The US has its own bit of Caribbean paradise in the Florida Keys. While most of the focus is on Key West, with its slightly counter-culture take on life, the other keys seem to offer quieter escapes.
The Florida Keys consist of more than 1700 islands (some of which are very small), 43 of which are linked together by the Overseas Highway. The Keys stretch about 200 miles between Biscayne Bay and the Dry Tortugas, ending about 90 miles from Cuba.
The original link between the islands was the Overseas Railroad, which was completed in 1910 and damaged by a hurricane in 1935. It was replaced by the current highway. While I generally think islands are best reached via boat, the Overseas Highway is an impressive bit of engineering and provides a scenic drive through this watery world.
The Keys are divided into three groups:
- The Upper Keys: The Keys begin at Biscayne National Park. The park itself is 95% water and a boat is necessary to experience much of what the park has to offer. The Upper Keys include Key Largo and are noted for their diving and sport fishing.
- The Middle Keys: The Middle Keys include the city of Marathon. Sport fishing here focuses on deep sea species. There are also parks and small nature centers here.
- The Lower Keys: There is a change in atmosphere once you cross the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon and enter the Lower Keys. There are no fast food restaurants and few businesses at all in most of this area, as much of the land has been set aside in parks and nature reserves. Bahia Honda State Park and Recreation Area is noted for its white sand beach.
Then, of course, there is Key West, home of the Conch Republic, Hemingway, a multitude of funky shops and bars, and sunset at Mallory Square.
All of the Keys are part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Keys are home to four national wildlife refuges (not all of which are open to the public): the National Key Deer Refuge, the Great White Heron Refuge, the Key West Refuge, and the Crocodile Lake Refuge. There are opportunities for bird watching and snorkeling throughout the keys.
For an even more away-from-it-all experience, the Dry Tortugas National Park features historic Fort Jackson and great snorkeling.