The Florida Keys appeal to the imagination. The hundreds of islands under the southern tip of Florida are a nice destination. Most tourists rush through the Keys from Miami to Key West, the most famous attraction. But ‘the Keys’ have much more to offer. You will find many other beautiful places along the way. At the fun attractions along the route you will find beautiful state parks such as John Pennekamp and Bahia Honda. There is even a real underwater hotel in Key Largo. A few beautiful beaches should also not be missed. As icing on the cake, you can see the rare Key deer or swim with dolphins. Which sights are worth a stop along the way?
- Florida Keys: which beautiful places and sights to see?
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
- Key Largo Undersea Park
- Dolphin Research Center
- Beaches of the Keys
- Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key
- Bahia Honda State Park
- National Key Deer Refuge
- Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge
- Key West
Florida Keys / Source: Jegabourg, Pixabay
Florida Keys: which beautiful places and sights to see?
The Keys consist of hundreds of islands. Only about forty-five are inhabited. They are connected by US Highway 1, also called the Overseas Highway. It is the most important and in many places the only road through the Keys. Key West is the largest place but there is much more to discover along the way. Wouldn’t it be a shame to just rush through this beautiful area without taking into account the nice stops and sights along the way?
Addresses on the Keys are indicated by the distance to Key West in miles. You often see the abbreviation ‘MM’, which stands for ‘mile marker’.
Milestone 0 is in Key West, at the corner of Fleming and Whitehead Street. The last pole is number 126 and is located one mile south of Florida City, from where you have a long journey ahead to Key West.
Division of the Keys
The Florida Keys are divided into three zones:
- Upper Keys: from mile marker 126 to mile marker 85
- Middle Keys: from mile marker 85 to mile marker 45
- Lower Keys: from mile marker 45 to mile marker 5, just before Key West
Florida’s coral reef
Along the 200 miles of the Keys between Miami and Dry Tortugas National Park near Key West lies North America’s only living coral reef. This is the third largest reef (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Belize’s Barrier Reef) and one of the most beautiful in the world. It lies three to eighteen meters below the water surface and forms a delicate and complex ecosystem, created after thousands of years of construction by small organisms. The variety of plants and marine animals is great, with more than five hundred species of fish.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Key Largo was the first island of the Keys to be inhabited. It is also the largest. Spanish explorers called it ‘big island’. It is also the most vibrant and lively of all the Keys.
On Key Largo you will also find John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (MM 102.50). It protects a piece of pristine nature, including seventy-five square miles of ocean and coral reef. Stopping here is a must as it is the easiest way to discover Florida’s beautiful reefs. You can dive or snorkel there, but there is also a three-mile network of canoeing and kayaking routes through the mangroves. There are also a few hiking trails.
Don’t forget the enormous aquarium in the visitor center, where you can see a piece of coral reef and many tropical fish and plants. Glass bottom boat trips also depart from here. These boats allow you to see the beautiful reef under your feet through the glass. The lush and colorful vegetation is impressive, as are the abundance of fish and aquatic animals of all shapes and colors.
If you can’t get enough of the coral reef, the Maritime Museum of the Florida Keys (MM 102) near John Pennekamp is also recommended. Here you will not only learn more about the reef but also about the other secrets of the Keys. The islands were once also the base and hideout of corsairs and pirates. Many wrecks of sunken Spanish gold galleons and treasures were discovered off the coast.
Key Largo Undersea Park
Divers should definitely visit this spot. The park has an underwater hotel: Jules Undersea Lodge. You can only reach it by diving, which makes it unique in the world. It was originally an underwater research lab off the coast of Puerto Rico. When researchers no longer needed it, it was repurposed as a hotel.
You don’t have to stay overnight to visit it: a day trip is also possible upon reservation. By the way, there is only room for six guests, so the hotel is not large. Is it safe? According to the owners, of course! It was designed for scientists who lived there for long periods of time. Even if all generators and systems were to fail, there would still be oxygen for twelve hours, enough time to save your skin.
Swimming with dolphins / Source: Mikakaptur, Pixabay
Dolphin Research Center
This educational center near Marathon on Grassy Key aims to increase the public’s knowledge of dolphins. Research is also conducted into the behavior of these animals. But above all it is a place to make a lifelong dream come true: you can swim with dolphins here!
It’s not cheap: count on at least $200. But when you’re here, perhaps the only time in your life, and you can afford it, it’s definitely worth coughing up the money. You may never get an opportunity like this again, and of course the center knows that.
When you participate in the ‘Dolphin Encounter’ you will first receive a lesson about dolphins in an improvised classroom. You will learn more about their behavior, what not to do around dolphins, and much more. Then you enter the water for an unforgettable experience. You swim with the dolphins and also do a ‘dorsal pull’ where the dolphin swims while you hold on to its dorsal fin. It is so popular that advance booking is essential.
This is not the only place on the Keys where you can swim with dolphins. You will also find similar programs at the Theater of the Sea (MM 84.5) in Islamorada or Dolphins Plus on Key Largo. Compare the three providers and make your choice.
Beaches of the Keys
There are many misunderstandings about the beaches of the Keys. A paradisiacal environment includes vast, pearly white sandy beaches, right? Well, in reality, there are very few beaches along the Keys, and the ones that are there are usually not all that beautiful and expansive. Usually the ‘beach’ is little more than a narrow strip of sand. Moreover, sand flies are a real pest on many beaches. In short, it cannot be compared to the impressive beaches of Miami or the east coast of Florida. Still, there are a few beautiful beaches along the way:
- Harry Harris County Park (MM 92.5)
- Lower Matecumbe Beach (MM 73.5)
- Anne’s Beach (MM 73)
- Long Key (MM 67.5)
- Sombrero Beach (MM50)
- Little Duck Key Beach (MM 38)
- Bahia Honda State Park (MM 37)
The beach in Bahia Honda is one of the most beautiful in the Keys, but Sombrero Beach also offers clear water, beautiful sand and a pleasant park without too many tourists. Anne’s Beach is also recommended with beautiful, clean sand and water deep enough for a dip or swim.
Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key
The legendary Seven Mile Bridge was completed by Henry Flagler in 1912 and is located on Pigeon Key, a small island west of Marathon. Pigeon Key is listed as a National Historic District, and for good reason. The original intention was to build a train route along the Keys. A hurricane threw a spanner in the works in 1935 and wiped the train tracks off the map. It was then decided to convert the bridges into connections for car traffic.
Pigeon Key housed the hundreds of laborers and railroad workers. It has a beautiful old town with a few striking wooden houses from this period. There is a peaceful atmosphere and it is nice to stroll around.
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park (MM 37), a 212-acre protected area, offers one of the most beautiful beaches on the Keys: a beautiful and sparkling scene of white sand. The beach is sometimes even considered one of the most beautiful in the US. The park is located at the foot of the Seven-Mile Bridge. In the summer, sand fleas are annoying visitors here, but outside the warmest months they are not much of a problem. You can enjoy the sun and beach here, but snorkeling is also possible. There are also options for kayaking, on your own or with a guided excursion. Behind the beach is a dense tropical forest with some hiking trails.
On Lower Sugarloaf Key at mile marker 17 along the bay side you will notice a wooden tower. It was built in 1929 by Richter Clyde Perky and is a protected landmark on the US National Register of Historic Places.
Perky was a real estate speculator and an eccentric figure. He was so tired of mosquitoes and insects that he decided to build a tower. That would attract bats and they in turn would eat the mosquitoes. The result? The Keys would become a fantastic place without bugs, where Perky would then build a luxury resort. Unfortunately for him, the bats never showed up. The tower soon fell into disrepair.
The rare key deer / Source: Amanderson2, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)
National Key Deer Refuge
Key deer or ‘key white-tailed deer’ are an endangered breed. There are at most a few hundred specimens left on Big Pine Key and No Name Key. They also move between the islands (yes, a deer can swim well!), but you are more likely to see them near shrubs on the island. Parts of the reserve are accessible to the public. You have a good chance of spotting deer, especially in the early morning or late afternoon.
The Watson Nature Trail is a short hiking trail on Big Pine Key. It is almost a mile long and takes you through the deer’s natural habitat.
In any case, keep your distance from the animals. Under no circumstances should you feed them. It is illegal and anyone caught faces fines of up to $25,000. You read that right: there is not too many zeros!
Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge
This reserve on the Florida Keys consists of two areas where you can spot migratory birds. Ibises, hawks and even eagles regularly appear here, as do many other bird species. It’s worth a stop if you’re passing through the Keys and want to leave the car aside for a while. There are no facilities in the park.
This place is especially popular with kayakers. You can float around here for hours on shallow waters and through dark mangroves while you hear fish splashing in the water, see turtles crawling or see the park’s many birds.
Sunset from Key West / Source: Paulbr75, Pixabay
Key West is the southernmost town in North America and is located about ninety miles north of Havana, Cuba. The place was first mentioned in 1513 as a refuge for pirates and other scum. Over the centuries, the city developed into one of the most prosperous in Florida and continually attracted new residents.
Most tourists come to Key West for the many good restaurants and cozy bars where you can enjoy cocktails or other drinks until late at night. Don’t forget to try the delicious ‘key lime pie’. This pastry is the local specialty and very tasty. The sunsets are also legendary.
Don’t forget Key West’s most famous resident, Ernest Hemingway. His house is the main attraction of the city.
Duval is the main street of Key West. You will find most of the nineteenth century wooden houses in the city here. Walking the street and occasionally taking a side street is a fun way to discover the city. There are also many souvenir shops.
This square on the north side of Old Town is the place to be to experience Key West’s famous sunset celebrations. It is one big spectacle with music, acrobats, street performers and boats on the ocean water.
This house is the city’s top attraction. It was made of coral stone and built in a Spanish colonial style. The famous writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) lived here from 1931 to 1940. Above the carriage house is the room where he wrote several of his books, including ‘To have and have not’ which is set in Key West. You can also discover his library and souvenirs from travels. The house also has a lush garden. Opposite the Hemingway House you will also see Key West’s lighthouse from 1848. If you climb the 88 steps you will enjoy a panoramic view.
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