After a brilliant 48 hours in Miami, I was lucky enough to tick off one of my biggest bucket list dreams of all time. I took a week-long road trip through the Florida Keys.
Before we planned our road trip through the Florida Keys, I’d spoken to so many people who had visited this chain of tropical islands. They’d all commented on its beautiful scenery, fantastic outdoor activities, Caribbean-like vibe and gorgeous sunsets. And what also makes this one of America’s greatest road trips is the breath-taking Overseas Highway and the iconic Seven Mile Bridge which perches on stilts above the turquoise waters.
The Overseas Highway is one of America’s greatest feats of engineering and is probably the image that you think of when someone mentions this island chain.
As someone who had lots of questions about the Florida Keys before my trip, I thought I’d share a mini guide with you on the region. From what to expect when you hire a car in Florida to information about each section of the Keys, hopefully it will act as a mini-guide if you ever plan your own road trip through the Florida Keys.
Taking a road trip through the Florida Keys: A mini-guide
The Florida Keys: Life after the hurricane
The main reason I was taking a road trip through the Florida Keys was part of a work trip, to write about the recovery of the region following Hurricane Irma (you can read the article here).
When the tropical storm hit the Caribbean and southern parts of the United States in September 2017, it devastated many parts of the region. I remember watching it on the news and wondering how can you possibly recover from such a horrific event?
As we reached the beginning of the Keys from Miami, the effect of the hurricane wasn’t immediately obvious. As we drove further south though, we began to notice holiday homes and caravan parks had been devastated, palm trees were down and some of the vegetation was badly damaged.
It was so sad to see, but I have to say, the speed at which they’ve recovered and turned things around has been incredible. Within eight weeks of the storm, almost three quarters of the accommodation in the Florida Keys had reopened and you’ll find that only a small proportion of the attractions have yet to re-open their doors.
There are quite a few new hotels also set to launch this year, including the region’s very first all-inclusive resort, Bungalows Key Largo. The region has definitely bounced back and people have not been put off coming here.
While it was easy to forget that the hurricane ever happened, it did come up in conversation now and again with people we met. Some spoke about the homes (and of course, lives) that were lost while others mentioned the effect it had had on the wildlife.
However, one thing that struck me was how resilient this region is. Especially when we noticed the hashtag #Islamoradastrong displayed across buildings and when we visited the Hurricane monument in Islamorada, a tribute to the 408 people who died in the hurricane of 1935.
The fact that hurricanes have made an appearance in the region’s history many times doesn’t make it any less devastating when another storm hits. But as we spotted the construction of new stilted housing developments and the revamp of marinas, we realised how well this region copes in the wake of such disasters.
Where are the Florida Keys and how were the Florida Keys formed? A little bit of history
You’ll find the Florida Keys at the southernmost part of Florida in America. They’re a chain of islands that create a gentle arch into the ocean off the Florida peninsula, underneath the Everglades National Park. On one side you have the Gulf of Mexico (the ‘Bayside’ of the Keys) and on the other, you have the Atlantic Ocean (the ‘Oceanside’).
Once the Keys were nothing more than a swamp land inhabited by crocodiles but the Caloosa and Tequesta Native Americans eventually inhabited the region until Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived into the area in the 16thCentury.
The region didn’t really become habitable until industrialist Henry Flagler built the famed East Coast railroad in Florida and decided to extend it to the Keys. The region hit challenges after the 1935 hurricane but they managed to rebuild the infrastructure in the 1940s and ignite the tourism you see today. With plenty of history, wildlife, idyllic scenery and amazing food, it’s easy to see why so many people come on holiday here.
How to get to the Florida Keys
The best way to get to the Florida Keys and the best way to explore the Florida Keys is to take a road trip from Miami. We picked up a hire car in the middle of the city and then it was around 50 miles from here to the start of the island chain.
Once you get to Key Largo, you’re officially at Mile 100. These mile markers then run all the way down to the southernmost isle of Key West, known as ‘Mile Zero’. We found the traffic and highways in Miami a bit crazy (there are so many different lanes!) but it is really easy once you hit the Keys as it’s just one straight road and the driving becomes much more chilled out – which means you can relax a bit more and enjoy the scenery.
Driving in Florida
A few things to consider before you hire your car to reach the Florida Keys are the fact your car is likely to be automatic (so have a practice in the car park before you leave), you will be driving on the right-hand side of the road and you will need to pay a toll for using the Florida Turnpike road.
If you are hiring a car, check whether the toll is included in your car hire bill. Otherwise, you may have to use a SunPass transponder. And if you’re a US resident and you’re driving a private vehicle, you may be billed after your trip. The best thing to do is check Florida’s Turnpike website for the latest information.
Once you’re in the destination, be prepared to pay for valet parking at your hotel. We found this was around $20 per night and you’ll be expected to tip the valet when you pick up the car. Just something to bare in mind.
What are the different areas of the Florida Keys like?
We spent two nights in Key Largo and three nights in Key West, so we certainly didn’t get to explore the whole of the Keys but we definitely enjoyed some of the main highlights. Here’s what to expect in the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys.
The Upper Keys
The Upper Keys are great for diving, fishing and marine life. After all, Key Largo (the largest of the Florida Keys) is where visitors go to explore the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Parkand Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and the area is dubbed the ‘diving capital of the world.’ Meanwhile, Islamorada is dubbed the ‘sportfishing capital of the world’ and hosts various fishing and seafood festivals throughout the year. It’s also home to Robbie’s– a must-visit for mangrove tours and a chance to feed the tarpon.
The Middle Keys
The Middle Keys still have quite a modern Floridian ‘holiday’ feel, with aquariums and family attractions and smart hotels and holiday homes that are well geared to tourists. However, much like the Upper Keys, there’s also a rich fishing and maritime heritage and plenty of opportunities for boat trips and excursions.
The more you explore, the more you’ll find plenty of the laid-back Keys lifestyle starting to trickle in.
The Lower Keys
The Lower Keys is the part of the Florida Keys you reach once you’ve cruised over the iconic Seven Mile Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in the world.
It’s where nature lovers come to see the National Key Deer Refuge in Big Pine, where you can take kayaking adventures in Blue Hole and where you can relax on the beach at the picturesque Bahia Honda State Park.
The southernmost island of Key West
I have to say, part of the joy of road tripping the Florida Keys is just enjoying the scenery and stopping at various viewpoints along the way. We found the Upper Keys felt much more connected to mainland Florida, with drive-through restaurants and coffee chains and giant supermarkets flanking the Highway. Whereas the further down the Keys we travelled, the more we felt a local, island feel, with shrimp shacks, artist stalls and independent shops starting to appear.
Once you hit Key West (my favourite island), it’s another story all together. They joke that Key West is like a country all on its own after they attempted to form an independent nation in retaliation to the government in the 80s. It may have only lasted 60 seconds, but Key Westers still pride themselves on their ‘Conch Republic’ identity, hanging flags outside their homes. It’s also one of the quirkiest places I’ve visited. If I ever got the chance to take a road trip through the Florida Keys again, it would be Key West that would lure me back!
Are there beaches in the Florida Keys?
You will find some beaches in the Florida Keys but due to the coral reef, they are mostly man-made. Some of the larger hotels have their own sandy coves such as where we stayed at the Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort. My favourite was the beach at The Reach Resort where we spent three nights. It was a lovely spot to come back to after a day of exploring Key West.
Are the Florida Keys worth visiting?
Absolutely! We loved the scenery, the sunshine and the whole experience of driving down this paradise island chain. My favourite parts were the fabulous seafood, the fantastic boat tours and the quirky and colourful island of Key West. As I say, I’d go back in a heartbeat and it’s so great to see the Keys have recovered after the storm.
Keep your eyes peeled for more posts coming up on things to do in The Florida Keys while you’re there.
Have you been to the Florida Keys and if so, what were your favourite areas and things to do here? Feel free to leave your comments and thoughts and follow The Travel Journo on Instagram for all the latest images.