If you were asked to visualize your “dream destination,” what would come to mind? Sparkling waters…unspoiled beaches…breathtaking sunsets… While the definition of paradise may be elusive, for many travellers it can’t get much closer than the Florida Keys.

Every year scores of visitors flock to the Florida Keys and Key West to experience a tropical paradise filled with natural wonders, unique eco-experiences and casually elegant oceanside resorts. However, upon arrival, this island chain, with its swaying palm trees and pristine shores, only continues to impress. Complementing the Keys’ stunning surroundings is a rich history and vibrant cultural scene that surprises at every turn.

The Keys’ five unique regions — Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys, and Key West — each boasts its own flavour, attractions and allures while sharing a laidback, Caribbean-like feel and charming eagerness to welcome visitors to the island chain’s unique way of life.

LIVE LIKE A LOCAL
Travellers can get a good glimpse of what island living is all about by immersing themselves in activities alongside locals. Simply riding a bike through the old neighbourhoods, listening to local musicians, or sitting at the docks with second- and third-generation charter captains will give insight into the heart of the relaxed Keys vibe.

Another great way to get acquainted with local culture is to experience its culinary creations. The saltwater surrounding offers a bounty just waiting to be prepared and served up by Keys’ chefs. Popular locally caught “eating fish” include yellowtail, grouper, mutton snapper, hogfish and mahi-mahi. And, of course, few people visit the Florida Keys without sampling a few slices of iconic Key lime pie. The Keys’ delicious signature dessert is made from the tiny yellow Key lime, a tart and aromatic fruit. While the pie’s exact birthdate and creator are unknown, most people believe it originated in Key West in the late 19th century.

More flavours — and island secrets — can be unearthed while venturing along the trail of breweries, distilleries, and bars winding throughout the archipelago. A visit to Islamorada’s Florida Keys Brewing Co. is a must for those longing for a refreshing brew and a bit of an education. Here, former Canadian Craig McBay will give a true insider’s perspective on the Florida Keys. In addition, a stop by Lorelei is not only good for a tasty cocktail for two, but it’s also a great place to eavesdrop on local captains’ fishing stories.

SUSTAINABILITY
Another way to respect the Keys’ way of life is to embrace a passion for sustainability. 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 long-term environmental stewardship have included the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge to protect and preserve habitats for wildlife — especially the tiny Key deer that live only in the Lower Keys — and the creation of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the United States’ first underwater preserve.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,900 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.

A “Connect & Protect” program creates awareness for visitors to get involved in local residents’ environmental commitment. To help with conservation efforts, travellers are encouraged to incorporate ecoactivities 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, opened over 30 years ago as the world’s first statelicensed veterinary sea turtle hospital.

MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME
Complementing the almost endless range of activities and must-see attractions are the Keys’ spectacular accommodations, including a number of fully-refurbished properties.

Further embrace sustainability with a stay at Deer Run on the Atlantic, a four-room boutique-style bed and breakfast. Recently reopened on Big Pine Key in the heart of the National Key Deer Refuge, this Floridacertified green lodging is a 100 percent plant-based vegan establishment that utilizes organically sourced bedding, supplies, and food.

Lounge in luxury at the adults-only Bungalows Key Largo, scheduled to reopen in December. Set on a 12-acre property and featuring 135 spacious units, Bungalows is the only all-inclusive resort in the Keys and offers two in-ground pools, three restaurants, a food truck, two on-site bars, two six-seat floating Tiki boats, and the full-service Zen Garden Spa.

Fans of the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” can now stay at the 10-unit boutique Conch Key Fishing Lodge & Marina near Marathon that’s owned by former program star Erik James, known as James Brown on the show, and his mother Sandy Stillwell. The property fronts on the beautiful blue Florida Bay waters and is centrally located for visitors seeking prime snorkelling, diving, and sport fishing adventures.

Isn’t it time you experienced the Florida Keys life? For more information, visit fla-keys.com or call 1-800-FLA-KEYS.