The Florida Keys are a string of coral cays that stretch from the mainland south of Miami all the way through Key West to the Dry Tortugas.
Most of these cays don’t have sand beaches, but shores of coral rock.
The Keys are not only different geologically from the rest of the state, the people have a culture that is unique and reflects a turbulent history.
The Keys were isolated from one another and only accessible by water until 1912. In that year, the extension of Henry Flagler’s railroad all the way to Key West connected the cays for the first time.
Early settlers of The Keys were called “Conchs” (conks) because of the main staple of the sea.
The tasty little namesake critters live in beautiful shells and are great in salads and chowders. They are protected, so make sure the shell is empty if you find one or you might find yourself in jail.
Many of these early settlers were Loyalists who came from the Bahamas, descendants of those who fled the United States after the Revolutionary War.
In 1982 the people of Key West had a disagreement with the U.S. government, declared their independence, and briefly became the “Conch Republic”.
Though only a stunt, it brought a lot of publicity to The Keys and cemented its reputation as home to a bunch of independent people. The image still sticks today.
The Keys are for people who love boating, fishing, and the unusual.
DAY TRIP 1
Bahia Honda State Park
36850 Overseas Highway
Big Pine Key, Florida 33043. Tel: 305-872-2353
About 30 miles before you get to Key West on the Overseas Highway, you will come to Bahia Honda State Park and want to stop and linger for a few hours or a few days.
This beautiful park gives you view of the historic old Bahia Honda Rail Bridge and open views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
The address says Big Pine Key, but the park is located on Bahia Honda Key, a largely undeveloped key with its original natural setting. There are many to do including swimming, boating, fishing, and snorkeling.
The beautiful sandy beaches here are unusual in coral rimmed Keys.
You can picnic on the beach or rent kayaks and snorkel gear at the park. The views of the sunset from this park are amazing.
The park has a campground that is one of the most popular in the state. You can make campsite reservations 11 months in advance, and many people do.
Bahia Honda is an excellent place to see wading birds and shorebirds, while the Sand and Sea Nature Center introduces nature lovers to the island's plants and animals.
DAY TRIP 2
907 Whitehead St, Key West, FL 33040. Tel: 305-294-1136
In 1931 Key West became the permanent home of Ernest and Pauline Hemingway. Their house was a unique 1851 Spanish Colonial style built from native limestone.
The home was built using limestone from the home site and the resulting pit crated a large basement, rare in the Keys. Another rarity was the swimming pool that Hemingway built for what would be $300,000 in today’s money.
Ernest kidded his wife about the cost of the pool and said “Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!”
Visitors can see that penny embedded in the stones by the pool.
You will probably also see some six toed cats on the property. For several years after Pauline’s death, the home was a museum and home to their beloved and well cared for polydactyl cats.
The home’s interior is filled with European antiques and animal trophies from Hemingway’s African safaris.
DAY TRIP 3
Key West Aquarium
1 Whitehead St, Key West, FL 33040. Tel: 888-544-5927 https://www.keywestaquarium.com/
The Key West Aquarium was built by the Federal Government’s Works Progress Administration in 1932. It was then the world’s only open-air aquarium.
This is a simple aquarium without a lot of the high-tech adventures typical in many modern big city establishments. One of the goals of the aquarium is to help preserve the natural habitat and animals of the Florida Keys.
Part of that effort is the Green Turtle Head Start Program where baby turtles are raised in captivity and prepared for release to the beaches to help their chances of surviving.
You will also see many game and reef fish such as barracuda, tarpon, jacks and snook from a 2-story observation deck.
DAY TRIP 4
400 Wall Street, Key West, FL 33040. Tel: 305-809-3700
From the earliest visits I made to Key West many years ago until now, the public area of Mallory Square has been the gathering place for locals and tourists to enjoy the sunset and entertainment.
The square is located near the north end of Duval Street and fronts on the Gulf of Mexico. It is still the place to go. Its “Sunset Celebration” includes arts and craft shows, street performers, and food carts.
The sunset is still the main attraction, but you can also dine in one of the restaurants or shop in a retail outlet.
One of the sights to see in Mallory Square is the Key West Memorial Sculpture Garden. It contains bronze busts of people who had a major impact on the history of Key West.
Joining the busts of many local home-grown heroes are those of Henry Flagler, Ernest Hemingway, Harry S. Truman, Tennessee Williams, and permanent and part time residents.
DAY TRIP 5
Theater of the Sea
84721 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036. Tel: 305-664-2431
Theater of the Sea is a family owned venture and has been in business since 1946. It is one of the oldest marine facilities in the world.
The lagoons and tropical gardens are home to dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, tropical fish, game fish, sharks, stingrays, alligators, birds, and others.
You will get to observe various shows from up close involving dolphins, sea lions, parrots, and other animals. There are also many interactive programs such as swimming with a sea lion or a dolphin.
You can get close for a view of sea turtles and even alligators.
Attractions include a bottomless boat ride, a fish and reptile tour, walking on a lagoon beach, and much more.
The dolphin swims are 30 minutes and include dorsal tows, kisses and hugs, and swimming and snorkeling with a dolphin.
DAY TRIP 6
Truman Little White House
111 Front Street, Key West, Florida 33040. Tel: 305-294-9911
This old home is Florida’s only presidential museum.
Harry S Truman was the 33rd President of the United States. He loved Key West and made this house in the Truman Annex neighborhood his winter White House.
The home is filled with the original furniture and documents and memorabilia from Truman’s time. There are guides, docents, and video presentations to tell you about Truman’s time and before.
The house has a rich history since it was built. President Truman stayed here for a total of 175 days during his presidential term.
The house served as the naval station’s command headquarters during the Spanish-American War and remained as headquarters during World Wars One and Two.
Some prior famous residents lived in the house also. President William Howard Taft visited in 1912, and the inventor Thomas Edison lived here during World War One while working on underwater weapons.
DAY TRIP 7
The Dolphin Connection
61 Hawks Cay Blvd, Duck Key, FL 33050. Tel: 305-289-0136
The Dolphin Connection has been in business since 1990 and is located at the Hawks Cay Resort and Marina.
As the name implies, they focus on dolphins and have a world-wide reputation as experts on the bottle nose dolphin.
The facility is centered around a circular salt water lagoon. You will be able to meet dolphins face to face and will be amazed at the obvious intelligence and natural good nature of these friendly mammals.
The owners and employees of this facility believe in providing the highest possible care to their dolphins.
There are various levels of dolphin experiences available ranging from 15-minute encounters to spending several hours with a dolphin and trainer.