Citizen Femme contributing writer, Erica Corsano takes an eco-friendly road trip through the Florida Keys.
About 15 miles south of Miami, the glorious coral cay archipelago, known as the Florida Keys, makes its first appearance.
A weekend playground for locals, the Keys also attracts tourists from around the globe who want to have fun in the sun and experience its unique charm and high-low mix of lodging, activities, and dining. For an eco-excursion with a luxurious twist, here’s your official guide.
THE PACKING EDIT
Day One/Two: The Upper Keys – Key Largo, Tavernier
WHAT TO DO
Key Largo is a darling key which will have you embracing its laid-back vibes and humming the chorus to The Beach Boys’ Kokomo in no time. Start your adventure at the US’ first undersea park, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Established in 1963, the park is located at Mile Marker 102— each mile along the jaw-droppingly gorgeous road that connects the keys (Overseas Highway) has mile markers to help you navigate through paradise.
At John Pennenkamp, the main attractions are stunning coral reefs, spectacular marine, life and the underwater Christ of the Deep statue – seen flooding Instagram feeds across the globe.
For another wowing aquatic excursion, book a spot on a scuba boat with the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), and observe how their experts replant coral. 98% of Florida’s reef building species have been lost in the last 50 years and CRF is dedicated to creating offshore nurseries and restoration programs for threatened coral species. Their renovated Coral Restoration Foundation Exploration Center allows visitors to engage with interactive exhibits, including hands-on training to work in coral nurseries.
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center is a non-profit conservation organisation dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of native and migratory wild birds that have been harmed or displaced. Side note: they even have a cheekily named 24-hour “Birdgency” hotline should you encounter any feathery friends in need. Take a stroll through and learn about the importance of coexistence with the area’s wild bird species, of which there are over 250. After your visit you might want to consider adopting a bird in need – your donation will provide food and shelter for one of their awesome Aves.
WHERE TO EAT + DRINK
Eco-excursions can be tiring business, so do take time out for a bite, a cocktail, and a rest. You can’t come to the Keys and not try the local catch – especially when it’s served inside a dive that’s been frozen in time. The Fish House specialises in fresh local seafood, including yellowtail snapper, mahi mahi, grouper, Florida lobster, and stone crab. All dishes are served in a fun, friendly, and casual Keys-style atmosphere – read: kitschy decor, old-school seating, and plenty of quirky and fun personalities to match.
WHERE TO STAY
Have a post-dinner Mojito at Las Olas and then lay your head to rest in one of Playa Largo’s luxurious king rooms – resort or ocean view are your best bets. This 14-acre 144-room waterfront Autograph Collection resort opened in 2016 as the first new-build resort in the Upper Keys in 21 years. The property offers a marina, multiple bars and restaurants, full-service spa and fitness offerings, a beach house for private corporate functions, wedding and conference facilities, and a secluded white-sand beach.
Another fabulous lodging option is Baker’s Cay Resort. This family friendly Curio by Hilton luxury resort is the epitome of modern-elegance-meets-relaxed-island-style. Offering activities for the chill-set and the jet-set alike, check out a plethora of water sports like kayaking, paddle boarding, and jet-skiing, or head to the quiet Hammock Beach to relax whilst having signature cocktails delivered to your chair.
Day Two/Three: The Middle Keys – Islamorada
WHAT TO DO
Beloved by Floridians heading south for a little adventure, the sport fishing capital of the world has much to offer. Situated between Everglades National Park and the deep waters of the Florida Strait, Islamorada is made up of six islands: Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Lower Matecumbe Key. and the offshore islands of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key.
Among the many activities here, hand-feeding hungry tarpon at the docks of Robbie’s Marina is up there. The area is also a diver’s paradise, where one can explore the extraordinary reef line and brimming patch reefs, or be transported back in time at the History of Diving Museum.
WHERE TO STAY
WHERE TO EAT + DRINK
For fine dining, Chef Michael’s is considered to be one the best restaurants in the Florida Keys. While their motto is “peace, love, and hogfish,” there are many dock-to-dish daily selections of seafood to try – think mutton snappers, lion fish, tilefish, tripletail, and more, prepared eight different ways. Our pick? A light and simple Adriatic style: impeccably grilled and then napped with an olive oil and herb sauce that is to die for.
A more casual beachfront experience can be found at Morada Bay, where you can indulge in Caribbean-style American eats at a table right on the beach. Should your dinner conversation become lacklustre, head to their funky, beachside gift shop (located inside a refurbished RV), which sells chic beach duds and locally made gifts. If you’re lucky, you’ll be in town for one of the property’s signature full-moon parties where you can throw back a few local brews and dance barefoot on the beach!
Day Three/Four: The Lower Keys – Marathon and Key West
WHAT TO DO
On your way to Key West, stop in Marathon for a sweet encounter with turtles and a bite to eat. Opened in 1986, the Turtle Hospital treats injured sea turtles and, when possible, returns them to the wild. Educational tours introduce visitors to the resident sea turtles and the hospital’s curative programs for loggerhead, green, hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley turtles. The hospital is believed to be the world’s only state-licensed veterinary hospital dedicated solely to the treatment of sea turtles. Gawking, oohing, and aahing at sweetly named turtles of all shapes and sizes (including Rafael, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo – of course!) is the main attraction at this small but mighty facility.
Pop into Burdines Waterfront, a super-chill spot with a tiki theme and waterside views, for casual fare like burgers, sandwiches, and salads. It’s a local favourite to catch a Florida Keys sunset and is also home to world-famous fried key lime pie.
Your next, and final, stop is Key West. From ecotourism and snorkelling adventures, to swanky spa days and fine dining, plus dive bars, live music, and drag shows aplenty, Key West has activities to satisfy any type of traveller.
Top of any Key West agenda: a visit to the former home of literary genius Ernest Hemingway, who lived and wrote in Key West for nearly 10 years. At the Hemingway Home and Museum, you can step back in time and visit the rooms and gardens where the prolific writer spent the most important period of his writing career. Enjoy exploring the historic property in all of its glorious Gilded Age splendour (the house was built in 1851) whilst getting to know the house’s famous colony of cats, most of which are six-toed. Legend has it the curious creatures descended from a sea captain’s feline which was gifted to the famed author who occupied the exceptional edifice in the 1930’s.
After playing tourist around town, hitch a boat ride to the tastiest meal in town at Latitudes. Located on the stunning – and slightly exclusive – island of Sunset Key, Latitudes offers casual fare with a Caribbean flair and breathtaking views of the Gulf of Mexico.
No trip to Key West is complete without partaking in aquatic activities that feed the soul. Hop on an Honest Eco Dolphin Watch and Snorkel Tour aboard SQUID, Key West’s first electric-powered charter boat, for a four-hour dolphin watching and snorkelling tour. Watch wild dolphins as they play, sleep, hunt, and mate in Key West’s turquoise waters. Your hosts will also take you on a tranquil snorkelling adventure and even help you snap underwater shots of the impressive aquatic life before your eyes.
Head back to your hotel and get spruced up to experience the island’s best sunset views from an old-school (and super romantic) wooden schooner. Feel the cool sea breeze blowing in your face while sipping on bubbles and basking in the absolutely glorious sunset sunlight that only Key West can deliver.
WHERE TO STAY
There are loads of luxury properties in Key West but since you’ll be spending most of your time exploring, a simple, chic option is your best bet. Kimpton Key West’s Winslow’s Bungalows features 85 guest rooms, three pools, a poolside bar, free continental breakfast, a bike share program, and is pet friendly. The property is within walking distance of Key West’s nightlife, museums, activities, and shopping, but feels like it’s a million miles away, thanks to its many historic buildings nestled within lush landscaping.
* Purely America offers seven nights in The Florida Keys & Key West from £2,199 per person. Departing on 12 May 2022, the package includes seven nights accommodation (three nights room only at Playa Largo, Key Largo, and four nights B&B at Kimpton’s Winslow’s Bungalows, Key West, both in Standard Rooms), return economy flights from LHR to Miami with British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, and Compact Car hire for the duration. Pricing is based on two adults travelling, sharing accommodation. All holidays are ATOL Protected.
For more information on the Keys’ ‘Connect & Protect’ sustainability initiative, please see here.