This chain of islands known as the Florida Keys starts some 40 miles from Miami and curves southwest to the end of the line in Key West (a destination all its own). It’s meant to be driven and as you coast the first 18 miles on the two-lane U.S. Highway 1 you’ll be surprised at how quickly stress disappears. Welcome to island life! Among the larger Keys worth exploring are Key Largo, Islamorada and Marathon. Smaller gems not to miss include Bahia Honda State Park and the National Key Deer Refuge in the Lower Keys.
Snorkelers and scuba divers spend the day at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. This undersea park’s cool, clear waters provide opportunities to see the coral reef where blue-striped grunts, parrotfish, angelfish and other marine life swim among fan and brain corals. Divers can go some 25 feet deeper to see Christ of the Abyss, a replica of the bronze statue in Italy’s Mediterranean Sea. Snorkel and dive boats depart from the park.
Islamorada’s moniker is Sportsfishing Capital of the World and from Bud N’ Mary’s Marina you can head out with fishing guides who know the best spots in the Atlantic Ocean to battle a billfish and in the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico for relaxing backcountry fishing where snapper and ladyfish bite.
Splurge and stay at Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key (MM 61), which is a good midway point. The sprawling resort’s island-themed hotel rooms have poster beds dressed in embroidered white linens and walls adorned with framed seashells collections. For a longer stay book a two- or three-bedroom waterfront villa, with front porch and rocking chairs. The resort has its own saltwater lagoon with a sandy beach, a marina where you can rent paddle boards and book fishing and diving excursions and the Dolphin Connection, where interacting with the sea mammals is an animal lover’s dream.
Marathon is home to Keys Fisheries, a weather-worn restaurant, seafood market, working fishery and marina on the Florida Bay. Order conch fritters and share a huge Reuben lobster made with Florida spiny lobster or the hogfish sandwich, a favorite Keys staple. Grab a spot at a picnic table alongside the water or at the upstairs deck for iconic sunset viewing.