The Keys are full of exotic adventures if you just know where to look!
When somebody mentions The Florida Keys, the first thing to come to mind is often Key West. However, there are over a thousand islands that make up the archipelago and Key West is only one of them. Although most of the islands are small and uninhabited, 43 of the islands are connected by bridges and contain an array of activities to enjoy.
My trip to The Keys took place in the month of November and I highly recommend that time of year because the weather was perfect! It remained in the high 70's and low 80's for the entirety of my trip and I only had a couple passing sun showers. In the summer, the heat can be unbearable, but in the late fall, The Keys are the perfect tropical getaway!
** Please keep in mind that this article is not sponsored by any of the establishments listed in it. Any place I mention is a recommendation based off my personal experience and I don't gain anything by recommending them.
First things first: Getting around
Before any adventures can occur, I thought it was important to explain how I got around The Keys, since I'm not from the area and I didn't drive there. I flew in to Miami International Airport and immediately took the train located in the airport and followed signs to the car rental agency area (there are signs everywhere directing you where to go, so you can't miss them!).
The options for car rental agencies at the airport are overwhelming, so do your research online prior to your trip to try to find the best deals. Also, if you reserve your car ahead of time then you can skip the lines (they can get pretty long). I suggest finding the most compact and fuel efficient car because you will be doing a lot of driving and it will help you save money on gas.
* I know it's tempting to rent one of the high-end sports cars, but your wallet will thank you if you resist. Also, the money you save renting an economic car can be put towards activities and food during your stay!
I then zipped out of the airport in my red, convertible Mini Cooper and set off for my accommodation in Key Largo. I booked the first half my stay in Key Largo and the second half in Marathon so that I could experience the Upper and Lower Keys without having to commute for hours each day.
For this article, I made a list of the activities that I enjoyed while in The Keys. Please keep in mind that this list is in no way exhaustive and if you participated in different activities than I did, I would love to hear about your adventures in the comments section below!
Located in Key Largo, John Pennekamp State Park is packed full of activities to do with a wide variety of price ranges. I decided to take the snorkeling tour, which was surprisingly cheap for the experience I got. It was only about $30 per person (plus about $15 in equipment rentals if you don't have your own mask, snorkel and fins) to take a 40 minute boat ride out to the coral reefs and snorkel for an hour in the warm, tropical waters.
The boat captain and helper were friendly and charismatic and told the group where the best snorkeling spots on the reef were. After some safety instructions and coral reef preservation info, we were given free range to snorkel the area on our own and to come and go to the boat as we pleased.
The marine life I saw included: a baby sea turtle, barracuda, eel, sting ray, and countless species of tropical fish. Snorkeling the coral reef is a must-do if you visit The Keys!
Kayak Through the Mangroves
On the same morning as the snorkeling, I also rented a kayak through John Pennekamp State Park and kayaked through the mangroves. I rented a single kayak for only $30 (it was only $45 for a double) and spent the morning exploring the mangrove trails. There was an option to rent the kayaks for 4 hours or more, but I suggest the 4 hours or less option because I took my sweet time on the trail and finished in about two hours.
I suggest getting to the state park early because for most of my kayak journey, I was the only kayaker on the trail and it made for a peaceful experience. However, on my way back I passed many more kayakers and realized that if I'd come later, I would've been sharing the narrow mangrove trails with groups of strangers.
Visit The Everglades
Although The Everglades are located in Miami and not in The Keys, I couldn't possibly leave this experience out. The Florida Everglades are located about an hour drive north of Key Largo and they are a must visit! There are four different entrances to The Everglades and they are located hours apart from each other, so make sure you research which entrance gives you access to the activities you're looking to do.
Since I was interested in kayaking and hiking, I drove to the Flamingo entrance and rented a kayak again. I had the option to either kayak in the Florida Bay or to kayak up the canal. Or if I wanted to do both I could've paid $45, but the day I went was breezy and I didn't want to risk kayaking in the ocean against the waves.
This kayak experience was completely different from the one I had in Key Largo. On this adventure, I saw an American Crocodile and a manatee in the water with me! The employees tell you before you head out that the alligators and crocodiles aren't dangerous, although it's best to keep a 15 foot distance from them if you do come across one.
And even if you aren't lucky enough to come across some of the large animals, the canal is full of birds and beautiful forestry.
After kayaking, I stopped at a few different trails on the way out of The Everglades and went on a couple nature walks. You're given a map when you enter the area so you can decide if you want to rent a bike or hike on a long loop, or if you would like a casual stroll. Either way, you're bound to fall in love with the unique landscape and wildlife.
Try the Seafood
To be honest... I'm not a seafood fanatic and I hardly ever eat it. That being said... you have to try the local seafood in The Keys! While on my trip, I tried seared scallop, oysters, stuffed shrimp, tomato-clam soup, shrimp scampi and fish soup. I like to have an open mind when I go to new places and to try the local cuisines and whoa! am I glad that I did! All I have to say is that The Keys does seafood right and even if you're not big into seafood like me, it might just change your mind!
Another thing I tried while in The Keys was alligator. It seemed like every place I went was serving alligator in a different style and I allowed my curiosity to get the best of me. I tried fried gator bites and a gator burger and they were both delicious! It's true that gator tends to be a bit more pricey, but you're probably not given the chance to try it every day, so it's worth splurging to try it once!
Spend a day in Key West
Okay... I know I said that Key West was the stereotypical Keys destination, but that doesn't mean you have to count it out of your itinerary! It's definitely worth driving over the gorgeous 7-mile bridge and spending a day in the southernmost part of the United States. The best thing to do is to find a parking lot that offers all-day parking (most lots I saw ranged from $15- $25) and spend the day walking around Key West. It's easy to lose track of time when you're exploring Duval Street's many art galleries and souvenir shops; the street was also full of amazing restaurants, cafes, bakeries and bars. My favorite restaurant was Frita's Cuban Burgers. The place is humble and unassuming but the Cuban food was divine! I ordered their famous Frita Burger which was topped with crispy potatoes and I added cheese and an egg and paired it with a Cuban-style iced cafe con leche and it was easily one of the best meals I ate on my whole trip.
I found that one full day was enough for me in Key West, as the shops tend to get repetitive after a while and it can be quite crowded. If you're the type of traveler who enjoys exploration and nature like I do, then it's best to visit Key West as a day trip rather than staying there. I stayed in Marathon when I went to the Lower Keys and I found the location to be ideal because it was close enough to drive to the popular tourist destinations without being in the middle of the hustle and bustle.
Look for Nature
I was impressed with the number of nature preservation areas I found in The Keys. Florida does its best to take care of its wildlife and that makes for a special vacation experience. While in Big Pine Key, one of the Lower Keys, I stopped at a small preservation area around Blue Hole, a pond surrounded by a series of nature paths (you can find it by typing Blue Hole in your phone's GPS) . The area is not large, but in that small spot I saw wild island deer, an alligator, turtles, iguana, small lizards and many species of birds.
There are also tons of animal rescue centers that give educational tours of their facilities. I saw sea turtle and dolphin rescue centers that would be the perfect place for both children and adults to spend a few hours of their day. It made me so happy to see how much effort was being put into wildlife preservation and education in the area!
Watch the Sunset
It's said that sunsets in The Keys are some of the best in the country and it doesn't take long to realize why. Every single evening I spent in The Keys gave me a breathtaking view. There's something about the way the sky turns gold and the clouds reflect oranges and pinks coupled with the silhouettes of the palm trees, docks, boats and ocean that makes time seem to stand still.
Spend a day at Zoo Miami
Since The Keys can take you hours away from the Miami Airport and my flight was an early one, I decided to spend my last day in Miami and stay in a hotel near the airport. I left my hotel in Marathon at about 8:30am and got to Zoo Miami by 11am. This was the biggest zoo I've ever been to! If possible, I recommend getting to the zoo right when it opens at 10am because it closes at 5pm and it's easy to spend the whole day there. The zoo takes you through Asia, Africa, The Amazon, Australia and The Everglades. When I went, the Australia section was temporarily closed for renovations and it still took me 6 hours to see every exhibit! (to be fair, I took my sweet time and read most of the information panels, so it could definitely be done in less time).
I initially chuckled at the fact that the zoo offers bike rentals but by the end I realized that young children and the elderly would have a difficult time walking around the grounds in the heat and the bikes were a helpful addition.
Even adventurers need to take a break sometimes and there's no better way to do it than to sip a margarita in a hammock by the ocean during Happy Hour. Or if you don't drink, relax in the hotel's pool or hot tub or join a yoga class on the beach and allow those worries and muscle aches to be washed away by the serenity.
Whether you're the type of person who enjoys relaxing vacations or the type who likes to be adventuring and exploring the whole time, The Keys has something to offer for you. It's both the perfect romantic getaway for a couple and a fun-packed vacation for families. So don't overlook them because you thought it was just for partying in Key West, because it has so much more to offer!
** This article is not sponsored by any of the locations listed. Any place I mentioned was a recommendation based off personal experience and I don't gain anything by recommending them. I just really liked them and wanted to share my experience with all of you! I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
Don't forget the sunscreen!!!
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