Beverley Watts discovers more
This sweep of coral cay archipelago is full of life and working hard to protect its uniqueness with sustainable travel.
Think of the Florida Keys and you probably conjure up an image of Ernest Hemingway posing bare-chested with a giant barracuda in Key West. But the tropical islands, which stretch 125 miles off the southern tip of Florida, are becoming increasingly focused on nurturing endangered aquatic life, rather than hooking it.
The Keys themselves are actually 1,700 island remnants of ancient coral reefs and sand bars, fossilised into rock and linked by 42 bridges, with only one road in and out – the Overseas Highway. They loop in an arc southwest towards Havana in Cuba across the Atlantic Ocean into the Gulf of Mexico.
Scuba-diving, canoeing and paddle-boarding are all popular activities along the archipelago. Sportfishing is still in demand too and the Blue Star Fishing Guide salutes charter boat captains who make sustainability a priority with catch-and-release trips.
Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a very special recreation area as it’s the first undersea park in the US. There you can snorkel, kayak through the mangrove creeks, swim or take a glass-bottomed boat to see the precious coral.
Reef-building corals provide an underwater habitat for many marine species and North America’s only continental living coral barrier reef tract, which lies off the Keys, has been under stress for decades. Climate change, ocean acidification and the mysterious stony coral tissue loss disease is threatening the underwater ecosystem.
But there is hope. At a land-based coral nursery at Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada, I.Care and Mote Marine Laboratory are working together to restore the reef using micro-fragmentation.
Tiny squares of staghorn, elkhorn and starlet corals are cut with a diamond blade saw, stimulating rapid growth. Divers can book with I.Care to assist the team in transplanting coral, attaching circles of mini-plugs to the cay. There these oceanic invertebrates gradually fuse together and in magical lunar-linked unison, spawn after a full moon…
For a bit of fun, have breakfast or lunch at Robbie’s of Islamorada and experience hungry tarpon feeding! These huge fish don’t have sharp teeth but their jaws grip with an edge like sandpaper and they’re very agile. Covered with armoured scales, the Atlantic tarpon evolved approximately 18 million years ago and is one of the oldest living fish, growing over 8ft long. Watch out for the cheeky pelicans who’ll try to snatch the pilchards from your bucket as you hand-feed these ‘silver king’ acrobats.
In Marathon, the Turtle Hospital rehabilitates sick and injured sea turtles. In what was once a 1950s motel and nightclub, there are now dedicated emergency and operating rooms. Discarded plastic bags can resemble jellyfish to a turtle so look like food. Some suffer from exposure to algal toxins, viral diseases or have shells damaged in collisions with motorboats. Book a guided educational tour, meet the turtles – including huge herbivore green turtle Hanson Buoy – and help the inspiring work at this small non-profit organisation continue. Manager Bette Zirkelbach, one of the many admirable Stewards of the Keys, and her team will help you learn the difference between a loggerhead and hawksbill turtle and Bette knows every single turtle undergoing treatment by name.
Banana Bay Resort & Marina in Marathon is a great place to stay and have a go at all kinds of water sports off Vaca Key. Naturally, you need to be in total control of a jet ski so leave the cocktails until it’s après-ski time at the Pointe Bar. A Key Lime Colada, recommended by attentive Resort Manager Chris Dorsey, slides down well and the sunset at the beachside Lazy Days South eatery nearby is the perfect backdrop to a coconut fried shrimp supper.
Long accessible only by boat, the Florida Keys were first connected over 100 years ago by Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway, spanning Knight’s Key to Little Duck Key with an extraordinary 7 Mile Bridge. New bridges in 1935 made a highway possible and ‘Old 7’ was retired but a 2.2-mile section was restored and reopened in January 2022. Now you can walk or cycle across it from Marathon to Pigeon Key. It was on the shore of this tiny island that Sheldon, a loggerhead sea turtle, was recently returned to the wild after a short stay at the Turtle Hospital.
Rent a bike that suits you for the day, adjusted to the perfect height and complete with basket, lock, lights and helmet, at family-run Bike Marathon Bike Rentals.
In the Lower Keys, Bill Keogh leads nature trips with Big Pine Kayak Adventures and he’s passionate about protecting wildlife. Big Pine Key – Bill’s ‘pretty unique jewel’ – was badly hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and the endangered tiny Key deer, which only lives in the Florida Keys, managed to survive because these miniature animals, barely 2ft tall, have adapted over thousands of years to become great swimmers.
Once you reach Key West, you’ll be closer to Cuba than Miami and the multi-coloured houses definitely have a Caribbean feel. Roosters strut freely around the streets and iguanas skulk in trees. Believed to be fruit cargo stowaways, the large lizards have multiplied rapidly in recent years and are munching their way through residents’ prized hibiscus plants.
Recovering valuable goods from shipwrecks up to the mid 19th century made the island immensely prosperous and one wealthy resident, successful salvager Asa Tift, built himself a French colonial style house with wraparound verandahs. It was in a ramshackle state in 1931 when author Ernest Hemingway – himself often in a ramshackle state at local bar Sloppy Joe’s! – moved in and adopted a six-toed cat. Now the Hemingway Home & Museum and Snow White’s many feline descendants, including alpha male Joe DiMaggio, attract visitors from worldwide.
Hemingway loved Key West and so did US President Harry S. Truman who started to make regular winter visits. In 1946 a former naval residence became the Truman Little White House where politicians often joined the president, not only for meetings but for poker games. Today the VIP White Glove Tour includes a ride in a luxury Lincoln Cosmopolitan stretch limo, just like President Truman’s.
Dolphins love to play around the Keys and on a Dolphin Watch & Snorkel trip with Honest Eco Sustainable Nature Tours you can see the fun and games of a dolphin party with minimal disturbance to the environment. Climb aboard eco-friendly SQUID, Key West’s first electric-powered charter boat which runs on lithium ion battery-power charged by solar panels.
Head Captain Brady Stonesifer is hugely knowledgeable about the local habitat and marine mammals and will steer you to a tranquil spot, with an organic packed lunch, to snorkel and watch wild dolphins relax and interact. The shallow waters of the lower Florida Keys provide a year-round home for around 200 bottlenose dolphins who have never been fed or trained.
‘If they get really boisterous and happy,’ explains Brady, ‘the white underside of their bellies goes bright pink with excitement. That’s a jackpot trip.’
Where to eat, drink and stay
In Key West, the eggs Benedict special with lobster for brunch at Blue Heaven is sensational. Meringue-topped Key lime pie is a must, too. This Bahama Village hang-out was another favourite of Hemingway’s.
Bistro 245 serves delicious crab cakes with chive oil, citrus aioli and avocado salad at Opal Key Resort & Spa, close to entertainment hot spot Mallory Square.
In Key Largo the fantastic Fish House buys daily catches including mahi-mahi, yellowtail snapper and hogfish direct from local fisherman to prepare in whatever style you like. Sides include sweet potato fries, corn on the cob and homemade coleslaw. The Tiki Bar at Baker’s Cay Resort is a relaxed venue for a sundown chilled glass of wine.
There’s a very friendly welcome at Banana Bay Resort & Marina in the heart of the upper Florida Keys. After a hot day exploring the Gulf Coast, take a dip in the outdoor pool.
In Islamorada, make time for beer tasting at Florida Keys Brewing Company where Craig McBay experiments with original new varieties all the time. Reef Crawl is brewed once a year when the local mangoes are ripe and aims to promote environmental awareness in the Keys.
For a budget fast food snack, only in Florida can you find the roadside Pollo Tropical chain with hormone-free citrus-marinated grilled chicken. What the heck are Tropichops? Visit the Florida Keys to find out.
Learn more about the Florida Keys. Book your holiday to this fascinating destination by talking to our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678.