The Florida Keys dribble down from Mainland Florida with the laziness you might expect from someone pouring out the last dregs of their rum bottle. Starting from Miami, you can pick up a hire car, in partnership with Avis, and drive down the Keys in less than a day. Just use the States’ famous Highway One. The road strings the most important islands together like a tropical necklace – and, with 42 bridges, it doesn’t spend much time on solid ground. Instead, you’ll cruise over warm cerulean waters, past reefs, mangroves, motley locals and many perfect sunsets.
The drive looks short, but there’s no need to rush when you’re on ‘island time’. Besides, it’s better to savour your journey, breaking it up into smaller hauls over a couple of days. This will give you the time to admire the impressive span of Seven Mile Bridge or snorkel over dramatic Elkhorn Coral in the Florida Reef.
Your drive down will keep getting weirder and weirder the further you go. It starts innocently enough, when you see houses with mailboxes shaped like manatees. Next you’ll spot signs to an underwater music festival at Pine Key, starring ‘Paul McCarpney’. Soon you’ll pass cars covered in shells and dogs wearing life jackets. Keep going and you’ll eventually wash up at famous Key West, home to a host of lost souls and Hemingway fans. The LGBTQ community is hopping here, too.
Diving for treasure
Drive down the Keys from Miami to snorkel in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, You'll find hidden treasure: Christ of the Abyss weighs in at an impressive nine tons.Book the Hilton Key Largo
Key Largo is many people’s first port of call on the Keys, and it shows. It’s busy, built up and touristy to the hilt. However, there are quiet spots if you go looking for them and fine snorkelling, too. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park makes up for Key Largo’s commercialisation: it contains the only coral reef in the continental United States and you can spend the day in a glass bottomed boat watching coral scroll past under your feet.
There are plenty of Key Largo hotels to choose between. For luxury you can count on, stay at the four-star Hilton Key Largo. Three miles from downtown Key Largo, at the Hilton you’ll find a private, white sand beach, and your own private balcony for enjoying the view.
Make for Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen for a menu as long as the Overseas Highway. Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen is hokey, homely and holiday-ready, and (a case in point) has its own souvenir shop.
For a drink, sit out back at Gilbert’s Tiki Bar and hum along with visiting live bands. This joint does plenty of passing trade with motorists coming off the Overseas Highway for their first stop along the Keys.
There’s an underwater national park on your doorstep in Key Largo, named after a do-gooder newspaper editor from Miami. When you snorkel in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, you’ll find a peculiar sight: an eight-foot tall bronze statue of Christ submerged underwater, his hands raised in supplication to passing swimmers. Don’t try and lift him out, though; he was placed here deliberately.
Visiting the Everglades from Key Largo is easy, too, since the mainland national park is only 40 minutes away by car. Look out for crocs as you tread the easy boardwalked Anhinga Trail. Alternatively, take an iconic airboat tour. These flat-bottomed boats use a mounted airplane-style propeller to glide over even the shallowest swamps.