deal of the island.  Worth a stop if you like beautiful tropical beaches — and this one is natural sand as well.

After Bahia Honda and Big Pine Keys, you’ll come to various small islands, and finally terminate your drive in Key West.  On our trip, we turned around before we got to Key West, since we were only taking a day drive, and the traffic in Key West would have added an hour all by itself.

The Keys as a Florida vacation spot, is a destination very much worth considering, even if it’s just a day trip.  The scenery, the places to stop, the food to eat — they all spell a wonderful place to spend a day, a week or even longer.  Enjoy!

 

 

Key West Vacation Spots

Key West vacation spots are many and varied.  Do you like beaches, or do you prefer sight-seeing?  Attractions or boating?  Does shopping get your heart racing?  You can do all these and more here on this island at the end of Florida.Florida Keys Map Showing Key West

The Florida Keys are a string of islands that are a part of the US, but aren’t like anything else in the United States.  And Key West is both “end of the line” and “life of the party”!  It’s both an island and a city. There is plenty to see and do, so let’s get started.

Beaches

There are several beaches on the island of Key West, some public and some private.  None are very large, but they are full of life!

There are all kinds of beaches here, from family-friendly to not so much.  This means there’s probably something for everyone.

The family-friendly public beaches on Key West are:Beach on Key West

  • Smathers:  This is the beach most people think about when they hear “Key West beach”.  It’s the largest at 1/2 mile in length, and has plenty of “beach toys” and activities.
  • Fort Zachary Taylor:  This part of a Florida State Park, and has some nice patch reefs nearby, so it’s great for swimmers and snorkelers.
  • Higgs Memorial:  This is the second largest of the island beaches.
  • C.B. Harvey Rest:  Right next to Higgs, and also the pier.
  • Dog Beach:  A place to enjoy the company of your four-legged friend.

Those are the highlights; I’ll talk a little more in-depth about these beaches in another post.  Meanwhile, here are some other Key West vacation spots to think about.

Sight-Seeing, Attractions and Shopping

These all involve Duval Street at some point, so I’ve grouped them together.   For sight-seeing, your best choices are a pedal cab, the trolley or bicycle.  And unless you are used to cycling in traffic, pedal cabs and the trolley make more sense.

Oh, and walking is also an option.  By car, it’s so-so.  Parking is at a premium and the streets are narrow and often congested.

Duval Street is the place to be for shopping.  It’s also sight-seeing because of some of the famous places like Sloppy Joe’s.  And naturally, Duval Street is part of any island tour.

Attractions are many and varied; they include the aquarium, the southernmost point, museums (the cool kind, like with pirates and treasures) and more.  One of the most popular is the ghost tour!

Snorkeling, Diving and Boating

Very popular are the sunset cruises — the Keys are legendary for great sunsets.  The island is also great for boating, with several places for rentals and charters for the back country (i.e. Florida Bay).

There are quite a few tours that offer diving and snorkeling trips; they range from beginner tours for reef snorkeling, all the way up to wreck diving.  You can even take a tour out to Dry Tortugas for some awesome waters!

Key West Vacation Spots

Those are just a few of the Florida vacation spots on this island in the Keys.  I’ll be writing up some more detailed posts, but for now, I hope this has helped!  🙂

A Key Largo Florida Vacation

So what can you do on a Key Largo Florida vacation?  Sure, it’s warm and sunny most of the year, but what’s here aside from beaches?  Stay tuned, because you might be surprised!  (Especially when it comes to the part about the beaches.)

Key Largo Coral ReefKey Largo Overview

This is the northernmost of the Keys, and is accessed directly from the mainland via the overseas highway (US 1).  You pretty much have to go through Key Largo to get to any of the other keys (assuming you are going by motor vehicle).

While there is a lot that you see on the Florida mainland here, it’s also a transition to what you’ll see as you go farther south and west in the islands.   Lots of fast food that you’d see on the mainland, but also some wonderful little places that serve up the specialties down here — seafood and key lime pie.

Outdoors Rules Here!

As with most of the rest of the Florida Keys, outdoors activities top the “things to do” list, and those activities center around water.  The usual suspects are present (diving, snorkeling, swimming, fishing, boating), but it’s the quality and quantity that make for a wonderful vacation in Key Largo.

But before I get to all the other activities, one thing that you won’t really find here are beaches.  You’d think that this being an island, it would be natural to find beaches — think again.  While there are some man-made beaches at the resorts, there is only one public beach — Harry Harris Park Beach.  This is also a man-made beach, and it’s at mile marker 92.5.

And why aren’t there more stretches of sand and sea?  Because the coral reef that is just offshore protects the islands from wave action.  And the wave action is what creates the beaches.

Christ of the Abyss Statue, Key LargoDiving and Snorkeling

If you are into swimming beneath the sea, Key Largo is a dive destination, featuring John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.  It’s home to one of the famous “Christ of the Abyss” statues (the other two being in the Italian Riviera and Grenada).

Pennekamp has everything from beginner’s snorkeling to wreck diving (Benwood wreck) to an area with underwater caves (French Reef).  You can even get a PADI open water diver certification here.

The same reefs that are great for divers also appeal to those who like to snorkel.  And since the Florida Keys as a whole host the only living coral reef in the continental US, there’s a fair amount of reef to explore.

There are lots of tours to the reefs, which can be booked both inside the park as well as with outside tour groups.

And what if you’d love to see what’s below the waves, yet don’t want to get wet?  Then the glass-bottom boat tour out of Pennekamp might be just what you are hoping for.

So that is diving and snorkeling — what else?

Florida Keys State Parks in Key Largo

You already know about Pennekamp from the previous section, but it does have more than just what’s below the waves.  There are several hiking trails that wander through the park, although neither are very long.

Camping is also a big draw to Pennekamp — there are only a few Florida State Parks open for camping in the Keys, and this is one of them,  Its very popular, so book a reservation well ahead of time.

There are also canoe and kayak rentals in the park, so you can explore the mangrove canals.

However, Pennekamp isn’t the only game in town!  There is also Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock.  This park is best known for hiking, biking and wildlife viewing.  But a word of warning, you may not want to venture into the trails during the summer months due to mosquitoes.  From October through March, however, there are ranger-led hikes.

Staying in Key Largo

There are quite a few places to stay on the island, ranging from resorts down through to some quaint motels.  There are a few things to consider when making your reservation, though.

First, seeing as the Florida Keys are islands and most things are more expensive here, that also goes for the hotel/motel rooms.

That being said, prices go up in the winter and early spring, and down in the summertime.  Why down in the summer?  Because it’s h-o-t and there is always the chance of tropical weather.  But early summer usually sees decent weather.

The last week in July is almost impossible to get a walk-in room without a reservation.  This is because it’s the time for Lobster Mini-Season.  Technically, the mini-season is the last consecutive Wednesday and  Thursday in July, a lot of people like to make a week of it.  So do yourself a favor and make a reservation well ahead of time!

(I’ll do a write up of some of the places to stay a bit later, and will put a link to it on this page — look for it.)

Your Key Largo Florida Vacation

If you’d still like other things to do here, you might want to try the ever-famous shopping (give the ol’ wallet a workout).  You can also see the African Queen — the boat from the movie by the same name.

Also, there’s a place called the World Parrot Mission that features (as you might guess) parrots.

As you can tell, outdoors is the way to go here in Key Largo.  It’s Florida, but with a taste of the tropics.