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Key West, Florida, and the Keys

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Did You Know … ?

  • The Keys are home to the only living coral barrier reef in the U.S.
  • The first international phone call was made Christmas Day 1900, Key West to Cuba.
  • Key West was founded by Mystic, Conn., sea captains in need of a southern base.
  • In 1900, Key West’s population was 18,000 compared with 500 in Miami.
  • Pan American Airways’ first headquarters building, in Key West, is now a restaurant.

Island hopping by car

Key West is America’s southernmost continental city and the best-known place in the Florida Keys, an archipelago of more than 800 islands laid out in a string headed southwest off the southern tip of Florida. Key Largo, the northernmost is indeed the large island, but still a skinny slip of land 30 miles long. The rest are smaller.

These dots in the sea offer the tropical climate of southern Florida. Predictably, a great portion of their touristic pleasures revolve around water plus the attractions of national parks and nature preserves.

Water sports enthusiasts will find everything from swimming to kayaking and kiteboarding, but the islands are particularly known for sportfishing and diving.

The Everglades National Park lies northwest of about half the Keys, and the rest of the islands are nearly surrounded by national marine sanctuaries and wildlife refuges. The diving is tops, in part, because the Keys sit next to America’s only natural living coral reef as well as another system of reefs generated by sinking several ships from Key Largo to Key West.

The cities up and down the string of islands provide a counterpoint to Mother Nature’s gifts, with festivals, fine dining (or eateries that are simpler but good with lots of seafood), museums, shopping, spas, theater and an architectural heritage of interest.

Key West, the metropolis at the end of the road (for those who prefer to drive from the mainland), is Exhibit A for city life in the Keys.

When local tourism officials promote the archipelago, they sectionalize the Keys, highlighting five points on the map, as follows, northeast to southwest:

  • Key Largo, town and island of the same name and particularly noted for scuba diving.
  • Islamorada, a town on five islands, singled out for sportfishing.
  • Marathon, another small community on several islands, in this case noted for boating and family activities.
  • Big Pine Key, a town and island of the same name. The island is home to the National Key Deer Refuge.
  • Key West, the largest and most citified among them, on the island of the same name and a few adjacent islands.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Take a tour, by seaplane, to the Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson, 70 miles west of Key West. See marine mammals and submerged ships in clear waters.
    Or, travel to the park by ferry and camp overnight.
  • Key West is known for its bars. Do the Duval Crawl, the local version of a pub crawl. This can be in the form of a guided walking tour or a self-guided evening of your own devising.
  • Plan a scuba diving excursion to some part of the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail, a series of intentionally sunk vessels. The trail begins off Key Largo, billed as the creme de la creme among diving destinations in the Keys, but the largest of these ships, the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, is at the opposite end, seven miles from Key West.
  • Go parasailing or kiteboarding at Key West or one of the other islands in the chain.
  • Come prepared to participate in the over-the-top Masquerade March, starting at the local cemetery, which is part of Key West’s October Fantasy Fest. It is a 10-day Halloween party of sorts.
  • Slip out onto the waters around Key Largo in a kayak. There are kayak outfitters on the other islands, too.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Munch on stone crab claws — and a lot of other delectables — at the annual Original Marathon Seafood Festival, held in March in Marathon.
  • For a few chills, real or imagined, take the Key West Ghost Tour, an evening stroll in search of ghosts and goblins.
  • Get married with the famous Key West sunset as a backdrop.
  • Join one of the charters that take you to America’s only natural coral barrier reef for outstanding snorkeling or diving.
  • If a birder, carry binoculars and your enthusiasm to the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, which protects 250 bird species on a number of so-called backcountry islands accessible only boat. The refuge is administered from Big Pine Key.
  • Gather with locals for Key West’s Sunset Celebration on the Mallory Dock. With jugglers, mimes, musicians and street artists on hand, you will be entertained by more than the sun.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Be awed by the hundreds of butterflies and colorful birds at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.
  • Do your sightseeing in Key West on a trolley tour. Visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum — and its 40 to 50 resident cats.
  • Take a dolphin watching cruise. Look for turtles, too. Or, swim with dolphins at the Theater of the Sea Marine Mammal Park on Islamorada.
  • Line up the boat and bait because sportfishing opportunities abound in the Keys, but Islamorada claims to be top of this heap, calling itself a sportfishing capital.
  • Relax with a game of golf, or relax even more at a spa.
  • Dine at a restaurant at Key West’s renovated Historic Seaport district, aka the Key West Bight, and sample the city’s theatrical offerings.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Monroe County Tourist Development Council at