Paradise in 5 Keys: The Florida Keys & Key West

When friends told me The Florida Keys & Key West was their happy place, I knew I had to take a trip down south and see it myself. It’s known as one of the top two places in the world to watch the sunset and feels like you are in the Caribbean. It’s easy to forget where you are until you find the buoy marking the Southernmost point in the continental USA. It’s a place where people feel they belong, which makes sense since their tagline is “come as you are”.

Florida Keys Southernmost Point Marker Buoy

Months after Hurricane Irma made its way through the state in 2017, 80% of the Keys were back up and running. With signs and symbols of recovery, including the famous and stunning Seven Mile Bridge, the one thing you can feel is the resilience and toughness of the people who have come together to rebuild, who have stayed strong and bonded together. That’s why they are called the conch.

Florida Keys -Seven Mile Bridge - Sabrina Pirillo

Seven Mile Bridge – Photo Sabrina Pirillo

The Florida Keys are made up of 150 isles, but the 5 main islands that make up the majority of the chain are Key Largo, Marathon, Islamorada, Big Pine Key and Key West. Take a drive from top to bottom, stopping to experience all the amazing watersports and activities these islands offer.



Key Largo:

From Miami International Airport, you’ll take a scenic drive thru the Everglades watching as the Mile Marker signs countdown (you’ll find Mile Marker 0 in Key West). Here you’ll also witness wildlife encounters, take in fishing, kayaking and of course, diving, where you can find the famous 4,000-pound bronze statue of Christ that stands beneath the ocean’s surface in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Advanced snorkellers can dip down 25 feet and touch his hand.

Christ of the Abyss Key Largo Photo by Stephen Frink Florida Keys News Bureau

Photo courtesy by Stephen Frink Florida Keys News Bureau

How has scuba life changed since Irma? The reef is a little shaggy right now and coral restoration efforts have been implemented to transplant coral reefs. This process will take about two years and you can find out more at CoralRestoration.org, including how to volunteer in coral restoration while on vacation.

On a positive note, some of the shipwrecks have improved because they’ve shifted in the storm to become more visible and accessible while uncovering new diving spots for scuba divers.

Marathon:

Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club-Hyatt Place:

Perfect for the family to enjoy spending time by the marina with a stunning waterfront where you can see pelicans flying by or visit the famous lighthouse, lounge by the pool or take a walk on the boardwalk. With 125 rooms and suites, you and your family can rest comfortably after a day of fun in the sun, then wake up and enjoy a delicious buffet breakfast, included with your stay.

Aquarium Encounters - Photo Sabrina Pirillo

Aquarium Encounters – Photo Sabrina Pirillo

The Florida Keys is home to the only living coral reef in the US, featuring over 6000 species of marine life. You can get a taste of this from Aquarium Encounters. With several interactive experiences to be had and lots of marine life on display, one fantastic experience for the whole family is the Coral Reef Encounter which features two tanks: predators of the ocean and the other friendly tank where you can snorkel and feed cow nose stingrays named Chip & Dale. You’ll also find 50 other species of fish to wave to and have the opportunity to feed sharks!

 

Florida Keys -Aquarium Encounters - Sabrina Pirillo

Aquarium Encounters -Photo Sabrina Pirillo

Once you’ve peeled out of your wetsuit (p.s moms will appreciate this, it’s like a full body Spanx and you feel like a sausage casing) take the kids to explore all sorts of interactive exhibits including petting stingrays, learning about seahorses and finding The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…before they mutated.

Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys:

National Key & Deer Refuge is free and open to the public and was established in 1957 to preserve and protect Key deer and other wildlife. Its 9,200 acres are made up of forests, freshwater wetlands and mangrove forests. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for Bambi.

Deer Refuge - Sabrina Pirillo

Deer Refuge -Photo Sabrina Pirillo

Key West:

For a fabulous stay, just 15 minutes from downtown Key West, Oceans Edge Hotel and Marina will be sure to make everyone go WOW! The property has 175 spacious suites (suited for large families) and six pools! The three-story building features traditional boardwalk resort style, wooden porches and walkways along the water’s edge. Complimentary watersports such as kayaking and paddle boarding are also available, along with bike rentals. Have you ever seen a manatee? Me neither…until now.

Ocean's Edge Pool - Florida Keys - Photo Sabrina Pirillo

Ocean’s Edge Pool – Florida Keys – Photo Sabrina Pirillo

Take the free shuttle from Oceans Edge into downtown to Mallory Square featuring an array of shops, restaurants, and souvenir stands, and a stunning spot to watch ships go by and the sun go down over the harbour. And don’t forget to clap when the sunsets, a Key West tradition.

Sailboat floating off into the sunset off Mallory Square - Photo Sabrina Pirillo

Sailboat floating off into the sunset off Mallory Square – Photo Sabrina Pirillo

The sunset that everyone comes to see in Key West's Mallory Square - Photo Sabrina Pirillo

The sunset that everyone comes to see in Key West’s Mallory Square – Photo Sabrina Pirillo

A visit to the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum where Hemingway lived and wrote his masterpieces in the 1930’s is a must-see for any writer and cat lover! I am a big fan of Hemingway’s work, and navigating through the home where he wrote (standing by the way) and spent his days is fascinating. The home currently houses 54 cats with 6 toes, known as polydactyl cats. During hurricane Irma, ten employees stayed back with the cats in the basement. How did they herd all those cats inside you ask? Well, our fantastic guide, Steve, who has been hosting this tour for 13 years, tells us cats are very smart and sensed something was coming so as soon as the doors were open, all 54 cats ran inside to shelter.

Hemingway Studio - Sabrina Pirillo

Hemingway Studio – Photo Sabrina Pirillo

The house is filled with tons of Hemingway history, memorabilia, posters of his books, photos, replica’s of his boat, Pilar (named after his wife, Pauline) and so much more.

Snorkellers will love Fury Water Adventures Double Dip 2-stop reef snorkel tour. Your kids can hold #braggingrights when they tell friends they snorkelled in the third largest coral reef system in the world and the only one in the continental USA! The experience is one like no other as you head about 45 minutes offshore to explore two reefs filled with numerous fish species, live coral reefs plus other marine wildlife.

ury Water Adventures snorkel - Sabrina Pirillo

Fury Water Adventures snorkel – Photo Sabrina Pirillo

The Florida Keys & Key West is a place where your family will reminisce about for years to come. It’s a place where time slows down and you can enjoy everything the Keys have to offer. You come as you are but leave with a piece of each island making up a special place in your heart.

 

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