The magic of Florida Keys is that it is a place that chases other places away, leaving you in the present, smiling more widely than you have in a long while. But it is not all about the chill vibe in The Keys, its natural wonders have the power to amaze and educate, to deepen your appreciation of the creatures that walk – and swim –this planet with us.
We’ve put together a list of 4 natural wonders that deserve a space on your itinerary.
The Florida Reef
1. The Florida Reef
There is the Great Barrier Reef, the Belize Barrier Reef and then the Florida Reef, which is 170 miles long and about 4 miles wide. Shaped like a half-moon, the Florida Reef sits a few miles off the coast of The Keys, beginning at Fowey Rocks and extending almost to Marquesas Keys.
Snorkelers will lose themselves in the diversity of the reef, with more than 500 species of fish, from the ethereal Blue Angel Fish to the ubiquitous Blue Tang, and 40 species of stony coral, jutting up through the water like miniature mountains.
The shallow waters of this 10,000-year-old reef make it the perfect spot for beginning snorkelers.
The Florida Keys, White Sand Beach
2. White Sand Beaches
Nature has done few things more magical than create long beaches of white sand that run toward the blue-green water of tropical seas – such beaches are scattered through The Keys, with some deserving of special mention.
Sandspur Beach is a mile long with plenty of sand-castle-building sand and the kind of calm waters that toddlers rejoice in.
Dry Tortugas National Park calls to the adventurous beachgoer who revels in solitude – and shipwrecks. Though you must take a two-hour ride to get to this remote space, any inconvenience will be immediately forgotten when you catch your first glimpse of a leatherback sea turtle.
3. Meet Some of the Locals: They Can Get a Little Wild
Florida Keys is home to some startlingly beautiful birds and animals, like the Tricolored Heron pictured above, and the lovely but rare Key deer, that are currently facing endangerment. Should you wish to interact with some of The Keys’ wildlife, you have several delightful options:
• If you have children, they will howl with delight as they feed the Tarpon at Robbie’s Boatyard in Islamorada: Imagine tossing a small fish to a 5-foot long fish that gleams in the sun as she snaps up your offering.
• The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Centre is the place to learn about ecosystems that sit on land like those of pine groves and mangroves and those under water, like those of the Florida Reef.
• To see a Grey Hairstreak butterfly, a Spiny-backed Orb Weaver spider and a Belted Kingfisher head to Key West Botanical Garden.
• The turtles at the Turtle Hospital may not be feeling their best but they are usually up for visitors – why not spend some time learning more about these mesmerizing, gentle creatures?
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
4. This park is underwater. Seriously.
The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is home to the first underwater park in America: This is an extraordinarily cool happening, and because the park showcases nature at its finest, we include it as a natural wonder in this list. (Yes, mostly because it rocks. Figuratively.)
Florida Keys is a place to shrug off your business suit and slide into something much more comfortable but it is also a place that knows how important its various ecosystems are to its future. Your best memory of the Florida Keys may be staring into the crinkly eyes of a Green Turtle, or watching a majestic Tri-colored Heron slowly take flight.
The Bahamas have the power to restore human beings, to bring us to a state of inner peace, where all we hear are waves stretching out on white sand shores: There are more than 700 islands on this archipelago, where red Glasseye Snappers flit past snorkeler’s masks. And Marsh Harbour, with its one stop sign is its third largest city.
In Abaco Islands, this town of about 5,000 citizens offers chilled-out snorkelling, boating and all of the amenities that an adventurer could want, like a post office, a bookshop, grocery shops and more. And bars.
For some, Marsh Harbour is a portal to others spaces in Abaco Islands, a place to get oriented and grab some supplies, but this town is a worthy destination in its own right. Why?
MARSH HARBOUR IS LOCATED NEAR SOME COOL PLACES
If you rent a car, and, yes, you can easily do so in Marsh Harbour, you could drive to Cherokee Sound, a village of about 150 residents, where men go hunting for sharks in the dark of night and hunt wild boar in the light of day, in the neighboring hills. History buffs will be chuffed to learn that these hearty folks are descendants of loyalists to Britain who left America more than 200 years ago.
BUY SOME ART, AFTER SIPPING A DECLICIOUS COLD BREW
You can drive your car for about 30 miles south from Marsh Harbour to a lovely white-sand beach where you can sift sand through your toes before heading to Pete’s Pub and Gallery where the beer is frosty cold and the art that hangs on the wall is for sale. Oh, and there are tasty and fresh fish sandwiches on offer – and authentic punch that will stop in your tracks.
AND YOU DON’T HAVE TO LEAVE MARSH HARBOUR…
Locals will tell you that the best snorkelling in the area is at Mermaid Reef and Beach and they would be right: The waters are clear and moray eels gracefully glide by, along with glittering schools of Angel Fish. When you tire of the sublime happening that is snorkelling, a reef-free beach invites you to frolic.
FROM WIGGLING YOUR TOES IN SAND TO SLIDING INTO EVENING SANDALS
There is just something about sitting at a smartly set table enjoying a conch bisque that will be followed by creamy curried shrimp while looking forward to a Bahamian bread pudding with, yes, brandy sauce: And Wally’s is but one of the memorable dining experiences to be had in Marsh Harbour.
I WONDER WHAT KIND OF BIRD THAT IS
We live among birds wherever we are, be they glistening black crows or dainty finches or magnificent owls, and how intriguing it can be to learn about the birds that grace the places we visit: In Marsh Harbour, a guy named Reggie will meet you in the morning, lend you a pair of binoculars and introduce you to some parrots and other new friends. Lucayan Nature Tours.
MARSH HARBOUR IS A GREAT PLACE TO RENT A BOAT
As you might expect, Marsh Harbour is home to several boat rental agencies: You will find what you are looking for, from a luxurious boat that easily boards 12 adults and comes with a seasoned captain ready to take you to surreal snorkelling spots to a 21-foot fishing craft perfect for taking your family for a spin.
Marsh Harbour is an outstanding base for exploring its surroundings and returning to the comfort of amenities like delicious meals and shops each evening: You can even pick your own eggplant at Abaco Neem farm, a far cry from your local Whole Foods. Marsh Harbour, the one-stop sign town that makes an impression.
5 Exceptional Resorts in the Florida Keys That Will Leave Extraordinarily Wide Grins on the Faces of Your Children
Florida Keys: The name has come to reflect a state of mind, an almost ethereal oasis that frees the mind of troubled thoughts and calls out to the child in all of us. If you have actual children who will accompany you and your inner child to the Keys, consider these 5 resorts that have made a name for themselves in pleasing the entire family – yes, even the teenager.
THE SANTA MARIA SUITES
Should you be a fan of Ernest Hemingway, you will recognize the above photo of his home during his time in Florida Keys, where you can take a peak of his recipe for the humble hamburger, titled as “Papa’s Favourite Hamburger” in a volume named “Variations on the theme of ground beef…” And what, you may ask, does this have to do with The Santa Maria Suites?
Well, should you stroll down Louisa Street just as you leave said resort, you will, in a scant 12 minutes, be standing in front of this historical home: The Santa Maria Suites vibrate with historic charm and sit just one block from Duval Street, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Trip Advisor ranks this outstanding resort as number 14 of the top 25 hotels in America: You can enjoy healthful smoothies at the poolside, get Zen in the garden sanctuary, put your wicked knife skills to work in your gourmet kitchen and sink into the Keys way of living for a while.
Link: The Santa Maria Suites
HAWKS CAY RESORT
Should your family wish for no-holds-barred fun in a remote location where the historic Keys takes a backseat to the lets-go-to-the-pirate-ship-pool Keys, the Hawks Cay Resort is just the thing.
Your teenager will be intrigued by the Teen Lounge where she will find new friends from places scattered across the globe, while your 7-year-old will want to spend considerable time getting to know his new friends the adorable dolphins. You will revel in the luxury of the 5,000 square feet spa, where you can rejuvenate after a family game of hoops at the basketball court.
The Hawks Cay Resort is really a village that has been built for the pleasure of young families: You can sip on a key lime cooler at the Beach Grill while watching iguanas play in nearby foliage – or while watching your teenager try kite boarding for the first time. You really cannot help but lose yourself in the myriad ways to enjoy the ocean at this celebrated resort.
Link: Hawk Cay Resort
Tranquility Bay offers your family the simplicity of luxury and the seduction of privacy. Imagine waking up in a beach house on the Gulf of Mexico, where the brilliant white sand of a 2.5-kilometer beach reaches out to meet alluring turquoise water. A gourmet kitchen provides you will everything you need to feed your family a healthful breakfast before heading out for the first swim of the day.
The world slows down at Tranquility Bay, whether you are sea kayaking as the sun dances on the water’s surface, learning about how environmentalism and the Keys intersect on an eco tour, sitting on your balcony with a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc or enjoying an excellent dining experience at the Butterfly Café.
Link: Tranquillity Bay
THE CASA MARINA RESORT
The Casa Marina Resort is the kind of place where you can say, “Meet me at the octopus at the beach, the one made of sand that is wearing a tiny hat and glasses.”
This resort brings you the best of frolicking in the Gulf of Mexico as well as all that Duval Street offers, its atmosphere of historic Key’s culture blending with a hip vibe not unlike that of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Located on the largest private beach in the Florida Keys, 1,100 feet of which is reserved for resort guests, the Casa Marina Resort offers diving on America’s only living barrier reef, imaginative sand sculpting workshops and simplicity of elegance in its amenities and accommodations.
Link: Casa Marina Resort
CHEEKA LODGE AND SPA
At Cheeka Lodge and Spa, your children just might want to spend the afternoon at the delightful Camp Cheeka, perhaps casting a line off the docks, exploring the beach or fleshing out their scavenger-hunting skills, while you stretch out on a lounge chair on the beach with that book that you have wanted to read for a year – sans a moment of guilt.
You might begin the day as a family doing yoga as the sun rises on the beach, before cycling around the island. Or perhaps you’ll allow your teenager an hour at the X-box arcade while you explore a folk art gallery.
This is a resort – nay, oasis – where the designers and staff get kids and knows just how important your time with your family is to you.
Link: Cheeka Lodge and Spa
They say if you put your ear to a seashell anywhere on this planet, and listen ever so carefully, you will hear the sounds of Florida Keys. Stay at one of the above resorts and experience the sounds – without the seashell.
The Florida Keys wraps itself around you, lulling you into a blissful state as you pull up a stool at a tiki bar to order a key-lime martini as the sun slowly falls from a sky that looks as if it were painted by Monet, and as you begin to think about the parrotfish you will see as you lazily snorkel over coral reefs come morning. Ah.
But the Keys are not always about solitary quiet pleasures: On the last Wednesday of July, at precisely 12:01 AM, when moonbeams are dancing on inky waters, the annual mini lobster season begins, which means that until 12:00 midnight on Thursday, you can morph into a lobsterer.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission invite novices and experts alike to experience the joy of lifting a net out of Florida waters with a Florida Spiny lobster dancing inside it – and up to 60,000 snorkelers and divers will head to the Keys to catch their dinner with their own hands. Are you in?
THE LOBSTER INFORMATION BOOTH
Aspiring lobsterers should head to the Lobster Information Booth in Key Largo where friendly workers from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can tell you everything that you ever wanted to know about catching the Florida Spiny lobster, including how to use a tickle stick to coax the bashful “bug” (this is Florida Keys-speak for lobster) out of its hiding place.
THE LOBSTER PALOOZA EVENT
Bahia Honda State Park holds a family-friendly event aptly named Lobster Palooza where you can learn about the upcoming mini-season – the palooza is held annually on the Tuesday before the mini season begins – and even touch a Spiny lobster who is lounging around in a tank, or take an official tour of a Coast Guard vessel. The excellent demonstrations on how to catch a Spiny lobster are a must-see.
As are many of the true pleasures in this life, lobstering in the Florida Keys is simple: You only need a net, a tickle stick, and your trusty mask and snorkel to land a Florida Spiny lobster. You should also be in reasonably good health, as swimming down to meet the bug of your choice behind a rock requires holding your breath, using your arm muscles to hold and move a net and climbing in an out of a boat.
CHOOSING A BOAT
The 48-hour length of the mini season means that there is a buzz in the air, the kind of communal excitement that rouses up when a group of human beings are about to do something usual, and memorable, together. It is important to keep your wits about you and not fall victim to mini season mania; this means hiring a boat with a serious captain who has the appropriate licenses, regulation lifejackets and other safety equipment on board.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Shrugging off the trappings of who you are – perhaps a stay-at-home mom with a rambunctious two-year-old or a marketing manager for a firm of optometrists – and sliding into the waters of the Florida Keys, lobstering net in hand, to seek out a Spiny lobster as it lies chameleon-like on a coral reef is freeing: You will feel like 8-year-old again. And you can do it all over again just as soon as it is over – you are legally permitted to take 6 of these soon-to-be delicious creatures.
After your adventure, you will hopefully have 6 spiny lobsters to cook – and clean: You will find plenty of charter boats who will take care of your catch for you, packaging it for freezing or cooking. Why not bring your catch to a local restaurant and have them grill the tails and whip up some cilantro/lime butter? You can savour each delectable bite as you remember the sweet thrill that crept up your spine when you first saw it on the ocean floor.