Dangling somewhere between Florida and the Caribbean - both geographically and philosophically - the Florida Keys are all together someplace else. Just as cleanly as they break from the mainland, they depart from mainstream tempos. Their easy-going attitude, renegade spirit and vibrant coral reefs make them a favorite destination for families, couples, watersports enthusiasts and escapees of all kinds.
The jumping-off point from reality, Key Largo, leads this journey into island life at its most colorful and outrageous. Addresses along Highway 1 are described in mile marker numbers and shorts and flip-flops are the official uniform of the so-called "Conch Republic."
Stretching from Key Largo through the Dry Tortugas, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects aquamarine waters, ithe world’s third largest barrier coral reef and countless marine life that call the reef home. Game and other tropical fish, sea turtles, shells, sea fans and other awesome spectacles await underwater sightseers. Dive shops can set you up with all the gear, courses and transportation you need. One of the most popular spots, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, runs charters to Christ of the Deep, a 4,000-pound bronze statue resting on the sea's bottoms, and other natural coral formations.
To ogle sea critters without getting wet, head to Islamorada, home to Theater of the Sea, which offers dolphin and sea lion interaction programs as well as shows and exhibits. Also, don't miss the chance to feed giant tarpon that gather around the docks at Robbie's of Islamorada.
Fishing is one of the Keys' greatest attractions. Cast for the big guys - marlin, sailfish, tuna, dolphin - on deepwater charters or learn to fish with finesse for the elusive bonefish, a haunt of backwater flats. You'll find charters available on all the major keys, particularly Islamorada, Marathon and Big Pine Key.
Marathon appeals to families with its Crane Point Museums and Nature Center and its abundance of resorts, from mom-pop to grand destination types. It is the launching point for the Seven Mile Bridge, often known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. As part of the Overseas Highway that interconnects the chain of keys, it consistently gets named among the nation's most scenic drives. From it, you will spot the original circa-1905 railroad bridge. Today it's a hot fishing pier that takes you to Historic Pigeon Key, a site where Bahamian railroad workers once lived.
The bridge drops you onto Big Pine Key and Bahia Honda State Park, listed among America's best beaches. Most natural of the main keys, Big Pine Key is all about fishing and its leading population of Key deer, a tiny subspecies of the white-tailed deer that was hunted practically to extinction in decades past.
Scuba operators run daily trips to Looe Key Sanctuary Preservation Area, where large "spur and groove" reef formations provide for some of the best diving in the Keys. Come summer, the quest is on for Florida lobster, whose succulent tails show up on the menus of local restaurants during open season.
During the seven-month long stone crab season (Oct. 15-May 15), hundreds of thousands of pounds of Florida’s stellar crustacean will make their way from area waters to diners across the antion who hunger for their sweet, tender meat. Stone crabs are most abundant in the Florida Keys, and considered a seafood delicacy. Conch is another culinary Keys icon, harkening back to the islands' deep Bahamian roots. Since conch fishing is no longer allowed in the Keys, the meat for local specialties such as fritters, cracked conch and conch salad comes from abroad. Restaurants also serve Cuban dishes, Floribbean cuisine and tropical fruit treats, particularly that specialty of all Keys specialties: Key lime pie. The contest is ever afoot for the best of this pudding-like sweet-sour delight.
At the end of the road, like a tropical island version of Oz (lots of lizards, no wizards), lies the inimitable Key West. Forget all the rules when you enter this world of street performers, artists, sidewalk cafes, funky saloons, historic B&Bs and a sunset celebration second to none. Historically one of Florida's oldest ports and metropolises, it is in many ways mired in the past. Attractions recall Ernest Hemingway's residence here, visits by Harry Truman, and the island's shipwrecking era, cigar-making days and military importance.
The Key West Aquarium was Florida's first of its kind. It sits along the waterfront among a sponge market, raw bars and resorts. It's the place to be come sunset, when throngs witness every form of entertainment from pet iguanas to fire-eaters. This is a small taste of the Key West party scene. For the full force, visit during Halloween when Fantasy Fest turns the streets upside down.