Life in the Florida Keys is dominated by the ocean. The simplest trips become postcard-worthy adventures on the Overseas Highway, the link between its countless balmy isles, while the coral barrier reef just a few miles off shore will have even the most experienced divers raring to go. From kayaking the mangroves to paddleboarding at night, here are some of the best things to do in this fascinating region.
1. Meet its endangered residents
Sea turtles are notoriously difficult to spot in the wild, but at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon you can meet the whole gang: Bubble Butt, Blinky, Spartacus and even the malodorous Smelly Cat.
Since firing up its first orange-and-white ambulance in 1986, the hospital has helped injured loggerheads, greens and Kemp’s ridleys, and returned over 1500 of its “patients” to the Keys. Take one of the hourly guided tours to get up close with some of the residents in the tanks, or re-enact everyone’s favourite Free Willy scene (with a less acrobatic protagonist) at one of the popular releases.
2. Kayak in the mangroves
The Lower Keys backcountry is full of secret waterways, accessible only to the most adventurous paddlers. For starters, join Big Pine Kayak Adventures and follow Captain Bill Keogh and canine first mate Scupper through the dense tangle of mangroves in the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge.
Within live the tiny Key Deer, an adorable but endangered species, as well as all manner of curious creatures like alien-looking horseshoe crabs. The salty channels here are knee-deep and fringed with overhanging branches and roots, which are so thick in places that you’ll have to drag yourself along.
3. Become a night rider
You can still make the most of the ocean when the sun goes down – providing you’re using a kayak or paddleboard that lights up like a Christmas tree. A night tour with Ibis Bay Paddle Sports will see you manning one of these souped-up watercraft and sailing across the murky flats to a deep shelf on the ocean floor, spotting all manner of nocturnal critters along the way.
Look out for colourful sponges, sea cucumbers and upside-down jellyfish, as well as stingrays and small sharks. On the route back, you’ll pass shadowy mangrove islands blanketed with snoozing pelicans, ibises and herons.
4. Cook your catch at Robbie’s Marina
Usually, there’s nothing more impolite than striding into a restaurant and slapping a fish on the table, but this is expected at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada. Equal parts fishing port, restaurant and souvenir stand, the Marina sits squarely in the self-styled sport fishing capital of the world and invites budding anglers to enjoy their fresh mahi-mahi or yellowtail snapper with a side of fries.
It’s a popular spot (with queues to match), but you can while away the wait by feeding the freakishly large tarpon under the dock. They’ll jump for a handful of herring – but watch out because the bolshy pelicans will, too.
5. Snorkel America’s first undersea park
To see the Keys’ sea life for yourself, all you need to do is slip on your fins and dive in. The best place to try snorkelling is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater reserve in the US and home to one of the largest living barrier reefs.
In fact, the reef’s vivid yellow coral formations, purple-veined sea fans and warm, clear waters, teeming with tropical fish regularly gain it plaudits for being among the best.
Catch a glimpse of neon-blue parrotfish, stingrays and shoals of barracuda around the Christ of the Abyss statue, or scan the swaying beds of seagrass for signs of lobsters and conch. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a nurse shark.
6. Try SNUBA in Duck Key
Whether you want to explore the Dry Tortugas’ shipwrecks or get closer to the reefs at John Pennekamp, there are countless opportunities for diving in the Keys. But if you’re not quite ready to take the plunge, or simply want to try something new, then SNUBA could be your answer.
A cross between diving and snorkelling, SNUBA loses the traditional heavy equipment in favour of a twenty-foot hose, which is connected to a float and towed behind. Complete beginners can take part as there’s no need to be certified.
7. Cruise the Overseas Highway
The Overseas Highway, a camera-ready stretch of road spanning 113 miles straight across the water between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, is the only road to bridge the seemingly endless expanse of ocean between the islands of the Florida Keys.
The water on either side, broken up only by the shadows of reefs, is so dazzlingly blue it’ll seem like you’re in the Caribbean – though you may as well be. Key West, the Highway’s terminus and the southernmost city in the US, is just 90 miles from Cuba.
Georgia flew to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport with Norwegian. She stayed at Playa Largo Resort & Spa in Key Largo, The Marker in Key West and Hawks Cay Resort in Duck Key. For more information on the Florida Keys and Key West, visit www.fla-keys.co.uk.