Beach Vacations to the Florida Keys

Beach on Loggerhead Key, Dry Tortugas, Florida Keys
Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas, Florida Keys (H. Dragon/Flickr)

Florida Keys Beach Travel Tips

  • You can fly directly into Key West or Marathon, but some of the best beaches and attractions lie along the Overseas Highway. Land in Miami or Fort Lauderdale instead, where flights are cheaper, and roll into the Keys on four wheels.
  • Oddly, the Keys are not known for their bounty of pristine beaches. The sand can be coarse and downright pebbly, and the water along shore can get a bit brackish.
  • High season can last from December into April, and summer is becoming popular, too (the Keys are much cooler and breezier than mainland Florida). To beat the crowds, try late spring or fall, and watch out for weekend traffic on the Overseas Highway.
  • There's decent snorkeling along the coastlines of many Florida Keys, but it's best to hop a boat tour so you can explore the better-protected marine sanctuaries further offshore, where there's no shortage of underwater life.

Ever wish you could just drive to the Caribbean? Well, you can—more or less. All you have to do is keep going past Miami and steer for the Florida Keys. The 150-mile string of islands feels a world apart from the rest of the state with its laid-back, Margaritaville vibe and top-tier snorkel and dive sites (among the best in the country)—and it's all accessible via the dramatic Overseas Highway. You'll cruise over stretches of bright ocean and touch down on low-lying islands until you eventually hit Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States.

Convenient for day trippers, the Upper Keys stretch from Key Largo, the largest of the islands and a major scuba destination, south to Islamorada. You'll pass funky shell shops and motels, and natural attractions like Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, America's first underwater park. Stop in at the visitor center, which has a nature-movie theater and 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, and then get exploring. The park is laced with mangrove swamp trails and offers glass-bottom-boat tours, too. Next stop: the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, where you can see endangered local birds get nursed back to health before returning to the wild. Scuba enthusiasts will want to check out Islamorada's History of Diving Museum.

The scenery gets wilder and greener in the Middle Keys. On Pigeon Key, you'll discover a small museum and early-twentieth-century buildings dating back to the construction of Henry Flagler's overseas railroad. Grassy Key's Dolphin Research Center lets visitors swim with its mammalian subjects, and snow-white Sombrero Beach on Marathon Key (mile marker 50) is one of the best in the region.

The gravity-defying Seven-Mile Bridge (featured in many Hollywood movies) leads from the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys. You'll soon see signs for the nationally acclaimed, 524-acre Bahia Honda State Park (on the key of the same name), which lords over some of the best sandy beaches in the whole chain (and some of the most accessible offshore snorkeling, too). Boats leave from here to superb diving and snorkeling at the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. For landlubbers, there's the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key, which lets visitors get up close and personal with its dog-sized deer.

The road trip ends where the ultimate adventure begins, in party-hearty Key West. Also known as The Conch Republic, Key West is loaded with vintage, plantation-style homes (many converted into charming inns), wild bars (including one that's clothing-optional), a colorful history of artist-residents (Ernest Hemingway is a local icon), and enough unique restaurants and entertainment options to make up for the T-shirt shops and cruise-ship crowds. Cuba is just 94 miles to the south, where Gulf of Mexico waters become Caribbean Sea.


Published: 23 Dec 2010 | Last Updated: 30 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Florida Keys

$269-$649
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Southernmost on the Beach
$379-$409
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Santa Maria Suites Resort
$380
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La Mer Hotel and Dewey House

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