Your Trip to the Florida Keys: The Complete Guide

Each year millions of vacationers visit the Florida Keys. Moderate year-round temperatures that come from its unique geographical location — nestled between the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico — provide the perfect setting for limitless outdoor recreation, including fishing, boating, scuba diving, snorkeling, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, biking, and camping. And, of course, nature lovers will enjoy seeing abundant wildlife.

If you're planning a Florida Keys vacation, learning a little bit about the area and what to expect will help you get the most from your time and vacation dollars. First, let's look at some frequently asked questions about the Florida Keys.

01 of 06

Florida's Year Round Vacation Destination

Key Largo Sunset
Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau

If you are planning to visit the Florida Keys on vacation, one of the hardest things to do is choose when to visit. While special events and promotions may have some influence on room availability; historically, Florida Keys' crowds tend to be influenced by certain holidays, especially the 10-day Fantasy Fest in October (an extended Halloween celebration).

In the Florida Keys, the summer months are off-season, and visitors will discover that rooms are cheaper and Key West is less crowded in the summer. Keep in mind, however, that the Keys are a popular weekend destination for many Florida residents seeking relief from the intense heat and humidity, so you may want to avoid the weekend traffic jams and limit your visits to weekdays.

What's Up With the Mile Markers?

Mile Markers (MM) give the relative location in the Florida Keys to Key West. The higher the mile marker number, the farther from Key West. It's also an easy way to pinpoint exactly where you are and which direction you need to go. Travel can get confusing with water on both sides and all those bridges.

When Is Hurricane Season? 

The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1 and ends November 30, with the highest storm probability is from August through October. Traveling during hurricane season has some risk. Do know that if a storm threatens, the entire Florida Keys will likely be under an evacuation order and you will be required to leave the islands.

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02 of 06

Getting To and Around The Florida Keys

Key West Conch Train
Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau

Most who are making the Keys their vacation destination arrive at Miami International Airport, rent a car, and drive to their final destination using the Overseas Highway. You can be in the Upper Keys within an hour or plan on a three- to four-hour drive if you are traveling to Key West – the southernmost Key. Expect backups Friday afternoons and Sunday evenings as Floridians head for their favorite getaway on this mostly two-lane road over land and water.

Connections to Marathon and Key West International Airport are available from Miami International and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airports. Facilities are available at both airports in the Keys to accommodate travelers flying in private aircraft.

Visitors not interested in air travel have a wide variety of ground transportation options to reach their destination as several shuttle bus and limo services are also available from these airports to the Keys.

For a fun experience and quick access to the Keys, the Key West Express ferry services between Key West and Fort Myers and Marco Island are available year-round from Fort Myers and seasonal from Marco Island (December through April).

Once in Key West, the Conch Tour Train offers a narrated 90-minute "tour through time" making a loop through Old Town Key West and making stops at Truval Village and Flagler Station. 

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03 of 06

Key Largo

African Queen in Key Largo

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Driving from mainland Florida, visitors to the Florida Keys enter the 125-mile subtropical island chain at Key Largo, the longest island in the Keys. Key Largo is bordered on the west by Florida Bay and the Everglades National Park backcountry, and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, home to the clear waters of the Gulf Stream.

Key Largo gained notoriety when the 1947 movie classic "Key Largo," featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, hit the silver screen. A local bar, the Caribbean Club, provided the locale for a number of the movie's scenes. Bogie's presence still can be seen today in Key Largo, the vessel of another American movie epic - " The African Queen" - has been restored and again sails the waters of the Port Largo canals (see photo).

With moderate temperatures, visitors can enjoy the outdoors and Key Largo's ties to the sea that include scuba diving, snorkeling, an underwater hotel, sport fishing, a maritime museum, eco-tours, beaches, and dolphin encounter programs. The island also offers numerous shore-side activities including nature trails and a rehabilitation center for wild birds.

The island is about an hour's drive from Miami International Airport. Stop by the Florida Keys Visitor Center at MM 106 (bayside) for additional information.

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04 of 06


Brown Pelican
Tim Graham/Getty Images

Islamorada, the centerpiece of a group of islands called the "purple isles," was named by Spanish explorers after the Spanish meaning of the word "morada" either for the violet sea snail, Janthina, found on the seashore here or for the purple bougainvillea flowers found in the area. The Islamorada area includes Plantation, Windley and Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys and Long Key.

Today, known as the "Sportfishing Capital of the World," Islamorada is heralded for its angling diversity and features the Keys' largest fleet of offshore charter boats and shallow-water "backcountry" boats. However, there's more to do in the Islamorada area than fishing.

"One by land and two by sea" describes how visitors can visit three state parks in Islamorada. On land, travelers can step inside an above ground coral reef at the Windley Key Fossil Reef State Geological Site.

Traveling by boat, visitors can explore Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Site, home to a virgin hardwood hammock untouched by modern development; and Indian Key State Historic Site, a once-bustling town that was the seat of the Dade County government from 1836 to 1866, which was burned to the ground during the Second Seminole War in 1840.

Another state park, the Long Key State Recreation Area, offers camping, canoeing, nature trails, a small beach, and picnic grounds. The Islamorada area also features eco-tours, watersports rentals, tennis facilities, bicycle trails, historic hikes, beautiful vistas of both the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay, as well as opportunities to swim with dolphins and stingrays.

Islamorada is a 1.5-hour drive from Miami International Airport and a 45-minute drive from Marathon Airport in the Middle Keys. Stop by the Islamorada Visitor Center at MM 82.2 (bay side) for more information.

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05 of 06


Marathon Dolphin
Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau

The allure of the Islands of Marathon – the midway point of the Florida Keys, an hour's drive from Key West and Key Largo – emanates from its fascinating history and environmental attractions. The Middle Keys comprise Conch Key, Duck Key, Grassy Key, the Crawl keys, Key Colony Beach, Key Vaca, Fat Deer Key, Knight's Key and Pigeon Key.

Settlements on the Islands of Marathon can be traced back to the early 1800s when Bahamians established tropical fruit farms and New England fishermen inhabited the region. In 1908, Henry Flagler's Overseas Railway reached Key Vaca, home to the village of Marathon and headquarters of the railroad's final Key West extension.

Spanning from Key Vaca to Sunshine Key is the area's most noted attraction, the Seven Mile Bridge, one of the longest segmental bridges in the world. The Old Seven-Mile Bridge, running parallel to the modern span, was the final installment of Henry Flagler's Overseas Railway and a turn-of-the-century marvel that took four years to construct.

The spirit of this trestle's past lingers still on five-acre Pigeon Key, below the bridge two miles west of Marathon. The island's museum contains artifacts from the Florida Keys railroad era, along with an antique postcard exhibit and photos depicting early life on Pigeon Key.

Throughout the region, environmental attractions provide visitors opportunities to swim with dolphins, pet an iguana, explore a hardwood hammock and rainforest, stroll white sand beaches and enjoy an abundance of watersports activities.

World-class sport fishing is available offshore, on the reef and flats, along with the bridges, and in the nearby Everglades National Park. Snorkel and scuba dive excursions can fulfill most divers' appetites, while kayak aficionados can paddle through the solitude of local backcountry waters. Additionally, visitors can charter a sailboat, play golf and tennis, take in the theater and eat at one of the many fine restaurants.

The islands of Marathon also offer opportunities to tool around on mopeds, visit a sea turtle hospital, take water-taxi tours and visit a traveling pirate museum. The region is approximately a 2.5-hour drive from Miami International Airport and a one-hour drive from Key West International Airport.

Marathon has a commercial airport, served by American Eagle with connecting flights from Miami International Airport. Two fixed-base operators offer private aircraft accessibility. Stop by the Marathon Visitor Center at mile marker (MM) 54 (bay side) for additional information.

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06 of 06

Key West

Key West Southernmost Point
Rob O'Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau

Located closer to Cuba than it is to Miami, Key West is Florida's independent and irreverent southwestern subtropical paradise. The unique convergence of history, climate, natural beauty, cultural diversity, architecture, and unabashed romantic allure cloak the island of Key West in mysterious appeal. It is a mystery that captivates the human soul, whisking it away from the hassles of the modern-day world.

Residents and visitors to Key West actively participate in sightseeing, outdoor and maritime activities and shopping by day, and yield to the transition toward evening, when flame swallowers, tight-rope walkers, and shopping cart balancers strive to show up a more captivating performer: the fiery sun setting into the Gulf of Mexico.

The island's balmy climate, historic structures, and anything-goes ambiance have long provided a tropical refuge for writers, artists and free-spirited folks yearning for a place to unravel the mind, body, and soul. Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, and Jimmy Buffett are just a few of the famous who discovered solace and inspiration here. So too did Bahamian wreckers, commercial fishermen, spongers, and Cuban cigar makers.

Key West's Bahamian and Cuban heritage is evidenced throughout the island in restaurants and cigar shops, museums and accommodations. For intimate lodging, the island provides a bounty of bed and breakfasts with architectural qualities evoking eras past, while lavish resorts offer modern services and amenities amid grander surroundings.

Visitors to Key West can pet a shark, tour a cemetery, visit Hemingway's former home and experience the riches of a spectacular salvage expedition. Island beaches offer ample sunning and watersports opportunities, while beneath the surrounding turquoise and cobalt waters, historic shipwrecks, a living coral reef and a myriad of marine life beckon underwater exploration.

For anglers, billfish beyond the reef and permit and tarpon on the flats are just a few of the local gamefish that offer spirited and sometimes acrobatic displays of strength. At night, the stars above Key West illuminate assorted opportunities, including jazz clubs, piano bars, dance clubs, and saloons. Theatrical stagings at three area playhouses feature Broadway-quality performances November through May.

The island is accessible via Key West International Airport, which is serviced by American Eagle, Delta ComAir, USAir Express, Cape Air and Continental Express. Key West also is accessible by flying into Miami International Airport, then driving the Overseas Highway from the mainland. The Key West Express skims the Gulf of Mexico to reach Key West in less than four hours. The high-speed ferry departs from Fort Myers and Marco Island.

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