Why the Keys? America is a country that has it all. And yet it saves one of its most beguiling jewels for the end; The Florida Keys. A string of coral islands that trail off the south coast of Florida into the turquoise seas of the Gulf of Mexico.
I fell in love with the Keys in the 90s and have been back several times since. With a vibe that is more Caribbean than US they mix bohemian and arty with fun and party. The Keys are all about spending the days on the water and the nights in the many restaurants and bars. For nature lovers there’s the only living reef in the USA and a unique species of deer, as well as the opportunity to explore the islands and habitats in the Florida Bay. And don’t forget the journey to Key West, which for many people is a highlight in itself.
Hopping off a Miami flight straight to the car hire desk is an occasion when you really can justify upgrading and treating yourself to a convertible. As you leave Miami behind, in less than hour you’re on the Overseas Highway and the start of the Florida Keys. As the sun sinks lower, you start getting your first glimpses of water around you. Soon you’ll start to feel the weight lift off your shoulders as you slip into that Keys frame of mind. The first true sign that you’ve arrived in the Keys will be the little green ‘mile markers’ which indicate the distance to Key West and the far end of the islands. Next up is a large painting of Keys underwater life on the side of a building in the central reservation. This ‘Whaling Wall’ mural was painted by the artist Wyland and is considered the gateway to the Keys, setting the scene for the mix of art and nature still to come.
The Middle Keys
Halfway down you’ll find Islamorada; a great place to jump off for your first night. It’s the perfect introduction to the Keys with lots of bars and restaurants and all the water sports and fishing (if that’s your thing) you could want. Here you can find accommodation for every budget, but we stayed at the lovely Cheeca Lodge which can be booked through Virgin Holidays.
Highly recommended is waterside cabana bar lor-au-lei at mile marker 82 on the bay side. The nightly sunset celebration with live music perfectly captures everything we love about the Keys.
So you’ve got your convertible, the roof is down, the sun is shining and you’re in the zone. Here are a couple of bits of advice from people who did it wrong so you don’t have to.
“If driving over Seven Mile Bridge in a convertible, remember that there’s nowhere on the bridge to stop and put your roof up if it starts raining. If you see any grey clouds in the sky, pull over and put your roof up first. Yes, I speak from experience! On the Keys, one minute it can be lovely sunshine, the next pouring rain. Although on a positive note, I did manage to entertain the locals and fellow holiday makers driving along with my roof down in the pouring rain!” Lynda Chick, Commercial Systems
“Avoid the drive with a sunroof open and no cap. It feels cool in the breeze but isn’t. My forehead got badly sunburned”. John Armitage, Cabin Crew (and a couple of other people!)
But with a cap on and one eye on the clouds it becomes a magic experience as Graham Lampen, one of our Technology Services Managers says –
“There’s nothing like watching the pelicans swooping down to catch fish as you drive along the Overseas Highway. Recommended stops on the way down are at the Turtle Hospital and Bahia Honda State Park, the best beach in the keys. Here you can see rays and sharks while snorkelling.
The Southern most point in the USA
Once in Key West do a Ghost Walking Tour and learn about “Robert” the Haunted Doll. Once you’ve had the be’Jesus scared out of you, go and see the actual Robert doll in the East Martello Museum – but be careful if you try to take his picture.
A few more tips for Key West
Graham Matthews (above and below), one of our pilots, endorsed the Land Train Historic Tour and the Snorkel, Kayak, Sunset Cruise on a schooner. He also found the link that Key West has with aviation history. It was here that the first ever scheduled international flight from the USA took off: a Pan Am flight to Cuba.
It wouldn’t be a Virgin Atlantic blog post without mentioning a cocktail or two. Steve Sneddon, one of our Cabin Crew Managers gives this recommendation:
I loved Bagatelle. With its old colonial style architecture and open front looking straight onto Duval Street, it’s the perfect place to watch life go by whilst working your way through their extensive cocktail menu. The staff are incredibly warm and friendly and the food is awesome!
And the Keys don’t stop at Key West as Rachel Coffey, our Head of Business Readiness found out:
“Get out to the Dry Tortugas. These beautiful islands, 70 miles off Key West have their own fascinating story to tell. Originally built as a fort, by the time it was completed it was no longer needed. It’s well worth splashing out on the sea plane ride down there as the views are spectacular, but there’s a cheaper ferry option. Once there a tour of Fort Jefferson can be combined with the best snorkelling in the Caribbean.
Rachel took this photo on her approach to Fort Jefferson:
Keys with Kids
The Keys can be a great trip to take with adventurous kids as several of our people found out. To get them in the mood, how about an episode of Wacky Races that goes all the way down the overseas highway from Key Largo to Key West?
Steve Walsh, Reward Manager offers this advice:
“We took our two children to Key West via Miami during February half term. They loved swimming in the open air pools and we enjoyed eating out. The drive on the Overseas Highway and Seven Mile Bridge was fantastic, but it did take longer than we hoped.
We detoured into the Everglades and saw a crocodile (no not an alligator, this was a croc. They have both!) We also saw a turkey vulture, herons and Florida’s national bird, the mosquito! (but not too many). The kids also saw manatees as they came up for air, but my wife and I were chatting to someone and missed them.
Key West was, as ever, a delight. We sat on the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor and we also saw a two foot long lizard. I have the photo.”
Meigan Terry, Senior Vice President – Corporate Affairs and Communications has also recently returned from the Keys with her family:
“If you’re driving all the way down to Key West and you have children with you, I recommend stopping off at Robbie’s. Here the kids can feed the fish and look at the pelicans. It’s great fun and gave us all something to talk about for the rest of the drive. In fact they’re still taking about Robbie’s now.”
And now the bit that’s not for kids!
South Florida, like all the best places, has a darker side. This is exploited hilariously in a number of books by best-selling author and Miami Herald reporter Carl Hiaasen. We asked Carl for a quote about the Keys and this was his reply:
“The Florida Keys are almost too irresistible for their own good. Everyone who kayaks through a mangrove creek or snorkels on a coral reef comes away filled with awe — but also a profound appreciation for the fragility of this besieged ecosystem”.
Carl has a new book, RAZOR GIRL, based in the Keys, out in September to learn more about Carl visit his website.
The Keys, warts and all, can also be seen in the great series Bloodline on Netflix. This follows the lives of a dysfunctional family who run a hotel on Islamorada. See the trailer here.
Travel book. There’s one travel guide to the Keys that really stands out. The Florida Keys by Joy Williams is much more than just a guide book. It tells the story of the Keys, its history and its characters and is as readable as a good novel.
A bit of planning never goes amiss
There’s always something going on somewhere in the Keys and it’s a good idea to check the Keys events calendar before you book.
Fantasy Fest – if you’re a party animal then the annual Fantasy Fest parade is for you. This ten day super fun carnival attracts huge crowds to Key West to party and watch the humorous floats, including one carrying the annually elected Conch King and Queen. Probably best to avoid if you’re after a quiet relaxing break.
Peace and quiet also make poor bedfellows with the annual powerboat racing championship which takes place in November. Although Rachel, our Head of Business Readiness reckons there are some great haircuts to spot at the event.
For runners there’s the annual Seven Mile Bridge run. For non-runners, the bridge closure and its attendant chaos is easier to handle if it isn’t a surprise.