By Victor Block
There’s much to be said for traveling to Key West, Florida, in winter. It’s fun and funky, and the sun casts its warming glow on lotion-slathered bodies.
However, my recent visit to the Sunshine State had a different goal. I wished to check the claim that other islands in the chain boast hidden corners and enticing attractions that many visitors miss.
I wasn’t disappointed. On dots of land so narrow I could watch the sun rise over the Atlantic, stroll across the road and see it set hours later into the gulf of Mexico, I discovered off-the-beaten-track, often overlooked little gems.
The Keys include some 800 islands that make a gentle curve southwest from the tip of Florida — only 30 of them are inhabited. The journey by car, less than three hours driving time, follows the Overseas Highway, officially Route U.S. 1, which crosses 43 bridges as it strings together the chain of subtropical islands.
Almost immediately after leaving the mainland, travelers are immersed in local atmosphere. Bridges and piers are lined by fishermen seeking their dinner. Marinas are jammed with boats available for deep sea fishing excursions, and rides to favorite snorkel and dive sites.
The popularity of water sports becomes immediately evident on Key Largo, the first island reached driving south from the mainland. It’s the largest and most populated, with dive shops and fishing boats lining the highway and cramming the docks.
Film buffs associate the location with the 1948 motion picture starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and several tourist spots seek to cash in on the claim that they had a part in making of the film. For example, a sign outside the Caribbean Club announces it is “where the famous movie Key Largo was filmed.” In fact, other than a few set scenes shot in the club’s bar, the motion picture was filmed on a sound stage in Hollywood.
The scene is very different not far away at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which covers 178 square miles of coral reefs, mangrove swamps and seagrass beds. Divers and snorkelers enjoy close-up encounters with some 55 types of multihued coral and 600-plus species of fish, while landlubbers seek to identify resident and migratory birds, some of them rare.
Rental canoes and kayaks, short hiking paths, and two man-made beaches are among other facilities. It comes as a surprise to many that the beaches at the Pennekamp Park are among the few stretches of inviting sand in the Keys. That’s because coral reefs lie just east of the islands, reducing the beach-building action of the surf.
The other major exception is the two beaches at the Bahia Honda Key recreation area. Both have fine white sand lined by palm trees and Caribbean-turquoise water. Other swimming and sunning spots favored by Keys residents include the Harry Harris Park beach on Key Largo, Anne’s Beach on Lower Matecumbe Key and Sombrero Beach on Marathon.
The fact that there are few outstanding beaches on the Keys has its upside, leaving more time for discovering other treasures. One of these is close-up encounters with a variety of resident wildlife in the wild and at refuges.
Most appealing is the tiny and adorable Key Deer, a subspecies of white-tailed North American deer found only in the Keys. The miniscule animals, listed as endangered, stand only about two feet tall. Most make their home on Big Pine and No Name Keys, in a refuge that was established for their protection. These endearing creatures are spotted most frequently in early morning and late evening. While it’s illegal to feed them, at times an especially courageous deer will approach a visitor to enjoy a snack of salt licked from the fingers.
Other encounters with wildlife are available elsewhere. The misnamed Blue Hole on Big Pine Key, an abandoned limestone quarry that’s actually filled with darkish water, attracts some key deer. It’s also home to wading birds, turtles, numerous fish and an alligator that occasionally exhibits itself. An observation platform provides a close look at this menagerie.
During fall and spring migrations, refuges on the Keys provide habitat for some 285 species of birds. While I’m no ornithologist, I was intrigued by the opportunity to search for winged visitors with names like sooty shearwater, brown noddy and dark-eyed junco.
Inhabitants of the Florida Keys Wildlife Bird Center on Key Largo are not free to fly as they recover from accidents and disease. Residents being nursed back to health for eventual release when I visited included a peregrine falcon, a red-shouldered hawk and a roseate spoonbill.
Despite their small size, the Keys also offer a diversity of active pursuits. In addition to a choice of inviting trails in parks and elsewhere, the Seven Mile Bridge is a favorite route for walkers. It was completed in 1911 as part of the railroad built by industrialist Henry Flagler to connect the Keys to the southern tip of the mainland.
After the demise of the railroad, the Seven Mile Bridge became part of the Overseas Highway built to carry vehicular traffic. In 1982, a new span was built alongside it. Since then, the old structure has been a favorite route for walkers, bike riders and so many fishermen that it’s referred to as “the longest fishing pier in the world.”
Seeking to experience hidden backcountry areas of the Florida Keys, I signed up for a kayak paddle into an area of mangrove forests, tidal creeks and shallow water grass flats. We alternated between paddling and, where the thick tangle of roots made that impossible, propelling the kayaks by pulling on tree branches. Along the way, we spotted tree and water crabs, shrimp, conch, lobsters, countless birds and one snake which, to my relief, seemed disinterested in me.
This setting of complete stillness, with the sun filtering through mangrove branches overhead and dancing on the glass-smooth surface of the water, was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Key West. It underscored my view that anyone, who skips the other islands strung out like jewels on a necklace, misses some of the very best that the Florida Keys has to offer.
For information about visiting the Florida Keys call (800) 352-5397 or log onto fla-keys.com.