A beginners guide to The Florida Keys
By Helen Wright
The Florida Keys is one of those destinations that everyone has heard of, yet many don’t know a great deal about. Key West is probably the most famous of the Florida Keys – and one of Florida’s coolest destinations – but the Keys are in fact a chain of coral islands joined together by a 125-mile long Overseas Highway. When planning a trip in the Florida Keys, most people set Key West in their sights but as the furthest away island, a trip out there can be a commitment. The four-hour drive from Miami can put some people off and if you’re coming from Orlando, it’s almost seven hours on the road.
However, did you know there are five districts in the Florida Keys archipelago: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine and Key West. These each offer something unique and make fantastic holiday destinations in their own right. In fact, for a family holiday, some Keys destinations are more kid-friendly than Key West (known for its nightlife and epic party scene). And, some of the Upper Keys are less than an hour from Florida’s mainland, which if you are flying into Miami is a damn good reason to go.
Cover image: J. Philipp Krone
Where to go in THE FLORIDA KEYS
We visited the Florida Keys as part of our road trip around Florida, so going all the way to Key West (a road trip in itself) wasn’t possible. However, this didn’t mean we had to rule out the Keys completely. I’ve been to the Florida Keys a few times and some of the districts closest to Miami are actually my favourite Keys to visit. This was my first time in the Florida Keys with my children and as it turned out, the Upper Keys are ideal for a family trip.
This 2023 Florida Keys guide highlights all the best spots on the archipelago of islands, including my favourite Florida Keys closest to Miami:
Easy Itinerary Florida Keys 2023
Islamorada: 83 miles (1hr 45 mins) from Miami
I had to start my guide to the Florida Keys with my favourite of all the districts, Islamorada. This cluster of six islands is *the* place in the Keys that Florida locals will go to on vacation and for good reason. Islamorada ticks all the ‘Florida Holiday’ boxes, from flip flop friendly bars and restaurants to palm tree-lined beaches and sea views from almost every angle. When the sun goes down, be charmed by the spectacular sunsets that give this area of the Florida Keys its name, ‘Islamorada’, which, (translated from Spanish) means ‘purple island’.
Islamorada has a great vibe, buzzing with local businesses and a chilled, laid-back attitude. By day, the water is the main attraction with some of the best snorkelling in the Florida Keys, boat charters galore (from snorkelling to party cruises, whatever takes your fancy) and of course, fishing. In fact, Islamorada prides itself on being the sports fishing capital of the world. So, as well as being a top spot for adventure seekers, this also means great seafood throughout the Keys. Win win.
Is there enough to do for kids in the Florida Keys?
The debate rumbles on about whether the Florida Keys is a good place to visit with kids, but we had our three and five-year-old children with us and they loved it. It’s a destination ideal for adults, where kids are welcome and that makes it great for parents in need of a holiday! We all had a lot of fun.
Here are some of the fun things to do in Islamorada (with or without kids) to help you decide whether it’s the place for you:
Walk barefoot on Anne’s Beach
The Florida Keys isn’t known for its beaches, but this secret cove is just off Mile Marker 73.4 (Oceanside) and so ideal if you’re passing through Islamorada and fancy a break. If you’re staying on the island, this a calm and uncrowded spot to hang out. Named after a local environmentalist, Anne Eaton, this small beach is a fab spot for families because it has shallow water and white sand. The pretty cove is lined with mangrove trees and there is a wooden boardwalk through the wetland, giving it adventurous ‘Huckleberry Finn’ vibes (especially for kids).
Hang out at Robbie’s of Islamorada
Robbie’s of Islamorada is the epitome of laid-back Florida Keys life and you could easily spend all day just hanging out in this sunny spot. Located at mile marker 77.5, you will find boat excursions, snorkelling trips, a lively bar and restaurant, plus a small makers market, with stalls ideal for silly souvenirs. The busy marina is best known for its tarpon feeding – if you dare!
Enjoy the best snorkelling in Florida
The Florida Keys has some of the best snorkelling in Florida, due to its clear, turquoise waters and diverse undersea kingdom of beautiful fish and marine species in their natural habitat. The waters surrounding the coral islands of the Florida Keys are home to the third longest barrier reef in the world and, surprisingly, the only tropical coral reef in the USA. Here, the water temperature rarely dips below 70F (21C), commonly staying in the mid-80s (28C) so the Keys is the perfect place to go snorkelling in Florida year-round.
During our visit, the water was probably a bit choppy for under-5s, so I left Simon and the kids to play at Robbie’s Marina and took a ‘Snorkel the Reef Tour’ with Sundance Watersports.
The tour was excellent and worth every penny. We set off on a large catamaran, heading under the Overseas Highway and out into the Gulf of Mexico. The Sundance team has dive and snorkel experts on board and a young, friendly crew. Snorkel equipment isn’t included with the price of the tour, but equipment and wetsuits can be rented for a small extra cost. We visited in October and the water was warm, so there was no need for anything more than a mask and flippers.
We headed out to a top snorkelling spot, Alligator Reef. This area is known for its excellent coral and sealife and marked by an iconic 136-foot-tall lighthouse tower. The sanctuary is a preservation area with coral ravines, hard and soft corals, shells, fish and abundant marine life. Since the water here is shallow, the crew suggested using a pool noodle to snorkel, which made it so easy to float just below the surface and get the perfect view.
The other snorkelers had gone the other way, so I found myself exploring on my own, which was pretty cool. I’d only been in the sea for around 5-10 minutes, when I saw a Loggerhead turtle swimming a few metres from me. I couldn’t believe it was just me and this guy swimming side-by-side, surrounded by the eternal blue. It was amazing. As I gently followed this beautiful creature over the coral reef, a Barracuda fish decided to join us, casually swimming alongside. I was ecstatic. It really was just one of those rare, joyful moments that are both surreal and stunning in equal measure.
As well as my two new friends, I saw plenty of colourful fish and a former shipwreck now entirely covered with coral. Above the water, I got to be a big kid jumping off the end of the boat into the sea over and over again – one of my all-time favourite things to do. Two hours had felt like ten minutes as we began heading back to shore, but it was enough time to feel the wind in my hair and appreciate what an incredible experience this was. It probably goes without saying, but I highly recommend snorkelling in the Florida Keys! (Snorkel the Reef Tour: $45 for 2.5hrs sundancewatersports.org)
EXTRA FUN: Sundance Watersports also offer Paragliding from Robbie’s Marina ($89 per person). We didn’t get the chance to do it but I can predict that seeing the Florida Keys from the sky would be quite something. It’s on my list for next time.
Feed the Tarpon at Robbie’s Marina
For one of the more unique things to do in the Florida Keys, try feeding the giant Tarpon fish that swim around Robbie’s of Islamorada. These heavy fish can be anything from two to eight feet long, eagerly jumping out of the water to grab food if it’s available. There’s no need to book, but everyone knows Robbie’s is the place to feed Tarpon in the Florida Keys. Admission onto the dock is $2.50 per person (once per day) and each bucket of fish is $5.00. Two buckets were plenty for the four of us to have a go. It’s a lot of fun, but a lot harder than it looks. The fish kept making me jump, scream and drop the bait into the water – I was useless! Watch the video on our Instagram highlights reel.
WATCH OUT FOR: the aggressive pelicans that prowl the dock on the look out for food. They will try and grab the fish right out of your hand if you are not careful, and they are fast!
Try Sport Fishing in Islamorada
Islamorada is the sport fishing capital of the world, so where better to go on a fishing excursion to test your skills? The Gulf Stream flows past the Keys anywhere from 10 to 20 miles offshore, bringing sailfish and marlin, kingfish and wahoo, dolphin (mahi-mahi) and tuna close enough to shore to be targeted by small-boat anglers. If you catch any fish, most local restaurants will prepare and cook your catch for you. Robbie’s offer boat rentals and fishing tours.
Rent a Jet Ski in the Florida Keys
It’s fun to be a big kid on holiday! Since they didn’t come on the snorkelling trip, Finn and Simon rented a Jet Ski from Spray Watersports and headed out for a half hour joy ride ($99). You can also join a Jet Ski tour with a guide ($199 for 90 minutes). This was defintely one of the pricier things we did in the Keys but almost everywhere was advertising rentals for the same price, so it seems to be the going rate. (84457 Overseas Hwy Fareharbor.com/Spray Watersports)
Where to drink and eat in Islamorada
This beachfront restaurant and bar is one of my favourite places in the Florida Keys and truly a big motivation for coming back to the islands. Fish-to-table is the order of the day with fresh catch from blackened Mahi to Red Snapper being grilled right on the beach. There is a romantic pier and a small cove with deckchairs to enjoy the wild sunsets. Inside, the lively bar is populated with locals arriving on their boats and docking up outside for a feed and a nightcap. The cocktails and atmosphere as the sun goes down are what holiday dreams are made of.
I had bookmarked this restaurant for the last night of our Florida road trip as a celebration, so was gutted to discover that Marker 88 is currently CLOSED for refurbishment!! An all-new shiny Marker 88 is due to open later this year, so I guess I’ll just have to come back for another visit. (marker88.info)
The waterfront bar at Robbie’s of Islamorada is a top place for lunch or dinner with a dive bar feel (thanks the bearded bartenders and dollar bills pinned to the walls) and sometimes live music. It’s not uncommon to see dolphin, manatee, large fish and tropical birds in the water or mangroves surrounding the restaurant, which has a prime spot on the bay.
Look out for the large iguanas that like to sun themselves on the deck. We had two large ones and a few babies hanging out near us and the kids loved it! They are perfectly placid and won’t pay you any attention if you don’t bother them. As for the food, the fish tacos were great ($18.95) and the menu offers standard Florida Keys staples, including fresh fish and seafood, burgers etc, as well as strong cocktails if you’re not driving. (hungrytarpon.com)
Wahoo’s Bar and Grill
We headed to Wahoo’s on a recommendation and it was a great find. The restaurant is on a raised deck overlooking the harbour and has indoor and outdoor seating. There is a bar too, if you just want to stop for a drink.
The food in the Keys is very similar in most of the places you’ll go to, so expect the same offering of grilled fish and seafood, with a few steak and veggie options. The great thing about the Florida Keys is there are hardly any big chains and most restaurants are privately owned, which is fantastic. The food at Wahoo’s was really good, but the kids were most excited by the massive desserts. They devoured this huge chocolate cake in minutes… (wahoosbarandgrill.com)
Is it better to stay in Key Largo or Islamorada?
Whilst Key Largo is the largest of the Florida Keys, Islamorada is a great middle point in the Keys, so that’s where I always aim to stay when I go to the keys. Key Largo to Islamorada is a 20-minute drive and from Marathon to Islamorada is 35 minutes. The district is also just under half way from Miami to Key West.
Where to stay in Islamorada: Amara Cay Resort
One of my favourite places to stay in the Florida Keys is the Amara Cay Resort. This relaxed, stylish hotel has the perfect mix of coastal Florida design, modern touches and spacious rooms, with a great pool and restaurant set on the waterfront. Location-wise, it’s ideal for exploring Islamorada and the surrounding areas of Key Largo and Marathon. (amaracayresort.com)
Read my review of Amara Cay.
Marathon Key: 114 miles (2hr 30 mins) from Miami
There is a lot to do in Marathon Florida, especially for families, but since the district is spread over 13 islands, it’s a bit harder to navigate than the smaller keys. This is why I always choose to stay in Islamorada (I can’t resist that rustic island feel), but love to drive up and spend the day (or days) in Marathon. Here is my list of the best things to do in Marathon Key:
Sun yourself on Sombrero Beach
Since the Florida Keys are coral islands, many visitors are surprised by the lack of beaches. That doesn’t mean there aren’t places to enjoy the beautiful Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, but wider, sandy beaches are more commonly found off Florida’s mainland. In the keys, there are little coves and natural beaches, but the larger sandy areas you’ll see are usually manmade beaches. Sombrero Beach is one of the best examples of this. The beach (and parking) is free, so spending the day here is a great way to stretch out your budget and save a few dollars. There is accessible access to the beach, a playground, toilets and showers and the beach is ideal for snorkelling in the gentle surf and fishing in the shallow water.
Cycle the historic Seven Mile Bridge
The old railway bridge (its remains could be seen from Highway 1 on the drive through Marathon Key for decades) had a wild history before it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935. Built by Henry Flagler in 1912 to connect the Keys to the rest of Florida, gleeful Americans jumped on board the Florida East Coast Railway (then a steam train) during Prohibition to escape to Key West and hop on a steamboat to Cuba for a cheeky rum and coke. Despite being mostly destroyed in the storm, a two-mile section remained intact and was used for decades as a place to go fishing, rollerblading and dog waking, or just to enjoy the view. Locals call it ‘old seven’.
Eventually in 2016, the bridge was closed for safety reasons and a huge project was launched to save and restore the bridge. In 2022, Old Seven reopened with all new wooden decking and safe handrails and Old Seven can again be used by locals and tourists. Rent a bike from marathonbikerentals.com for $20 per day, per bike and follow the trail over the ocean and down to the historic Pigeon Key Island*. (*Entry to the island itself is charged at $15 per adult and includes a guided tour)
Take a tour of Pigeon Key on the new tram
Pigeon Key is a tiny island under the Seven Mile Bridge, yet is one of the Florida Keys’ most historically significant locations. In the early 1900s, the island housed over 400 railroad workers and is now as a historic site with traditional buildings and a museum dedicated to Henry Flagler’s overseas railroad and its builders. A fun way to visit the island with kids is via a train (tram) tour, which leaves from Highway 1 in Marathon. The 5-acre island is also used for marine conservation, so there is a beach and plenty of time to snorkel and tour the museum as part of the tour package. (Tram $25 per adult, $20 for children 4+, 3 and under FREE pigeonkey.net)
Make a splash at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters
We experienced (shock horror) a rainy day during our visit to Marathon, but luckily there was a choice of excellent attractions to keep us busy. Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters is a mostly outdoor aquarium that has plenty of cover and shade. Showcasing marine life that is commonly found in the Florida area, it’s a great way to see sharks, alligators, fish and stingray up close and to learn about conservation. My (English) kids were fascinated by the sheer size of some of the fish and loved getting the opportunity to feed stingray via a special feeding stick. They were really brave, but like with the Tarpon in Islamorada, the fish kept making me jump!
For an extra fee, the aquarium also offers a shark feeding experience ($25 per person) and an opportunity to swim with sharks and stingray in the tank ($30 per person). The kids were a bit too young for this, but you can see me doing it on an previous trip to the Keys on this video. (General entry: adults $28, Children $20, floridakeysaquariumencounters.com)
Visit a Turtle Hospital
The Marathon Turtle Hospital is an active, charitable organisation that rescues and treats injured sea turtles. Once rehabilitated, they are returned to the wild where possible. Reservations are required for educational tours that 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 the world’s only licensed veterinary hospital dedicated solely to the treatment of sea turtles and it was really good to show the kids the importance of conservation and the dangers of dropping litter and human waste into the sea. A wall mural showed how large some turtles are in the wild and the kids couldn’t believe how big they get.
The more technical aspects of the tour went over the kids heads (I loved it), but they enjoyed seeing the turtles being restored to health. We even got to see a turtle having a check-up. Some turtles (mostly with a condition called Bubble Butt syndrome, where damage to their shells caused by boat collisions means that cannot dive down for food and safety) can’t be released back to the wild and live permanently at the hospital, and at the end we got to feed them.
So much of the Keys is dedicated to protecting the natural environment that makes it so beautiful. While this isn’t the most exciting attraction in Florida, it’s certainly one of the most important, especially for the next generation. I urge you to check it out. (All proceeds are used to fund the hospital. Entry and tour $30 adult, $15 child, Under-4s FREE
Restaurants in Marathon to go with kids:
As soon as we got to Marathon, I made a beeline for Keys Fisheries. This is a basic fish counter that I saw on TikTok – yet, one of the best places to eat in Marathon for quality. The restaurant is the front house for one of the Florida coast’s biggest fish exporters and produce is pulled directly from the water and cooked, so virtually everything is amazing. The famed menu items are the giant stone crab (market price and pricey, but worth it), the Snow Crab chowder ($8) and the Lobster Reuben sandwich ($28). Everything is served as takeaway, so grab a bench on the deck and enjoy with sea views or a spectacular sunset. There is also a basic, but well-stocked bar.
(3502 Louisa St. keysfisheries.com)
Angler & Ale at Hawks Cay Resort
For something slightly finer but still low key, try Angler and Ale, a casual-yet-quality restaurant that overlooks the Hawks Cay Marina. The menu prioritises locally sourced ingredients and popular choices are the whole fried Snapper (above, $52), Grouper cheeks ($20 sharer) and Tuna nachos ($26 sharer). For the over-21s, there is also an impressive craft cocktail menu with an extensive beer selection that includes a signature Angler’s Ale brew.
The biggest surprise of the night was discovering that Angler and Ale use robot servers! Yes, after a (human) waiter takes your order, the food arrives via a robot server – which of course was a source of much excitement for everyone and certainly one way to entertain the kids during dinner. Mine were obsessed. The clever robots keep the food warm on route to the table and know how to navigate tables, rogue bags or giddy children trying to get in their way.
The novelty of the robot servers almost distracted from the food, which was really good. Angler and Ale is essentially a fancy restaurant in a casual setting, which is very Florida Keys and ideal for dinner with kids.
(601 Hawks Cay Blvd. Duck Key, FL 33050 anglerandale.com)
Key Largo: 60 miles (1hr 20 mins) from Miami
Key Largo is the biggest island in the Upper Keys (the ones closest to the mainland) and probably one of the most famous after Key West. Like Islamorada, Key Largo is one of the best places in Florida to go snorkelling with live coral reefs just yards from the land. Despite being the largest of the keys, the district is mainly residential or environmental, so there isn’t a lot of attractions. However, this is the best place to go shopping for souvenirs or supplies before heading further into the Keys.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Mostly everything centres around the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a 70-sq-mile area of protected waters. The park has the most stunning coral reefs in the keys and is one of the best places to go snorkelling in Florida. There are two significant dive and snorkel sites here, the Spiegel Grove Wreck (which is now a coral island) and randomly, an undersea statue of Jesus, known as Christ of the Abyss, a 9ft-tall replica of the famous statue in Genoa, Italy. There is a high chance you will see turtles, manatee and even dolphins as well as smaller fish and sea creatures.
With younger kids or if you don’t want to get into the water, the underwater coral also be viewed on glass-bottomed boat tours ($32 adult, $19 children, under 3s FREE). Above water, you can also explore the mangroves and waterways around the park on boarded walkways or by kayak or paddleboard (rentals from $20 each). There are also a few small beaches with shallow water, ideal for children.
Key Largo and the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park make the ideal stop on route from the Keys back to Miami. We stopped for one last adventure and a swim before heading to the airport. The park has full facilities, including showers and toilets. (pennekamppark.com)
Where to eat in Key Largo
If you are going to eat in Key Largo, you may as well go somewhere cute and ‘Keys-y’ and there are two great places to do that:
Key Largo Conch House
This charming, family owned café is housed in a traditional Florida Keys home and offers a great menu featuring some Native American and Cuban twists. The Conch House has indoor and outdoor seating in the garden and features frequently on the Food Network. The Conch fritters here ($15) have a hint of curry, which tastes great. Try the house tacos (from $15) or the macadamia nut Mahi Mahi sandwich ($20).
100211 Overseas Highway keylargoconchhouse.com
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen
Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen is one of the longest running restaurants in Key Largo and a Route 66 staple for breakfast or brunch. The charismatic joint is a typical diner with super friendly staff and simple, but great food. The caramel bacon French toast ($8) is a winner for breakfast or if you have a large appetite, try the ‘Mac Attack’, a huge serving of eggs, bacon, hash brown casserole and French toast ($14).
100211 Overseas Highway mrsmacskitchen.com
What else to do in the Florida Keys:
We had a great time exploring the Upper and Middle Keys and there was plenty to do for three or four days as part of our Florida road trip. For those wanting to spend longer in the Florida Keys, you may want to travel a bit further out and experience the fun of famous Key West and the tranquil haven of Big Pine Key (each 3+ hours from Miami).
Key West (164 miles from Miami)
I always think of Key West as its own little country tagged on to the end of the Florida peninsula. The lively and colourful community is a heady mix of happy hours and parties on streets that are steeped in history. Key West has a personality of its own and that’s what makes it pretty special.
There are a few places not to miss, including the gorgeous Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, proudly preserving and displaying where the famed writer lived from 1931 to 1939. If you don’t like cats, it might be one to view from the outside, since the house is home to 60+ six-toed cats, descendants of the author’s cat, Snow White.
After this, head to Blue Heaven for lunch in the outdoor garden with live music and a fruity Bellini. With stomachs fully lined, swing by the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery for a fascinating look at how local rum is made and enjoy some generous tastings. Some say the best Key Lime Pie in Florida is served at Kermit’s Key Lime Pie Shoppe, but you’ll have to taste for yourselves. Finally, don’t miss the sunset celebration on Mallory Square – stunning skies and lively street entertainers long after sundown. Get a glimpse of the atmosphere in Key West in this video from a former trip.
Big Pine Key (135 miles from Miami)
The antidote to wild and crazy Key West is the serene and tranquil Big Pine Key, less than half an hour away. Big Pine Key takes its name from the pine forests that cover the island, around 30 miles from Key West. Explore the rambling trails of National Key Deer Refuge and spy rare plants and endangered animals — such as the Key deer. Blue Hole, the only freshwater lake in the Florida Keys – is an unmatched place to see the diversity of local wildlife, marine life and beautiful turquoise waters. The Florida Keys really is a truly stunning and unique place that everyone should explore. We loved it.
For more information, take a look at fla-keys.co.uk, a valuable resource and everything you need to know about visiting the glorious Florida Keys.
For those looking to book a package deal to the Florida Keys, Purely America (0844 80 444 80 / PurelyAmerica.co.uk) offers seven nights for a family of four (2 adults and 2 children under 11) priced from £6,499. The package includes 4 x nights at Amara Cay, Islamorada + 3 x nights at 24 North Key West, return economy flights from LHR to Miami with BA, and SUV car hire for the duration including full insurance. *Based on travel on 5 April 2023.
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