Drive to a tropical island? How? Where? Why?
When considering the tropics, travelers picture sandy beaches, palm trees, flocks of birds, bright blossoms and reggae music. But literally, the tropics are the regions of the Earth surrounding the equator, between 23.5° north and south of that imaginary line, but not quite including the beautiful Florida Keys, the southernmost lands of the continental U.S. Even Key West, the last road-accessible island at the southern tip of the Keys, is 72 miles north of “geographically tropical.” But in mood and mode, the Keys certainly are tropical.
Keys are sandy, low-elevation islands that form on top of coral reefs. In Florida, you can drive on them and the bridges between them all the way to Key West. The road is no more dangerous than driving a two-lane road through your neighborhood. The Overseas Highway, or U.S. Highway 1, is 127 miles long, framed by sparkling blue water, lovely seaside homes, impressive boats prancing under the bridges, and the largest coral reef chain in the U.S. The Keys begin at the southeastern coast of Florida, 15 miles south of Miami, and stretch southwest, composed of around 1,700 islands, of which 145 are habitable, with 43 of the islands connected by 42 bridges. Approximately 79,000 residents inhabit the islands, tourism fueling the economy.
Fans of tropical islands want to come. Especially travelers who don’t like to fly or take a cruise ship or who want to save money may drive to the Keys from home. Others fly to Miami or nearby airports and rent a car or take a shuttle or public bus to reach the Keys. They’re like Caribbean islands, but with American money, electricity, and safety.
Highlights are Seven Mile Bridge and Key West, an island but also the largest city in the Keys, containing many residences, businesses and attractions. No island tour is complete without visiting it.
Beaches, the ocean, trails and forests entice outdoor people. If you prefer partying, dining at fine restaurants or partaking of manmade delights, the developed islands beckon.
Check with travel agents, go to helpful websites or contact large chains, by phone or online, for information and reviews on hotels, motels, condos, and RV parks. Hotel accommodations cost from $75 to $500 or more per night. Remember, you’ll likely get what you pay for. RV sites cost up to $150 for a luxury ocean-front site near Key West, with $38.50 for state park campsites and even tent sites in RV parks for $45 to $70, all with amenities. You’ll find hundreds of hotels and motels and scores of RV parks and campgrounds, but be sure to make reservations well in advance, as many are booked up a year ahead.
A variety of attractions draw visitors, including aquariums, nature centers, museums and art galleries. Bike tours, canoeing, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, watching wildlife (including sharks, whales, dolphins, turtles, and birds such as pelicans, gulls, eagles and cormorants), deep-sea or surf fishing and crabbing are all popular. Visiting local bars and restaurants, especially for fresh seafood, are preferred pastimes. One favorite restaurant is award-winning, oceanfront Lazy Days on Islamorada (), where they’ll even cook your catch. And there are national chains like Outback Steakhouse, Pizza Hut and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Touring Key West is a real treat. The architecture, huge trees, history and locals in outrageous clothing welcome you. Join the festive evening crowd in Mallory Square, on the northwestern edge of the island, renowned for its spectacular sunsets, always accompanied by a dizzying variety of street performers, displays of arts and crafts, food carts and psychics. Head on down; it’s a hoot! Tiny shacks built from the driftwood of reef-wrecked ships still dot the island. The most famous resident was author Ernest Hemingway. Tour his home, claimed by descendants of his 6-toed cats. Hemingway’s typewriter still rests on his desk in the lovely second-floor study overlooking the courtyard, giving touring authors the urge to write. Farther on lies Hemingway’s favorite hangout, Sloppy Joe’s Café on Duval Street, open since 1933, still welcoming those who thirst. And check out Southernmost Point, where a brightly colored buoy marks the spot that is considered the most southerly point in the continental U.S. and where hundreds of tourists have photos made.
Throughout the Keys, especially in Key West, watch for signs and banners referring to the Conch Republic (pronounced “conk,” a large marine snail that is commonly eaten in the Keys). This is a tongue-in-cheek political situation which first arose in 1982, in which Key West seceded from the Union for one day, originally in protest. But the attitude, and the fun, continues.
For nature lovers, 8 state parks, 2 national parks, a national marine sanctuary and a national-wildlife-refuge complex with four separate refuges are enticing. However both Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks, the marine sanctuary, 3 of the wildlife refuges, and two of the state parks are not accessible from the Overseas Highway, so consider them for another trip.
The visitor center for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge complex is on Big Pine Key, so you’ll drive to that refuge. Activities include saltwater fishing, wildlife viewing, photography, birding, bike riding, kayaking and guided tours. Blue Hole observation platform sits a mile north of the visitor center, with nearby nature trails. Key West and Great White Heron refuges are accessible only by boat, and Crocodile Lake refuge is closed to the public, except for the Butterfly Garden at the headquarters.
Cooperation between NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary provides administration and protection of all marine areas throughout the Keys.
The state parks are listed here from north to south, with attributes and activities:
(1) Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park contains many protected species including the crocodile. Nature trails, mostly paved and accessible to bicycles and wheelchairs, allow hiking, bird watching and photography. No overnight accommodations are provided.
(2) John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park provides camping on the shore for tents and RVs and overnight stays on privately owned boats. Pennekamp was the U.S.’s first undersea park. Mangrove swamps, tropical hammocks (pieces of forested ground rising above a marsh), coral reefs and marine life welcome visitors. Scuba and snorkel gear are available at the visitor center, with glass-bottom boats, fishing, hiking, a swimming beach and a salt-water aquarium in the park. Beach wheelchairs are available without charge. Most of the parks, including Pennekamp, have rental canoes and kayaks.
(3) Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park maintains self-guided nature trails. Tour a limestone quarry and learn about the operations. Picnicking and a visitor center are available but no overnight accommodations.
(4) and (5) Lignumvitae Key Botanical and Indian Key Historic State Parks are accessible only by canoe, kayak, or tour boat.
(5) Long Key State Park provides seaside campsites. Self-guided canoe trails cover a shallow saltwater lagoon. Watch for starfish, ibis, roseate spoonbills, loggerhead and green sea turtles and horseshoe crabs, a unique primitive species from before dinosaurs.
(6) Curry Hammock State Park is on Long Point Key. Wildlife includes spotted rays, nurse sharks, pelicans, herons, egrets, ibis, bald eagles and osprey, as well as occasional manatees, dolphins and raccoons. A sandy beach provides for swimming and sand-castle building. RVers and tent campers are welcome.
(7) Bahia Honda State Park has boat ramps, with snorkel gear to rent. Boat trips are available to the reef for snorkeling. Camping is allowed on the ocean and gulf sides, and cabins also. Beautiful beaches, fishing, wading and shore birds and a nature center add to the allure. (8) Fort Zachary Taylor Historical Landmark State Park contains the best beach in Key West, along with swimming, snorkeling, fishing, nature trails, a Civil War fort, a café, and fabulous sunsets.
Reservations are recommended for state-park camping, especially from September through May.
The weather is a major draw for the Keys, with no frost or snow, the temperature never reaching 100 degrees, and cooling sea breezes. Even the winter rainy season is mild. The air and water temperatures average in the 80s most of the year, so bring your flip-flops and your swimsuit; you’ll be perfectly dressed!
Of course, disadvantages exist, even in this balmy paradise. An occasional hurricane passes through, usually around September, but with plenty of warning. Mosquitoes are an ever-present aggravation, so use repellent. And be alert while enjoying the beautiful waterways around the islands; more sharks inhabit these waters than anywhere else in the world, though attacks on humans are rare.
For most travelers, the best part of visiting the Florida Keys is getting there, driving that beautiful Overseas Highway, with the breathtaking views of the vivid blues of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico and the lovely islands in between.