With its US location, yet distinctly Caribbean influence, Florida Keys is unique for its complementary contrasts. It’s got the relaxed beach vibe, but is also home to a buzzing cultural epicentre. And while it’s fun, fashionable, and packed with a variety of chic dining options, you can also get back to basics by hitting a local seafood festival and chatting to resident fishermen, whilst sampling fish fresh from the water. It’s safe to say, the Keys has something for everyone. We’ve narrowed down the myriad experiences to our ten must-dos.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY HOME AND MUSEUM
When you head to Key West, be sure to indulge your inner literature buff with a trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house, a gem in the heart of the Old Town. Wander the rooms of Hemingway’s home as he would have done, and try and soak up some creative energy from this inspirational house. Decorated in the Spanish colonial style, this is an atmospheric building that has a story to tell. And the cats that roam nearby? They’re polydactyl, allegedly descended from Hemingway’s own pets; the eccentric writer collected over 50 cats, many of whom had extra toes.
UNDERWATER EXPLORATION IN JOHN PENNEKAMP STATE PARK
Not only is Key Largo home to the first undersea state park in the history of the US, but it’s also the country’s only living coral reef; as you’ll begin to realise, the Keys is nothing if not unique. The astounding tropical vegetation and marine life can be experienced through scuba diving, boat trips, and even glass-bottomed boats. We recommend a private snorkel tour to try and spot some of the 260 species of tropical fish.
CALM IN THE KEYS BACKCOUNTRY
If, after a few days experiencing the energetic Key West, you find yourself craving something a little more low key (pun intended), head to Big Pine Key for a quieter and more intimate setting. The Keys are packed with wildlife across land, air and sea, and here you can get up close and personal with the flora and fauna, undisturbed. The backcountry of Big Pine Key is perfect for fishing and kayaking, and you can also hike through the Key Deer spotting (yep, you’ve guessed it) the resident deer. It’s rare to find such authentic back country experiences on such tropical shores. Once again, the Florida Keys come up trumps.
FORT JEFFERSON AT THE DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK
It’s hard to think of an island quite as distinctive as Fort Jefferson, the most secluded of the seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas. Used as a prison during the civil war, it’s now a tropical paradise with perfect alabaster sand and azure waters. It’s prime sunbathing territory, but for divers in particular, Fort Jefferson is fascinating; you can swim down to shipwrecks such as the sunken 525ft-long Vandy. Your companions? Barracuda, sea turtles and giant tarpon. Best of all, this haven is only accessible via a 2-hour catamaran from Key West, so you can play Robinson Crusoe to your heart’s content.
ISLAMORADA NIGHTTIME KAYAKING AND PADDLE-BOARDING
The crystal waters surrounding The Keys mean you’ll find it hard to resist swimming, diving and snorkelling. But at Beach Tomato, we like to push the boat out. Literally. How about some night time paddle-boarding or kayaking in Islamorada? The LEDs attached to your kit give you a chance to see the Keys in a whole new light (honestly, all these puns are unintended) as they invite schools of fish to give you a private midnight display.
DAWDLE ON DOWNTOWN DUVAL STREET
Duval Street: the vibrant centre of Key West, packed with bars, restaurants, shops and culture. Have a drink or two, soak up the buzz, listen to the music, and people-watch – simple pursuits, but ones that tell the true story of this beachside beauty. At the end of the street, try something a little different and visit the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, where you’ll find a riot of colour with 50 different butterfly species from around the world, plus more than 20 exotic bird species. Trust us, it’s a magical experience that’s worth peeling yourself away from the beach.
SAMPLE SOME WORLD-QUALITY KEY LIME PIE
Work up an appetite on fun Higgs Beach playing tennis, hopping on a bike, kayaking, paddle-boarding or showing off your volleyball skills… and then beat the sugar low with a slice of delicious key lime pie. We recommend heading to Salute! On the Beach, a Caribbean-style Italian restaurant (who knew that combo would work?), which does the best pie in town. And that’s saying something.
STROLLING ROUND KEY WEST GARDEN CLUB
A secluded Eden away from the hustle and bustle of Key West, the Garden Club is a community project that makes rather a unique escape from the beach. While away an afternoon at this tranquil oasis of rare and exotic plants; catch some rays as you explore the gardens, or shelter from the midday heat in the deliciously cool shadows of the pathways, arched courtyards and greenery that lead to the West Martello Tower and Civil War fort.
DUSK AT MALLORY SQUARE
Follow in the footsteps of literary greats such as Twain and Hemingway as you enjoy a famously dramatic sunset at Mallory Square. Each night, locals and tourists alike gather to see this blazing display. As the amber dusk fades the evening entertainment starts up, with delicious food and live music. Who knows, perhaps the experience might just inspire you to pen a novel of your own.
AN ALL-AMERICAN ROAD TRIP WITH A DIFFERENCE
When you’re planning your trip, don’t forget there’s more than one way to get to the Keys. More of a land cruiser than a jet-setter? Try an all-American road trip. The Overseas Highway – also known as the ‘Highway that Goes to Sea’ – consists of 113 miles of roadway and 42 overseas bridges, following a spectacularly scenic route from Miami to Key West. It truly is an unbelievable feat of engineering, and no description can quite capture the thrill of driving for miles beneath big blue skies, while catching sunrises and sunsets that might well be the best in the world.