The Key to happiness
With plenty to offer families, sun worshipers, thrill seekers and foodies, Sally Evans finds the Florida Keys make for the perfect family vacation.
The Florida Keys are made up of over 1,700 small islands which form five main groups; Key Largo, Big Pine Key, Islamorada, Marathon and Key West, each with its own unique vibe and welcome. With miles of immaculate white-sand beaches fringed with palm trees, it feels like the Caribbean but with a touch of US polish. Colourful and eclectic, this archipelago is a unique destination, where the bright blue sky meets the turquoise sea and the weather is welcoming and the people even more so. The best way to travel is to hire a car and drive down the incredibly scenic Highway 1 from the Key Largo, the most northern group and gateway to the Keys. Worlds away from the bustling city life of mainland Florida, you’ll discover a distinctly relaxed vibe, unsurprising with Cuba being only 90 miles away from the most southern point.
A fantastic place to snorkel, Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (pennekamppark.com) encompasses 70 nautical square miles and offers a multitude of activities. A relaxing way to enjoy what’s on offer is by glass-bottom boat taking you seven miles off shore to the magnificent shallow underwater reef with incredible coral formations, tropical vegetation and marine life, including grouper, huge manta rays and rainbow-coloured parrot fish. Relax on the boat and enjoy the uninterrupted views stretching to the Bahamas or grab a snorkel mask and explore the warm, shallow waters teeming with colourful life.
Set in 17 acres of prime waterfront, The Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort (marriott.com) overlooks the Gulf of Mexico, rooms are large and traditional, and the beds are huge! Request a sea view to make the most of the breathtaking views past the palms. Breezer’s Tiki Bar offers good beer, fancy cocktails and live music. There’s a grille, day spa, fully-equipped dive shop and stunning marina. This characterful hotel is a great place to get your bearings and restaurants and bars are in walking distance. Rooms that sleep four start from £266 per night.
Heading further south you come to Islamorada. Never far from the water, you can stop at Robbie’s Marina (robbies.com) to hand feed the tarpons – giant, slightly ugly silver fish that grow up to four feet in length. Be prepared for a feeding frenzy as they leap out of the water and fight the local pelicans for minnows! There’s plenty to do here including paddle boarding and kayaking, as well as refreshments offered at the Thirsty Tarpon Bar and Hungry Tarpon Restaurant.
Nearby is the Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park (floridastateparks.org), a former quarry which provided the stone used to build the Overseas Railroad in the early 1900s. Now a geological treasure with 1½ miles of trails through a tropical hardwood hammock of mahogany, gumbo limbo and poisonwood trees, you can also see the 100,000-year-old fossilised remains of a coral reef in the quarry walls.
For somewhere luxurious to stay, why not treat yourself to a night or two at the Cheeca Lodge and Spa (cheeca.com). It has the ultimate wow factor, situated on the waterfront surrounded by lush, tropical gardens, a nine-hole golf course and a 525-foot fishing pier, and is the perfect place to celebrate a special birthday or anniversary. Rooms are large and spacious with lavish en suite bathrooms, some even have a private whirlpool on the balcony. There are several swimming pools to choose from, plus a spa for those who need pampering. The recently renovated Tiki Bar and three splendid restaurants offer everything you could possibly need for a superb stay. Rooms sleep four and cost from £279 a night.
Driving south from Islamorada towards Key West takes in a highlight of the Overseas Highway – the famous Seven-Mile Bridge, flanked by the ocean on both sides and dotted with resorts and communities along the way. Bahia Honda State Park is a good place to stop for a stroll, a paddle or a picnic. The disused railroad bridge built by Henry Flagler in the early 1900s makes a fabulous spot for some holiday snaps with the clear water backdrop and the perfect vantage point to spot wading birds including brown pelican, ospreys, cormorants and, if you’re lucky, flamingos.
About a 15-minute drive from Key West’s main town is the Ocean’s Edge Resort and Marina (oceansedgekeywest.com), the newest and largest luxury property here. Resembling a traditional boardwalk resort with white clapboard exteriors, it has a welcoming feel. All suites have custom furnishings and balconies with sea views as well as a separate lounge with TV and refreshments. On-site facilities include six pools, Yellowfin Bar and Grill, and dockside access to water sports and activities. Double rooms start from £125 per night.
There is plenty to do beyond the beach with galleries, museums, shops and cafes just off Duval Street including the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (hemingwayhome.com). Take a tour of the decadent house and gardens and see where the literary genius lived and worked for more than ten years. Cat lovers will enjoy the 40 plus polydactyl cats (they have six toes) that have free reign over the house – thought to be the descendants of a cat gifted to Hemingway by a ship’s captain . Afterwards, stroll into town to enjoy a drink and live music in Sloppy Joes, Hemingway’s favourite watering hole. A bolt home of the talented, other famous people who have lived in the Keys include southern playwright Tennessee Williams, author Judy Blume, poet Wallis Stevens, and actress Kelly McGillis.
Mallory Square, in the heart of the old town, is where the crowds gather for the nightly sunset celebrations. Street entertainers, acrobats, dancers and musicians come out in force creating an upbeat party atmosphere. Renowned for their acceptance of others, the unifying slogan, One Human Family, reinforces the Key’s message that everyone is equal and respected as such. And the locals are proud of the saying that once Key West sand has got into your shoes, you’ll return again and again.
5 Key West adventures
Take a stroll around the old seaport town of Key West with its quaint old houses and buildings in vibrant colours. The highest point being only 18 feet above sea level, exploring on foot is never arduous! Hotspots include the summer residence of Harry S Truman – Little White House – the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum and Key West Aquarium.
A guided bicycle tour makes an interesting way to learn about local culture, the island’s folklore, buildings and landmarks of the ‘Conch Republic’, a local nickname for the area. Sights include Mallory Square and the southernmost point of the island, an ideal photo opportunity! keylimebiketours.com
In a Kayak
Hire a kayak with a clear bottom lit with LED strip lights to see marine life in the shallow water of the sheltered lagoon illuminated. Spot colourful sponges, lobsters and tropical fish and marvel at the immense pelicans in their mangrove island rookeries. This is truly spectacular at night when the ocean floor comes to life! keywestpaddle.com
There is a plethora of water-based excursions to choose from including a charming Sunset Sail cruise aboard a classic schooner or a trip in a glass-bottomed boat offering a spectacular window to the sea. Looking for thrills? Try parasailing – it may look scary but safety is paramount and you’re rewarded with an unrivalled 360 degree view of the Keys for miles. The fun-loving Fury Water Adventures’ crew ensure you have a thrilling time! furycat.com
Take the trip of a lifetime to the Dry Tortugas, North America’s most inaccessible National Park, 70 miles due west of Key West. The, 35-minute flight takes you over the Marquesas Islands, a coral atoll where you may spot sharks, stingrays and sea turtles in the green-blue water. Beyond lie the Quicksands, an underwater desert where the seabed is made up of massive sand dunes and where shipwrecks are clearly visible. This is where the Spanish galleon Atrocha was discovered in 1985 by treasure salvor, Mel Fisher. The wreck contained an estimated haul of half a billion dollars of gold and silver bars, coins, jewellery and magnificent Spanish emeralds. keywestseaplanecharters.com
Your dining pleasure
Half the fun of travelling is tasting different foods and drink and learning about the local culture from farm to fork. Wherever you go, fresh seafood is in abundance, as is the local dessert – key lime pie!
Key lime pie
Most eateries in the Keys serve key lime pie, fans of this sweet tangy dessert will argue whether it tastes better when topped with meringue or whipped cream. Our expert advice is to try both and decide for yourself – although it may take a number of tasting sessions, over several days, for you to entirely make up your mind…
To enjoy the best conch and clam chowder while listening to good music, perhaps washed down with beer or cocktails, head to Sundowners. sundownerskeylargo.com
Try the absolutely divine truffle lobster mac and cheese with the best sunset view at Snook’s Bayside Restaurant and Grand Tiki Bar. Snooks.com
Mrs Mac’s Kitchen II serves up hearty all-American fayre including homemade chilli or Florida lobster, as well as some heavenly key lime pie. mrsmacskitchen.com
Try El Meson de Pepe in Key West’s old town, for delicious Cuban-inspired food and drink including crunchy fried squid and shrimps. elmesondepepe.com
The Stoned Crab is famous for mouth-watering local seafood including stone crab, spiny lobster and Key West pink shrimp – the presentation is a work of art. stonedcrab.com
For a fun atmosphere with incredible food options, you have to try the Lobster Reuben at Key Fisheries. Each portion of lobster meat served with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and deli rye bread is big enough for two. keysfisheries.com
FACTFILE FLORIDA KEYS
BEST TIME TO GO: Between March and May after the busy winter season, when the weather’s warm and sunny with less rain and humidity.
TIME DIFFERENCE: GMT -5 hours.
VISA REQUIREMENTS: You must apply for an ESTA, cost $14, valid for two years.
FLIGHTS: Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to Miami and with offers of return Economy fares from £278. Direct: 10 hrs 15 mins.
BEST AIRPORT TO FLY TO: Miami International Airport