Unexpected sums up the Florida Keys. Just one road, the Overseas Highway, connects these long, narrow islands, strung out between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. With names as varied as No-Name Key, Fiesta Key and Fat Deer Key, this coral cay archipelago has North America’s only coral barrier reef, indigenous Key Deer and protected mangroves. It’s a world away from the Florida of theme parks. Here are a few reasons why you should visit this laidback island chain.
1. To meet the turtles
Spanky, Gonzo, Calico Jack and, erm, Jaws might be your favourite holiday encounters. These rescued turtles, often injured by discarded rubbish, boat strikes or victims of turtle cancer, are among the residents at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Named by the person who found them, these adorable creatures are even listed as ‘current patients’ on the hospital’s website. Visitors are taken on an hourly guided tour – the get-better pools, ‘rescue, rehab and release’ ethos and pure turtle love which permeates the place has most people captivated.
2. To take relaxation one step further
As if the Keys aren’t chilled-out enough, anyone seeking another level of bliss can practise yoga on a paddleboard or meditate on a kayak. It’s thanks to Sarah Sullivan, who’s combined a psychology degree and background in mental health with her yoga and aquatic skills to create Serenity Eco Therapy. Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and kayaking are lovely ways to explore the quiet backwaters even without the yoga, but you can’t beat a downward dog in the silence of the mangroves.
3. To get a fix of island community culture
There’s a real sense of community in the Keys, and the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District on Islamorada is one example. This six-block corridor between the Green Turtle Inn and the Hurricane Monument was inspired by local artists who wanted to create an arts space with galleries, restaurants and businesses. One newcomer is the Florida Keys Brewing Co, the first and only microbrewery in the Upper Keys, producing and serving craft beers in a very cool venue with furniture and murals designed by local artists. The monthly ArtWalk (third Thursday of the month) is the best time to visit because everyone stays open till late for an evening of local art, food and drink.
4. For the chance to cook your catch
Turning up to a restaurant with a piece of freshly caught fish and asking the chef to cook it may not always be the ‘done thing’, but it’s pretty standard in the Keys. Novices and keen anglers alike can enjoy a day at sea before feasting on their prized catch later. Some fishing trips operate under a strict catch-and-release policy – no good if you want Nemo for dinner – but several companies such as SeaSquared Charters, Chelsea Charters and Bud N Mary’s will keep your catch bagged and fresh.
5. To celebrate sunset – every day
Sunset is such a big deal in the Keys, it has its own website. The daily sunset celebration is testament to the fact that Key Westers love a party and they’ll celebrate no matter how big, or small, that ball of orange is in the sky. Come sundown and it’s happy hour in Mallory Square which packs out with food carts, street performers, artists and psychics. For others, it’s simply about sitting on the water’s edge waiting for the daily spectacle over the Gulf of Mexico. For a crowd-free version, head out to sea on Danger Charters’ Wind and Wine Sunset Sail.
6. For a taste of the Floribbean
That’s not a made-up word. The influence of the Caribbean on this archipelago isn’t all that surprising – after all, Key West is closer to Cuba than Miami. Food is king – it’s hard to emphasise just how much so. From tiny cafés to upscale restaurants, the buzzword is fresh and the reigning style Floribbean. Coconut, citrus fruits, mangos and papaya make a regular appearance in dishes and expect to see those key limes in more than just pies.
7. For the festivals
The fact sunset is celebrated every day tells you something – these locals love a party and the Keys’ festival calendar is packed. There’s Hemingway Days in July, marking Ernest’s time in Key West, with lookalike contests and a marlin tournament, a nod to his love for deep-sea fishing, and Marathon Seafood Festival and Key Lime Festival for the foodies. Most flamboyant of all is Fantasy Fest, a 10-day party in October with outrageous costumes, floats and a 2015 theme of ‘All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show’…
8. To visit a micro-nation…
It all kicked off in 1982. Amid concerns over immigration and drug-smuggling, US border control set up a roadblock between the Keys and the mainland. The restrictions annoyed many locals, leading to Key West’s mayor proclaiming, “Tomorrow at noon the Florida Keys will secede from the Union!” Enter the ‘Conch Republic’, passports and all. It’s tongue-in-cheek but each April, a week-long celebration in Mallory Square marks ‘independence’ with parties and parades. The tagline, ‘We seceded where others failed’, says it all. The sense of humour and independent thinking makes the Keys so lovable.