MAGICAL ASPECTS OF FLORIDA lie beyond the gates of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In fact, a wealth of nature’s enchantment unfolds in the 110 miles stretching from Key Largo to Key West, and an abundance of fascinating creatures thrive on the 1,700 islands of the coral cay archipelago.
The beginning of the island chain, Key Largo, made famous by the movie starring Bogart and Bacall, is known as the “Dive Capital of the World.” Wreck divers head for the sunken 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove, while reef lovers choose John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Molasses Reef in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has shallow sections perfect for snorkeling. For a unique day excursion or an overnight stay, dive 20 feet below to the only entrance of the Jules Verne Undersea Lodge at Emerald Lagoon.
The world-class and private Ocean Reef Club marina on the northernmost tip of the island has slips to accommodate vessels up to 175 feet.
Day 1: Islamorada
Key Largo to Islamorada — 15 NM
It’s a short leg from the diving hub to the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World,” which boasts the largest charter fishing fleet per square mile on Earth. At dawn, captains head out on deep-sea excursions or idle through mangrove islands and shallow seagrass flats of the backcountry. The silver flashes in the sunlight at Robbie’s Marina dock are enormous tarpon, 50 to 100 feet long, doing daily water acrobatics for snacks thrown by visitors into the clear, shallow water.
The Keys have a motley past: shipwrecks, pirates, buried treasure, movie stars and especially luscious Key Lime pie. History reaching back to Native American life is outlined at the Keys History & Discovery Center at the Islander Resort.
Downtown Islamorada’s patchwork of boutiques and galleries is overflowing with original creations of artists, sculptors and jewelers inspired by life on the islands. The Morada Way Arts & Cultural District is a bustling six-block corridor of shops, restaurants and studio spaces. Thirsty shoppers can duck into the welcoming back garden of Florida Keys Brewing Company. Beside the seasonal beer on tap, they serve a Key Lime cocktail so delectable that it could be counted as dessert.
Transient dockage to 100 feet is available at Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina, a premier facility with 15 sprawling acres of white sand beach. Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina, located in the fabulous Founders Park, is ranked among the top marinas in the world and is a designated Clean Marina.
Day 2: Duck Key
Islamorada to Duck Key — 21 NM
Tucked into the secluded and intimate isle of Duck Key, Hawks Cay Resort is a 60-acre destination often named the top family resort in the country. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, a $50 million renovation revitalized the entire property. It’s the perfect backdrop for Discovery Channel’s popular Saltwater Experience, which is filmed on site.
Hawk’s Cay guests can do everything or do nothing. Interact and swim with dolphins in their natural environment at the Dolphin Connection or rise early for oceanside yoga before wandering to the spa for a Key Lime Mojito scrub followed by a warm body butter wrap with Key Lime essential oils. Come evening, multiple resort dining choices include the new Sixty-One Prime, a Key-style chop house, and the island casual Angler & Ale.
Hawks Cay Marina can accommodate boats up to 110 feet with beams to 20 feet in the resort’s back basin.
Day 3: Key West
Duck Key to Key West — 52 NM
Before adventuring out in the heat to pet the famous six-toed cats at Hemingway House or view the spartan simplicity of the Truman Little White House, grab a Cuban Café con Leche and wander around town absorbing the laid-back, culturally diverse life of island time.
Nightly pub crawls guide visitors along Duval Street’s legion of barrooms. Much like the revelers doing the “Duval Crawl,” the Key West chickens strut the streets and crow at all hours. Colorful roosters and mother hens with tiny chicks weave in and out of traffic and through open cafés around town.
Much quieter winged creatures reside in the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, a tropical paradise home to hundreds of species of magical butterflies and birds. More of nature’s birding and fishing wonders lie just off the western shore. Accessible only by boat, Key West National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 208,308 acres with only 2,019 acres above sea level. Wading birds, pelicans, shorebirds, sea turtles, manatees and dolphins all live within or visit the refuge.
There’s an eatery on nearly every corner from the quirky Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe to the beautiful Seaside Café at the Southernmost Mansion and Louie’s Backyard for fine dining. It’s best to experience Key West on a bike or a golf cart so you can catch the quirkiness of the island including the popular drag show at 801 Bourbon Bar and the famous cemetery. And at the end of the day, join the locals for live music at the Green Parrot Bar.