It’s no secret that there is plenty to see and do throughout the Sunshine State, from world-class beaches to top amusement parks to outdoor adventures. However, next time you’re planning a trip through the state, don’t stop at the mainland. The Florida Keys are an incredible year-round oasis, with summer temperatures in the high 80’s and mild winters – did you know that frost has never been recorded in the Keys? Strap on your flippers, set your watch to island time, and read on for our must-sees in the Keys.
Key Largo is the first island you’ll come to once you cross the Overseas Highway and is the largest of the keys at 33 miles long. This island is known as the diving capital of the world, and you just have to see what lies below the surface for yourself. If you’re not an advanced diver, bring your snorkel to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (pictured) to explore. When you come up for air, head over to Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen. This restaurant has been a local favorite for almost 40 years for its extensive menu and fresh seafood.
Not to be outdone by Key Largo, Islamarada boasts the title of the sportfishing capital of the world. Join a private fishing charter to spend your afternoon reeling in tuna, wahoo, mahi, snapper, amberjack, and more. Many companies like Sea Horse Charters (pictured) will clean, filet, and package your catch, then drop off your bounty to be prepared at a restaurant such as Lazy Days. Savor the fruits of your labor on the patio, beach, or porch. Ask your charter company which restaurant they recommend so you can make reservations in advance!
While you can find incredible diving and fishing in Marathon, this island is also known for its wildlife research and rehabilitation. A must-visit on the island is The Turtle Hospital, where you can see the turtles under rehabilitation that are getting ready to be released into the sea. Less than a mile away you’ll find the hidden gem Burdines Waterfront, perfect for a casual sunset dinner to wrap up your day. If you spent the day on a boat, you can also get to the restaurant by parking in their marina. They’ll even cook your catch!
Big Pine Key
The white sand beaches of Big Pine Key are some of the prettiest in the world, but another attraction of the island is the National Key Deer Refuge. Just the size of a large dog, the Key Deer are plentiful on the island and you’ll likely see them as you drive through. It’s worth stopping at the Blue Hole in the refuge to be able to walk around and see these adorable creatures up-close. Keep your eyes peeled for lots of reptiles and birds. For a healthy break from all the fried shrimp you’ve probably been eating, try the quirky Good Food Conspiracy for the best organic smoothies, salads, soups and wraps in the Keys.
Home to authors Ernest Hemingway (pictured) and Tennessee Williams and favorite vacation spot of many U.S. presidents, this city is rich in history, architecture, culture, and art. Take it all in by foot or bike rental. You can find self-guided tour maps as an app, online or on the island, or join a Walking Tour to learn about the islands’ past…or join a pub crawl, tasting tour, or ghost tour! When you’re ready to grab a bite to eat, skip the touristy chains and try somewhere that the locals eat. El Siboney Restaurant serves up reasonably priced, hearty portions of delicious Cuban and Caribbean favorites.
Where to Stay
Despite its casual atmosphere, hotels throughout the Florida Keys can be pricey – especially during a special event or festival, which seems to be the case almost every weekend. No matter which of the five keys you decide to stop at, there are hotel coupons and deals available for each island. Save on your hotel and put your money towards the important stuff – like another order of conch fritters. You’re worth it.
Image of Key Largo by Julie Fletcher, courtesy of Visit Florida.