South of Miami Beach, follow Highway 1 to reach the inimitable Florida Keys, America’s near-tropical islands. As they trickle farther from the mainland, the Keys become noticeably more removed from mainstream tempos and rules.
A laid-back, quasi-renegade attitude takes hold.
Dress is fishing-boat casual. Life revolves around the water. Time is told more by tides and sun than by clocks. Much of the waters around the Keys are designated marine wildlife refuges, providing the state’s most popular destination for diving.
Kayaking, fishing, and lobstering also draw water enthusiasts.
The Keys stretch for more than 100 miles, starting with Key Largo of film fame. This is the site of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which lies at the town’s north end, about 40 miles from South Miami Beach.
John Pennekamp is known for its snorkeling and glass-bottom boat tours, but you can also camp there and enjoy fishing and other water sports.
Highway 1 continues south, threading the many islands together on a scenic route known as the Overseas Highway. In Islamorada, photo above, 20 miles to the south, the kids will enjoy a stop at Theater of the Sea to watch the sea lion and shark shows and perhaps participate in the popular dolphin interaction programs.
Manny and isa’s is the place to stop Ii the best home-cooked Cuban food and Key lime pie. If you’d rather dine waterside, try Papa Joe’s south of town. Long Key Recreation Area, less than 20 miles south of islamorada, has camping and picnicking on one of the Keys’ few good beaches.
North of Marathon, photo below, 6 miles away, the Dolphin Research Center conducts educational and interactive programs. Crane Point Hammock, also in Marathon, is a natural history museum with trails, aquariums, and a children’s museum.
Another worthwhile attraction is Pigeon Key Historic Site.
The welcome center occupies a vintage railroad at the very southern edge of town before Seven Mile Bridge. From here, you take a tram (you can also walk or bicycle) to a historic site that re-creates an old Bahamian-style railroad-builders’ settlement from the turn of the last century.
Scenic Seven Mile Bridge is the showpiece of Overseas Highway.
It takes you to Bahia Honda State Park, 8 miles south of the Pigeon Key visitor center. Here you will find the Keys’ best beaches-rated among the top in the nation.
You can snorkel, kayak, swim, and fish from the marina here.
Campgrounds, cabins, and beautiful beaches are worth staying put, however. Down the road 4 miles lies the largest Florida Key, Big Pine Key. It is also one of the most natural of the keys, home to the National Key Deer Refuge, which protects the diminishing diminutive white-tailed deer.
Fishing and lobstering are popular pastimes in this easy-going community.
A couple of miles south, around Torch Key, lies some of the Keys’ best snorkeling and diving, in an area known as Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary.
If you’re continuing your quest for the best Key lime pie, try Mangrove Mama’s on Sugarloaf Key, 9 miles south. The amps kick up some once you get to legendary Key West, some 15 miles away, known for sunset celebrations, all-night carousing, crazy festivals, and quirky folks.
Its historic Old Town area is full of great dining, shopping, historic sites, and museums. Among the most well-known attractions are the Hemingway Home, the Key West Aquarium, and the Little White House.
Take the Conch Train around town to learn the island’s fascinating history.
Head to Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site for more history and a beach picnic.
(Approximately 154 miles)
InsideMiamiBeach.com, like no other.