There's a lot to love about the Florida Keys, an enchanting collection of more than 1400 ancient coral reef islands stretching from Elliott Key near Miami over to Key West, only 90 miles from Cuba.
So much, in fact, that cutting it down to just a handful of standouts is almost ludicrous.
But with the same intrepidness as the Keys' infamous rumrunners, wreckers, pirates and daring seaborne explorers, we took on this adventurous challenge to pay tribute to a quirky, rum-soaked paradise that's unlike any other place in the United States. We bring you the 10 things we love about the Florida Keys, in no particular order.
All photos by Theresa Boehl.
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The early bird catches the worm, the saying goes. Get up early in the Florida Keys and you'll get something much better — an awe-inspiring mix of fiery and golden hues painting the sky.
By and large, the Florida Keys aren't known for their beaches, but there are certainly a few exceptions to the rule. Smathers Beach in Key West is the island's biggest and best-known beach, and it offers the coveted white sand and shallow water usually associated with the Caribbean.
Small but respectable South Beach and family-friendly Higgs Beach are two other favorites, and both skirt the island's Atlantic coast. Further east in Marathon, Sombrero Beach impresses with a few pristine, shallow coves, thick patches of palm trees and amenities like volleyball nets, pavilions and bathrooms.
When it comes to food in the Florida Keys, variety and creativity abound. In addition to fresh catches and decadent Southern favorites, cuisine in the Keys infuses Latin elements, thanks to a thriving Cuban population. Grab a Cuban coffee — available at small family-owned coffeehouses throughout the Keys — to recharge for your vacation.
For years, distilling rum was off-limits in the Keys, due to laws still on the books from the Prohibition era, when islanders had to rely on the shady dealings of rumrunners to get their drink of choice.
A recent change to those laws has paved the way for local businesses like the Key West Legal Rum Distillery (the first legal one in the area) to concoct mixtures that capture the spirit and flavor of Key West. Stop by their distillery for a tour and a tasting session that might change your mind about rum forever.
From avian life to aquatic species and the occasional rogue rooster, the Florida Keys has its fair share of residents from the animal kingdom. Head to Robbie's Marina in Islamorada, where you can feed hungry swarms of giant tarpon — or save your goods for a pelican who's not too proud to beg.
Key Lime Pie
Rumor has it that key lime pie was whipped up on a whim by sponge fishermen who had eggs, condensed milk and key limes, but no access to refrigeration or equipment for cooking.
Traditionalists will want to try the tart, creamy treat the true Conch way — with the dense merengue topping. At Blonde Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory in Tavernier, you can have it however you want: plain, with whipped cream, with merengue or even frozen and dipped in chocolate.
Though the Florida Keys consist of a bevy of land masses, most people come for what goes on away from shore. Whether for fishing, diving or sightseeing, boat excursions are the best way to acquaint yourself with the area's renowned aquamarine waters, not to mention its diverse marine life.
And speaking of excursions, don't leave the archipelago without booking a snorkeling trip with a tour operator, many of which offer drinks and snacks in addition to all the gear you'll need and some basic snorkeling instruction.
Sunset Watersports offers a 9 a.m. "Rise and Reef" tour that includes a light breakfast and a visit to a nearby reef at a rate of $40 for adults (children under 12 are $22; no charge for children under 5).
No matter where you are in the Keys, once the sun starts to dip, head to the nearest shore and watch the magic unfold. It's a sacred part of the culture down here, and also the most soothing way to transition from busy days to laid-back nights.
The Florida Keys boast a surplus of dockside bar and grills, humble watering holes and kitschy tourist hangouts. Duval Street in Key West is reminiscent of Bourbon Street in New Orleans — it's a wonderland of live music, tipsy partygoers, and turn-a-blind-eye attitudes toward the open containers law.
At Sloppy Joe's Bar, a former Ernest Hemingway hangout, live music, strong drinks and questionable company are the order of the day.
Want to learn more about the Florida Keys? Visit www.fla-keys.com for more ideas on where to go and what to do.