An Overview of the Florida Keys

Key West Beach, Florida Keys
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One of the perks of living in Miami is the sun, sand and surf. But where do you go to get away from it all when you live in a palm-tree lined paradise like Miami? Only an hour’s drive south you’ll find the fabulous Florida Keys, a world apart from the pace of Miami life. Their beaches, diving and fishing are among the best in the world. This first in a series of articles about the Florida Keys gives an overview and background of the islands.

The Florida Keys got their name from the Spanish word cayo, or island. Ponce de Leon discovered the Keys in 1513, but it was not settled for hundreds of years. The islands were left to pirates. The native tribes of Calusa Indians died out in the 1800s as Spanish settlers came to the area with agricultural business; Key limes, pineapples and other tropical fruits were the first exports.

Traveling to the Keys, you’ll leave Homestead and Florida City down an 18-mile stretch of US 1 through the Everglades, known to locals as simply The Stretch. In most places it’s simply a two-lane highway, which means you may get stuck behind the occasional slow-moving boat trailer. Be patient, as there are passing zones that widen to four lanes every couple of miles. The ride is quiet and serene, which puts you in the vacation state of mind you’ll need for a weekend in paradise.

The first Key you’ll get to is Key Largo. Some of the best diving in the Keys is found at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the beginning of the only living coral reef in the US. Diving, snorkeling and glass-bottom boats give spectacular views of undersea life. It includes the Christ of the Abyss statue, a bronze Christ with his arms upraised to the sun. At only 25 feet below the surface, it can easily be enjoyed by snorkelers as well as divers.

The next Key is Islamorada. Islamorada is known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World. A variety of game fish such as marlin, tuna and dolphin abound in the crystal blue waters. Take any one of the many charter boats to be found every couple of feet and be off for a day of fishing. If you’re not a fisherman, see a show or swim with dolphins, stingrays and sea lions at Theater of the Sea.

Marathon, known as the Heart of the Keys, is a small town in the middle of otherwise tourist-y islands. If you’re driving through, be sure to stop at the Wal-Mart or Home Depot for anything you forgot; you won’t get another chance while you’re in the Keys! The seven-mile bridge, which has been the site of several movies including True Lies, is a gorgeous ride over the water. On one side is the Atlantic Ocean; on the other, the Bay. When the sky is clear and blue, it’s an unbeatable landscape of colors.

After Marathon comes a chain of small islands known collectively as the Lower Keys. They include, among others, the unparalleled diving at Looe Key reef and the pet-friendly beaches of Little Duck Key. Homey restaurants make the Lower Keys a perfect place to stop for dinner.

Key West, the southernmost Key, is unlike the rest of the Keys. The marker at the southernmost point in the US is 90 miles from Cuba, and on a clear day you can make out the shape of Cuba on the horizon. Hemmingway found Key West an inspirational place to work, and it has continued to draw artists and authors from around the world. The nightlife can be a bit wild, but it’s all part of the charm. Don’t miss the sunset at Mallory Square; the nightly Sunset Celebration is inspiring.

The Keys are right around the corner, but a world away. It’s perfect for a weekend getaway to relax, unwind and return energized.