It’s the kind of ambiance that lured famed novelist Ernest Hemingway to reside in Key West from 1929 to 1939. The subtropical island’s lush environment and colorful residents provided Hemingway substantial creative inspiration. Key West was his home when he created some of his most famous works including “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “To Have and Have Not” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Hemingway’s former residence, inhabited by descendants of his six-toed cats, today is a public museum that honors his literary prowess and the affection he had for his Key West lifestyle.
A necklace of islands that begins just south of Miami, the Florida Keys are connected by the Overseas Highway’s 43 bridges – one seven miles long – over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Vistas of the Keys are dominated by emerald-green lagoons, deep-blue seas, nodding palms, rustling pines and olive-green mangroves. Sharing this eco-paradise are white herons, roseate spoonbills, pelicans, sea gulls, ospreys and countless underwater creatures.
The coastal waters of the entire 125-mile island chain, including its shallow water flats, mangrove islets and coral reefs, have been designated the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The area is divided into five regions including Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and Key West. Each region has its own special flavor, attractions including historic museums, flora, fauna, seafood restaurants, fishing, diving, watersports and unique, boutique-type shopping experiences.
The longest island of the Keys chain and the first Key to be reached from mainland Florida, Key Largo gave its name to the famous movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall – portions of which were filmed there.
Bogart’s Key Largo connection still is evident today as the African Queen, the actual boat Bogart skippered in the movie of the same name, is on free public display behind the glass bottom boat on an ocean access canal adjoining The Key Largo Holiday Inn. The African Queen was built in Lytham, England in 1912 for service on the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert where the movie was filmed in 1951. She was used by the British East Africa Company from 1912 to 1968 to shuttle passengers and cargo across Lake Albert located on the border between the Belgian Congo and Uganda.
But Key Largo’s star attraction is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – the first underwater preserve in the United States – and the adjacent Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. These two refuges, part of the Keys’ marine sanctuary, feature 55 varieties of delicate corals and almost 500 different species of fish.
Pennekamp Park, located at mile marker 102.5, is open from 8 a.m. to dusk and offers a variety of water-related activities including scuba, snorkeling and glass-bottom boat excursions to the coral reef. Key Largo also boasts a number of off-park dive charter companies that conduct dive sojourns – and a few even feature underwater weddings, where the entire wedding party gets wet as bride and groom tie the knot.
One of the most famous residents of Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the Christ of the Abyss, located near Dry Rocks. The 81/2-foot-tall (2.6 m) statue of Jesus Christ weighs 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) and sits in nearly 25 feet (7.6 m) of water. It is a popular site for scuba divers and snorkelers.
The statue is a second casting of Il Cristo Degli Abissi in the Mediterranean Sea near Genoa, Italy, which was placed there in 1954. The Christ of the Abyss was donated to the Underwater Society of America in 1961 by Italian scuba entrepreneur Egidi Cressi and placed in its current location in 1965.
Key Largo is also home to the Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy ship that is the largest vessel in the world ever purposely scuttled to create an artificial reef. During scuttling, the 510-foot ship prematurely sunk and rolled over, leaving the bow protruding above the sea for almost a month. Subsequent salvage efforts put the ship on its side, but not before the project received international attention.
Islamorada, the “Village of Islands,” is the centerpiece of a group of islands called the “purple isles.” Spanish explorers named the area “morada,” the Spanish word for purple — either for the violet sea snail, janthina janthina, found on the seashore here, or for the purple bougainvillea flowers found in the area. It is located on the islands of Tea Table Key, Lower Matecumbe Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Windley Key and Plantation Key in the Florida Keys.
The village was incorporated on November 4, 1997. Prior to this date, Islamorada was only considered to be on the island of Upper Matecumbe Key.
Known as the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” Islamorada is heralded for its angling diversity and features the Keys’ largest fleet of offshore charter boats and shallow-water “backcountry” boats. In fact, it is often said host a larger fishing fleet per square mile than anywhere else in the world.
Numerous celebrities and even former President George Bush visit Islamorada annually to compete in a number of celebrity fund-raising fishing tournaments.
The Keys boast more sportfishing world records than any other fishing destination in the world, according to the International Game Fish Association. Anglers can find sailfish, marlin, dolphin (the fish, not the mammal), kingfish, snapper, barracuda and grouper in the ocean. Tarpon, bonefish, redfish and other species can be found in shallow coastal waters.
In addition to fishing, the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay offer adventures in diving, snorkeling, parasailing, wind-surfing, kayaking, boat racing and a variety of nature excursions like hand-feeding giant silver tarpon.
Home to the Seven Mile Bridge, Marathon is the heart of the Florida Keys and is centrally located between Key Largo and Key West. The bridge connects Knight’s Key (part of the city of Marathon, Florida) in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. Among the longest bridges in existence when it was built, it is one of the many bridges on US 1 in the Keys, where the road is called the Overseas Highway.
There are two bridges in this location. The older bridge, originally known as the Knights Key-Pigeon Key-Moser Channel-Pacet Channel Bridge, was constructed from 1909-1912. The current road bridge was constructed from 1978 to 1982. The vast majority of the original bridge still exists, used as fishing piers and access to Pigeon Key, but the swing span over the Moser Channel of the Intracoastal Waterway has been removed.
Marathon also is home to Crane Point Hammock, a 63.5-acre land tract that is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the Keys. Crane Point contains evidence of pre-Columbian and prehistoric Bahamian artifacts, and was once the site of an entire Indian village. The Museums of Crane Point include the Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys Children’s Museum.
The Dolphin Research Center (DRC), one of five Keys facilities that provide visitors an opportunity to swim and interact with the intelligent mammals, also calls Marathon home. Reservations for the special dolphin encounter programs at DRC and other facilities — including Dolphins Plus and Dolphin Cove in Key Largo, Theater of the Sea in Islamorada and Hawk’s Cay Resort — must be made in advance and there are strict guidelines regarding the interaction session.
Marathon is accessible by air with Florida Coastal Airlines providing service to and from Miami and Key West. Marathon Airport also features a large general aviation facility for private pilots.
A drive across the new Seven Mile Bridge, the largest segmental bridge in the world, leads to the Lower Keys. But visitors shouldn’t pass up the chance to explore Pigeon Key, a small island below the middle of the old Seven Mile Bridge, that is accessible from a visitor center at the west end of Marathon. Pigeon Key once housed the workers who built Henry Flagler’s railroad in the early 1900s. While the rest of the Keys have evolved with the years, this tiny key has essentially remained unchanged and is now a national historic treasure complete with a museum chronicling the construction of the Seven Mile Bridge.
Big Pine Key is noted for the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, rated by many as among the most spectacular shallow-water dive experiences to be found. Just to the west of Looe Key, the 210-foot island freighter Adolphus Busch Senior rests on the bottom of the ocean as an artificial reef providing additional habitat for marine species as well as another site for divers.
Big Pine is also home to the Blue Hole, an abandoned rock quarry that was used for nearby road fills and Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. The water it contains is mostly fresh (this is the only fresh water lake in the Florida Keys) and is used by various wildlife in the area, such as birds, snakes, alligators and feral Green iguanas.
Big Pine is known for the National Key Deer Refuge, a sanctuary for miniature Key deer, tropical forest and even a few alligators. The Key deer is a subspecies of the White-tailed deer that is endemic to the Florida Keys and has a current population of around 800 animals. The shoulder height of Key deer is between 24-32 inches. Does weigh 45 to 65 pounds while bucks weigh 55 to 80. Drive slowly and be watchful because you certainly don’t want to hit one as it crosses the road!
The sheer sweep of the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico is readily seen from the Bahia Honda Bridge, a scenic bridge in the lower Florida Keys connecting Bahia Honda Key with Spanish Harbor Key. Bahia Honda State Park is a prime example of the Lower Keys’ pristine beauty. Some of the most prestigious travel magazines have called the beach at Bahia Honda, about 45 minutes from Key West and 17 minutes from Marathon, the most beautiful in Florida and some even rank it as one of the best in the world.
Popular nature tours, many by kayak, offer unforgettable opportunities to view the unique flora and fauna of this area of the Keys.
Key West is the final stop on the Overseas Highway, where the land ends and meets the sea amid 19th-century charm and 20th-century attractions. The ambiance of continental America’s southernmost city — which is situated closer to Cuba than to Miami — is embedded in its quaint, palm-studded streets, historic hundred-year-old gingerbread mansions and a relaxed citizenry of self-styled “Conchs” (pronounced konks).
It has been said that the idiosyncratic architecture and the laid-back atmosphere of this small, two-by-four-mile island probably have nurtured the talents of more writers per capita than any other city in the country. More than 100 published authors reside, full- or part-time, in Key West, and the island is noted for its artistic community with a number of galleries exhibiting artwork in varying styles and mediums.
Probably the most famous of its downtown areas is Duval Street, the location of many famous restaurants and bars, including Sloppy Joe’s; Fogarty’s Restaurant, Bar and Bakery and it’s “The Flying Monkeys Bar”; The Bull and Whistle; Rick’s Cafe; and Irish Kevin’s bar. It is named for William Pope Duval, the first territorial governor of Florida.
The nightlife in Key West can be exciting and diverse. The “Duval Crawl” is a popular phrase used to describe fun-seekers’ evening jaunts up and down the island’s main street to sample numerous taverns and entertainment offerings. On certain nights, Duval Street is a carnival that lasts until dawn and beyond.
Key West is home to other treasures as well. Longtime resident Mel Fisher, a legendary treasure hunter who died in December 1998, recovered more than $400 million in gold and silver from the ship Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a 17th-century Spanish galleon which sank 45 miles west of Key West. Fisher, who spent 16 years of his life searching for the shipwreck, established the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum where visitors may view, touch and even buy some of the riches of the Atocha and Santa Margarita.
Dining opportunities in the island city are as enticing as the sunset. Cuisine choices are varied and unique, but most restaurants feature great area seafood such as shrimp, Florida lobster, conch chowder, local fish and stone crab claws. Key lime pie is a heavenly end to an exquisite meal.
For more culturally oriented visitors, theater is available at several playhouses and the Key West Symphony offers periodic concerts.
At day’s end in Key West, visitors gather at Mallory Square to experience the daily “sunset celebration” – a tradition that Key Westers share with visitors. While musicians, jugglers, mimes and other performers provide entertainment, the sun sinks slowly below the horizon as sunset cruise boats sail by in Key West Harbor.
And when your Keys experience concludes, you can fly from (and to as well) Key West International Airport directly back to international hubs in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, and Atlanta, Ga. Airlines serving Key West are American Eagle, USAirways, Delta/ASA/ComAir, Continental Connection/Gulfstream or Cape Air.
For timeshare owners, note that there are several timeshare resorts available in the Keys and within easy driving distance from mainland Florida, with exchange possibilities via both RCI and Interval International. To explore your options, visit the resort directories in RCI and Interval International.
Multi-language visitor guides are available free by writing to Florida Keys & Key West Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1147, Key West, FL 33041, U.S.A. Or, in the U.S. and Canada, dial toll-free 1-800-FLA-KEYS (800-275-5397). A wealth of information, including downloadable brochures, is available at the Florida Keys & Key West World Wide Web site at www.fla-keys.com
Additional information and some photos from Wikipedia.com
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