The Keys To The Florida Keys
Wander through the historic, funky oceanfront of the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys extend south of Miami in a string of narrow limestone and mangrove islands bordered to the west by the Gulf of Mexico and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean.  The main artery, Route US 1, offers one of the most scenic road trips in the country. You can rush down to Key West in about 3.5 hours or take a week and savor the many colors along the way. 

You’ll notice most addresses are written as MM followed by a number. “Mile Marker” signs begin near Florida City, gateway to the southern Everglades, at around MM 127 and descend to MM 0, site of the Green Parrot Bar (“The 1st and Last Bar on US 1” their sign proclaims) in Key West.

Key Largo: MM 118 to 90.7 — 58 Miles from Miami

The first major key you’ll reach heading south from Key Biscayne is Key Largo, home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (305/451-1202) a noted diving spot, the National Marine Sanctuary (888/404-3922), Molasses Reef, and the underwater caves of French Reef.  Each area is known for its wrecks and the lush coral reef formations and marine habitats that have developed among the ship’s ruins. Dolphins Plus (866/860-7946, 31 Corrine Pl,  Key Largo, FL 33037) and Dolphin Cove (877-365-2683 , MM 101.9 Bay Side, Key Largo, FL 33037) are two places where you can plan a half-day outing to swim with dolphins (or for younger children, have an encounter with these gentle creatures.)

The Marriott Key Largo Bay Beach Resort (305/453-0000, 103800 Overseas Highway, Key Largo 33037) has a small beach and a marina on the bay, a heated pool and whirlpool, a day spa and offers dive instruction, snorkel trips and other watersport activities.

Popp’s Motel in Key Largo (877/852-5201, 95500 Overseas Highway, Key Large 33037) is a terrific buy for the Keys.  This 50-year-old, family-run motel is clean, homey, and well-maintained. While the efficiencies and one-bedroom apartments are a bit small, they’re cheerily painted and all have a little kitchen to help you save even more money by preparing your own food. Much of the beach is shaded by swaying palm trees, under which you’ll find hammocks, a children’s play structure, tables, chairs, and barbecues.

Islamorada: MM 90.7 to 63 — 76 Miles from Miami

The signage becomes denser as you reach Islamorada, the self-styled “Sport Fishing Capital of the World”. You can’t miss the giant brown lobster outside the Treasure Village gift shop or the fountains crashing over the illuminated sign of Theatre of the Sea (305/664-2431, 84721 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036) a marine amusement park with animal shows and gifts galore, on little Windley Key. Slow down and enjoy some of the glitziest attractions in the Keys.

Islamorada’s most elegant and toney spot is the luxe Rock Resort Cheeca Lodge & Spa (866/591-7625, 81801 Overseas Highway, Islamorada 33036). As you cruise down the Overseas Highway, keep a sharp eye amidst the clutter of gas stations, souvenir shops and Key Lime Pie vendors for Cheeca’s discreet sign, tucked back behind some palms. It has a crisp Ralph-Lauren-style elegance in decor and dining that’s more reminiscent of the East Coast summer “camps” of the rich and famous than the laid-back “cracker” style of many south Florida resorts, with 199 bright, cheerful and large rooms in a main hotel block, and many other rooms and one- and two-bedroom apartments in long, low clusters dotted around the grounds.

The main hotel contains the pretty, open-air breakfast/lunch cafe, a comfortable bar with a casual menu where kids are welcome to dine on the outdoor, beachside patio, long fishing pier with a cocktail bar at the end, and an elegant gourmet fine dining restaurant. The Avanyu Spa is a more recent addition to the luxury amenities available to adult hotel guests.  If you don’t mind what you’ll spend eating out, these rooms, with a handy minibar and lots of cabinet and closet space to store kids’ gear, are the place to stay.

Many families (particularly Europeans, who come for two to three weeks) prefer the apartments, which have full kitchens and several rooms. They feel very much like the new condominiums found throughout Florida, with a numbered parking spot for each resident on the ground level, a common hallway leading to units up above, and a screened-in Florida room facing the tennis courts, nine-hole golf course, or other well-landscaped corner of the property.

Cheeca makes a point of environmental correctness; for example, discreet signs offer guests a choice to save water by reusing sheets and towels during their stay. If you’re interested in lolling about their waterfront, note that a strict “catch and release” fishing policy is suggested to all guests. Camp Cheeca (305/664-4651)  was founded in 1989 to serve ages 5-12. It is open daily except Sunday from 9am-1pm. It goes to great lengths to educate children about ecology but at our mid-summer visit it was run as a summer-long day camp for locals.

Our kids, there for the day, felt left out and found that many “choice” activities that they would otherwise enjoy (sea kayaking, shell hunting, golf lessons) were nixed by kids who had done them all before. Although the three kids we enrolled— 6, 9 and 11 years— all hated it, the director and her staff were quite enthusiastic and led me to believe that in other seasons, a lot of environmental and ecology-minded activities such as beach patrols to identify marine life, were held successfully.  On Friday and Saturday nights, children can enjoy “Kids Night Out” activities from 6 to 10pm.

The Moorings Village and Spa (305/664-4708, 123 Beach Road, Islamorada 33036) is a classy resort, one of the most upscale of the small properties on the Keys, with 1100 feet of sandy beach sprinkled with palm trees, hammocks, and Adirondack chairs, plus a swimming dock that kids adore. Windsurfing and kayaking are complimentary, and there’s a swimming pool, tennis courts, and spa. One-, two- and three-bedroom cottages and two-story houses are attractively decorated, yet casual and comfortable enough to draw families year after year. The little extras set this place in Islamorada above the rest.

Islamorada’s Breezy Palms (305/664-2361; MM 80, Islamorada, FL 33036) is one of my favorite budget properties on the Keys, as this place comes with extras you don’t often find in a bargain price range, such as fresh towels around the pool, ice cream cones at the little sundries shop, cook outs on convenient barbeque grills, and 320 feet of ocean footage with a dock that is lit for night fishing. The beach is tiny, like many of the beaches in the Keys, and many of the attractive apartments, bungalows, and standard motel rooms have views of the ocean from their screened porches.

Holiday Isle Resort & Marina (800/327-7070; 305/664-8986) at 84001 Overseas Highway, Islamorada 33036 is the gateway for party boats around the Keys, and is a long-time haven for fishermen and divers.

Duck Key: MM 61– 90 Miles from Miami.

The Hawk’s Cay Resort (800/826-4061, MM 61 – 61 Hawk’s Cay Boulevard, Duck Key 33050) is a bustling waterfront resort on the private 60-acre Duck Key is a destination resort for many Florida families.  In recent years, 295 one- and two-bedroom villas, sleeping up to six and with full kitchen facilities, have been constructed on land bisected by manmade canals.  They are actually very pretty in a Key West “conch house” style; although each is decorated by its owners, it is done within strict standards. We found the villas spacious and ideal for larger families, and near enough to the resort’s action centers.

Hawk’s Cay takes advantage of its setting between the Atlantic and the bay to offer great views from most rooms, as well as pleasant, tropical, outdoor dining venues. Hotel rooms are spacious and comfortable, with easy-going rattan furnishings, a handy coffeemaker in the large dressing area, a minibar, dining table and balcony.  The prevailing colors are tropically bright and everything is spotlessly maintained.

Although the 177-room, four-story main hotel is quite spread out, the kids I traveled with (6, 9 and 11 years) loved roaming around and finding the many pockets of fun.  There was a small dolphin lagoon with a pricey “swim with the dolphin” program (better done elsewhere, if you can get a reservation), a dolphin-theme gift shop, a large library with books of local lore and small aquariums filled with tropical fish, a rowdy video game arcade, a great outdoor playground and climbing structure (illuminated at night), an adults-only pool where the kids could watch honeymooners kissing, and a wonderful pirate-ship-themed pool.

Also fun to swim in is the sand-lined lagoon pool, where small paddle boats and mini-kayaks are available for rent.  Hawks Cay offers all the watersports at an on-site rental facility, plus fishing charters, tennis and golf nearby. The Indies Spa, a 7,000-square-foot facility with sauna, whirpool and steam room, offers massages, facials and other beauty services to ages 8 to 15 for a fun mother/daughter experience. The breakfast buffet was pretty good (kids half-price); other restaurants were fine and moderately priced, efficient at service, and had their own kids’ menu.

The Little Pirates Club welcomes the 4 and 5-year-olds for outdoor water play, indoor crafts and nature-themed activities. The staff has a lot of energy and great ideas, and kids seem to be having lots of fun.  There are occasional crafts programs and other staff-led activities (for a fee) that parents can participate in with toddlers. Some are held next to the pool so parents can relax, read on lounge chairs, and even monitor their kids without getting up! Additionally, the concierge can arrange babysitting (probably by one of the Adventure Club staff).

Marathon Key: MM 63 to 47 — 111 Miles from Miami

Marathon Key is one of the largest and busiest in commercial terms, an area seemingly fully developed for condominiums and marinas. In front of the Dolphin Research Center (305/289-0002, 58901 Overseas Highway, Grassy Key, FL 33050) on Grassy Key you can see a statue of what looks like Flipper and, indeed, this is where the original pet dolphin film “Flipper” was shot in the 1950s. It is said the bones of the late star are buried under the sculpture.

The Florida Keys owe their years of prosperity to Henry Flagler, the visionary railroad magnate who decided in 1912 he would extend his Floridian Overseas Railroad to the tip of the country.  To the west you can see the original roadbed for the railroad (destroyed long ago by a hurricane) and the famous Seven Mile Bridge (actually 6.9 miles), which has been broken in places to allow taller ships to cross through. You can walk or jog down the northern end from Marathon reaching out to Pigeon Key, an islet to the west of the new highway that is a Florida Heritage landmark because of its original conch houses.

Around MM 49.5 on the Gulf or western side of the road you can spot the filled-with-watersports-and-family-friendly Banana Bay Resort & Marina (866/689-4217, 4590 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL 33050). This is a lively 10-acre resort whose large guestrooms overlook the Gulf, small sandy beach and snorkel area, and the 50-slip marina is stocked with jetskis.

Big Pine Key: MM 47 to 4 — 128 Miles from Miami

Southwest of Marathon (the Keys lie on a diagonal SW to NE axis) are the Lower Keys, the region best known for scuba diving and snorkeling spots. The MS Looe, which ran aground in 1744, is the centerpiece of the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary and a magnet for tropical fish.

An unusual stop is at the National Key Deer Refuge (305/872-0774) about 30 miles north on Big Pine Key. This is the only official North American home of the tiny Virginia white-tailed deer, whose bucks have been compared in size to Labrador Retrievers. Through conservation efforts since the 1950’s, their number has reached about 800 today and they are most likely to be seen around dawn or dusk.  You’ll also see many vehicles pulled over the shoulder of the narrow road so that kayakers and canoers can unload their boats and explore the dense mangrove hugging the roadway.

Most of the Keys’ shoreline is broken coral but there is a beautiful sand beach at the 500+ acre Bahia Honda State Park (305/872-3210, 36850 Overseas Hwy, Big Pine Key, FL 33043) where you can snorkel, kayak, fish, camp, hike and bike. Bahia Honda State Park Cabins (800/326-3521) offer two-bedroom cabins that sleep up to six people and come with completely outfitted kitchens and spectacular views of the Gulf, from the cabin, as well as from your own private fishing dock. Reserve as early as possible to take advantage of a great buy in a spectacular setting.

Key West: MM 4 to 0 — 159 Miles from Miami

The southermost point in Florida is home to fun shops, pirate museums and an aquarium, water activities, boat tours, the historic homes of Harry Truman and Ernest Hemingway, and evening sunset celebrations at famous Mallory Square. 

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