FLORIDA KEYS — There’s more to the Florida Keys than meets the eye, yet visitors often overlook an array of hidden treasures and colorful locales. Explore the ones listed here and discover hidden gems that should not be eclipsed by the area’s better-known spots.
One route from mainland Florida, Card Sound Road offers a glimpse into one of the many facets of life in the Keys. Inhabitants here reside in humble abodes, peddling blue crabs along the roadside. Alabama Jack’s is Card Sound’s only restaurant and a popular local watering hole. www.alabamajacks.com
Visitors traveling Card Sound Road eventually head southwest on Route 905 to connect with U.S. Highway 1 on their way to the remainder of the Keys. One-quarter mile north of the intersection of Route 905 and U.S. 1, the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park provides a home to numerous endangered species from both the plant and animal kingdoms. Guided nature hikes are available by request and led by park rangers from nearby John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. www.floridastateparks.org/keylargohammock
Art enthusiasts can enjoy The Gallery at Kona Kai, mile marker (MM) 98 bayside in Key Largo. The gallery showcases works by some of the state’s finest artists as well as artists from Europe. The appealing boutique resort also is home to one of the first ethnobotanic gardens in the southeast United States. www.g-k-k.com, www.konakairesort.com
Tucked off U.S. 1 at Burton Road, MM 92.5 oceanside in Key Largo, Harry Harris Park has a beach, picnic grounds, playground and ball field. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset.
One-half mile south at MM 92 oceanside is the centerpiece of the historic community of Tavernier, the Tavernier Hotel. This former general store and movie theater survived the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and was used by the American Red Cross to house area residents left homeless by the storm. Today, the 17-room property is open as a homey, pet-friendly resort. www.keyscaribbean.com/homes/tavernier/
At MM 85 bayside in Islamorada, travelers can view the inside of a fossilized coral reef at the 32-acre Windley Key Quarry Fossil Reef State Geologic Site. An on-premise, free-admission educational center showcases the quarry’s role in the development of the Keys’ historic Over-Sea Railroad, while nature trails wind through hardwood hammocks. www.floridastateparks.org/windleykey
A unique Florida Keys cemetery can be found on the beach at Cheeca Lodge & Spa, MM 82 oceanside in Islamorada. Known as the Pioneer Cemetery, this site contains the statue of an angel — one of the few structures that survived the hurricane of 1935. The ashes of that storm’s many victims rest below the tiled mosaic of Islamorada at the base of the Hurricane Monument, where the Old Highway meets the new at MM 81.7. www.cheeca.com/history
Venturing into the Middle Keys, Conch Key at MM 63 bayside is a historic fishing village reminiscent of the early Florida Keys. Small cottages that date back to 1925 are home to commercial trap and line fishermen who work from their backyards.
Travelers can’t miss the larger-than-life dolphin statue at Dolphin Research Center (www.dolphins.org), MM 59 bayside on Grassy Key, but few realize that one of the first “Flippers” of television fame is buried beneath it. Not far away at MM 56 oceanside is the unspoiled, uncrowded Curry Hammock State Park with beach and picnic facilities. www.floridastateparks.org/curryhammock Sombrero Beach in Marathon, MM 50 oceanside at Sombrero Beach Boulevard, provides a sandy oasis in the Middle Keys. Nearby Boot Key Harbor is a popular boaters’ community and a temporary stopping spot for cruisers the world over. Located at the Sombrero Marina, the Dockside Lounge at the harbor, MM 50 oceanside behind Publix, has live music by a different artist each Sunday night. Boot Key also is a popular spot for bird watching. www.bootkeyharbor.com
A portion of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, a dramatic reminder of the historic Over-Sea Railroad, is a landmark at the 524-acre Bahia Honda State Park between MM 36 and 37. Pedestrians visiting the park can stroll along the old bridge for a panoramic view of the park and surrounding azure water. www.bahiahondapark.com
Lower Keys visitors also can visit the former Over-Sea Railroad borrow pit now known as the Blue Hole. Located just off Big Pine’s Key Deer Boulevard at MM 30.5 bayside, the Blue Hole features a layer of fresh water floating over salt water, and attracts Key deer and provides a home to alligators, turtles, birds and numerous fish. An observation platform allows for viewing. Beyond the Blue Hole lie the hardwoods and subtropical foliage of Watson’s Hammock, accessible by a wildlife trail through pine rockland forest and freshwater wetlands typical of this area of the Keys. www.lowerkeyschamber.com/landactivities.htm#bluehole
Hidden from view at the commercial gateway to Key West is the 15-acre Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden on Stock Island. 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 at the 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
Dog Beach, situated next to Louie’s Backyard gourmet restaurant at the corner of Waddell and Alberta streets, provides a popular spot for sunbathing pooches who enjoy shallow-water swims and games of “coconut Frisbee” with their owners.
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