USA & Canada: Florida - The Keys | Sailing, Sea Breeze & Spicy Conch Chowder
The nature-blessed necklace of coral islets (called "keys") that arch into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico off the southern tip of Florida are a study in contrasts: Laidback lovers will dig the casual and funky island vibe; scuba divers and sport fishing enthusiasts will be entranced by the sparkling fish-filled sea. In this case, opposites definitely attract! Forty-three bridges and the narrow Overseas Highway connect this chain of 40 or so islands, each identified by their mile marker, from MM127 in Florida City to MM0 in Key West, the farthest Key from the Sunshine State's coast and, therefore, the southernmost point in the United States.
In a Word: Fins
Whether you're frolicking with dolphins, diving a reef or a wreck, or fishing the backcountry or big blue sea, the Keys offer ample ops to splash around.
- Mother Nature: Just north of Key West are the Lower Keys, a natural bonanza that include the Bahia Honda State Park, home to one of America's most beautiful beaches; Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary; and the National Key Deer and Great White Heron Wildlife Refuges. The star of this area is the adorable Key Deer (a smaller and fuzzier version of mainland deer) that can swim between islands to forage for food.
- Flipper!: Five facilities offer humans the chance to swim with their fellow mammal dolphins, including The Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, (305) 289-1121; Dolphin Connection on Duck Key at Hawk's Cay Resort, (888) 814-9104; Dolphins Plus, (305) 451-1993, and Dolphin Cove Research and Education Center, (305) 451-4060, on Key Largo; and Islamorada's Theater of the Sea, (305) 664-2431, a family-owned version of Sea World that also offers sea lion and stingray swim programs.
- Islamorada: The name of this island, which means "purple isle," was inspired by the violet sea snail or purple bougainvilleas in the area. It is a mecca for sport fishing, but landlubbers will love the local art galleries and kitschy '50s-style pastel roadside bungalows.
- Catch of the day: Thanks to the convergence of several different bodies of water, the Keys offer a diverse and abundant supply of fish, resulting in the highest number of world record-breaking catches on Earth (fish stocks are maintained by conservation measures such as catch-and-release fishing, plus size-and-bag limits). Three main types of fishing are available: offshore (sailfish in winter and dolphin fish -- the actual fish, not the mammal -- in summer); shallow or flats (tarpon from April to June, bonefish from spring through fall); and angling (snapper and grouper year-round). Call (888) FISH-KEYS for more information.
- Key Largo: Highlights on the largest Key include John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, home to 55 types of coral, more than 500 different species of fish, and a 9-foot bronze Christ of the Deep statue. Scuba dive, snorkel, or snuba dive (a hybrid of the two) for eye-to-eye encounters; non-swimmers can hop a glass-bottom boat excursion or actually sleep underwater at the Jules' Undersea Lodge, (305) 451-2353. (Yes, room service is available.)
When to Go
- Best weather: Winter, although temperatures hover between 73 and 82 year-round
- Best prices: Summer and fall
Knot Note: Hotels such as Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort, (800) 4-AMORAY, in Key Largo offer underwater wedding packages in which you can tie the knot wearing scuba gear! Your guests can join you (noncertified divers must take a half-day introductory course) or watch with snorkel masks from the surface.