April 21, 2021
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, linked by bridges, that trail off Florida's south coast into the turquoise seas of the Gulf of Mexico.
With a vibe that’s more Caribbean than the United States, the Florida Keys 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 is a highlight in itself for many people.
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, you’re on the Overseas Highway and the start of the Florida Keys in less than an hour. 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’ that indicate the distance to Key West at the end of the Overseas Highway. 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.
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 and accommodation for every budget. Highly recommended is waterside cabana bar Lor-au-lei at mile marker 82 on the bayside. 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. One minute it can be lovely sunshine, the next pouring rain, although on a positive note, the sight of a tourist driving along with their roof down in the pouring rain is guaranteed to entertain the locals and fellow holidaymakers. And when the sun is shining, which is most of the time, make sure you wear a cap and sunscreen. It feels cool in the breeze but isn’t, and you can get a sunburned forehead. But with a cap on and one eye on the clouds, it becomes a magical experience.
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.
Key West is the southernmost city in the USA, famed as a bohemian city with a thriving arts and crafts scene. It’s also famous for its sunset celebrations, bars and restaurants. Familiarise yourself with the city by going on one of the local trolley tours, then explore the many fun and quirky things to do, such as the Key West Ghost Walking Tour. Here you can 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. For the aviation enthusiasts among you, you can visit the place where the USA’s first-ever scheduled international flight 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, senior manager, crew experience, 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. The Dry Tortugas are a group of beautiful islands, 70 miles off Key West, with 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 seaplane 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.
South Florida, like all the best places, has a darker side. This often manifests itself in popular culture. Best selling author Carl Hiaasen lives in the Keys and includes them in many of his hilarious but hard-hitting novels. 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”.
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.
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 or if you’re looking for something to entertain you while you’re there.
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.
For runners, there’s the annual Seven Mile Bridge Run. For non-runners, the bridge closure and attendant chaos are easier to handle if they aren’t a surprise.
Fly to the USA on our modern efficient aircraft tended every step of the way by our brilliant ground and onboard teams. Visit our Covid-19 travel hub to discover everything we’re doing to make sure you can fly with total confidence.
This post was originally published in May 2016