The Florida Keys, tiny islands strung together first by nature, next by Henry Flagler's railroad, and more recently by the Overseas Highway, seem to be in a time zone all their own.
Visitors will find their worries disappear as they cruise U.S. Highway 1 -- with its huge expanses of blue-green water, certainly one of the most scenic drives in the nation. Along the way, fishing villages, serene beaches, and seafood restaurants dot the landscape.
Throughout the islands, water activities top the list of things to do. Key Largo, Big Pine Key, and Looe Key (off the Lower Keys) are best known for diving and snorkeling; Islamorada and Marathon are most famous for fishing. The Lower Keys are the least developed in the island chain.
Most visitors top off their Keys vacation with a trip to Key West, the eclectic end of the continent. This southernmost point of the United States embraces a fascinating mix of history, eccentricity and lush, island charm. Civil War-era forts, famous writers' homes, sidewalk cafes, and outrageous folks add to the unique atmosphere of Key West.
Named for its extensive pine forests, Big Pine Key was the homestead site of Keywesters of Bahamian decent, known as "Conchs," in the 1890s. This key is now the gateway to the Lower Keys, an unspoiled tropical wilderness of over 100 tiny mangrove islands. The area is a mecca for nature lovers and bird watchers as well as boaters and fishermen.
A wide variety of fish roam the shallows and the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream. Nature trails wind through the pinewoods and exotic tropical foliage. Deserted beaches and shell-collector shallows rim the Gulf side. Dive boats, charter fishing boats, sailboats and canoes will take you on the adventure of your choice. The historic sites, shops, and nightspots of Key West and Marathon are only a half-hour's drive away.
The National Key Deer Refuge encompasses most of the island. A unique species, tiny Key deer are a sub-species of the white-tail deer and stand only about 26 inches tall. Big Pine Key is also home to Bight State Aquatic Preserve and the National Great White Heron Refuge. Nearby Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary protects the most biologically diverse and aesthetically beautiful reef in the entire chain. Three-quarters of a mile of spur and groove formations can be observed from 2 to 40 feet.
The excellent water clarity and moderate sea conditions at Looe Key permit its features and inhabitants to be easily observed from the surface. The wide range of depth also makes the reef accessible to the beginning swimmer and the experienced diver. Brightly colored fish can be seen swimming among the branching elkhorn and staghorn corals, huge brain corals as well as the delicate sea fans and sea whips.
A diver's dreamland and an unspoiled natural paradise, the Lower Keys are a tropical setting where you can take the time to appreciate the beauty of your surroundings.
Just this side of paradise (and a bit south of Miami) lies a chain of coral islands. Cross the Monroe County line and you'll be in the first of the Florida Keys, Key Largo. While the island is legendary for its lore of pirates and sunken treasure, today countless visitors have discovered the real treasure of Key Largo lies offshore -- in its world-class diving.
Only 90 miles from Cuba and 150 from Miami, Key West is truly the end of the line. In a 1940 Saturday Evening Post article, Thelma Strabel wrote of Key West, "There is nothing for restless people to do. It is quiet and careless and charming."
Half a century later, you'll find that Key West's charm has remained, though the pace of life has picked up quite a bit. Key West has become a place where people escape from the rat race to join the race for the freest, the "funnest" and the most flamboyant. What other place has more bars -- along with more churches -- per capita than anywhere else in the country?
Hundreds of years ago Spanish explorers sailed by Islamorada, saw the purple hue of its coastline (from the lavender shells of sea snails) and gave it its name. Islamorada means "purple isles" in Spanish. It's not likely that you'll see any purple snails, but there's plenty of local color to take in.
Located southwest of Key Largo on Upper Matecumbe Key, Islamorada (pronounced EYE-la-mor-AH-da) is the self-proclaimed "Sportfishing Capital of the World." People who visit here take their fishing seriously, and Islamorada fulfills its promise of excellent angling with the largest concentration of charter fishing boats in the entire island chain. Even former president George Bush can't resist the call of these blue-green waters. Searching for the elusive bonefish in Islamorada is one of his favorite sports. There are many ways to catch a "big 'un." If you'd like, Islamorada's charter boat captains can take you on the fishing trip of your life. But venturing out on your own in a rented boat, wading in the shallows or bridge fishing are also great ways to explore area waters. The Keys' famed coral reef, which extends miles into the ocean, is both the feeding and breeding grounds for hundreds of varieties of fish -- many of them good eatin'.
One of the largest towns in the Keys, Islamorada offers a number of attractions in addition to fabulous fishing. You can explore the wreckage of the Dutch-built ship San Pedro (located in 18 feet of water about 1.25 nautical miles south of Indian Key) or the Underwater Coral Gardens of both Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys. Indian Key, offshore on the Atlantic side of Lower Matecumbe Key, is a designated State Historic Site. Its history is fraught with tales of wrecking, salvaging, unsavory deeds and Indian massacres. South of Lower Matecumbe Key, Long Key State Park has one of the loveliest beaches in the Keys.