My visit to the Florida Keys inspired me to share these guides with you, as a photographer, the Florida Keys are an undoubtably the destination of choice and i am sure you'll agree.
FLORIDA KEYS — There’s more to the Florida Keys than meets the eye, yet travelers often visit just once and think they’ve seen it all. With so many hidden gems and colorful locales, even frequent visitors can discover new experiences each time they return to the island chain.
When visitors choose the road less traveled, Card Sound Road, they’ll cruise past Alabama Jack’s, Card Sound’s only restaurant and a popular local watering hole. This colorful Keys establishment has been called the home of the best conch fritters in the Keys and has a Key lime pie to marvel over as well. www.alabamajacks.com.
Travelers along Card Sound Road eventually head southwest on Route 905 to connect with U.S. Highway 1 and continue their Keys journey. Once in Key Largo, those seeking sweets can stop at Key Largo Chocolates, home of the Florida Keys’ only chocolatier, located at mile marker (MM) 100.5 bayside. Self-described as a “grandma and grandpa operation,” Key Largo Chocolates infuses local Keys flavors to create handmade chocolate treats. www.keylargochocolates.com.
Art and nature enthusiasts alike can enjoy Kona Kai Resort, Gallery & Botanic Gardens, MM 98 bayside in Key Largo. This boutique property includes not only a beautiful inn but also one of the most sophisticated art galleries in South Florida, featuring world-renowned artists. Kona Kai Resort is surrounded by a lush botanic garden that captivates the senses and engulfs visitors in a tropical paradise. The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort are staffed by a full-time ethnobotanist and tours are offered regularly. www.g-k-k.com, www.konakairesort.com, www.kkbg.org.
On the third Thursday of every month in Islamorada, the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District hosts its Third Thursday Art Walk featuring national and Keys-based artists, art galleries and restaurants at Morada Way between MM 81 and 82. Attendees can discover and enjoy a stimulating blend of fine art, live music and culinary offerings. The area has emerged as a popular arts district whose galleries and restaurants welcome visitors throughout the year. www.moradawayarts.org.
Travelers can’t miss the larger-than-life dolphin statue at Dolphin Research Center, MM 59 bayside on Grassy Key, but few realize that one of the first “Flippers” of television fame is buried beneath it. Tour the acclaimed nonprofit marine mammal research and education facility to meet its resident dolphins. www.dolphins.org.
Not far away is the Turtle Hospital, MM 48.5 in Marathon, the world’s only state-licensed veterinary hospital dedicated to treating sea turtles. The hospital’s two turtle ambulances are normally parked outside the facility, and tours are offered daily so visitors can learn about the hospital and its “patients.” www.turtlehospital.org.
Before you cross the Seven Mile Bridge and head to the Lower Keys and Key West, stop by the Pigeon Key Visitor Center, hop on the Pigeon Key Ferry and explore the tiny island that once housed workers who built Henry Flagler's historic Over-Sea Railroad in the early 1900s. While the rest of the Keys have evolved with the years, this tiny island has remained essentially unchanged and is now a national historic treasure complete with a small museum chronicling the railroad’s construction. www.pigeonkey.net.
A portion of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, a dramatic reminder of the historic Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, is a landmark at the 524-acre Bahia Honda State Park between MM 36 and 37. Pedestrians can stroll along the old bridge for a panoramic view of the park and surrounding azure water. www.bahiahondapark.com.
Driving toward Key West, take a right at MM 17 on Sugarloaf Key and find a weird structure called the Bat Tower. It was built by Richter Clyde Perky in 1929 as an attempt to control mosquitoes around his fishing resort. Perky then purchased a secret “bat bait.” Bats were supposed to be drawn irresistibly by the bait, adopt the tower as their home and leave it nightly to devour the area’s mosquitoes. But the winged rodents never did make the strange structure their permanent home. These days, the Florida Keys’ Mosquito Control effectively manages the pesky insects, but the Bat Tower still stands as an offbeat monument to a “batty” Keys idea.
Hidden from view at the gateway to Key West is the 15-acre Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. Situated just off College Road at MM 5 bayside, the garden features more than 6,000 plants and trees, and provides habitat for 35 butterfly species and more than 270 migratory bird species. Visitors can explore walking trails and boardwalk trails, a one-acre butterfly habitat, freshwater lake, wetland habitat and more. www.keywestbotanicalgarden.org.
Among the ruins of Key West’s historic, never-used Civil War–era fort known as West Martello Tower is a beautiful garden featuring indigenous plants, rare palm trees and a butterfly garden. Located just past the intersection of Atlantic Boulevard and White Street, the fort is home to the Key West Garden Club and is called the Joe Allen Garden Center. www.keywestgardenclub.com.
The legacy of Key West’s first millionaire, William Curry, lives on at the Curry Mansion Inn and Museum, located at 511 Caroline St. Today the home of innkeeper Edith Amsterdam, the grand Victorian-style mansion also is an intriguing museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is said that Key lime pie was originally created in the Curry Mansion kitchen by Curry’s private cook, known as Aunt Sally. The Curry Mansion Inn and Museum is a full-service inn and is open to the public for tours. www.currymansion.com.
KEY LARGO, Florida Keys — Driving from mainland Florida, visitors to the Florida Keys enter the 125-mile-long subtropical island chain at Key Largo, the longest island in the Keys.
Key Largo is bordered on the west by Florida Bay and the Everglades National Park backcountry, and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, home to the clear waters of the Gulf Stream. Visitors can enjoy Key Largo's ties to the sea with attractions including scuba diving, snorkeling, an underwater hotel, sport fishing, eco-tours, beaches and dolphin encounter programs.
The island also offers numerous on-shore attractions including nature trails and a rehabilitation center for wild birds.
Key Largo is best known for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, mile marker (MM) 102.5, the first underwater preserve in the United States. In shallow waters adjacent to the park at a site called Key Largo Dry Rocks rests the 9-foot-tall bronze “Christ of the Abyss” statue, an iconic landmark for divers and snorkelers. Today the park receives more than a million visitors annually who come to explore its nature trails and beaches and observe its abundant underwater wildlife.
Pennekamp is incorporated into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary covers about 2,900 square nautical miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamp on both sides of the Keys island chain throughout the waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
Its indigenous population is composed of more than 600 species of fish and 55 varieties of coral, along with 27 species of gorgonians or flexible corals. The living reefs off Key Largo are acclaimed as some of the most fascinating scuba diving sites in the world.
In fact Key Largo, often called the Dive Capital of the World, is a prime shallow-reef destination for children and adults who want to try diving for the first time or get certified. Its leading sites for experienced divers include the Spiegel Grove, one of the largest vessels ever intentionally sunk to become an artificial reef.
The island also has served as an in-water hospital for stranded whales, and is known around the globe for its dolphin therapy programs. Children and adults from several continents have sought out dolphin therapy through the not-for-profit Island Dolphin Care.
The Keys’ longest island gained fame when the 1947 movie classic "Key Largo," featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, hit the silver screen. A local bar, the Caribbean Club, provided the locale for some of the movie's scenes.
Bogie's presence is apparent even today in Key Largo. The island hosts an annual Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, and the century-old steam-powered vessel from another of his epic films, "The African Queen," can be ridden from the Holiday Inn Key Largo Resort & Marina.
Key Largo is about a 60-minute drive from Miami International Airport. THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN KEY LARGO
Spiegel Grove, www.fla-keys.com/spiegelgrove. The 510-foot retired U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock is one of the largest ships ever intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef. The ship has attracted legions of fish and other marine life that can be viewed by scuba divers, snorkelers and glass-bottom boat passengers. It is positioned about six miles off Key Largo in 130 feet of water. Several mooring buoys provide convenient tie-off points for boaters.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, MM 102.5 oceanside; 305-451-1202, www.floridastateparks.org/pennekamp/. Dedicated Dec. 10, 1960, as America's first underwater preserve, Pennekamp offers dive, snorkel, eco-tour, glass-bottom boat, canoe and kayak excursions. Other attractions include nature trails, two beaches, picnic grounds and campsites.
African Queen, MM 100 oceanside; 305-451-8080, www.AfricanQueenFLKeys.com. Visitors can cruise on the iconic original vessel from John Huston's classic 1951 film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, following its restoration and 2012 relaunch. Ninety-minute canal cruises are offered several times daily and dinner cruises featuring a three-course meal at Key Largo’s Pilot House are offered Friday and Saturday nights.
Caribbean Club Bar, MM 104.3 bayside; 305-451-4466. www.caribbeanclubkl.com/. The waterfront saloon is the only Florida Keys location where filming of the movie "Key Largo" took place; all other scenes were filmed on a Hollywood sound stage. Walls within the bar are decorated with memorabilia from the movie.
Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, Route 905 at MM 106 bayside; www.floridastateparks.org/keylargohammock. Years ago, conservationists rescued this nature preserve from development and today it is home to numerous endangered species. Visitors can view rare tree snails, Schaus swallowtail butterflies, white crowned pigeons, mangrove cuckoos, lignumvitae trees, butterfly orchids and more.
Dolphin Cove Research & Education Center, MM 102 bayside; 305-451-4060, www.dolphincove.com. Visitors can experience bottlenose dolphin swims and encounters, eco-tours, sunset cruises and flamingo trips.
Dolphins Plus Inc., Ocean Bay Drive, MM 100.5 oceanside; 305-451-1993, www.dolphinsplus.com. Like its sister facility, Dolphin Cove, Dolphins Plus offers swims with the marine mammals as well as sea lion encounters.
Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, MM 93.6 bayside; 305-852-4486, fkwbc.org/. The primary purpose of the center is to rescue, rehabilitate and release ill, injured and orphaned wild birds. A boardwalk winds through cages that house wild hawks, ospreys, spoonbills, egrets and more. Some are there to recuperate and will be released; others are unable to survive in the wild on their own and have become lifelong inhabitants.
Gallery at Kona Kai Resort, MM 98 bayside; 305-852-7200, www.konakairesort.com/gallery.html. Black-and-white photographs captured by landscape photographer Clyde Butcher and paintings from featured international artists highlight this gallery's exhibits. A portion of sales benefits the Artists Environmental Foundation and its conservation awareness projects. Kona Kai also incorporates a botanical garden with more than 300 tropical species.
Jules' Undersea Lodge, MM 103.2 oceanside at 51 Shoreland Dr.; 305-451-2353, www.jul.com. Room service is available at the world's first and only underwater hotel, permanently anchored beneath the surface in Key Largo's Emerald Lagoon. The two-bedroom air-conditioned facility offers comfortable accommodations and is a popular destination for those who prefer underwater honeymoons.
ISLAMORADA, Florida Keys — The fisherman’s paradise known as Islamorada was incorporated as a municipality in January 1998. Now called Islamorada, Village of Islands, the village that measures 20 miles long and, in some places, barely 150 feet wide encompasses Plantation, Windley, Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys.
Legend has it the area was named by Spanish explorers who, seeing the purple sky at sunset and the purple bougainvillea, used the words “isla” and “morado” or purple island.
It’s probably more likely that the area was named by William J. Krome, the primary surveyor for the Over-Sea Railroad that traversed the Keys. Trains would only stop at named towns, so Krome is said to have christened the location on Upper Matecumbe Key “Islamorada,” after the schooner Island Home owned by the pioneering Pinder family.
Known as the Sport-Fishing Capital of the World, Islamorada is where backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered. It’s where legendary fishing figures including Ted Williams, Jimmy Albright, and Cecil Keith plied their trade. Perhaps the world’s highest density of professional offshore charter boats with tournament-grade captains can be found in Islamorada.
Islamorada’s unique location, lying between Florida Bay (the “backcountry”) and the Atlantic Ocean (the “front side”), provides an unrivaled diversity of fishing opportunities. The Gulf Stream flows past the islands from 10 to 20 miles offshore, bringing seasonal visitors like sailfish and marlin, kingfish and wahoo, dolphin (mahi-mahi) and tuna close enough to shore to be targeted by small-boat anglers. Tarpon and bonefish are among inshore species coveted by light tackle anglers.
Scuba divers and snorkelers flock to the region to explore the extraordinary reef line and patch reefs brimming with tropical fish, sponges, soft and hard corals and crustaceans. Davis, Conch, Alligator and Pickles reefs, Crocker Wall and the Aquarium and Fish Bowl offer safe and easy viewing of Islamorada’s diverse marine life for divers and snorkelers of virtually every skill level.
The intentionally scuttled 287-foot Eagle is Islamorada’s premier artificial reef. The wreck sits on a 105-foot-deep sandy bottom but its superstructure can be enjoyed and explored at depths of 60 to 70 feet. In the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve, divers and snorkelers can see the remnants of a wrecked 1733 Spanish treasure fleet galleon at depths of 15 to 20 feet.
On land, travelers can step inside a coral reef to see 20,000 years of reef development at the Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park. Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, a short ride by boat, encompasses a virgin hardwood hammock untouched by modern development as well as the original Matheson home built in 1919.
The Islamorada area also features eco-tours, water sports such as standup paddling and kiteboarding, tennis facilities, bicycle trails, historic hikes, beautiful vistas of both the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay, opportunities to swim with dolphins and stingrays, and a typically quirky Keys recreational activity: hand-feeding tarpon off the docks at Robbie’s Marina, mile marker (MM) 77.5 bayside.
Area beaches include a family facility with picnic tables behind the Islamorada Public Library and Anne’s Beach, where stretches of sand are linked by a boardwalk nature trail.
Islamorada also is home to the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District, spotlighting the art galleries and restaurants at Morada Way between mile markers (MM) 81 and 82. As well as welcoming visitors throughout the year, the popular arts district is the site of the Third Thursday Art Walk each month that features fine art, live music and culinary offerings.
Local restaurants range from very upscale continental to casual to downright funky. Many specialize in fresh-from-the-dock seafood, while others offer steaks, gourmet or ethnic dishes and even pizza and hamburgers.
Islamorada is about a 1.5-hour drive from Miami International Airport and a 40-minute drive from the Florida Keys Marathon Airport in the Middle Keys.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE IN ISLAMORADA
Anne’s Beach, MM 73.5 oceanside. Situated along the roadside, Anne’s Beach is a popular spot for sunning and swimming. A boardwalk through mangroves links two sandy areas. Clean and spacious restrooms are available. Covered picnic structures can be found along the length of the boardwalk.
Florida Keys History of Diving Museum, MM 83 bayside; 305-664-9737, www.divingmuseum.org. One of the world’s largest collections of historic dive equipment traces 3,000 years of diving. A special gallery features artifacts and recovery tools used by pioneering treasure hunter Art McKee. The “Parade of Nations” features historic dive helmets from some 25 nations.
Florida Keys History and Discovery Center, MM 82 bayside; 305-664-2031, www.keysdiscovery.com. The Discovery Center is part of Islander Resort, a Guy Harvey Outpost, located at 82100 Overseas Highway. Dually purposed as a conference center, the venue is dedicated to showcasing the history, environmental and marine conservation efforts of the Florida Keys in a series of state-of-the-art exhibits.
Hurricane Monument, MM 81.6 oceanside. The 65-foot by 20-foot art deco–style Hurricane Monument commemorates veterans and locals who died during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Beneath the tiled mosaic that forms the base of the monument are the ashes of many who died in the storm.
Indian Key Historic State Park, offshore near MM 78.5 oceanside; 305-664-2540, www.floridastateparks.org/indiankey. Visitors to this 11-acre island can view the remains of a wrecking, or shipwreck salvage, community from the 1830s. There are also several hundred yards of well-maintained trails that line the interior of the island.
Islamorada Library Beach, MM 81.5 bayside. Located behind the Helen Wadley Branch library, this small beach offers picnic facilities.
Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, offshore near MM 78.5 bayside; 305-664-2540, www.floridastateparks.org/lignumvitaekey. Accessible only by boat, the island features a virgin hardwood hammock, along with an early Florida Keys pioneer family home and a stone wall believed to have been built by Native Americans. A boat runs to the island from Robbie’s Marina, MM 77.5 bayside in Islamorada. Tours can be arranged through Robbie’s.
Long Key State Park, on the Atlantic Ocean at MM 67.5, 305-664-4815, www.floridastateparks.org/longkey. The Spanish named this island "Cayo Vivora" or Rattlesnake Key because its shape resembles a snake with its jaws open. In the early 20th century, Long Key was the site of a luxurious fishing resort that was once the winter home to writer Zane Grey. Today, visitors can explore this island by canoeing through a chain of lagoons or hiking two land-based trails. The Golden Orb Trail leads visitors through five natural communities to an observation tower that provides a panoramic view of the island and its profusion of plant and animal life. Some of the best bonefishing in the Keys is found here. Full-facility campsites overlook the Atlantic Ocean.
Pioneer Cemetery, MM 82 oceanside. Situated on the beach adjacent to Cheeca Lodge, the cemetery is the final resting place of Islamorada area pioneers.
Robbie’s Marina, MM 77.5 bayside; 305-664-9814, www.robbies.com. Visitors can purchase buckets of bait to feed tarpon from the marina dock. Small shops sell T-shirts and island crafts. Fishing and snorkeling excursions and state park tours can be booked as well.
Theater of the Sea, MM 84.7 oceanside; 305-664-2431, www.theaterofthesea.com. Visitors can swim with bottlenose dolphins, stingrays and sea lions; enjoy wild animal exhibits and view parrot, dolphin and sea lion shows at this attraction, the second oldest marine mammal facility in the world.
ICE Amphitheater at Founders Park, MM 87 bayside; 305-853-1685, www.keysice.com. This outdoor performing arts amphitheater features six concrete rows of seats that accommodate approximately 300 people and open “festival” seating on the grass that accommodates up to 4,000. Musical concerts, dance and other live performances highlight a yearly show schedule.
Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, MM 85.5 bayside; 305-664-2540, www.floridastateparks.org/windleykey. An exposed coral reef, this park once served as a quarry for construction of the Key West extension of the Florida East Coast Railway. Later, the quarry yielded decorative building stones. An environmental center documents park and regional history, and self-guided nature trails wind through mangrove hammocks.
MARATHON, Florida Keys — Called the boating and family destination of the Keys, Marathon includes Boot, Knights, Hog, Vaca, Stirrup, Crawl and Little Crawl keys, East and West Sister's Island, Deer and Fat Deer keys, Long Pine and Grassy keys. It incorporated as the City of Marathon in 1999.
Settlements on the islands of Marathon can be traced back to the early 1800s, when Bahamians established tropical fruit farms and New England fishermen inhabited the region.
Centered on Vaca Key, Marathon got its name from workers constructing the monumental Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad from mainland Florida throughout the Keys in the early 1900s. Working night and day to meet the grueling construction schedule, crews reputedly said, "This is getting to be a real Marathon."
Crossing the shimmering waters south of Vaca Key is the Seven Mile Bridge, one of the longest segmental bridges in the world. The Old Seven Mile Bridge running parallel to the modern span was the jewel of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad and a turn-of-the-century technological marvel that took four years to construct.
The spirit of this trestle's past can be found on Pigeon Key, the original construction headquarters and staging area for construction of the bridge. The island's museum contains artifacts from the Florida Keys railroad era, along with models, a video about the railroad, and antique postcards and photos depicting early life on Pigeon Key.
Throughout the region, environmental attractions provide visitors opportunities to swim with dolphins, explore hardwood hammock and rainforest areas, stroll white sand beaches and enjoy an abundance of water sports.
World-class sport fishing can be found offshore on the reef and flats, along the bridges and in nearby Everglades National Park. Challenging the mighty tarpon or "Silver King of the Keys" near the bridges of Marathon is a test of strength, endurance and boating skill.
Snorkel and scuba dive excursions fulfill most divers' appetites. The beautiful underwater world at Sombrero Reef and the ghostly Thunderbolt shipwreck — named for its seagoing duty as a lightning target — are two of Marathon's world-class dive attractions.
Kayakers can paddle through the solitude of local backcountry waters or fish from a kayak. The fast-growing sports of standup paddling and kiteboarding find many devotees in the Marathon area.
Visitors can charter a fishing boat or sailboat, play golf and tennis, take in the theater and eat at fine restaurants ranging from upscale cafés to funky waterfront seafood spots.
Marathon boasts homey resorts, luxury accommodations, marinas and the conveniences of a modern community, including a 58-bed hospital and plenty of shopping opportunities, while retaining the charm of its roots as a 19th-century fishing village.
Florida Keys Marathon International Airport, located at mile marker (MM) 52 bayside, is home to two full-service fixed-base operators who offer private and charter aircraft accessibility, jet and aviation fuels, maintenance, tie-down, pilot and passenger facilities. The airport also offers Greyhound bus pickup, airport taxi service and rental car agencies, as well as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection airport user fee facility. For information about airport services, call 305-289-6060.
The Marathon region is approximately a 2.5-hour drive from Miami International Airport and a one-hour drive from Key West International Airport. WHAT TO SEE AND DO ON THE ISLANDS OF MARATHON
Crane Point, MM 50.5 bayside, Marathon; 305-743-9100, www.cranepoint.net. This 63.5-acre tract is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the Keys. Crane Point contains evidence of prehistoric Indian artifacts and was once the site of a Bahamian village. The Museums of Crane Point include the Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys Children's Museum. Other features include nature trails, one of the oldest homes in the Keys outside of Key West, a wild bird rehabilitation center, rainforest, butterfly garden and flight habitat.
Curry Hammock State Park, MM 56.2 oceanside, Little Crawl Key; 305-289-2690, www.floridastateparks.org/curryhammock. Fishing, swimming, kayaking and picnicking are offered at this waterfront park, which also offers a popular beach launch for kiteboarders.
Keys Cable, MM 59 bayside on Grassy Key; 305-414-8245, www.keyscable.com.
Billed as the nation’s first cable park to offer full kiteboarding instruction, the park has two two-point cable systems that are independently operated atop a seven-acre lake, allowing for a fully customized ride for one rider at a time. The park offers full equipment rentals as well as instructional and private coaching. Half-day, full-day and membership rates are available. Keys cable is open daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Dolphin Connection, MM 61 oceanside, Hawk's Cay Resort, Duck Key; 305-734-7000 or 888-443-6393, www.hawkscay.com. Hawk's Cay Resort guests and non-guests can interact directly with the dolphins in either a saltwater lagoon or dockside encounter.
Dolphin Research Center, MM 59 bayside, Grassy Key; 305-289-0002, www.dolphins.org. This acclaimed non-profit marine mammal research and education facility offers a swim program called Dolphin Encounter. Visitors also can try Dolphin Dip, a wade-in program that offers the opportunity to get waist-deep in the water with the resident dolphins. Meet the Dolphin and Paint With a Dolphin are among the other interactions available.
Key Colony Beach Golf & Tennis, 8th Street at MM 53.5, Key Colony Beach; 305-289-1533. A nine-hole, par-3 public course is open seven days a week, along with two lighted hard courts.
Marathon Community Theatre, MM 49 oceanside, Marathon; 305-743-0994, www.marathontheater.org. Comedies, musicals, dramatic presentations and readings are offered at the popular theater whose history dates back to 1944.
Old Seven Mile Bridge, MM 47 bayside, Marathon. Once the centerpiece of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, the bridge remains a historic and scenic landmark stretching beside the contemporary Seven Mile Bridge. A prime spot for walking, jogging, cycling and sunset viewing, it also provides access to Pigeon Key.
Pigeon Key, MM 47 bayside, Marathon; 305-743-5999, www.pigeonkey.net. Dotted with quaint cottages, historic Pigeon Key formerly served as a camp for laborers erecting the Seven Mile Bridge. The island now showcases a museum and offers opportunities to picnic and snorkel. Tours are available by ferryboat to the island, departing from the Pigeon Key Visitors Center on Knights Key, MM 47.5 oceanside.
Sombrero Beach, Sombrero Boulevard at MM 50 oceanside, Marathon. This well-maintained Middle Keys gem is a free-access public park and beach that features a kayak launch, volleyball courts, children's playground, shady picnic pavilions equipped with cooking grills, freshwater shower and restroom facilities. The park at Sombrero Beach also is handicapped accessible.
BIG PINE KEY, Florida Keys — For more than 60 years, the region of Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys — from the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge at Sunshine Key, mile marker (MM) 40, to Stock Island at MM 5 — has advocated the responsible use and preservation of the vast natural wonders found there. This focus on the environment has earned the region the title of the Natural Keys.
The Lower Keys are home to two national wildlife refuges, a portion of a national marine sanctuary and a state park, and are surrounded by a marine environment filled with abundant terrestrial and marine wildlife.
Established in 1957, the National Key Deer Refuge protects the endangered Key deer — a subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, ranging in size between 65 and 90 pounds fully grown — and its habitat. Today the refuge encompasses approximately 9,200 acres of prime Key deer territory from Bahia Honda Key to the eastern shores of Sugarloaf Key, out to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
In the ocean waters off Big Pine Key, divers and snorkelers explore the spectacular coral and marine life of Looe Key Reef, renowned as one of the world’s best reefs for diving. Each July, Looe Key is the site of a popular underwater music festival that promotes the preservation of Keys coral reefs.
Since Dec. 5, 1998, divers have been exploring an artificial reef approximately seven miles southwest of Big Pine Key — the intentionally scuttled 210-foot former island freighter, the Adolphus Busch Sr.
Just north of the Lower Keys, the adjacent waters of the Gulf of Mexico offer refuge and breeding areas to great white herons and other migratory birds and wildlife in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938. Stretching between Key West and Marathon, the refuge features more than 375 square miles of open water and islands. White herons are North America’s largest wading bird and are only found in the Florida Keys and on the South Florida mainland, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Visitors can access the area by kayak, canoe or shallow-draft boat.
Featuring one of the top 10 beaches in the United States as designated by several travel studies, Bahia Honda State Park on Bahia Honda Key, MM 37, offers camping, picnicking, watersports and plenty of opportunities for sunning.
Camping is widely popular throughout the Lower Keys, with multiple campground and recreational vehicle parks. Outdoor activities in the Lower Keys include both inshore and offshore fishing, kayaking through the nearby shallow waters, birding, golfing and walking.
Big Pine Key is located about 30 minutes by car from Key West International Airport and approximately the same distance from Marathon.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN BIG PINE AND THE LOWER KEYS
Adolphus Busch Sr. Wreck diving came to the Lower Keys in a big way on Dec. 5, 1998, with the intentional sinking of the 210-foot Adolphus Busch Sr. The former island freighter was purchased by the local dive community with the assistance of Adolphus Busch IV, and sunk perfectly upright and intact in 100 feet of water some seven miles southwest of Big Pine Key. A wide variety of marine life calls this fascinating wreck home.
Bahia Honda State Park, MM 37 oceanside, Bahia Honda Key; 305-872-2353, www.floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda. Home to the Florida Keys’ finest beach, Bahia Honda State Park also features picnic and camping facilities, rental cabins, watersports activities including canoeing and kayaking, a marina and nature trails. A nature center introduces park visitors to the island's plants and animals.
Blue Hole, down Key Deer Boulevard, off U.S. Highway 1 at MM 30.5 bayside, Big Pine Key. An old rock quarry used for construction of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad now provides a freshwater habitat for alligators and wading birds.
Looe Key Reef. This unique preserve is named for the HMS Looe, a British frigate that ran aground on the shallow reefs in 1744. The waters surrounding the reef provide spectacular views of sponges, soft corals, vibrant elkhorn and staghorn coral thickets, and a wide variety of fish. The area’s commercial dive charters provide excursions to Looe Key, and the reef is the site of the annual Underwater Music Festival.
National Key Deer Refuge and Watson Nature Trail, down Key Deer Boulevard, off U.S. 1 at MM 30.5 bayside, Big Pine Key; 305-872-0774, www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer. Tiny deer no larger than a mid-size dog roam freely here. A nature trail winds through protected pinelands. The visitor center is located in the Big Pine Key Plaza, 701 Key Deer Blvd.
Perky’s Bat Tower, MM 17 bayside, Sugarloaf Key. In 1929, late Lower Keys resort owner Richter Perky erected a strange-looking wooden structure to house bats to eat the mosquitoes that pestered his guests. Although his plan failed, today Perky’s Bat Tower is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors still flock to the offbeat “tower” that has become a quirky Keys landmark.
Sheriff’s Animal Farm, MM 5 bayside, Stock Island; 305-293-7300, www.keysso.net/miscellaneous/animal_park.htm. On the grounds of the Monroe County Detention Center, this children’s attraction features horses, ponies, ducks, geese, pigs, African spurred tortoises, a llama and other animals. The farm is open 1-3 p.m. on the second and fourth Sunday of each month.
Indian Key Historic State Park, located off Islamorada, Fla., is accessible only by boat or kayak.. Visitors to this 11-acre island can view the remains of a wrecking, or shipwreck salvage, community from the 1830s. There are also several hundred yards of well-maintained trails that line the interior of the island. Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau.
FLORIDA KEYS — In the mid-1930s, with the Florida Keys reeling from the Great Depression, Florida Gov. Julius Stone and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration coordinated an influx of artists and writers to paint murals, write guidebooks, teach craft classes and help turn the area into an attractive vacation destination.
Today, the Keys' creative and cultural community is more vibrant and varied than Stone ever could have imagined. Writers are drawn to the area by the easygoing ambiance and the company of their compadres, musicians and actors by the chance to practice their craft before a knowledgeable and appreciative audience, and artists by the ever-changing tropical light and the opportunity to depict a uniquely engaging locale. The presence of the Keys' visual, literary and performing artists — and the galleries and theaters where they showcase their talent — makes every visit to the island chain a cultural delight.
Visitors seeking the work of artists and artisans can find it literally from one end of the Keys to the other. Galleries abound featuring oils and watercolors, sculpture, Haitian primitives, collage, pottery, hand-crafted jewelry, wood carving, stained and blown glass, prints and serigraphs, metalwork, acrylics and fine crafts.
Some galleries spotlight tropically themed pieces, some are cooperatives run by the artists themselves and others are gallery/studios where visitors can meet the artists and observe them at work. Regular gallery strolls and art walks are popular, particularly in Key West's historic Old Town and Islamorada's flourishing Morada Way Arts & Cultural District.
In addition, the Florida Keys offer a full calendar of art and crafts shows. Ranging from juried exhibitions of fine art to colorful craft extravaganzas, these gatherings draw creative spirits from the Keys and elsewhere. Among the most significant is the Pigeon Key Art Festival, held in Marathon each February and named for a tiny island beneath the Old Seven Mile Bridge.
Outdoor art can be seen throughout the Keys, whether it's murals celebrating the underwater world or sculptures enhancing public places.
At the heart of Key West's creative atmosphere is its literary legacy. Tennessee Williams maintained a home on the island from 1949 until his death, Robert Frost was a frequent visitor and Ernest Hemingway produced some of his finest work during his decade-long residence. Every July, Key West hosts a festival celebrating Hemingway's life and work that includes an internationally recognized short story contest. In addition, Hemingway's home is open for tours.
Today Key West's literary community, which has sheltered many Pulitzer Prize winners and notables ranging from Elizabeth Bishop to Judy Blume, continues to thrive. Each January, the widely recognized Key West Literary Seminar draws writers such as Amy Tan, Frank McCourt and Joyce Carol Oates to explore aspects of literature relating to a specific theme.
From Key West to Key Largo, the performing arts flourish. The Keys are home to numerous theaters and community groups, many with long and productive histories, whose offerings are enthusiastically supported by residents and visitors.
The talent pool encompasses skilled locals and visiting professional actors seeking sunshine and creative opportunities. Full-book musicals, searing dramas, sidesplitting comedies and children's shows all take their turn on the stages of the Keys.
While some Keys visitors are attracted by the musical sounds of waves lapping the shore and breezes stirring the palms, many other types of music can be heard along the island chain. Notable musical groups and presenters include Impromptu Classical Concerts of Key West, the Middle Keys Concert Association, the Key West Pops and Islamorada Community Entertainment.
Performance venues include the Tennessee Williams Theatre, TIB Bank of the Keys Amphitheater in Islamorada and Key Largo's Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center.
The Florida Keys may be best known for their exceptional diving and fishing, easygoing tropical atmosphere and warm and welcoming climate, but their place as a haven for creative spirits can't be denied. Founded on the legacy of Ernest Hemingway and the efforts of Julius Stone, culture in the Keys is a vital part of the area's unique and vibrant appeal.
For more Florida Keys & Key West travel information, including electronic brochures and videos, visit the Keys website at www.fla-keys.com.
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