The Florida Keys are some of the most scenic and laid-back parts of the U.S. It’s a popular vacation destination that welcomes roughly four million visitors a year. With plenty of sunshine and warm weather, it’s a little bit of the tropics that are easily accessible without a passport. And there’s plenty for adults, couples, and families to do, too – here are just five places to put on your itinerary.
1. Dry Tortugas National Park
Incredibly, most of what makes this national park stand out is underwater! The Dry Tortugas National Park is about 70 miles west of Key West and accessible only by water, so you’ll need to take the ferry, a charter or private boat, or a seaplane.
History buffs can check out the 19th century Fort Jefferson. Campers are welcome on Garden Key, and there’s ample fishing at Green Key. It’s the snorkeling sites, though, that keeps folks coming back to the Dry Tortugas.
The Windjammer wreck, actually the sunken Avanti, which went down in 1901, functions as an artificial reef. Little Africa is more shallow, and visitors can see barracuda, soft coral, and plenty of fish. Texas Rock, in 55’ of water, is known for the abundant fish nearby.
Try the night snorkeling at the Moat Wall off the fort for a one-of-a-kind vacation experience. If snorkeling isn’t your thing, try canoeing or kayaking. Many visitors also enjoy bird watching or stargazing at night.
There are no concessions at the park, and it’s a pack in/pack out park. Guests who plan on fishing at Dry Tortugas need to have the appropriate Florida saltwater fishing license; boaters require permits, too. The park offers ranger-guided tours, and themed events, like living history programs and ecology tours, too.
2. Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was one of the greatest American writers, known for fiction and journalism in a compact style. For more than ten years, he lived in Old Town Key West, and later in his life, also used the home as a place to stay when he traveled through the area.
Hemingway’s home is legendary for its gardens, architecture, and of course, the glorious in-ground pool that was a technological marvel for its time.
The 2-story home with arched windows and yellow-green shutters and black trim is immediately recognizable. Asa Tift was the first owner; he had it built in the mid-19th century, and Hemingway moved into the home in 1931. Some of the Hemingway family’s furniture and decor items remain in the home.
Visitors will also see the 6-toed feline descendants of Hemingway’s own polydactyl cat. The gardens of the home spotlight tropical flowers like Bleeding Heart, Chenille, Gardenia, Elephant Ear, and Plumbago, plus trees like Royal Poinciana, banana, Caribbean almond, Bougainvillea, Frangipani, Golden Bamboo, and Lady Palm.
The home and museum are open every day, and no reservations are required, although tour tickets are cash-only.
3. Duval Street
Just 1.25 miles in length and running from Mallory Square at one end to the Southernmost point at the other, this north/south route is good for walking or biking, or even picking up the Conch Tour Train, a 90-minute tour of Old Key West.
Enjoy an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, bars, galleries, and bed and breakfasts. All-day entertainment extends into the evening, too, with live music, local and international cuisine, as well as up-and-coming and established artists and musicians.
Check out Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium and Hellings House Museums. The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory along the route is a glassed walk-through habitat attracts up to 60 types of butterflies and nearly two dozen exotic bird types; visitors can also access the site’s learning center for up-close views and educational resources. Don’t miss their Twilight tours and Flamingle events, too.
Duval Street is home to numerous annual festivals, like Hemingway Days (Papa lookalikes on parade!) and Fantasy Fest in October. But don’t worry if you don’t make it to Key West during one of the festivals. Mallory Square’s nightly Sunset Celebration with food, music, dancing, and performers is all you need. The fun kicks off two hours before sunset every day.
4. Charter Fishing Trips
Its unique geography, where the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico meet, coupled with the unusual underwater landscape make Key West a fishing paradise. Charter fishing trips offer morning, afternoon, and all-day tours.
These are great trips for families, family reunions, guys’ weekends, bachelor parties, and college or fraternity reunions. Local charter operators take care of equipment, fishing gear, and all permits. Their knowledge of the area pretty much guarantees a good time and successful fishing trip, whether you’ve headed to the flats, deep sea, offshore, wreck, or reef fishing.
Go out for grouper, sailfish, tuna, tarpon, swordfish, kingfish, mackerel, and more. Some restaurants will even cook your catch; call in advance to find out.
5. Bahia Honda State Park
Find this remarkable state park on Bahia Honda Key at Mile Marker 37. More than 500 acres of peaceful sea and sand await you. While the park sustained a lot of damage after Hurricane Irma, much of the park is back in top shape and open to visitors. Perhaps best known are its two beaches, one on the Atlantic Ocean side, and one on the Florida Bay side.
Guests can also pay for a snorkeling tour to Looe Key Marine Sanctuary; reservations are required. Hiking, biking, and fishing are also popular past times at Bahia Honda State Park. Visitors also enjoy fishing and bird watching. Tent and RV camping is available; some duplex cabins are also available. All reservations go through ReserveAmerica.
The Florida Keys are one of the most exciting vacation destinations you can see within the U.S. There’s flora, fauna, and sea life that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s a wonderful combination of memorable sights and enjoyable activities that keep many travelers returning again and again.