The Great American Road Trip. It’s a part of American culture that many have treasured for generations.
Many think of Route 66 or traveling across the American West, but one of the most unique American road trips is traveling through the Florida Keys.
Where Are the Florida Keys?
The Florida Keys are a string of 1,700 islands about 120 miles from the southern tip of Florida.
The islands, most of which are uninhabited, straddle the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The largest island, Key Largo, is only 30 miles long.
There is only one way to drive to the Florida Keys – via the 110-mile Overseas Highway, a scenic road that connects the islands using 42 bridges.
The road passes over blue waters, along swampy marshes and through the main islands in the Florida Keys (you’ll need a boat to reach some of the smaller islands).
Most people fly into Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and make the drive, but you can also fly straight into Key West or the Florida Keys Marathon Airport.
While many come to the Florida Keys to visit Key West, the most populous island, my fiancé, Benjamin, and I wanted to explore as much of the island chain as we could.
So we rented a car in Miami and off we went.
What to Do in Key Largo
It took us about an hour to drive from Miami International to the first main island in the Florida Keys – Key Largo. Key Largo is home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
The park is the first underwater park in the United States, and encompasses more than 70 nautical square miles of water — and it’s a top draw in the region.
The Florida Keys have long been known as a top diving and snorkeling destination. That’s due to the Florida Keys reef system, which is the only living coral barrier reef in North America.
The waters are rich with sea life, from grouper to parrotfish to schools of permit.
You can rent snorkel gear at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and if you don’t want to get wet, you can still view the fish on a glass-bottom boat tour.
Key Largo has an abundance of accommodations, from beach bungalows to luxury resorts. We chose to stay at the Hampton Inn Key Largo. It turned out to be a good choice, as the hotel has its own private beach.
Islamorada is only 20 miles long, and in some places, it’s just 150 feet wide, but this tiny island is worth a stop – especially if you want to eat well.
The island is home to the original Islamorada Fish Company, which opened in 1948.
Associated with Bass Pro Shops, which is right next door, the popular restaurant has a lovely location right along the water. Try to dine around sunset for the best experience.
The Florida Keys have a boating culture, and many of the locals have boats of their own, which they use for transportation throughout the islands, not to mention for fun.
Perhaps this is why so many marinas have excellent casual eateries onsite.
At the Key Fisheries Market & Marina in Marathon, our next island stop, I had a Lobster Reuben sandwich which was among the best I’ve ever had.
We topped that off with some Key Lime pie, of course. It was fun watching the boats come in and out of the marina, and observing the huge tarpon fish which seem to gather below the docks.
Beaches in Marathon Key
Although it may sound strange, the Florida Keys don’t have a wealth of incredible beaches.
That’s because the coral reefs along the islands prevent erosion and sand buildup along the shore. Still, there are some good beaches in the Keys, including Sombrero Beach on Marathon Key.
The golden sand beach at Sombrero is wide and gentle, and there are palm trees for shade. The park facilities include picnic pavilions, volleyball courts, playground, restrooms and showers.
Sombrero Beach has many nesting turtles, and from April to October, you’re likely to see Loggerhead Turtles which have come to the beach to lay their eggs.
During the nesting season, turtle nest areas are restricted.
The Turtle Hospital in Marathon allows you to learn more about these magnificent creatures.
The visitor center and tour is educational and a fun way to spend the afternoon. The center can be busy, especially on rainy days, so book ahead if possible.
Marathon itself is a bustling island in the Middle Keys, and has numerous home developments, restaurants and shops.
We chose to stay at the lovely Hyatt Place Marathon/Florida Keys, which is also known as the Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club.
Located at the site of the historic Faro Blanco Lighthouse, the resort is also a popular marina and a favorite with boat captains and their guests.
Many come to dine at the Lighthouse Grill, the resort’s waterfront restaurant overlooking the marina and lighthouse.
Faro Blanco Resort opened in 2015, and the rooms are spacious and well-appointed. As you can imagine, the resort is a popular site for weddings.
It’s quite something to get married along the water beneath a beautiful lighthouse.
What to Do in Key West
For many, the Florida Keys mean a visit to Key West, the island known for its quirky, independent ways.
Key West is the southern-most point in the continental United States. It’s just 90 miles from Cuba.
Almost 79,000 people call the Florida Keys home. The majority of them live on Key West, and as you’ll soon learn, many of them are free spirits.
You’ll find no shortage of interesting locals, unique establishments and ways to be entertained in Key West.
Mallory Square is just one example. This waterfront square comes alive at night, when locals and visitors gather to watch the sunset and watch the buskers.
Fire jugglers, magicians, dancers – they all have a home here on Mallory Square.
Another top attraction in Key West is the Ernest Hemingway House, which was once the home of writer Earnest Hemingway.
In truth, more people might come to see the 6-toed cats which descended from the author’s cat than to see the home itself. They seem to be a main attraction.
Though it’s smaller than many other aquariums, we found the Key West Aquarium very well done.
The aquarium has numerous touch tanks and offers free guided tours. The Florida Keys are rich in sea life, and the aquarium presents many of these species.
One of the main draws during our visit was Hunter, a huge Loggerhead sea turtle who was rescued after he was hit and wounded in a boat strike. He is healing and will be released again soon to the wild.
One of our favorite finds in Key West was the Key West Shipwreck Museum.
I’ll admit, the name sounds a little boring at first, but the well-done exhibits, tours and artifacts provided helpful insight into Key West’s past – much of the island’s wealth came from salvaging ship wrecks.
That past helps to explain a lot about the unique culture on the island today.
(Fun fact: Roswell Baldwin, the great-great-grandfather of actor Alec Baldwin, was the captain of one of the ships that went down here.
He survived, and the family legacy lived on.)
It wouldn’t be a proper visit to Key West without at least one ghost tour.
The island is reputed to be rich with souls from the past who have refused to move on – at least according to the engaging Old Town Trolley Ghosts & Gravestone tour we took.
My favorite thing about any island visit, though, is the chance to be on the water. We got that opportunity on a rousing Jet Ski tour with Barefoot Billy’s Watersports.
Led by a Jet Ski guide with a great sense of humor, Ben and I zoomed across the clear waters to explore the bays and mangrove-filled lagoons of Keys.
We learned about local sea life and about the locals themselves, including celebrities like Kenny Chesney who call the Florida Keys home.
Even our hotel, IBIS Bay Beach Resort, provided a unique way to experience the water – a night paddling tour. The resort is located right on the water, and offers a range of water experiences from parasailing to Jet Ski tours.
The best part about the resort, though, was lounging in the hammocks on our own little private beach outside our room. There’s something to be said about kicking back and enjoying the view.
On our last evening in the Florida Keys, we went out on a Wind and Wine Sunset Cruise with Danger Charters.
As we sailed across the water, the crew passed around different wines and cheeses, allowing us to sample and pick our favorites.
Then, just as the sun was setting, the captain announced that it was a special evening indeed.
A couple stepped out from among the passengers and asked us all to be witnesses as they said their vows to become man and wife.
It’s not every evening that you get to take part in an unexpected wedding while watching the sun set across the Florida Keys. Such evenings create special memories indeed.
If You Go
The Florida Keys & Key West