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- Strategic itineraries for water sports lovers, wildlife fanatics, families with kids, foodies, and more, including a Key West getaway and a week-long road trip along the Overseas Highway
- Unique experiences and can't-miss sights: Explore the fascinating coral reefs and shipwrecks of Key Largo or visit Hemingway's house to meet the descendants of his legendary polydactyl cats. Spot colorful birds or canoe with gators in the Everglades. Venture through mangrove and pine forests inhabited by endangered species in the National Key Deer Refuge. Catch the sunrise on a secluded beach or dance the night away at Florida's best clubs and bars
- Local flavors: Taste authentic Cuban chicken stew, fried plantains drizzled with honey, and flaky pastelitos in Miami. Sip refreshing mojitos and try award-winning key lime pie in Key West. Savor some of the best fresh seafood in the country or satisfy your adventurous side with fried alligator tail and conch fritters
- The best outdoor sports and recreation, including sailing, fishing, kayaking, biking, diving, and snorkeling along the only living barrier reef in the continental USA
- Expert insight and honest advice from Florida local Joshua Lawrence Kinser on when to go, how to get around, and where to stay, from historic inns and beachside B&Bs to budget motels and campgrounds
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Thorough background on the landscape, climate, wildlife, and local culture
Exploring beyond the Keys? Check out Moon Florida Gulf Coast.
About Moon Travel Guides: Moon was founded in 1973 to empower independent, active, and conscious travel. We prioritize local businesses, outdoor recreation, and traveling strategically and sustainably. Moon Travel Guides are written by local, expert authors with great stories to tell—and they can't wait to share their favorite places with you.
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DISCOVER Florida Keys
8 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
The Best of the Florida Keys
EAT LIKE A LOCAL
Key West Weekend
RECREATION HOT SPOTS
GAY KEY WEST
Even those who have never ventured south of New York City have probably heard of the Florida Keys. Stretching southwest from Miami between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, this diverse archipelago is, after all, legendary.
With its Mardi Gras vibe, much-publicized Hemingway connection, and ongoing “threat” to secede from the union, Key West is surely the most well-known island in the region. This unique place nurtures a strange blend of hardy natives, eccentric artists, and wide-eyed tourists. But the Keys hold more than just the country’s southernmost city.
If you’re driving from Miami or the Everglades you’ll first encounter enticing Key Largo, a burgeoning getaway for southern Floridians. It’s the kind of place where locals can dock their boats just steps from laid-back waterfront eateries. With fascinating underwater coral reefs that extend along its eastern shore, it’s also the self-proclaimed “diving capital of the world.”
South of Key Largo, the remaining Upper Keys accessible by the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) compose Islamorada, an area long celebrated for its bountiful sportfishing. After crossing a lengthy bridge, you’ll be in the heart of the Middle Keys. Centered on Marathon, this region offers a number of wildlife-oriented activities, from bird-watching haunts to dolphin encounters.
For even more animal sightings, continue south to the Lower Keys, where wild creatures abound on and around Big Pine Key. Even farther south, you’ll spy mammals of a different variety—the tourists who descend upon the streets of Key West. They’re especially prevalent from October to April, when the weather is usually sunny and mild and offers a respite from colder places.
Even those who are intimately familiar with the Florida Keys only know a small percentage of them. The Overseas Highway—the only drivable link to the mainland—connects fewer than 50 of the more than 800 islands of this unforgettable chain. Venture out by boat to explore the more elusive ones, a trip that promises mystery, adventure, and an experience unlike anything else.
8 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Go Under the Sea: Go snorkeling and diving amid shipwrecks, artificial reefs, and vibrant coral formations.
2 See Wildlife: Get an up-close look at dolphins, key deer, alligators, and more.
3 Enjoy Local Cuisine: Feast on fresh seafood and key lime pie in the Keys, Cuban food in Miami, and fried gator tail in the Everglades.
4 Find Your Perfect Beach: Whether you want to catch the sunrise, swim, fish, or watch turtles, there’s a beach for you.
5 Get on the Water: Experience the bountiful waters and amazing creatures of this region by kayak.
6 Party in Key West: Do the “Duval crawl,” stopping by every bar along Duval Street, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Key West has become a pilgrimage for LGBTQ+ folks.
7 Visit the Southernmost Point: The southernmost point in the continental United States is a classic photo op—but be prepared for long lines.
8 Get to Know Ernest Hemingway: Retrace the writer’s steps and see the backyard studio where he wrote To Have and Have Not.
Planning Your Trip
WHERE TO GO
Miami and the Everglades
While some travelers head directly to Key West by boat or plane, most pass through the gateway areas of Miami and the Everglades before driving south to the Florida Keys. If you have time, consider exploring this diverse region, where you can stroll amid Miami Beach’s colorful Art Deco District, soak up some sunshine on the Magic City’s stunning beaches, snorkel above the coral reefs of Biscayne National Park, take a guided canoe trip among the cypress trees of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and visit the critters at the Everglades Alligator Farm.
From the mainland, motorists take U.S. 1, also called the Overseas Highway, to reach the Florida Keys. The first island encountered is Key Largo, the largest of this unique archipelago. Here you’ll find several outdoor diversions, including Dolphin Cove and Dolphins Plus—sister facilities that offer a range of activities, from natural dolphin swims to trainer-for-a-day programs. Outdoors enthusiasts will especially enjoy John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can swim alongside sandy beaches, kayak among mangrove trees, or dive amid offshore coral reefs.
Southwest of Key Largo are the islands that make up Islamorada, an upscale resort area favored by anglers and scuba divers. Outdoor attractions dominate here: You can watch sea lion shows at Theater of the Sea, feed wild tarpon at Robbie’s of Islamorada, and visit four different state parks, including Indian Key Historic State Park and Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, both of which are only accessible by boat. Sea lovers might also appreciate the History of Diving Museum, which houses a noteworthy collection of diving paraphernalia.
Marathon and the Middle Keys
After experiencing Islamorada, you’ll pass into the Middle Keys, the heart of which is the laid-back town of Marathon. Animal lovers can swim with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center, observe pelicans and raptors at Curry Hammock State Park and Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, or visit recovering sea turtles at The Turtle Hospital. For a quieter experience, visitors can relax on the area’s lovely beaches or head south to isolated Pigeon Key, a historic base camp accessible by ferry or the Old Seven Mile Bridge.
Big Pine and the Lower Keys
Once you’ve crossed the Seven Mile Bridge, you’ll enter the Lower Keys, perhaps the most tranquil part of this legendary archipelago. Although Bahia Honda State Park lures numerous visitors to its beaches, campgrounds, hiking trails, and warm waters that are ideal for both kayakers and snorkelers, you’re likely to spy more wildlife in this region than fellow tourists. Among the plentiful offerings, recreationists will find wooded solitude in the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key, fishing charters on Summerland Key, and superb diving opportunities around Looe Key.
Celebrated for its breezy hotels, sunset celebrations, and festive atmosphere, especially along Duval Street, the Southernmost City will certainly keep you busy for days on end. Here you can relax on numerous beaches, tour historic homes, visit engaging museums and nature centers, view the entire city from atop the Key West Lighthouse, or take a ferry to the Dry Tortugas. At night you’ll find no shortage of lively bars, and throughout the year, you can participate in an array of festivals and events.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Although southern Florida is a year-round destination, some businesses, namely restaurants in Key West, close during September. In general, summer is the least crowded time to visit, perhaps because temperatures are fairly high from June to September, when the Atlantic hurricane season is at its peak.
Whereas spring and fall are comfortable in this subtropical region, winter is the high season in the Florida Keys, when the climate is much warmer than in the northern United States. In general, late December through April is often the busiest period as snowbirds descend upon the Keys; lodging rates are usually higher during this peak tourist season as well as during major events and holiday weekends. Accommodations often cost less during the midseason, which typically ranges from May to July and from late October to mid-December. Hotels, inns, and resorts can be at their cheapest during the low season, which, save for holidays and festivals, is normally late summer and early fall, between August and mid-October. Although the accommodations listings in this guide reflect southern Florida’s wide range in rates, be advised that every establishment has its own seasonal schedule and therefore its own pricing policy, so be sure to check each place in question before making travel plans.
Your activities can also determine the timing of your trip. Swimmers and snorkelers might enjoy the slightly warmer waters of summer, but anglers must consider the varied fishing seasons before making plans. Blue marlin, for example, are prevalent from March to October while cobia are more common from November to April.
Some out-of-towners are apprehensive about visiting the Florida Keys during the Atlantic hurricane season, which usually runs from June 1 to November 30. The truth is, however, that hurricanes are infrequent in this region, and many of the most popular events, such as Hemingway Days and Fantasy Fest, occur during this half of the year. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to be prepared for the worst. If you do plan to visit the Florida Keys during hurricane season, stay apprised of weather updates and be prepared to evacuate if necessary. Although most radio and television stations provide weather updates, it’s also possible to contact the National Weather Service (NWS) directly; there are offices in Key West (1315 White St., 305/295-1316, www.weather.gov/key) and Miami (11691 SW 17th St., 305/229-4522, www.weather.gov/mfl).
Driving to the Keys
Miami, the Everglades, and the Florida Keys constitute a fairly compact destination, especially given that one main highway—the 110-mile Overseas Highway (U.S. 1)—links much of this region. Though most visitors come by car, motorcycle, or RV, it’s possible to reach southern Florida using other forms of transportation. For instance, you can travel by train or bus to Miami, take a flight to Miami International Airport, or arrive in Key West by plane or cruise ship.
If you choose not to drive to southern Florida, your best bet would still be to rent a car and hit the road as soon as possible. After all, taxis can get expensive, and it’s infinitely easier to travel the Overseas Highway by car, as opposed to walking or biking. Just be prepared for the drive from Miami to Key West to take roughly 3.5-4 hours in the mid- and low seasons, and perhaps more than 5 hours during the high season. In the absence of traffic, it can take about an hour to drive from Miami to Key Largo, another half hour to reach Islamorada, roughly 45 minutes to hit the heart of Marathon, about a half hour to make it to Big Pine Key, and an additional 45 minutes to arrive in Key West.
Sailing to the Keys
There are an abundance of marinas in the islands, and almost everywhere you look offshore you are likely to see sailboats anchored and moored in the surrounding waterways. The most popular and boat-friendly islands are Key West, Big Pine, Islamorada, Marathon, and Key Largo. These islands are where you will find the most available slips and resupply locations at marinas, as well as the most restaurants and attractions with docks that give sailors convenient access.
The water is shallow in this region, but usually very clear. The major danger is running aground on shallows and hitting reefs, rocks, and debris around the islands. Do your homework and plot your course diligently to avoid disaster. Steer clear of sailing during the height of hurricane season, which is generally July through November.
The Florida Keys are an exceptionally high-traffic area. You’re likely to compete for space in waterways with other sailboats, large yachts, high-powered speedboats, tour boats, fishing vessels, commercial traffic, paddlers, Jet Skiers, swimmers, divers, snorkelers, and marinelife. It is vitally important to be on the lookout for obstacles and other people and animals while using the waterways in the Florida Keys.
Sailing will give you access to some of the best part of the Keys. With a sailboat you’ll able to cruise through clear blue waters to some of the most beautiful reefs, wrecks, fishing spots, and secluded islands, where you can explore so much more of what the Keys has to offer than if you were bound to land only.
No matter when you plan to travel to the Florida Keys, you should reserve your accommodations in advance. Resorts and B&Bs book up quickly during the high seasons of winter and spring, and many businesses close during September, which is in between seasons.
From December to February, several noteworthy art festivals are held in Miami and throughout the Keys. July lures visitors to Key West for Hemingway Days, and many flock to the Southernmost City for Fantasy Fest in late October.
The Best of the Florida Keys
First-time visitors to the Florida Keys should set aside at least a week to experience the best that these legendary islands—plus the gateway areas of Miami and the Everglades—have to offer.
Day 1: Miami
Most travelers reach the Florida Keys by vehicle, which means you’ll likely begin your trip in the Miami area. For a taste of the city’s multicultural vibe, head to Little Havana, where you can sample authentic Cuban food and browse aromatic cigar shops. Then venture east to South Beach, where you can tour the colorful Art Deco District, view the impressive art and artifact collection at the Jewish Museum of Florida—FIU, or relax at the popular Lummus Park Beach.
After lunch at one of South Beach’s savory cafés, head southwest to Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, both of which boast a variety of historic structures and shopping options. Savor a fine meal and perhaps stay the night at The Biltmore Hotel, a 1920s-era hotel in Coral Gables, where you can also play golf or enjoy a massage. If you’d rather experience Miami’s nightlife, stay in one of the boutique hotels or world-class resorts in South Beach.
Day 2: The Everglades
Rise early and head to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, where you can stroll along the beach, have breakfast at the Lighthouse Cafe, and take a guided tour of the 1825 Cape Florida Lighthouse, which provides panoramic views of Biscayne Bay. Afterward venture south to Biscayne National Park, where you can explore Boca Chita Key, Elliott Key, and other islands by kayak.
If you’re an animal lover, stop by the Everglades Alligator Farm near Florida City, which features live alligator feedings and airboat rides in the Everglades. For a more intimate tour of this subtropical wilderness, take a canoe trip through Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, or Collier-Seminole State Park, all marvelous places to observe birds, alligators, and other native creatures.
To experience the region’s heritage, head to the Miccosukee Indian Village on the Tamiami Trail or the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. After a day of sightseeing, unwind at the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, where you’ll find dining, entertainment, and lodging options.
Day 3: Key Largo
Venture south on U.S. 1 to the Florida Keys. In northern Key Largo, head to the tranquil Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, which lures hikers, bikers, and wildlife lovers daily. Farther south you’ll encounter John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where popular activities include kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving.
Afterward head to Dolphins Plus, where you can swim with dolphins and learn how to be a marine mammal trainer. Wildlife lovers will also appreciate the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, home to rehabilitating brown pelicans, turkey vultures, and great horned owls.
Following a day of outdoor diversions, relax at one of Key Largo’s many waterfront restaurants, most of which offer ideal spots to watch the sunset. Throughout Key Largo you’ll find a variety of eateries, bars, and hotels, including those at the Key Largo Resorts Marina, which also features the historic African Queen.
Day 4: Islamorada
Continue southwest to the islands of Islamorada. Here art lovers can explore paintings, sculptures, and other unique creations at The Rain Barrel Village on Plantation Key, while history buffs can learn about the ill-fated Overseas Railroad at Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park. Farther southwest it’s hard to miss the enormous sign for Theater of the Sea, which offers glass-bottom boat rides, entertaining marine mammal shows, and the chance to swim with the resident dolphins and sea lions. On Upper Matecumbe Key, you’ll find the History of Diving Museum, which houses an interesting collection of diving paraphernalia.
On Lower Matecumbe Key, Robbie’s of Islamorada features boat rentals, fishing charters, and an open-air market. The marina also provides boat tours of two remote islands: Indian Key Historic State Park, once the site of a lucrative cargo-salvaging business, and Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, where you can tour a virgin tropical forest. While all the islands of Islamorada are worth visiting, Upper Matecumbe Key boasts most of the area’s shops, spas, bars, restaurants, and accommodations.
Day 5: Marathon and the Middle Keys
Just past Layton in the Middle Keys is Long Key State Park, a tranquil place for canoeists, anglers, hikers, and snorkelers. Farther south, you can embrace other family-friendly diversions, such as flying high above the islands and coral reefs via Island Hoppers Aerial Adventures, frolicking with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center, exploring the wooded islands of Curry Hammock State Park, and relaxing on Sombrero Beach, popular with swimmers, picnickers, and volleyball enthusiasts.
If you have time, take a walking tour of The Turtle Hospital, a rescue facility on Vaca Key. Then stop by the Pigeon Key Gift Shop, housed in a red train car, and purchase admission to Pigeon Key, an early 20th-century base camp for bridge workers. Admission includes a ferry ride to the island, which you can also access via the Old Seven Mile Bridge.
You’ll find plenty of after-hours dining and lodging options in the Middle Keys. Though most lie on Vaca Key, Marathon’s lengthiest island, you may prefer more isolated places, such as Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key.
Day 6: Big Pine and the Lower Keys
After crossing the Seven Mile Bridge, you’ll encounter the less populated Lower Keys, where Bahia Honda State Park lures kayakers, snorkelers, anglers, and bikers daily. On Big Pine Key, you might be able to spot a tiny key deer in the National Key Deer Refuge or an alligator at the freshwater Blue Hole. While here, take a snorkeling or diving trip to Looe Key Reef, where you’ll spy large coral formations, spiny lobster, and the remains of a shipwreck.
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- On Sale
- Jun 27, 2023
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Moon Travel