If you were asked to visualize your “dream destination” what would come to mind? A tropical climate surrounded by sublime natural wonders… lavish beachside resorts… a rich and inviting cultural scene… While the definition of paradise may be elusive, for many travellers it can’t get much closer than the Florida Keys & Key West.
Known the world over for their extraordinary biodiversity, the Florida Keys begin just south of Miami and extend some 200 kilometres to the southwest between the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay or the Gulf of Mexico. The Keys possess a laidback, Caribbean-like feel that’s home to five unique regions: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key & the Lower Keys, and Key West.
Each region is known for its distinctive attractions and allures. Key West’s balmy climate, historic structures
and anything-goes ambiance have long been a refuge for writers, artists and free spirits. In fact, Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote in Key West throughout the 1930s. Today, the Keys recognize this American literary giant with July’s annual Hemingway Days festival, paying homage to the Nobel Prize-winning author with events to celebrate his fun-loving Key West lifestyle and his literary prowess. Before his time in Key West, Hemingway wrote for the “Toronto Star” in the early 1920s.
While open-air bars, pubs and world-class restaurants draw visitors to Key West, the Lower Keys are a treasure trove of natural wonders, featuring federally protected subtropical mangrove forests perfect for sea kayaking as well as Looe Key Reef, one of the top snorkelling coral reefs in the Keys.
Looe Key is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a federally administrated preserve that protects the continental United States’ only contiguous coral barrier reef as well as extensive mangrove forest and seagrass fields around the island chain.
Marathon is centrally located between Key Largo and Key West and offers the perfect base to explore all the Keys. Marathon is also home to the Seven Mile Bridge, the largest of 43 spans along the Florida Keys Overseas
Highway. Marathon’s offerings for visitors include Dolphin Research Center, Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters and the tiny historic island of Pigeon Key.
According to the International Game Fish Association, more saltwater world records have been established in the Keys than anywhere else and Islamorada is famed for being the sport fishing capital of the world.
Established in 1963, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is the nation’s first underwater preserve. Visitors can explore Pennekamp and other waters in the sanctuary via snorkelling, scuba diving or even glass- bottom boat excursions. And for a truly unique boat ride, voyage on the African Queen, the exact boat that was used in the movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
To ensure that the Keys’ precious resources are around for generations to come, protective measures have been taken for over a century, beginning with the creation of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge in 1908. Since then, other milestones in the commitment to long-term environmental stewardship have included the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge to protect and preserve habitats for wildlife and the creation of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,800 square nautical miles of coastal and ocean waters surrounding the entire Keys island chain. This national treasure is home to spectacular marine resources, historic shipwrecks, and over 6,000 species of marine life. In recent years, experts have spearheaded coral restoration efforts, steadily restoring endangered corals by replanting new growths from coral nurseries to the reef.
LOCAL AND ECO-FRIENDLY EXPERIENCES
A “Connect & Protect” program creates awareness for visitors to get involved in the area’s environmental commitment. To help with conservation efforts, travellers are encouraged to incorporate eco-activities and experiences
into their stay, such as kayaking, wildlife viewing, taking part in one of the available “voluntourism” opportunities, or touring environmental and wildlife rescue centres, such as Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, known as the world’s first licensed veterinary hospital dedicated to the treatment of sea turtles.
Another great way visitors can support local conservation efforts is through their culinary experiences. The saltwater surroundings offer a bounty just waiting to be prepared and served up by Keys’ chefs. Popular locally caught “eating fish” include yellowtail, grouper, mutton snapper, mahi-mahi, and of course, Indo-Pacific lionfish.
In recent years, the lionfish has been the focus of a consumption revolution underway in the Florida Keys. This invasive species preys on many of the native fish in the waters and also competes with them for food. To help decrease lionfish populations and make a positive environmental impact, diners at many Florida Keys restaurants can order this delectable fish.
Another uniquely sustainable, renewable seafood resource is the stone crab. The sweet and succulent meat of the stone crab ranks among the Florida Keys’ most popular delicacies, and for good reason. Not only are their claws satisfyingly large and tasty, but when crabs are returned to their ocean environment, they have the rare ability to regrow harvested claws.
Other local favourites include Cuban delicacies such as ropa vieja and picadillo, and of course, the iconic Key lime pie. After sampling this cuisine, visitors can venture along the trail of breweries and distilleries winding throughout the Florida Keys.
Florida Keys Brewing Co. is a popular stop with a Canadian connection. Head brewer Craig McBay once hailed from the GTA, but now shares his love for beer at his own microbrewery. Explore the taproom and spend an afternoon in his outdoor beer garden searching for hints of Key lime, citrus and local honey in his brew.
EXCITING NEW ACCOMMODATIONS
Complementing the almost endless range of activities and must-see attractions are the Keys’ spectacular accommodations, including a number of all-new and fully refurbished properties.
Hawks Cay Resort, one of the Florida Keys’ largest properties, has reopened following a $50 million renovation. Located near Marathon, the resort now offers completely renovated rooms, two new restaurants and a new oceanfront, adults-only relaxation area. The 200-room, 13-acre Baker’s Cay Resort in Key Largo is to begin hosting guests February 14. The 25-acre Florida Keys Islander Resort in Islamorada features contemporary cottage-style accommodations with screened-in lanais overlooking the ocean.
Visitors can also make themselves at home in the all-new adults-only Bungalows Key Largo, the Keys’ first all-inclusive resort. Set on a 12-acre property and featuring 135 spacious units, the palm-lined Bungalows offers two in-ground pools, five indoor and outdoor restaurants, four bars, 1,000 feet of shoreline and three piers.
Due to open in early spring, Marathon’s Isla Bella Beach Resort is billed as the only luxury resort in the Florida Keys to offer Atlantic Ocean views from every one of its 199 rooms and suites, and promises to enchant all with its many lavish amenities.
Whether you fly into Key West International Airport, book a charter flight to Florida Keys Marathon International Airport, take a ferry from the Florida mainland, or venture along the scenic Overseas Highway by car, paradise is just a short trip away. For more information, visit fla-keys.com or call 1-800-FLA-KEYS.