A heavenly chain of tropical islands off Florida’s southern tip, the Florida Keys sit between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Here we present 6 must-see highlights for when you visit this idyllic archipelago.
Most visitors to the upper Keys head to Key Largo, the longest and most northern island in the chain. The highlight of Key Largo is John Pennekamp Coral State Park, a 25 mile underwater oasis of mangrove swamps and coral reefs. Take a glass bottomed boat tour and spot barracuda, sea turtles and tropical fish. Join a snorkelling or diving excursion, rent a kayak to explore the waters, or try your hand at SUP. Scuba fans should check out the Spiegel Grove shipwreck, an iconic 510 foot long navy vessel which resides beneath the waves since it was scuttled in 2002.
A chain of six islands, Islamorada is the go-to for fly and deep sea fishing enthusiasts. Animal lovers can enjoy a close encounter with dolphins, sea lions and sea turtles at the Theater of the Sea marine park, and feed giant tarpon fish at Robbie’s Marina. Swim in clear shallow waters at Anne’s Beach, an idyllic stretch of sand named after local environmentalist Anne Eaton. Rent a kayak to explore tiny Indian Key Historic State Park, a deserted island which formerly housed a thriving 19th century community.
Just 90 miles off the coast of Cuba, Key West is the southernmost point of the United States. This vibrant community offers an abundance of art galleries, museums, shops and restaurants. Explore the imposing house and leafy gardens of Ernest Hemmingway’s island home, and encounter the estate’s renowned 60 six-toed cats, descendants of the writer’s family pet. Take your pick of glorious sands, including dog friendly Higgs, Smathers (great for water sports) and Fort Zachary Taylor Beach, which offers excellent snorkelling. Check out historic Duval Street’s lively bar scene. As evening falls, join the throng at Mallory Square, a bustling hub of food stalls, street performers and musicians. Grab a seat and a beer, and watch the sun tip into the Gulf of Mexico.
Located at the heart of the Florida Keys, the laid-back community of Marathon spans a ten mile stretch of 13 atolls, which includes Long Key, Duck, and Grassy. 1,000 acre Curry Hammock State Park in Grassy Key offers hikes through mangroves and tropical forest. There’s a campsite and SUP/kayak hire locally and its peaceful waters are limited to non-motorised boats. Meet rescued dolphins and sea lions at Grassy’s Dolphin Research Center. Swim and laze on Sombrero Beach, a blissful palm fringed strip of white sand, lapped by serene turquoise sea. Between April and October its shores become a sanctuary for nesting loggerhead turtles. Dine on fresh, locally caught crab, lobster and fish at waterfront eateries – and don’t forget the Key Lime pie.
Big Pine Key
If you’re seeking a peaceful seaside vacation, Big Pine Key combines relaxation with ample opportunity for messing about on the water. Enjoy superb snorkelling and scuba in the clear seas, along with boating and fishing. Big Pine is home to Bahia Honda State Park, a pristine 300 acre tract which boasts some of the loveliest beaches in the Keys, notably Sandspur, Loggerhead and Calusa Beaches. The park is a great spot for stargazing, and offers the darkest skies in the Florida Keys. Hike through 9,000 acres of pine, hardwood and mangrove forest at the island’s National Key Deer Refuge, and spot the petite, indigenous and endangered Key deer amongst the foliage. Other residents include the endangered Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit, plus over 250 bird species.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas is the Key’s most westerly visitor destination, an archipelago of seven islands located 70 miles off Key West. A two hour ferry ride or a sea plane is the only way to access this most remote of US national parks, the vast majority of which lies under water. Named after the sea turtles that frequent the area, the marine park boasts wonderful snorkelling and diving in the surrounding coral reefs, which teem with aquatic life. Back on dry land, explore Fort Jefferson, an impressively preserved 19th century moated fortress, which housed prisoners during the Civil War.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com