What to do if you’re a nature lover in the Florida Keys
1. Snorkel at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Christ of the Deep (Stephen Frink)
Inaugurated as the first underwater park in the USA in 1963, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park’s 48,000 acres of protected waters are a snorkeller’s and diver’s dream. Spying the nearby haunting and submerged Christ of the Deep statue is a must, flanked by coruscating brain and elk horn corals, while the shallow waters around the Grecian Rocks are teeming with tropical fish, queen conchs and barracudas.
2. Spot birds at Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center
Spot a variety of avian life at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center (The Florida Keys & Key West)
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier treats and rehabilitates injured birds and is also a natural refuge for injured or displaced birds that can’t be safely returned to the wild. A walk along the boardwalk trail will reveal avian residents from hawks to shorebirds.
3. Visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon
The Turtle Hospital (The Florida Keys & Key West)
Moving to Marathon over 30 years ago, Richie Moretti has become one of the Florida Keys’ greatest environmental heroes, turning his motel into the Turtle Hospital. The Keys waters are home to five species of turtles – hawksbill, green, Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead, and leatherback turtles, all of which are endangered. Whether it’s because they’ve been struck by a propeller, tangled in netting, or a victim of disease, the hospital’s team, managed by Bette Zirkelbach, rescues scores of turtles each year. Since 1986, the centre has helped to rescue and rehabilitate more than 2,000 turtles. A 90-minute tour affords you a behind-the-scenes look at the excellent work it does. You can even join a feeding session and on occasions, it's possible to see rehabilitated turtles released back into the wild at beaches across the Keys.
4. Kayak the Lower Keys
Kayaking with Big Pine Kayak Adventures in the Lower Keys
Known as the Lower Keys, the cluster of tiny islands before you reach Key West are best explored by kayak. It’s a nimble way to paddle the mangrove tunnels, slender channels and shallow coves of wildernesses within the National Key Deer Refuge and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, getting up close with horseshoe crabs, wading birds and the endemic labrador-sized Key deer, which are unique to this area of the Florida Keys.
5. Watch dolphins in the wild
Wild dolphins spotted off Key West
For something truly bucket-list, head out on a dolphin-watching cruise off the shores of Key West. Hundreds of bottlenose dolphins treat the limpid-blue waters as their personal playground and a cruise with an eco-conscious Blue Star tour operator will ensure you ethically watch them dance and frolic within a nose’s width of your boat. They might be joined by sea turtles and eagle rays, too.
Where to stay in the Florida Keys
Cheeca Lodge & Spa
Playa Largo Resort & Spa, Key Largo: Surrounded by greenery and right on the beachfront, enjoy luxurious rooms with views across the Florida Bay.
Cheeca Lodge & Spa, Islamorada: The decor of this relaxing, beachfront hotel reflects the laid-back lifestyle of Islamorada. Expect spacious rooms, first-class restaurants, lush gardens and adventures on your doorstep.
Tranquility Bay Beachfront Resort, Marathon: Escape the crowds in a private beach house and wake up to the sounds of the Gulf of Mexico lapping the sand outside your front door.
Deer Run on the Atlantic, Lower Keys: This boutique bed and breakfast is named after the Key Deer Refuge it’s situated in, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in nature.
The Gardens Hotel, Key West: Dubbed the ‘prettiest hotel in Key West’, a stay here puts you in easy reach of adventures such as biking, snorkelling, hydrobiking and more.
Where to eat in the Florida Keys
Mrs. Mac's Kitchen is adorned with licence plates
Mrs. Mac's Kitchen, Key Largo: Founded in 1976 and named after the owner’s mother, this charming eatery is now world-famous for its original recipes that please locals and visitors alike. The walls are covered in licence plates from all over the US, which makes for interesting reading while you eat.
Chef Michael's, Islamorada: Locally-sourced ingredients and chefs with experience of cooking in the finest restaurants in the US combine to create a dining experience you’ll remember long after you leave.
Castaway Waterfront, Marathon: With 52 beers on tap, a sushi bar, and serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you’ll be spoilt for choice at this popular bar and restaurant. Be sure to book at least two days in advance.
Hogfish, Lower Keys: This lively open-air restaurant offers fresh seafood, views across the water, heaps of character and a glimpse of what the Florida Keys used to be like years ago.
El Meson de Pepe, Key West: For over 30 years, Chef Pepe Diaz and his family have been dedicated to serving authentic Cuban cuisine, and preserving Cuban Conch heritage in Key West.
Make it happen
America As You Like It (0208 742 8299) offers a seven-night Wandering in the Keys self-drive multi-centre itinerary of the Florida Keys. Priced from £2,229 per person, the package includes return flights from LHR to Miami, car hire, and seven nights’ accommodation (two nights at Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, three nights at The Gardens in Key West, and two nights in Marathon at Tranquility Bay). The price is based on travel in November 2022.
Turn your dreams of visiting the Florida Keys into a reality by heading over to the official website.