Towering above the water, the monumental Overseas Highway – one of the longest overwater roads in the world, connects the upper and lower archipelago islands known as the Keys to the coast of mainland Florida. Spanning 125 miles to the southernmost point of the US, this chain of islands lay along the Florida Straits between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico – home to the third largest barrier reef in the world. The 42 bridged highway is an experience in itself, and no stop in the Sunshine State is complete without a road trip along this far frontier. For those wishing to see the best of the Keys but with little time to spare, this route is for you!
Just an hour from Miami airport, Key Largo is the gateway to the Keys, a sanctuary for marine life and home of shimmering sunsets. Offering a first taste of the island life, a waterside lunch at Sundowners is too good to miss. Sit on the deck and watch the diverse birdlife flurry over Florida Bay; with a slice of Key Lime Pie in hand, it’s the perfect introduction to the Keys!
If like us, you’re stretched for time, it’s back on the road for a 50-minute drive from Key Largo to the tiny island of Duck Key – home to a permanent population of less than 500 people. Perfectly located in the centre of the archipelago between Key West and the Upper Keys, a stay at Hawks Cay Resort offers the perfect balance of complete tranquillity, while remaining in easy reach of Islamorada, Marathon and Key West. Its 177 resort rooms are framed by an expansive warren of luxury waterfront villas with wraparound verandas, billowing palm trees and ocean views. Set on the edge of the water, the resort boasts 5 swimming pools and a specular salt water lagoon perfect for paddling. After a day spent swimming and sunning, al fresco dining on the docks at Hawks Cay Marina is in order at Angler & Ale. Order in some Florida Key’s specialities (Conch Fritters are a much) and sip some of Florida’s best draft beer as the sun sets.
Just over an hour west of Duck Key sits the most infamous of the archipelago’s. Key West is the most populous and economically developed of all the Key’s, once boasting a myriad of famous poets, playwrights and musicians amongst its local population Virtually uninhabited in the 19th century save from Cuban fisherman, smugglers and privateers, the island quickly became the largest and wealthiest city in Florida – made rich from wrecking and salvaging valuable cargo from ships that crashed on the reefs and shallow waters offshore. Closer to Havana than Miami, part of Key West’s allure is its distinctly Caribbean character, where Cuban coffee stands and antique shops give way to a patchwork of colourful wooden houses, ramshackle churches and leafy sidewalks.
Though much of Duval Street has been transformed for tourists, the town is encompassed with a sense of nostalgia for way back when; old cigar makers’ cottages still stand in Bahamian Village, while President Truman’s Little White House and Ernest Hemmingway’s Spanish colonial home sit in the heart of Old Town. A frequent haunt of Hemingway himself, Sloppy Joe’s saloon remains a historic cornerstone dating back to the prohibition era, making it the perfect pit stop for pint heaped with a sense of cultural significance. Each street has a story to tell, and a ride on the infamous Conch Train is the easiest way to explore the main sights and gain some historical context.
Time spent on the turquoise waters is almost non-negotiable when in the Keys and an Island Adventure Tour offers unrivalled opportunity to coast through the endless blue, searching for conch shells amongst mangrove islands mushrooming from the warm shallow waters. An afternoon spent snorkelling and paddle boarding with Fury Water Adventures is nothing short of idyllic, with ample chance to bask in Florida’s diverse marine life and spot some pods of dolphins. A sunset sail equipped with cold beers, feel good tunes and a much welcomed evening breeze is the icing on the cake. Speaking of cake, a stop by the Key Lime Pie Co. on Greene Street for a slice of the good stuff, followed by a bucket of Key West’s infamous Conch fritters at Turtle Kraals overlooking Key West Bight Marina, after a long day spent sightseeing and swimming sea sponges.
With sun, sea and unrivalled marine life mixed with the influencers of neighbouring Cuba, these islands boast a rich tapestry of cultural and historical intricacies and no matter your time-scale, it’s easy to discover the best the Keys has to offer.