Be dazzled by underwater wonders
The third-largest barrier reef on Earth runs the entire length of the Florida Keys, creating a watery wilderness teeming with marine life and coral-encrusted shipwrecks. Whether you’re an experienced diver, shallow-reef snorkeler, are curious about SNUBA (a snorkeling-scuba mash-up), or want to see corals without getting wet, the Keys makes it easy to discover what lies beneath.
Take a deep dive into Keys’ maritime history on a charter to one or more of The Official Florida Keys Wreck Trek sites. Nine sunken ships and artificial reefs await discovery off the coasts of Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, the Lower Keys, and Key West. No certification is required to go snorkeling, feed sharks, and learn about the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on a Coral Reef Snorkel Encounter at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters in Marathon. At Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the nation’s first undersea park, glass-bottom catamaran tours give non-swimmers and wheelchair users up-close views of the same reefs that divers and snorkelers can explore on tours.
Paddle through mangrove tunnels
Explore mysterious mangrove ecosystems abounding with a wealth of wild things, such as barracuda, iguanas, nurse sharks, osprey, and turtles, on a guided kayaking trip or self-guided paddle. Silently gliding through the Keys’ protected, backcountry waters is the best way to spot and photograph wildlife living among the mangrove forests lining more than 1,800 miles of shoreline within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Kayak rentals are available along the Keys, however, the best way to navigate the maze of tunnels, meandering tidal creeks, and tangle of roots within the mangroves is on a guided eco-tour. Local outdoor adventure experts like Florida Bay Outfitters in Key Largo, Robbie’s Marina of Islamorada, Marathon Kayak on Vaca Key, and Big Pine Kayak Adventures in the Lower Keys offer both rentals and tours. To paddle with a purpose, consider helping protect and restore the mangroves as part of programs occasionally sponsored by organizations such as Conch Republic Marine Army.
Unplug the tech and connect to nature
Powering down is easy in the Florida Keys. From the moment you cross the first bridge from the mainland, time slows and days unfold to the natural rhythm of life. Take off the smart watch and experience the bliss of greeting the morning on a sunrise cruise with Sunset Sail Key West. At day’s end, watch the sizzling sun go down from the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park on Key West’s west end or on one of the island’s world-famous sunset sails.
Tune into the relaxing sounds of nature on a stand-up paddle board or SUP. The calm, clear waters surrounding the Keys are ideal for trying SUPing for the first time. Back on land, escape to a private, sandy beach at a classic Old Florida resort like Casa Marina Key West, opened in 1920; Key Largo’s intimate Coconut Palm Inn; or The Moorings Village, a palm-fringed, luxury retreat in Islamorada. Wherever you stay, treat yourself to some well-deserved self-care at a nearby spa or wellness center.
Bring your BFF (Best Four-Legged Friend)
With several pet-friendly places to eat, stay, and play, the Florida Keys are a doggone-fun destination for pups and pet parents. Dogs must be leashed in public places, but, there are separate off-leash areas for small dogs and large dogs at Higgs Memorial Beach Park in Key West, at the Watson Field dog park in Big Pine Key, and at Marathon’s Dog Park. Rover also can roam free in the fenced, dog playground at Founders Park in Islamorada. The one-acre dog park features agility equipment for pups and benches for their people.
Close to Key West’s buzzing Duval Street, Old Town Manor makes well-behaved four-legged (and two-legged) guests feel at home with extras like roomy dog beds, loaner food and water bowls, and a resident feline and canine pet ambassador. While you’ll want to call ahead to make sure, dogs often are welcome in open-air seating areas at flip-flop-casual restaurants and bars. To listen to live music with your BFF, chill in the pup-friendly beer garden at Florida Keys Brewing Co., Islamorada’s homegrown microbrewery.
Catch and release elusive game fish
Whether you’re an avid angler or want to try casting a line for the first time, you’re guaranteed to return home from the Florida Keys with a whopper of a true fish tale. The nutrient-rich waters support year-round fishing along the Keys. Venture into the backcountry waters of Florida Bay in search of the elusive big five: bonefish, tarpon, permit, red drum, and snook. To snag monster sport fish like blue marlin, sailfish, and swordfish (and post an Instagram selfie with your catch) go deep-sea fishing in the Atlantic.
Responsible fishing practices, such as catch and release (which boosts native fish populations), help protect the sensitive marine resources of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Go with a professional, Blue Star-certified fishing guide operator to ensure a sustainable and successful day on the water. For a fishing-focused vacation, consider staying in Islamorada. Widely known as the Sport-Fishing Capital of the World, Islamorada is home to the greatest concentration of fishing boats and guides in the Keys.
Camp by the beach
Fall asleep under a blanket of stars and wake up to water views at campgrounds located along or near the shore. In the Lower Keys, the Bahia Honda State Park campgrounds feature several waterfront sites, and all campers—whether staying in a tent, hammock, pop-up, RV, or van—are only steps away from either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. There are also campfire programs, boat ramps, and rental bikes for use in the park. If you arrive by boat, rent a slip for the night to go boat camping.
Unspoiled Curry Hammock State Park, situated about halfway between Duck Key and Marathon, protects the biggest (1,000 acres) unpopulated tract of land between Key Largo and Big Pine Key. There are only 25 campsites in the park, so book far in advance to spend the night in this pristine paradise. In the Lower Keys, accommodation options at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge include oceanfront and canal campsites. Pitching a tent here is like staying at a grown-up summer camp thanks to daily activities like arts and crafts.
Feast on fresh seafood
Dig into the Keys’ sustainably harvested seafood bounty served at most island eateries. Local specialties include conch, a tasty mollusk (and namesake of the Key West Conch Republic) regularly consumed by the basket as crunchy fritters. At the aptly named Key Largo Conch House, it’s possible to eat conch all day: at breakfast in a cracked conch benedict, for lunch in chowder, and at dinner lightly breaded and fried.
Another year-round favorite are sumptuously sweet and tender Key West pink shrimp. To try Florida’s native spiny lobster—the clawless cousin of the larger Maine variety—and famous stone crab claws, time your visit to coincide with the annual harvests. During spiny lobster season, April 6 to March 31, fresh-off-the-boat restaurants like Keys Fisheries in Marathon serve all-things-spiny specials like lobster Reubens and lobster mac and cheese. Stone crab claw season, October 15 to May 15, is doubly celebratory. First, the meat is delicious warm and dipped in butter. Second, only one claw is removed, sparing the crab, which is returned to the ocean where the claw regenerates.
Celebrate the wealth of local art
The laid-back, edge-of-the-world vibe in the Florida Keys inspires creativity. Add to that the islands’ sun-splashed natural surroundings, and it’s no wonder that an eclectic collection of talented painters, sculptors, photographers, and other creative types call the Keys home. Meet artists and craftspeople in their studios and shop for original pieces in inspired spaces like the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District in Islamorada and The Studios of Key West. To view and purchase works by several local artists in one stop, visit co-operatives, such as Key West’s Guild Hall Gallery and Big Pine’s Artists in Paradise.
As you gallery hop, capture images of Instagram-famous Keys’ outdoor art, including Big Betsy, the giant spiny lobster sculpture outside Islamorada’s quirky-cool Rain Barrel Village, and the Wyland “Whaling Wall” mural in Key Largo. Embrace the Keys’ artsy side by creating your own masterpiece at one of the single-session classes regularly offered at the Key West Art Center and Gallery or The Art Studio in Marathon.
Play on the water
Whether serene paddle yoga on a SUP or sky-high parasailing above the Atlantic or Florida Bay, the flat, crystalline waters of the Florida Keys are an ideal playground for every imaginable watersport. Try kiteboarding or wakeboarding at North America’s only saltwater cable park, Keys Cable at oTHErside Adventure Park in Marathon. Get a dolphin’s-eye view of the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge backcountry waters by paddling a completely see-through kayak with Clearly Unique in Key West.
To power up the adventure level, pilot your own rental boat or zip across the surface of the water on a guided jet-ski tour with an outfitter like Islamorada Watersports or Robbie’s Marina of Islamorada. While in Islamorada, channel your inner superhero by lifting off on an adrenaline-pumping jetpack or fly board flight with Florida Keys Jetpacks. For an only-in-the-Keys experience, float around in a motorized, thatched hut with Cruisin’ Tikis Key West or sample 13 different aquatic activities (including hydro bikes and an iceberg climbing wall) on the Sunset Watersports Key West “Do It All Watersports Adventure.”
See dolphins in the wild
The Florida Keys are where the wild things are. Dolphins, manatees, and pint-sized Key deer are among the creatures thriving within the four Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges: Crocodile Lake, Great White Heron, Key West, and National Key Deer Refuge, Learn about ethical wildlife viewing practices, things to do, and upcoming events in all four refuges at the Visitor and Nature Center on Big Pine Key.
To experience up-close views of animals and birds without disrupting their natural behaviors, visit one of the Keys’ wildlife rehabilitation centers or go on one of the eco-tours offered on each island. A marine biologist leads the KeyZ Charters Islamorada eco-tours, and in the Lower Keys, Relax Charters offers backcountry wildlife viewing tours by boat or kayak. To see wild dolphins, go on a sailing safari with a Key West outfitter like Catamaran Echo or Dolphin Safari Charters. Trips feature opportunities to see dolphins feeding, hunting, and playing in their native habitat, and snorkeling among sea turtles and other marine life.