Key West is on the silvery ribbon of islands that trail off the southern shore of Florida. Thanks to the ever present warm temperatures and glistening seas, the islands have long been an escapist's nirvana. Eclectic and eccentric, wild and warm, blessed with some of Florida's most colorful characters and equally blessed with some of its most spectacular sea scenery, the Keys are a wonderland paradise.
Key West is a rather small island that is about 4 miles long and 2 miles wide. Whether you want to relax on the beach or spend the day shopping, Key West has plenty to offer.
Duval Street is the center of Key West life, with many hotels, guest houses, inns and bed & breakfasts, plus dozens of shops and restaurants, nestled into its tropical ambiance.
If you get tired of the beach head to
Key Largo is a larger island and is occasionally called the "Diving Capital of the World” since the coral reefs attract so many divers.
Pennekamp Park is a treasure trove of local flora including wild orchids, gumbo limbo, wild cotton, strangler fig, tamarind trees, wild coffee, and mahogany trees. If you want to see endangered animals go to
Billed as the 'Sportfishing Capital of the World', Islamorada's waters are home to the conch, alligator and Pickles Reefs, with a vast array of marine life. It's a destination for scuba divers and snorkelers. A scuttled ship, sunk on purpose is a great diving spot.
Those interested in Keys' geology can look at
You can feed tarpon off the docks at
Marathon and the Middle Keys
Some of the residents can trace their history to early 1800s settlements. Bahamians raised tropical fruit for a living; New England fishermen searched the sea for its bounty; and in 1908, Henry Flagler's Overseas Railway reached Key Vaca, where the village of Marathon grew as headquarters for the railroad's final push to Key West.
Here your adventure can include a swim with dolphins, an iguana introduction, a visit to a hardwood hammock or rain forest, or a loll on sandy beaches. Roaring jet skis and other water sports are available. Fishing is great on the reefs, the flats or in the deep.
For a close look at a sea turtle, visit the hospital that treats injured turtles. To learn something about early Indian settlements, visit the Museums of Crane Point, which encompass the
Bahia Honda and the Lower Keys
Big Pine Key is the center of life in the Lower Keys.
So popular is
From Key Largo to Key West, and all the little islands in between, you'll find a variety of places to stay in tropical comfort, from simple to luxurious.
Options range from large resorts with several hundred rooms and a host of amenities to middle-size properties with fewer than 100 rooms to small family owned and operated motels and small resorts, with accommodations ranging from single rooms to cottages to suites and townhouses.
Accommodations in Key West include inns where residents claim there are ghosts, picket-fenced mansions, large hotels with every amenity, cheap hostels with a few handsomely-or whimsically-appointed rooms, campgrounds, and guest houses. The lodgings are as numerous and varied as the fish in the seas that surround this enchanting island.
If you would like to stay in a large and elegant there are several options: Pier House Resort and Caribbean Spa, Wyndham's Casa Marina and La Concha, all have historic ambiance. The Hyatt Key West is a great contemporary resort with excellent amenities. Smaller but select accommodations include Curry Mansion and Victorian Island City House. The Marquesa Hotel is elegant and has a 1884 grace. Also, Key Lime Inn is know for its Bahamian ambiance.
If you like big hotels with a restaurant, bar, pool, beach, and a host of water sports, the lively Key Largo Bay Resort and Holiday Inn Resort & Marina are the most popular. At the Holiday Inn, that famous film craft, the African Queen, of Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn fame, offers sailings.
If you would like a less conventional hotel, Jules' Undersea Lodge is a unique accommodation where you dine and sleep underwater while rainbow-hued fish drift past your window!
If you want world-class accommodations, Cheeca Lodge is known for attention to detail and a great golf course. If you would like a smaller resort there are several options, including Pelican Cove Resort, Hampton Inn & Suites and Howard Johnson Lodge at Holiday Isle. If you would rather have a party-loving hotel the El Capitan at Holiday Isle is for you.
Marathon and the Middle Keys
The best resort is Hawk's Cay, where you can swim with resident dolphins. Amenities also include four pools, sauna, beach, sailing, tennis, putting green, ecology tours and children's programs. Or for a more laid-back resort go to Conch Key Cottages . Bahia Honda and the Lower Keys
At the posh Palm Island Resort, you can shower under the sky in enclosed but open-air élan. An award winner for its ability to combine rusticity and elegance, casual and formal, you won't miss telephones and televisions.
From the top of the Keys at Key Largo through Marathon, Islamorada, Big Pine Key and into Key West, the diversions are as diverse as those who seek them. Pet a shark, sit in the sun, roar across the waters, visit mangrove swamps, swim in the ocean, swim with a dolphin, drink like a fish, eat like a trencherman, visit old churches, scuba dive, shop 'til you drop, revel in resort amenities, or romance by candlelight.
Whether you choose to tour on a glass-bottomed boat or snorkel or scuba tank, an underwater world of amazing beauty awaits in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, one of the best diving sites in the world and home to 78 square miles of coral reefs. Hiking trails and a visitor's center with a floor-to-ceiling aquarium are among the other diversions of this not-to-be-missed park.
At the Theater of the Seas, you can swim with dolphins, sea lions or stingrays or become a trainer for a day, putting creatures of the sea through their paces. In the Middle Keys, the Dolphin Research Center offers another opportunity for swimming with dolphins.
At the Windley Key Fossil Reef State Geologic Site on Windley Key, you can see what a coral reef looks like when it's left high and dry, and visit middens left behind by the earliest Native American residents of the keys, who clearly knew a good thing when they saw it. Looe Key Reef is home to a beautiful coral reef, and Bahia Honda State Park offers sand dunes, waters as clear as a teardrop, and views that go on forever.
For an offshore adventure, explore Indian Key State Historic Site, ferrying over on the twice-daily ferry or paddling your own canoe—well, kayak—to the island, where you will learn of murder and mayhem on this 10.5-acre islet. Or try a visit to the 280-acre Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Site, a hardwood forest that was the home and gardens of a millionaire who put it all together in 1919 in such style that the site is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Keys has a long and fascinating history and you can learn more about it at the many museums scattered amongst the islands. The Custom House Museum provides a detailed history of Key West's history. Fort East Martello Museum and Gallery is dedicated to Key West historical artifacts. The museum also has exhibits dealing with the daily life for earlier Key West inhabitants.
If you would like to know about specific portions of the island history, then Key West Shipwreck Historeum is the place to go. At the museum, you learn about how some islanders would dive for shipwrecked goods. Learn about the ill-fated Henry Flagler's railroad at Flagler Station Over-Sea Railway Historeum. If you want to know more about how the Bahamians influenced the Key West culture, the Lofton B. Sands African-Bahamian Museum provides fascinating artifacts, such as letters and clothing.
If you would like to enjoy the theater while in the Keys you have plenty of options. The historical Waterfront Playhouse has a modest theater and shows quirky and well-known productions, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Best Man. Another small theater that produces professional productions is Red Barn Theater. If you are in Marathon, the Marathon Community Theater produces small productions featuring local talent.
Festivals & Street Fairs
Depending on when you go to Key West, there are annual festivals and fairs that shouldn't be missed. The German Oktoberfest has reached Sumerland Key that holds a parade, live music and of course plenty to drink and eat. If you come in December enjoy the beautiful and often humorous Key West Lighted Boat Parade. Key West in transformed into a pirates heaven for a day during Pirates In Paradise. In July the Hemingway Days Festival can't be beat.
One of the best annual events is the Conch Republic Independence Celebration. The festival is a ten day celebration of when the Florida Keys briefly seceded from the United States. The United States Border Patrol was treating the Keys unfairly and in protest the Keys seceded and humorously declared “war.” After a minute and without any prompting the Keys surrendered and jokingly asked for foreign aid. The festival celebrates how the Border Patrol stopped the unfair treatment and the celebration features drag races, music concerts, a parade, and a “battle” against the US Border Patrol.
Calusa Indians and other tribes found their way to these islands, recognizing them as hunting grounds, both on land and in the warm seas where shellfish, turtles and marine life of all kinds thrive. Generations later, the Spaniards, who discovered and settled most of the Florida, arrived. Most notable was adventurer Ponce de Leon, who first set eyes on the Keys on May 15, 1513. He and his sailors dubbed the islands Los Martires, the martyrs, in salute to the rocks that, from a distance, looked like suffering men.
In 1820, the island was bought from the Spanish for $2,000, quite a substantial sum in those days, and the purchaser was John Simonton, an Alabama businessman, whose name and descendants live on here and remain a powerful influence in the area.
With a long history of looting and pillaging outlaws, pirates were eventually driven out and the island's mixed population of English Bahamians, Southerners and transplanted northerners rose to 2,700, many of them happily engaged salvaging the cargoes of wreaked ships.
In the 1850s, however, a lighthouse was built, putting a bit of a damper on the wrecking business, and the town's industry began to change. A devastating fire destroyed the town in 1859. However, about the same time, cigar makers, fleeing war in Cuba, arrived in Key West, where they established a thriving industry. Key West's port was a hot spot, too, and by the 1880s, the city was said to be the wealthiest in the nation.
In the 1800s and 1900s, farmers found success raising pineapples on large plantations that spread across the Upper Keys. Sugarloaf, a kind of pineapple, is now the name of one Key and another is named Plantation Key. A canning plant in Key West provided pineapples to most of eastern North America in the early 1900s.
Some oranges and grapefruit were, and still are, grown, along with the exotic tamarind and breadfruit. But it was the tiny, yellow key lime that was to capture the attention of growers and become an icon of the keys.
Fishing has been a mainstay of Keys success from the earliest Indian inhabitants to today's charter and shrimp boats, the later still netting the little crustaceans so successfully that shrimp are known here as "pink gold."
As the centuries rolled by, railroad entrepreneur Henry Morrison Flagler heard about this place, figured it would have allure for winter-weary Northern travelers, and that it would make a good jumping-off place linking his Florida East Coast railroad to ships sailing to Cuba. In 1912, his Railroad that Went to Sea steamed into Key West on tracks that hopped from island to island, passing over the shallow seas. If you would like to learn more visit Flagler Station Over-sea Railway Historeum.
But then decline set in. Cigar makers departed for Tampa; the sponge industry declined. Enterprising entrepreneurs took a look at the possibilities of tourism and got things under way, but a disastrous hurricane in 1935 blew away the railroad and killed hundreds. While the railroad dubbed 'Flagler's Folly' did not survive, the roadbed on which it was set did, and went on to become the Overseas Highway—the Highway that Goes to Sea. This two-lane roadway streaks across more than 100 miles from Miami to Key West, and has become to Keys tourism what peanut butter is to jelly.
Although dampened by World War II, tourism took off in the Keys after the war and has never looked back, thriving beyond the wildest dreams of those early Conchs. Conchs (pronounced 'konks'), by the way, is a reference to the big, pink-lined shells that you put to your ear to hear the ocean's roar. Islanders born here are the only ones who can really call themselves conchs, but those who have lived here more than seven years qualify to be called 'freshwater conchs', and those who visit often enough can earn the name visitor, replacing tourist. Now there's a reason to stay a while!