How to Immerse Yourself in Florida Keys Culture
Surrounded by sparkling Gulf waters, the Florida Keys is naturally home to aqua-centered historical treasures.
At first glance, the Florida Keys are water and sky, horizon and clouds, mangroves and marshes. But look in the right places and you'll find a beautiful island chain alive with history and culture. From Flagler to Hemingway, the rich heritage of the Keys and Key West culture has left us much to appreciate. In true Keys style, the best way to explore it all is to take your time.
Key Largo: Water Wonders
First stop along U.S. 1, this northernmost Key's culture revolves around (and under) the water. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which made history as the first undersea park in the U.S., offers coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps – perfect spots for fishing, swimming, snorkeling and all kinds of exploring.
Dive enthusiasts should do some of that exploring around the magnificent 8.5-foot-tall Christ of the Deep sculpture, submerged in Key Largo waters since 1966. The bronze statue, which literally welcomes divers with open arms, has had quite a journey – originally cast in Italy, it made several stops before arriving at its current resting place 25 feet below the surface. Not even hurricanes have dislodged it. Its creators say it symbolizes peace and hope for mankind, as well as a love for the sea.
Other sea-themed activities in Key Largo include swimming with the dolphins at places like Dolphins Plus or admiring the original boat "The African Queen" from the classic film of the same name.
Islamorada: Art, Music and Angling
Just as Key Largo is heralded for diving, Islamorada is known for sport fishing. Numerous boat charters can help you live out your deep-sea fishing dream. Besides the fish, this string of islands features artsy boutiques, lively music festivals and classic Old Florida attractions.
Opened in 1946, the marine animal park Theater of the Sea offers a variety of animal shows and interactive programs that are as educational as they are entertaining. The park also offers dining and a private lagoon beach for visitors.
Cool, quiet Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Park offers a glimpse into Florida's unique island history dating back to the early 1900s. For a dose of more modern culture, check out Founders Park, which hosts a variety of food and music events throughout the year.
Marathon: Flagler's Rest Stop
Midway down the Keys, Marathon offers a wealth of cultural and historical attractions, from the Marathon Community Theatre – which produces half a dozen plays and musicals each season – to nature hikes at Curry Hammock State Park and archaeological sites at Crane Point Museum and Nature Center.
Just beyond Marathon, nestled beneath the old Seven Mile Bridge, is Pigeon Key, which, beginning in 1908, was the site of a work camp for Henry Flagler's boldly imagined but ill-fated Overseas Railroad (once called the "Eighth Wonder of the World"). Take a ferry ride to the Key and step back in time as you explore the original cottages, where 400 of Flagler's workers lived. Then continue over Seven Mile Bridge for one of the world's most scenic drives.
Big Pine Key: Where the Wild Things Are
Next stop on U.S. 1 is Big Pine Key, home to the National Key Deer Refuge, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2007. The refuge harbors Key deer – a subspecies of the North American white-tail – found only in the Florida Keys.
Whether it's learning about the Key deer's origins at the Refuge Visitor Center, searching for alligators in The Blue Hole (an old rock quarry of fresh water along a nature trail) or looking for treasure at the weekend flea market (during winter months), you'll find nature woven into the culture of Big Pine Key.
Perhaps most spectacular of all is Bahia Honda State Park, a beautiful state park once named America's #1 beach by coastal expert Dr. Beach. The park offers an array of water-related activities as well as hiking. While there, be sure to admire the most impressive remnant of Flagler's railroad – a trestle-style bridge that used to link Bahia Honda to Spanish Harbor Key.
Key West: An Artist's Haven
Finally, you'll arrive at Mile Marker 0 – the end of the road but certainly not the end of Key West culture.
For centuries, pirates, wreckers, writers, fishermen, artists, hippies and even chickens have called Key West home, creating a vibrant place of acceptance and creativity. As a result, the 2-by-4-mile island is practically packed with culture and history.
Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost… the literary history is rich. And still today, the island claims more writers per capita than any other city in the U.S. Spend some time exploring the charming island homes – including the much-revered Hemingway House – that inspired some of these great writers.
Performing arts abound in this town. On any given night you have your pick of shows at The Waterfront Playhouse, Red Barn Theatre and Tennessee Williams Theatre. The Key West Museum of Art and History at the Custom House displays a wide variety of art, including the colorful work of Cuban folk artist Mario Sanchez.
Other experiences on your Key West culture tour should include the Key West Treasures Museum, Audubon House & Tropical Gardens and an excursion to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.
At the end of the day, make your way to Mallory Square for a true island spectacle with roots half a century old. Resident street performers swallow knives, juggle fire and tightrope walk, all while another beautiful sun dips into Key West waters.
For more information on planning your Florida Keys culture-rich getaway, call 800-FLA-KEYS or visit www.fla-keys.com.