Sprayed out from the southern tip of the United States’ east coast, this picturesque coral archipelago basks in the sunny weather and laid-back vibes of the Caribbean, as well as offering a giddy portfolio of things to do.
For centuries, the Keys’ multicoloured coral reefs were a nightmare for sailors. Now they’re a paradise for snorkelers and scuba-divers, who can step into the shoes (or fins) of the islanders who grew rich on plunder from shipwrecks. But the Keys’ appeal has as much to do with what’s above the water as what’s below it: this 800-strong island chain offers one of the most scenic road trips in the world.
Highway 1, a 182km route which hops from island to island, gives visiting drivers a chance to take in the Keys in all their glory: arresting views, exotic plant and wildlife, sandy beaches and turquoise waters. It’s a classic drive, starting at the southeastern stretch of the Everglades and ending in Key West, running in a smooth curve through Key Largo, Marathon and Big Pine Key. Even if you never left your car it would be a wild trip. But why do that? Along the way there are a load of opportunities to immerse yourself in Keys life.
A must-see is John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, the first underwater park in the United States. Visitors here can canoe, kayak, fish, snorkel or scuba-dive, but if getting wet isn’t your thing, there’s also a giant saltwater aquarium, a plethora of exhibits and glass-bottom boats so you can observe the reefs in all their technicolour majesty. In keeping with the maritime theme, head over to Jules’ Undersea Lodge, a hotel 30ft below the surface of the water. Guests scuba dive to their rooms, which are submarine-like pods that once formed part of a research lab.
Refreshments are plentiful at Islamorada’s Florida Keys Brewing Company and Tasting Room. Highly recommended, it was the first microbrewery in the Upper Keys, and its brewers made 30 different types of beer every year. There are also games to play and artwork to see, and a short wander away is the Blonde Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory. Who says pastries and craft beer can’t mix?
Continue along Florida's Highway 1 and you’ll soon find yourself in Marathon for prime scuba-diving and snorkeling. The tiny island is also home to the Original Marathon Seafood Festival, a two-day event that draws as many as 20,000 people each year to indulge in the region’s famously delicious shrimp, crab and lobster tails. If seafood’s not for you, traditional landlubber fare such as hot dogs and hamburgers are also in plentiful supply.
Back behind the steering wheel, it won’t be long before you’re on the Seven Mile Bridge, a long stretch of tarmac between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key that passes over cerulean waters and the marine life that abound beneath the surface. It’s one of the longest bridges in the world and a recognisable feature in TV and film.
Next you’ll pass through the untouched beauty of Bahia Honda Key, where you’ll come across some of the best beaches in the region, including the mile-long Sandspur just north of the entrance to Bahia Honda State Park. If you’re willing to leave the track and go exploring, the No Name Pub is a much-loved hole-in-the-wall surrounded by miniature deer native to the Keys. These endangered creatures can’t be found anywhere else in the world, and they regularly swim between islands in search of food.
From Bahia Honda Key it isn’t far to Key West, but just because it concludes the route don’t think that the journey ends here. Visit the former home of Ernest Hemingway and the six-toed cats that he used to take care of. In Mallory Square, join the locals who gather each evening to celebrate the setting of the sun over a shimmering blue horizon. Without a visit to bustling Duval Street, any trip to the Keys can’t be said to be complete. This is the vibrant heart of Key West, named for the state’s first governor and a sanctuary for Cuban immigrants whose influence is clear in the cigar shops and cafés selling sweet Cubano coffee. Sloppy Joe’s, meanwhile, was a favourite haunt of Hemingway, as was the rum-runner Habana Joe in its original location off Duval. Now on Key West’s famous road, Sloppy Joe’s sells slushy drinks and hosts live music.
The Overseas Highway route is the drive of a lifetime, offering spectacular sights and original experiences against a backdrop of tropical plant life and crystal-clear water. This sun-soaked chain of islands, a cultural melting pot with food, festivals, art, music and the chance to explore, has universal, year-round appeal. Perhaps that’s why visitors never leave.