Unlocking the wildlife, gastronomy and culture of the Florida Keys
Crystal clear ocean, abundant wildlife, delicious seafood and a lively nightlife: we discover the secrets to unlocking the essence of this American archipelago
Not sure what a manatee looks like? Unable to differentiate between a hawksbill and a leatherback turtle? Uncertain what to do when a hungry pelican moves ominously your way? Fear not, dear traveller, all this (and more) will become as clear as the Atlantic ocean as you journey to the Florida Keys.
My journey begins at Turtle Hospital on Marathon Key, a sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation centre founded in the 1980s. A visit to the hospital is inspiring. More than 2,000 turtles have been released back into the wild, and an army of volunteers is employed to look after the injured ones. The interactive tours are highly recommended (book in advance as they’re very popular), and it’s worth keeping an eye out for live turtle releases – a fun way to spend the morning on the beach.
Equally inspiring is a visit to the Coral Restoration Foundation on Key Largo. The Florida Keys host the only living barrier coral reef in the continental United States – 98% of the US’s barrier reef has been destroyed by a combination of overfishing, pollution and bleaching – and the Foundation is the world’s largest coral relief organisation. Coral reefs support more 25% of local marine life (and are worth an estimated $7bn to Florida’s economy). Powered largely by interns and volunteers, the foundation plants roughly 45,000 pieces of coral onto Florida’s reefs each year, which grow from finger-size to basketball-size in as little as nine months.
HISTORY IS KEY
This year, the Florida Keys is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of Monroe County and many of the 800 tropical keys are marking this milestone. Pigeon Key is a seemingly small and insignificant island located about three quarters of the way down to Key West, but it’s steeped in the past and a fascinating way to spend a morning.
Pigeon Key has a spectacular setting just off the iconic seven-mile bridge, and can be reached by walking, cycling, or catching the tram along the historic road. The five-acre island has just 11 buildings – in the early 1900s it had been a work camp for men building the bridge for Henry Flagler. Henry made his fortune partnering with John D Rockefeller to create Standard Oil. After the American Civil War, Henry was behind building the railway to Key West to bring wealth to Florida – the poorest state in the US. Due to the complexity of engineering required, it was considered the eighth wonder of the world at the time.
For a town of only 25,000 people, the famous Key West is a trove of historical treasures just waiting to be mined. It was originally named ‘Cayo Hueso’ (Bone Island) by Spanish explorers, who found the human bones of the native Calusa who inhabited the Florida Keys. In the 1800s Key West was considered the richest town in the US, mainly due to its fishing and turtling industries, and cigar and salt manufacturing factories. More unusual industries included sponging (harvesting sponge coral from the ocean floor to be sold) and wreck salvaging, which resulted in many instant ‘shipwreck millionaires’.
A Key Lime Bike Tour is a great way to get an offbeat perspective of the main attractions, as well as a peek at the historic mansions which used to belong to these colourful characters. The Conch Tour Train is also an excellent option, particularly for families. Views from The Key West Lighthouse Museum are also well worth the hike up 88 steps.
Two local legends of Key West, author Ernest Hemingway and President Harry Truman, are each honoured with attractions of their own, both reminders of happy and prosperous times in Key West’s history. The Hemingway Home and Museum commemorates the life of an American literary giant, famed on the island for his party lifestyle and his love of fishing and sailing around the Keys. A short walk away, the Harry Truman Little White House tells the story of another interesting personality, from bourbon breakfasts to a well-disguised poker table (gambling being illegal in those days).
REST AND PLAY
Holidays are often an excuse for slothfulness, but the natural, outdoorsy lifestyle of the Keys makes this our healthiest vacation to date. A good first stop is Cheeca Lodge and Spa on Islamorada Key (an easy two-hour drive from Miami). It may provide plenty of chances to relax (a fine meal at the Atlantic’s Edge restaurant, or the pool, sauna and water hammocks all spring to mind) but it provides even more (complimentary) chances to get healthy and active, such as beach sunrise yoga each morning, fishing from the longest pier in the Keys, or making use of the kayaks, paddleboats, tennis courts and par three golf course.
Another hour’s drive south, Isla Bella Beach Resort on Marathon Key is well positioned on a peninsula to enjoy daybreak and sunsets alike. Keeping both adults and children outdoors and active, it has a wide array of activities, its own sandy cove beach, daily activities such as yoga, and a delightful spa for a bit of R&R. It also has its own marina, which comes with two major advantages: it’s a great place to spot manatees, and there’s a whole range of fishing, diving, parasailing and jet skiing trips available daily. Lastly, the free bicycles are also worth mentioning as the pedestrian stretch of Seven Mile Bridge (leading to Pigeon Key) is just a hop and a skip away.
For a sandy stretch of beach and a plethora of ocean activities, head to Fort Zachary State Park; spending an evening out on the water is also a tempting option, with sailboats, catamarans, Tiki Boats and even traditional schooners all offering sunset cruises. As a slightly more unusual option, we spent our last evening in Key West watching the sunset while on Barefoot Billy’s jet ski tour, happily cruising 26 miles around the island searching for dolphins and manatees.
Key West is the undisputed party centre of the Keys, and these days Duval Street is the main attraction. Sloppy Joe’s Bar is an institution in these parts, with many Hemingway fans visiting his old local to order a Papa Dobles (rum, grapefruit juice, grenadine, lime, and club soda) in his honour. Sunset Pier (located between Key West Harbor and Mallory Square) is a good place for a sundowner, while The Bull and Whistle Bar is the oldest open-air bar in Key West. The Green Parrot is a grocery store which somehow turned into a bar known for its live music, while The Rum Bar at The Speakeasy Inn has a long and secretive history dating back to the prohibition.
The year-round sunshine, palm-studded streets, century-old mansions, and warm tropical climate create a delightfully quaint atmosphere in Key West, which is also helped by the laidback island lifestyle not found in other parts of the USA.
BACK TO NATURE
Sundance Watersports is the name to know for popular reef snorkeling expeditions. Based at the historic Robbie’s of Islamorada, the crew has 12 different sites they regularly visit, with most of these on the Atlantic side (rather than the Gulf of Mexico) as the water has fewer mangroves and is clearer for swimming. We visited Alligator Reef and were amazed by how much we could see, instantly spotting a moray eel. The reef is 8m deep, but the water is so clean it felt within touching distance. An hour later we were back in the boat and heading towards the nearby Lighthouse Reef, where I found myself magically in the middle of the largest school of fish I’d ever seen. They were tiny and translucent, but their sheer volume and the way they all seemed to move in unison – always tantalisingly just out of reach – was mesmerising. On board, there was also time to soak in some sun on deck while admiring the impossibly blue water, which is apparently caused by the white limestone base common to the Florida Keys.
Later in the day we again departed from Robbie’s, this time with Captain Sam from KeyZ Charters behind the wheel. We headed onto the Gulf of Mexico side, searching for mangroves, saltwater crocodiles, and manatees. We cruised quietly through the narrow channels, Captain Sam expertly spotting an array of herons, ospreys, and egrets in the foliage around us. Mangroves are the miracle tree of the Keys, somehow thriving in the salty tidal waters and supporting whole ecosystems of birds and fish. Red, black, and white mangroves all exist in the Florida Keys, with their comically tangled root systems giving the impression of trees were growing on stilts.
In search of yet more adventure (and those elusive manatees) we continued further along the Keys. True backcountry beckoned, and Bill Keogh, owner of Big Pine Kayak Adventures, based in the lower Keys, answered the call. A brisk paddle across the straight to No Name Key was met by a seemingly impenetrable wall of mangroves. However, this has been Bill’s backyard for decades now, and he effortlessly led us to a well-hidden passageway. Our only company here was the natural world; we were far removed from the sight and sound of other humans. Birds called out incessantly, while fish plopped and splashed all around us – we even spotted a small Key deer.
For more of the natural world, visit the 800 sq m Key West National Wildlife Refuge, founded by Alice Roosevelt (daughter to President Theodore Roosevelt), a keen bird watcher. We entered the waters of this sanctuary on SQUID, run by Honest Eco – Key West’s first electric powered charter boat. Their four-hour dolphin-watching and snorkel tours are a fun way to explore the area.
KEY LIME PIE, AND OTHER DISHES
Key Lime Pie is the signature dish of the islands, the tart limes contrasting delightfully with the sweet condensed-milk and complemented with egg yolk, meringue and a light crust made from crackers. It’s found on every restaurant’s dessert menu and in each coffee shop – but if you don’t have a sweet tooth, fear not, as it’s not the only meal in town.
Another signature dish of the Florida Keys is conch meat, best served in conch fritters, conch salad or spicy conch chowder along with garlic, tomatoes and onions. Conchs (sea snails) are no longer allowed to be harvested in the US; these days the meat from the traditional dish is brought in from the Bahamas. Conchs are revered not just for their white, fleshy meat – the locals so admire their hardy nature that they often refer to themselves as conchs (pronounced ‘conks’).
The seafood is plentiful and delicious in the Florida Keys, and the dining options are hugely varied. The upper and middle Keys tend to be more casual and relaxed, exemplified by laidback venues like Key Largo Fisheries, the ‘almost accidental’ restaurant well frequented by locals. Half a century ago it was a wholesale fishery, but so many people wanted to buy produce in smaller quantities they eventually opened a retail shop. The demand continued to increase, so the next step was to open a restaurant onsite. These days the result is a great spot on the water’s edge to enjoy a freshly cooked seafood dish, accompanied (most days) by live music.
On Islamorada Key, the Hungry Tarpon restaurant serves many fresh and delightful seafood dishes, notably the mahi (dorado) which can be ordered as a fish finger starter, in a sandwich, on tacos or in a salad. Just a few feet below the waterside restaurant, the tarpons circle lazily, hoping you’ll buy a few sardines to throw their way. Keen foodies will also want to make sure a visit to Chef Michaels is on the itinerary; if the Michelin Guide employee seated at the next table wasn’t enough to convince us, then the ‘three fish on a plate, each uniquely prepared’ combination certainly was.
Dining in Key West is a more serious affair, so if you’re organised enough to make an early booking then a fine-dining meal at Latitudes Restaurant makes for an unforgettable evening. A ferry takes guests over to Sunset Key, which (as the name suggests) is perfectly positioned for cocktails and canapes as the last rays sink below the aqua-blue horizon. The breakfasts are rumoured to be just as good, and with a much shorter reservation list.
Milagro restaurant is another fine dining restaurant not to be ignored, with an extensive seafood menu as well as some signature Italian and Mexican themed dishes. Food aficionados may want to time their visit for the Taste of Key West festival in April, or the Key West Lobsterfest in August.