Home » Florida » Unexpected Treasures in the Florida Keys

We have travelled the overseas highway that connects the mainland of Florida to Key Largo a few times. The road follows the historic route of the Florida East Coast Railway, built by Henry Flagler. Many bridges connect the scenic keys ending in Key West. I would say the drive from Key Largo all the way to Key West is one of the best in the world. There are many unexpected treasures on a trip through the Florida Keys. Whether you’re looking for an adventure or a romantic getaway, you can find it here.

Sign @ John Pennekamp State Park
John Pennekamp State Park

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Kayak in John Pennekamp State Park

The park is on the sheltered shores of Biscayne Bay. Definitely recommend an early arrival on any weekend to avoid the crowds. There is an entrance fee for the park. The staff at the visitor center and aquarium are super friendly. It is worth stopping when you arrive at the park. They have exhibits that showcase the plethora of flora and fauna in this unique ecosystem.

The park concessions offer kayak rentals or glass-bottom boat cruise trips to Molasses Reef, aboard the Spirit of Pennekamp. They had plenty of picnic tables and grills, so we had a pleasant picnic lunch near the beach.

Kayak in the Mangrove Tunnels
Kayak in the Mangrove Tunnels

You can rent snorkel gear inside the park at the main concession building if you do not have your own. They have a conveniently located bathhouse across from the docks with good showers, indoor changing rooms, and toilets.

Paddle the Mangrove Channels

We rented a kayak so we could snorkel underneath the mangroves. The winding channels are full of life. It was incredible! Lots of sting rays and young snapper in the sea grasses. The roots of the mangroves are nurseries that protect an abundance of juvenile fish species from predators. Swimming in the 2 1/2 to 3 feet of depth was a little weird at first, poking my head under the trees and into the roots clumps. However, we saw many species of fish. Lots of colorful algae clumps clinging to the roots feed the smaller fish. We loved snorkeling in the mangroves, and it was such a unique experience. This was a bucket list moment I will remember forever.

Florida Keys Mangroves
Florida Keys Mangroves

Dolphins Plus Bayside A Day to Remember

This was our favorite adventure on our first Florida Keys trip, and it was amazing!! I have always wanted to swim with the dolphins. I highly recommend the Structured Dolphin Program. Although it seems expensive, you get to interact through play with the dolphins in the water, and it is worth every penny. Swimming with dolphins had been a lifelong dream of mine, and I couldn’t ask for a better experience than I had at Dolphins Plus.

The water temperature in February was a chilly 72 degrees, so they first outfit you with a wet suit. Next is the orientation. Safety of the animals and guests was paramount during the 45 minutes, with the trainers learning all about the dolphins. We also learned the do’s and don’ts for your swim. They also speak to the companies’ mission where the proceeds of the swim benefit marine wildlife through rescue, rehabilitation and conservation. The trainers explain how structured swim is all about the dolphins using you as ‘playthings’ in the water. You get to touch them, even kiss them!

“Nature is a painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty”

Structured Swim & Play

In groups of four, we walking down to the platform in the lagoon where they introduced me to my dolphin Squirt. I got to spend about 30 minutes in the lagoon with my Dolphin, while the instructor stayed on the platform and coached me through the session. The swim is intimate within the habitat of the dolphin. Despite being unseasonably cold in south Florida, I did not mind the cooler water temps.

We started out with an introduction, giving the dolphins rings and shaking fins. Squirt loved belly rubs. In the water I extend my legs and two dolphins swim up and pushed me around the pool by your feet. I was moving so fast I thought I would crash into the dock. It was a blast!!! The best interaction was the dorsal tow. You catch their dorsal fin and get pulled for a ride around the enclosure before returning to the dock.

Me @ Dolphins Plus Swim-Unexpected Treasures in the Florida Keys
Dolphins Plus Swim in the Florida Keys

Memories of a Lifetime

During the program, the photographer captures spontaneous moments of inspiration and joy with the dolphins. You can later purchase the photographs for a fee. What better way to kick off your vacation than meeting dolphins!. This was incredibly fun. I only wished it lasted longer.

The well-maintained facilities are spotless. It shows that the owners and trainers care very much for the marine mammals that live there. A truly mesmerizing experience as you realize you may not be the most intelligent animal on the planet.

Amoray Dive Resort – Learn to Dive

Unexpected Treasures in the Florida Keys-Amoray Dive Resort Boat
Amoray Dive Resort Boat

On our first trip to the keys we opted to spend a week in Key Largo. The resort has beautiful rooms nestled on the shores of Florida Bay. The amenities include beachfront hot tub, easy access to diving, and snorkeling and free access to bikes and kayaks. This vacation coincided with Christmas, so we spent our first evening watching the sun set into the bay before viewing the Christmas boat parade as it passed the resort. Our quaint room was spacious, clean, and had a small but well-equipped kitchenette. Everything was basic but of good quality, and above all, was quite comfortable. The room gave us that laid back “Ole Florida” vibe.

Dive into the Keys

Being adventurous, we took the resort dive course while staying at Amoray Dive Resort. Not really sure we wanted to take the complete PADI dive certification course, the introductory discover scuba course is a great way to experience diving without making a major investment. Starting early morning, learning the basic rules for scuba diving before entering the pool for the confined water training. Our expert PADI certified instructor was extremely patient as we practiced breathing underwater and using scuba equipment. We felt completely safe at all times in the pool class in the morning and during the two open ocean dives in the afternoon.

Key Largo Scuba Dive Credit Pixabay
Key Largo Scuba Dive Credit Pixabay

In the afternoon, we rode the Amoray dive boat through the mangroves and out to the reef to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The first dive at Molasses reef we encountered barracuda, parrotfish, a turtle, and a nurse shark. Visibility was exceptional. We saw lots of colorful coral. Back on board, the wind kicked up, so I was feeling a little seasick and found the second dive spot was more challenging. The current was swift at Dry Rocks as I hover weightlessly above the Christ of the Abyss. the famous submerged statue. Absolutely breathtaking to behold! With the wave chop increasing, they shortened this dive, but not before spotting our first eagle ray and a goliath grouper.

Where to Eat in Key Largo

  • Sharkey’s Pub and Gallery – We had dinner here a few times during our week in the keys. The best option is the Mahi blackened tacos. Enjoy happy hour on the outside patio which overlooked the water. We had splendid views of the sunset while having our few drinks—perfection!
  • Hobos Cafe – When in Key Largo, stopping at the Hobo’s is a must. Try their infamous key lime pie, which is to die for! Enjoy their welcoming keys attitude and relaxing atmosphere!
  • Key Largo Conch House– Excellent spot for breakfast. A true hidden gem. Looks like an ordinary house, but that just adds to the charm! Key Lime Macadamia Pancakes and Eggs Benedict are simply delicious.
  • Snappers Oceanfront – We go to Snappers every trip to the keys. It is a pleasure listening to the live music while watching the pelicans on the pier.
  • Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen is the best place to have breakfast on the Bayside. Popular arrive early if you want to find parking. I had Juan’s caramel french toast and my husband had lobster and grits. The portions were generous and prices were very reasonable.
Unexpected Treasures in the Florida Keys Sunset
Key Largo Sunset

Magical Islamorada

A village of six islands a mere 90 minutes from Miami. however, it feels eons away. Often called the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” for good reason. Guided fishing excursions are plentiful, with easy access to the shallow waters of Florida Bay or the deeper offshore waters of the Atlantic. Home to a little marina just off the Overseas highway, Robbie’s Marina is where you can purchase bait to hand feed hungry tarpon from the dock. It was while feeding the tarpon we stumbled upon this fun experience in Islamorada.

Rain Barrel village is worth the stop for the unique shops, handicrafts and a quick roadside photo op with Betsy the Lobster. The shaded oasis is a quaint diversion and escapes from the mid-day heat.

Betsy the Lobster-Statue
Betsy the Lobster-Statue

Botanical Treasure Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park

There is so much history in the keys, much of it hidden visitors have to seek it out. We started our adventure with a trip to Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, an ecological jewel with its lush tropical hardwood hammock. Accessible only by boat you can either take a ferry, or bring your own boat or rent a kayak. The kayak paddle through the crystal clear waters from Robbie’s Marina is a short 2-miles. We spotted osprey, night herons, and other birds on our paddle to the island.

Visitors can only access the trails with a ranger-led guide, so call first to confirm dates and times. Of historical significance is the restored two-story coquina house with period furniture and mementos gives you a glimpse into life here in the 1900s. Built in 1919, William J. Matheson, a wealthy Miami chemist, bought this tiny island and built a caretaker’s home with a windmill for electricity and a cistern for rainwater. 

They meticulously maintain the ground areas. We listened as the ranger explained how the original stone wall dated back to the early American Indians. The bronze cannons are from the British Warship HMS Winchester, which wrecked on a reef in 1665. A short 0.29 hike along the nature trail showcase the island’s namesake tree, the lignum vitae or tree of life. Other hardwoods include gumbo limbo, Jamaican dogwood, West Indian mahagony, pigeon plum, willow, Florida boxwood, wild mastic, and poisonwood. Before venturing on the tour, wear long sleeves and apply plenty of bug spray, as the mosquitos can be ferocious.

Unexpected Florida Keys-Beach Walk
Beach Walk

What Things to Do in Islamorada

Theater of the Sea is a family owned and operated attraction. Opened in 1947, it is one of the world’s oldest marine mammal facilities. The must sees are the parrot show, sea lion show, bottomless boat ride and reptile program. They offer dolphin and sea lion shows throughout the day, which are included with the general admission. If you want to have any type of animal encounters, it is an additional cost.

 History of Diving Museum – For us, this was a fun find after having our dive training in Key Largo! The historic timeline begins with the ancient Greeks. The extensive collection of artifacts includes pressurized suits, diving bells, helmets and other bizarre pieces.

Alligator Reef Lighthouse
Alligator Reef Lighthouse Credit: H. Miller

Alligator Reef Lighthouse – Alligator Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) is 4 nautical miles offshore in the Atlantic. It is an excellent place for snorkeling with an extensive array of fish species. Named for the USS Alligator, which sank in 1822 in the shallow waters off the coast of Islamorada. The Alligator lighthouse built in 1873, marks the location of the coral reef created by the remnants of the burned wreckage. They decommissioned the lighthouse in 2014. I was lucky enough to visit the reef through a teacher summer program however, there are tours available locally. In the crystal clear waters, you may get lucky and see eagle rays, green sea turtles, dolphins, or sharks.

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park - fossilized Brain Coral
Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park – fossilized Brain Coral

Explore Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

If you love geology, then a stop at Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park will satisfy your curiosity. The self-guided interpretive trail has numbered signpost that correspond to the park brochure. The trail through the hardwood hammock is mostly poisonwood, ironwood, gumbo limbo, and strangler figs. They attribute the quarry to Henry Flagler and the construction of the Florida East Coast Railway in the 1900s. He needed the quarry for the abundance of Florida Key Limestone to use as fill along the bridge approaches and the railway lines.

The coral dates back to the Pleistocene era 125,000 years ago when this key was below sea-level. I found the 8-foot walls of the coral reef especially interesting. If you look closely, you can see the fossilized remains of sea creatures. The quarry continued after they completed the railroad to make decorative stone. We spent over an hour at this park and left with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the uniqueness of this area.

Where to Eat in Islamorada

  • Cracked Conch – Like stepping back in time, the old Al’s Diner feel. We ordered a bunch of appetizers and the cracked conch was phenomenal! Quick stop for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
  • Square Grouper – on Cudjoe Key, it has a large deck with marina views. Perfect restaurant for a “Key’s vibe!” The house specialty was panko encrusted yellow tail snapper in an orange buerre blanc sauce, delicious.
overseas-highway-Unexpected Florida Keys Treasures
Overseas Highway

Middle of the Road-Marathon Key

The Seven Mile Bridge is iconic to the keys and part of the Overseas highway near the end of Marathon Key. It is another one of the must see landmarks on the way to Key West. The total length of the new bridge is actually 35,862 ft (10,931m) or 6.79 miles (10.93 km) and is shorter than the original built in 1912. The 1935 hurricane took over 400 lives and damaged much of the original bridge. They constructed the current road bridge from 1978 to 1982. The turquoise waters of the keys are visible everywhere you look-extraordinary scenery.

Best Things to do in Marathon

Curry Hammock State Park – comprising Sea Grape trees, and yellow and red Royal Poinciana trees – we were just killing some time in the 1000 acre state park. An ideal location to enjoy the serenity of island life. It is the largest uninhabited and secluded parcel in the keys. We paddled for hours along the surrounding channels lined with mangrove trees. A great camping location. Overall, we really enjoyed our time here and would recommend it to those seeking peace and quiet away from the crowds.

Crane Point Museum & Nature Center – We stumbled on this 63-acre property at Crane Point by accident. The hike on the 1.6-mile trail moves through the hardwood hammock with lots of native trees and plants. Look for the webs of the many Golden Orb spiders. The old Bahamian Adderly House built in 1906 by George and Olivia Adderley is the 2nd oldest in the keys. The tour gives you a glimpse into early settlers’ lives. The Crane House is the 1950s summer home built for Francis and Mary Crane. Not to mention the views from the point itself are beautiful. Don’t miss the Bird Rescue Center to see the rescues and rehabilitated migratory birds some have a sad story. The wildflowers in the butterfly meadow and the fish pedicure were a real taste of Florida nature.

Dolphin Training-Marathon Florida
Dolphin Training-Marathon Florida Credit: Pixabay

Visit the Turtle Hospital

We are so glad we stopped and took the 1-2 hour guided tour. The educational program begins in a classroom with a knowledgeable guide who talks about the rescue facility, the different kinds of sea turtles, and how humans have impacted the species. The guide walked us through the Turtle Hospital emergency room, x-ray exam, and operating rooms. This is a working rehabilitation facility and all admission fees go directly supporting the turtles. Last but not least, they take you to several pools to meet over 50 resident turtles. A condition known as “bubble butt” which prevents them from diving afflicts many of the permanent residents. On weekends, it can be crowded, so we highly recommend making reservations ahead of time. Truly an experience you will not forget.

Experience the Treasured Dolphin Research Center

I visited the research center for a teacher’s workshop a few years ago. The center on Grassy Key is a nonprofit education and research facility. Therefore, all admission fees and cost of the program go right back to support their mission of conservation, education, rescue and research. There interactive programs with the dolphins, live demonstrations, hands-on classroom activities and group discussions made for an exciting week. The center is open daily from 9 am-4:30 pm (Closed on Christmas Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving Day.) General admission visitors can learn from the dolphins and sea lions through observation. Individualized dolphins encounter programs, include different experiences. One allows you to swim out to the dolphins and interact. While another program you meet or play with the dolphins from the platform. It is a small location but allows for more intimate experience and fewer crowds.

Pelican Gang in Flight Marathon Bridge
Pelican Gang in Flight Marathon Bridge

Sunset Walk Old Seven Mile Bridge

They built 1900 the Old Seven Mile Bridge as part of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. The bridge ends 2.2 miles at Pigeon Key, the former work camp for the Flagler railway men. The island once was home to 400 workers. Today, you can visit the small museum and enjoy a picnic lunch. The bridge is perfect for an early morning walk or for watching the sunset.

On our first trip, we found a place to park at the beginning of the bridge and started our morning walk. You have the Gulf of Mexico on your right-hand side, while the Atlantic Ocean is on the left. It is hard to take a poor picture here. Everywhere you turn is another fantastic photo opportunity. My favorite is watching the pelicans flying effortlessly in formation on the wind, sometimes at eye level. Anglers frequent the bridge for prime fishing opportunities. Sometimes you can see schools of fish below in the crystal clear waters. At Pigeon Key, we walked through the museum looking at the artifacts before returning to the car.

A 38 million dollar restoration effort began in 2016, as time and hurricanes have taken its toll on the old bridge. The plan is to replace sections of the bridge with new structural beams, pedestrian rails, a new ramp to Pigeon Key, and picnic areas. The FDOE slated the project for completion for early 2022.

Keys Fish Snorkel Trip
Keys Snorkel Trip Credit H. Miller

Where to Eat on Marathon Key

  • Island Fish Company – Definitely one of the best places to watch the sunset, with excellent food! The fish is fresh, and they cooked it to perfection. I got the grilled Mahi with black beans, rice and pico de Gallo and it was so yummy!!! The tropical-themed bar has a wonderful selection of drinks during happy hour from 3-5pm.
  • Wooden Spoon Diner -This is our favorite place in the middle keys. It has an incredible breakfast. It just feels like the keys with its nostalgic retro interior, the homemade diner food, the sheer lack of pristine-ness, and the abundance of spoons hanging on the walls. Great hospitality. The space is compact, but the service was quick and we arrived early and snagged a table without a wait.
Florida Keys Beaches
Florida Keys Beaches

Camp Long Key State Park

Note: Campground is currently close for hurricane repairs. Visit the website for up-to-date information.

This park was originally an oasis for the rich and famous brought to the island during the Henry Flagler railroad construction to Key West. The Labor day hurricane of 1935 destroyed much of the fishing resort. We stumbled across this park on one of our overnight trips to the keys in 2010. If you cannot find camping in some of the other state parks, consider staying at Long Key at mile marker 67.5. The campsites are all waterfront with good separation, and you do not feel “on top” of anyone else. There is electricity, water, fire pit and picnic table in every site. The bathhouses were spotless and well-maintained. You can make reservations through Reserve America.

Note: You can hear the highway noise as the park parallels the overseas highway. Beware of the sand fleas in the warmer months. Avoid the Poisonwood trees.

Trail Boardwalk - Long Key State Park
Trail Boardwalk – Long Key State Park

Hiking Trails of Long Key

They have recently completed new picnic areas with tables covered by shelters close to the nature trails. The Layton Trail on the Bayside of the park is a short 20-minute walk. The interpretive signs provide historical and biological information. One notes that the Miami blue butterfly native to the keys is critically endangered but is making a slow comeback with captive breeding programs. The trail leads through some hardwood hammock before opening to splendid views of Florida Bay. I would suggest wearing water shoes for protection from the rocky shoreline.

Golden Orb Spider Web
Golden Orb Spider Web

The Golden Orb trail suffered damage along the original boardwalk and observation deck from hurricane Irma. The saltwater intrusion killing much of the Red Mangrove. Although recovery is slow, the 1.5 mile trail has been rerouted. Today the trail traverses newly raised walkways and follows the beach berm. Named for the Golden Orb Weaver Spider, they are a rare and elusive today because of the hurricane.

I remember on our first trip; we saw quite a few spiders on our early morning walk. The unique plant communities showcase the resilience of nature with fresh growth: red mangroves, poisonwood seedlings, ground cedars and gumbo limbo. During our walk we had the trail to ourselves, loved the seclusion. The observation deck still has amazing views. We saw plenty of fiddler crabs, roseate spoonbills, white egrets and herons. I recommend bringing binoculars and water on the trail because even with the sea breeze and shaded areas; it was very warm. 

On our last trip, we stopped to rent kayaks to spend an afternoon on the water exploring the Long Key Lakes Canoe Trail. A leisurely one-hour self-guided paddle along the shoreline weaves through many small islands.

Florida Key Sunset
Florida Key Sunset

Stay at the Key Colony Beach Hotel

Key Colony is a great place to enjoy the serenity of island life. Only an hour in either direction of Key West or Key Largo, it is an ideal central location. A few years back, we stayed for a long Christmas weekend in a quaint “Old Florida” room at the Key Colony Beach Hotel. Just steps from the private beach, we watched the sunrise every morning. The large, heated pool has plenty of seating and views of the ocean. This is an affordable basic hotel with proximity to nearby attractions. One thing to note is to obey the posted speed limit of 25 mph.

Marathon Bridge-Bayview
Marathon Bridge-Bayview

If you are looking for a budget friendly lodging, Kingsail Resort is easy on the pocketbook. We booked this for 2 days on our Christmas vacation-2019 to Dry Tortugas. Key West was so over-priced. The room was clean, small, plainly decorated. The bathroom is small, no tub. Lots of storage if you need to unpack. Bed was comfortable, but the AC rattled all night took us some time to figure out the set point-2nd night was better. We wanted to swim, but the pool was cold, there was no beach or view. Parking is tight.

Note: We based Lodging reviews on our previous stays

Phenomenal Bahia Honda State Park

It is a 500-acre park with magnificent turquoise blue water. We were staying just over the bridge at the Key Colony Resort, an easy trek to Bahia Honda State Park. There are three beaches, one Bayside and two on the Atlantic side. We preferred Sandspur on the Atlantic side. However, Loggerhead beach, while closest to the trails, has a tendency to accumulate more seaweed.

Old Bahia Honda Bridge.
Old Bahia Honda Bridge.

Sandspur beach has 360-degree panoramic ocean views. Your troubles seem to slip away with the realization that this is the perfect beach. The snorkeling is unbelievable in the shallow waters just off the beach. The water is knee to waist deep 100 yards or more from the shore. We have been to the park several times. However, on our last trip, we noticed how much the park has been impacted and changed with the last few hurricanes. Many of the trees and shrubs succumbed to the winds, but the undergrowth was slowly recovering.

The trail to the bridge follows the shoreline before reaching the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. On the first trip, we saw lots of zebra long-wing butterflies in the flowering shrubs lining the trail. It is only a short 0.4 mile walk to the top of the bridge. You gaze across the turquoise waters with sweeping views of the marina and bay. You must go to the top for sunset! We have visited the keys several times and have found this park to be our favorite treasure…

Zebra Long-Wing Bahai Honda State Park
Zebra Long-Wing Bahai Honda State Park

Amenities in the Park

The entrance fee was a nominal $8 per vehicle. Inside, you have access to fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, and boating. There are equipment rentals through the concessions. Snorkel tours can be arranged for Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. Near the marina, there is a gift shop to grab a bite to eat. They serve pizza, hot dogs, and assorted sandwiches. The Sand and Sea Nature center offers interactive exhibits and ranger-led activities. Other beach amenities include a pavilion with picnic benches and grills, and a bathhouse with outdoor showers. We always choose to bring a cooler with food and water—and sunscreen!

There are two campgrounds, Buttonwood and Sandspur. Reservations need to be made months in advance through recreation.gov as this is a very popular key’s location. The best sites are at Sandspur and those get filled quickly! They also have a six basic cabins available to rent. Word to the wise the noseums and mosquitos can be problematic at night, so bring plenty of bug spray. The park occasionally has a night program, so check the nature center for times and dates.

Unexpected Florida Keys-Bahai Honda State Beach
Bahai Honda State Beach

Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge

Off the beaten path, this is one of the oldest sanctuaries in the United States. They designated the Great White Heron National Wildlife refuge in 1938 to protect migratory birds and other wildlife. Created to save the White Heron population when they declined because of the feathers being used for ladies’ hats. Vast, it comprises 200,000 acres of open water and 7,600 acres of land from Marathon to Key West. Most of the backcountry mangrove islands are only accessible by boat or kayak. We found renting kayaks is a great way to circumnavigate the refuge and get close to the mangroves. The Great White Heron Visitor Center on Big Pine Key is open 10 am-3 pm Tuesday to Friday. They administer the refuge as part of the National Key Deer Refuge.

Great Snowy Egret
Great Snowy Egret

The many scattered islands provide an ideal habitat to nesting birds and Hawksbill turtle among other wildlife. We paddled our kayaks through the calm Florida Bay waters, maintaining our distant as we watched a few horseshoe crabs, barracuda and stingrays in the shallow waters. Watching roseate spoon bills shoveling their beaks searching the mud for crabs, and the great white heron were the highlights of our afternoon.

Key Deer Big Pine Key
Key Deer Big Pine Key

Key Deer National Refuge on Big Pine Key

Just off the main highway on Big Pine Key, follow the signs to the Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center. The Visitor’s Center is in the Big Pine Key Shopping Center. Where you can pick up a map to the most likely places to see the key deer. We really enjoyed our brief stop at the Key Deer Refuge to see the endangered Key Deer. The best time to see Key Deer is at sunrise. We drove down Watson Blvd to No Name Key to look for deer. At least 8 deer on the side of the road. Drive down to the end of the road into the preserve. Don’t feed them, it’s a federal offense! These tiny deer seem almost magical.

A short distance away is an old quarry known as the Blue Hole. A short walking trail around the hole to the observation platforms gives ample opportunity to see wildlife, such as alligators, turtles, migratory birds and iguanas. If you are in the Keys and your bucket list includes “see alligator in the wild” then this may be the easiest way to check that off the list. Educational information signs have an interesting narrative.

Note: Please remember that the major killer of these deer are vehicles. Please obey the reduced speed limit on the freeway.

Unexpected Treasures in the Florida Keys-Turtle
Turtle Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary Credit Pixabay

Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary Snorkeling Tours

There are many charter boats in Big Pine and the Lower Florida Keys that can get you there. Looe Key is located about five miles offshore, and the boat ride is 45-minutes to the reef. Although the water was reasonably calm, I always wear my anti-nausea bands to prevent motion sickness. They saved me on our Dry Tortugas ferry ride. We recommend some previous snorkeling experience, as one needs to float flat on the surface and keep your fins as far as possible from the bottom. If the tip of your fins gets within a foot of the bottom, it can be drastic if touching the coral.

The reef was beautiful. Teaming with fish, including yellowtails, parrotfish, grouper, angelfish, barracuda, sharks and turtles. Despite 2-3 foot waves the day we went, the visibility was actually good. There are plenty of stunning sea corals, but the large Elkhorn is absent. The reefs are struggling because of the warming waters. If you are looking for excellent snorkeling or diving, you will not be disappointed — it’s awesome!

Mangrove Channels Florida Keys
Mangrove Channels Florida Keys

Best Places to Eat in the Lower Keys

Boondocks Grille and Draft House on Ramrod Key, it is the largest open-air tiki bar in the keys-great ambiance. The laid-back atmosphere immediately puts you at ease. We always take a seat at the bar and I have the grilled Mahi. Most nights, the gentle sounds of the band welcomes you. Service is always excellent, even on crowded evenings. The sugar scrub in the restrooms is a nice touch!! You can buy a jar in the gift shop.

No-Name Pub– is an out of the way place. Dollar bills cover much of the walls and ceiling. Great Conch chowder and Lobster bisque. I enjoyed my enormous grouper sandwich. It is definitely off the beaten path, but so worth the trip!

Key West Southernmost Point Marker
Southernmost Point Key West Credit: Terri Phaneuf

End of the Road Key West

This is the southernmost point in the keys unless you take the ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park. The overseas highway ends in Key West. If you want to find coupons for the Conch train or other discounts, stop in at the Key West Visitor center. When visiting a new place, we always start at the visitor’s center. They will book tours for you if you ask. The trolley tours are best if you are a first-time visitor. Getting the guided narrative gives you great context on the historical aspects of the Conch Republic-Key West.

Duval is a unique experience. Hard to explain the feeling it gives you. All the infamous hot spots are right here: Sloppy Joe’s, Margaritaville Cafe, Hog’s Breath, Bull & Whistle, even the Hard Rock Cafe. Most of the best attractions on Key West are just a block or two from Duval Street. Remember to take time to see a once-in-a-lifetime sunset celebration at Mallory Square. A photo-op with the southernmost point marker buoy is a bucket list item for many. Hard to believe Cuba was only 90 miles away.

Fort Zachary Taylor
Fort Zachary Taylor Credit: FreeGoodImages-Yinan Chen

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park

The history of the fort was the reason we stopped here. The beach is rocky and the water visibility today is not the best. Water shoes really come in handy! Instead of sitting on the beach, we walked around the fort for 1-2 hours. We learned through a ranger-guided tour that construction began on Fort Zachary Taylor in 1845, the year Florida achieved statehood. They built the fort to protect the important port of Key West, one of the largest cities in 19th century Florida. During the Civil War, Fort Taylor remained under federal control. Originally built 1,200 feet offshore, a dredging project in the 1960s landlocked Fort Taylor. Today, the National Landmark site is home to the largest cache of Civil War-era seacoast cannons in the United States.

Blue Morpho Butterfly
Blue Morpho Butterfly

Best Things to do In Key West

Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum– Eighty-eight steps to the top and once you reach the top, you can see all of Key West, including the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The self-guided tour was easy, and you we took our time inside the lightkeepers house with its fascinating nautical artifact. We found especially interesting the electro-mechanical display showing how a Fresnel lens works.

Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory – This quaint little place tucked into the tropical surroundings far exceeded our expectations. Some could describe it as a true hidden gem! The climate controlled habitat houses 50-60 different species of butterflies. We loved the relaxing stroll, meandering through the pathways alive with colorful birds and the iridescent blue butterflies that seem to dominate the lush gardens. Benches along the path allow you to just sit and linger. We learned In the educational center that they have a captivate breeding program. onsite. They do not take butterflies from the wild. You can view the nursery behind glass. Hands down my favorite attraction in Key West.

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum If you’re a cat lover, you’ll certainly be intrigued by the six-toed cats. The house furnishings, eclectic antique pieces, and his writing space are much as they were when he lived there. His writing studio is where he wrote most of his novels. Be sure to allow some time for yourself to explore after the guided tour to take photos of the house, the grounds, and the cats. Try to find the embedded penny in the patio by the pool and be sure to find out the story behind it.

Final Farwell-Florida Keys-Sunrise
Final Farwell-Florida Keys

Best Places to Eat Key West

There are so many great places to eat in Key West and these are a few of our favorites:

Duetto Pizza and Gelato– We’ve been visiting Duetto’s since they opened every time we come to Key West. It has to be in the top 10 best pizza places to eat. Authentic pizza with fresh ingredients! To top off the meal is the pistachio gelato is amazing!

Lobster Shack Key West-Who does not like lobster? The best lobster roll and lobster grilled cheese sandwiches. The Lobster Shack is only open for lunch. Great little spot, tucked off of South Street, with cheerful staff and cozy seating. Amazing little place with lobster that’s out of this world!! 

Key West Beach Sunset
Key West Sunset Credit: Karen Cullinane-Seddon

Final Thoughts

There are many unexpected treasures in the Florida Keys, and though it was not the first time we had visited the Florida Keys, it will not be our last either.

Have you experienced the Florida Keys? What did you like the most? We would love for you to share your experience in the comments below.

Key West Sunrise Credit: Terri Paneuf