The Florida Keys offer fresh and unforgettable experiences, even for seasoned visitors to the USA. A world away from Disney and Miami’s glitzy South Beach, they have a magnetism all of their own
I can reliably report that Elvis is alive and well and living in the Florida Keys. I’ve touched his plump skin - which, for the record, feels like warm Neoprene - and even had him sing along to my un-tuneful rendition of Blue Suede Shoes, which had him and his sidekick Nica seeking solace with a fish or two, rather than a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.
OK, so Elvis is a dolphin. But meeting him, and having the privilege to swim with him, was a highlight of my trip to the 125-mile sub-tropical island chain where all roads (well, actually just the one) lead to Key West. Starting just south of Miami, the Florida Keys are connected by the Overseas Highway and its 43 bridges - one almost seven miles long - stretching out over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
Long before green tourism became a buzzword, the Keys set out to protect their priceless natural resources. For example, Key West National Wildlife Refuge dates back to 1908 and provides a safe habitat for the white heron, North America’s largest wading bird. The Lower Keys has the National Key Deer Refuge, established in 1957 to protect the diminutive Key deer. North America’s only living coral barrier reef, the third largest in the world, runs alongside the Keys, and in 1963 John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park became America’s first underwater reserve.
Nature and conservation
are common threads running through many of today’s tourist attractions on the island necklace that’s divided into different regions. As well as Key West, there’s Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine and the Lower Keys. Marathon is around the halfway mark and on our first night we pulled into Tranquility Bay Resort
and settled into our spotless three-bedroom beach house before ordering a welcome sundowner at the beach bar.
The curiously large number of drive-in fortune tellers and funky art galleries lining the Overseas Highway, which is signed by mile markers rather than street numbers, are among the first signs that the Keys have their own take on things. Key West, measuring just two by four miles, is reckoned to have unlocked the talents of more writers per capita than any other city in the country.
You’re never far from water in the Keys and aside from fishing there are offshore attractions aplenty. One afternoon we headed out with Captain Victoria, a native wilderness guide for 34 years, who is fervent about the local environment. After the exhilarating ride out to the lush mangroves, home to fish-eating racoons bleached blonde by the sun, we sheltered in a tranquil spot to eat lunch and listen to her tales against the backdrop of water lapping against the boat. Her half-day trips cost around £250 per party, but again offer a much more informed, close-up and individual experience than the large commercial snorkel boats.
At Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, situated on an old motel site that could be from a 1950s movie set, and the only one of its kind in the world, we saw gentle floating giants that were victims of carelessly discarded fishing lines, rubbish and other man-made hazards. Up to 100 turtles a year are treated here and released back into the sea, or occasionally given to wildlife parks such as the Theater of the Seas if they cannot be rehabilitated.
The Keys are the antidote for anyone who has had their fill of mass-market theme parks. Whilst I’ve always had mixed feelings about dolphins in captivity, the rationale behind centres such as Dolphins Plus is commendable, with a strong conservation and research ethos. The educational briefing before we took the plunge with Elvis and Nica was comprehensive, and visitor numbers and swims per day are limited. As well as offering structured swims under the instruction of a trainer on shore (costing around £84), Dolphins Plus is the only centre where visitors can swim with the dolphins without any contact or trained routines, the closest you’ll get to a completely spontaneous encounter.
Key West, America’s southernmost city, was the logical end to our visit. Closer to Cuba than Miami, its quaint, laidback and inclusive atmosphere extends from 100-year-old ‘gingerbread’ houses, with their distinctive decorative styling, to the glamorous drag queens who strut their stuff in cabaret bars along Duval Street. Stand on a corner and it won’t be long before you see something unexpected. Locals don’t bat an eyelid at the grizzled bikers who cruise past with dogs in their sidecars or the old boy who has taken to a decorated pushbike, with a ghetto blaster strapped on the back, since losing his licence. For some peace and quiet, drop by at the house Ernest Hemingway bought after contracting the infectious ‘Keys disease’ after first visiting in 1928. He lived there from 1931 to 1940, writing a novel for each of the nine years.
A nightly draw is the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, where performing artists play to the crowds. Afterwards we bypassed packed Sloppy Joe’s, a drinking institution on Duval, and went to Nine One Five - the name gives the location away - further down the road. Owned by Stuart Kemp, who hails from Leicester, it serves deliciously sophisticated and innovative dishes with an Asian twist.
That said, no visit would be complete with sampling a slice or two of key lime pie. A fun place to try it is Mrs Mac’s Kitchen (99336 Overseas Highway), a cheap and cheerful Key Largo roadside diner, lined with wall-to-wall car numberplates. Other delights include frozen peanut butter dessert, and you can buy a whole key lime pie to take out for £10 complete with a ‘bag’ of cream.
Keen fishermen can eat the fruits of their labours by dropping in at restaurants such as Snappers
, on Key Largo, which boasts, “you hook ‘em, we cook ‘em”. Staying at neighbouring Dove Creek Lodge
, where the comfortable two-storey suite equated to a small house, we walked over to the waterfront bar to try and catch our final sunset instead.
Virgin Holidays offers seven nights fly drive from £459 per person, including free car hire. The price includes return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow direct to Miami, car hire and basic insurance.
Where to stay
- Dolphins Plus offers a range of daily swim programmes and encounters with dolphins and sea lions for around £70 per person.
- Captain Victoria offers daily half-day guided wilderness tours for around £280, for up to six people.
- Marathon Turtle Hospital offers daily tours for around £10 for adults and £5.50 for children.