Located on Boca Chica Key, Naval Air Station Key West is located 4 miles northeast off Key West proper. Known as “the Caribbean of the United States,” the Keys are as close as you can get to paradise without leaving the country. Due to the Keys’ proximity to both Cuba and the Caribbean, their history is as colorful as their inhabitants. The area has sheltered Spanish conquistadors, French pirates, Caribbean salvagers, Cuban shipbuilders and East Coast sailors. In fact, many of the structures built on the Keys date to the 1850s, and many of the land titles and deeds were issued from the King of Spain. The surrounding communities offer so many unique sights and activities — each Key is a veritable “Treasure Island” for you to explore.
Key West has a longstanding reputation as being the premier tourist and vacation destination as the southernmost city in the continental United States. However, Key West has a lot more to offer than just sun, beaches and surf. Architecture, history and adventure are on the menu year-round. And let’s not forget Key limes, pineapples and “pink gold” (shrimp). The former mayor of Key West began a campaign to establish Key West as “the cleanest little city in America” — a plan that will boost the foundations of the island, thus improving its overall appearance. From mentoring and youth athletic sponsorship, to physically cleaning and tending to the island, Key West’s citizens have answered the call to strengthen the island as a whole.
With the arrival of Ponce de Leon in 1521, the isle was named “Cayo Hueso,” or “Isle of Bones,” upon landing because the ground was scattered with the bones of Native Americans — it was later learned to be a native burial ground. The term “Key West” is actually an English mispronunciation of Cayo Hueso, so named in 1822 when a small naval depot was established. Prior to U.S. occupation, the island chain was a haven for criminals and pirates, as well as Native Americans. The island’s two earliest industries were fishing and salvage. The salvage industry made Key West the largest and most prosperous city in Florida due to the large reefs flanking the island. Literally hundreds of trade ships struck and sank on the reefs, and divers salvaged millions of dollars’ worth of riches. To this day, the coast of Key West is one of the most dived locations in the world due to the ships still sunken close to the coast. However, from 1890 to 1935, the island’s population steadily declined, and construction/industries all but ceased. In turn, World War II brought a population boom and industry increase. The area’s population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960. However, after 1960, bases shut down nationwide, and Key West was no exception. Cyclical yet again, from 1960 to 1980 population declined slightly less than 30 percent. By 1990, the population was on the rise yet again (from 24,377 to 24,832), and currently the population has reached a plateau of approximately 25,200.
Key West has several bohemian-styled structures that are more than a century old, including tin-roofed Conch-style homes, gingerbread houses and faithfully restored wooden homes built in the style of the island’s original visionaries. Several world-famous people have called Key West home, from Lou Gehrig to Thomas Edison to Tennessee Williams, and many of their former homes are available to tour and photograph.
In the historic Bahama Village (settled in the 19th century by immigrants from the Bahamas), new stores and restaurants are springing up seemingly overnight. This area was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, who was known to frequent the bars to arm-wrestle and box with the locals. The Mallory docks are a likely source for nighttime entertainment for islanders and tourists alike. Sidewalk cafes, open-air bars and dimly lit pubs line the streets, which are filled with jugglers, mimes and a multitude of street musicians. Some of the top attractions for tourists include the following.
Conch Tour Train
This world-famous tour of Key West takes you to Truval Village, near the Hemingway Home and Museum, Flagler Station and many other interesting and historical sights.
Shipwreck Treasure Museum
Discover the treacherous world of shipwreck salvaging and how it made Key West the richest city in the Florida Keys.
Key West Cemetery
A walk through this historic graveyard can tell as much about Key West’s eccentric character as any history lesson. Unusual whitewashed above-ground tombs and unique statutes are perfect indicators of the Keys’ colorful past.
Enjoy sightseeing tours of Key West, featuring more than 100 points of interest. The trolleys make stops along the way for shopping, attractions and dining nearby, including:
- Audubon House and Tropical Gardens
Tour the 1840s restored home of Captain Geiger. This has a 1-acre garden with a great collection of tropical plants.
- Custom House Museum and Cultural Center
Built in 1891, the Custom House Museum explores Key West’s history.
- Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
This gem is one of Key West’s most popular tourist attractions.
- Little White House
See the “Winter White House” of former President Harry S. Truman.
- Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden
See the bronze busts of Ernest Hemingway, Asa Tift and Harry S. Truman.
- Mallory Square Sunset Celebration
Enjoy a nightly sunset celebration. Be entertained by various carnival performers and street vendors while viewing a sunset, the likes of which you’ll see nowhere else.
Key West also offers several attractions geared primarily toward children and families:
This well-equipped playground is a popular stop for families on their way to and from the beach, Edward B. Knight/White Street Pier or Old Town Key West.
This large park has a fully equipped playground, basketball court and tennis courts. It is a popular spot for local events.
Edward B. Knight (formerly White Street Pier)
This pier extends hundreds of yards over the Atlantic Ocean. When winds are calm or out of the north, a stroll along this pier reveals large schools of fish and numerous feeding shore birds. The end of the pier is a good spot for family fishing excursions.
Historic Seaport District
A public walkway was built around this former commercial-fishing harbor. This is a great place to take a stroll with your family. Children might find a wild sea turtle or see hungry tarpons and occasionally manatees from the walkway.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and Beach
This historic fortress at the southwest end of Key West is a fascinating place for children to play and watch boats as they sail out of Key West Harbor. The grounds offer a sandy beach with picnic tables and restrooms.
Key West Aquarium
See jellyfish, sharks and other marine mammals at this popular attraction. A touch tank features sea stars, giant hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs and more.
Though Key West is known as a tropical paradise, don’t expect to find white-sand beaches this far south. Though somewhat rocky, the beaches are lush nonetheless and offer many activities year-round. Here’s a small offering of some local beaches most accessible to swimming, surfing and sunbathing.
- C.B. Harvey Rest Beach - Picnic areas, hiking and bike trails — a perfect family spot.
- Higgs Beach/Astro City Park - The premier beach for sunbathing on the Key.
- Simonton Street Beach - An excellent location to watch sailing vessels.
- Smathers Beach - Best spot for both surfing and windsurfing.
- South Beach - Popular beach for tourists.
- Dog Beach - One of the only local beaches where dogs are welcome.
Key West has a mild tropical climate nearly year-round, due mainly to its proximity to the Florida current. At its coldest, winter is only an average of 15 degrees cooler than summer. However, there are only two major seasons: dry and wet. The “dry season” lasts December through April, and the “wet season” runs May through October. During the wet season, the Keys receive more than 75 percent of their annual rainfall. Hurricane season runs tandem with the rainy season, from June through October, with the most probable dates for a hurricane occurring mid-August to early October. Thunderstorms occur almost every month of the year but are most severe July to September. The Florida Bay is also the waterspout capital of the world, experiencing 40 to 550 waterspouts per year; they are most common May through October.
Islamorada is widely regarded as the sport-fishing capital of the world with two area seas brimming with inhabitants ready for the taking. Sailfish, tuna, bonefish and tarpon are just a few of the local inhabitants, as well as hundreds of other sought-after game fish. If observation is more your game, Islamorada has massive reefs and the bay itself to explore and photograph.
All the Keys share a similar history; however, the rocks surrounding Islamorada (as well as the other islands) led Ponce de Leon to call the area “Los Martieres” or “The Martyrs.” De Leon wrote, “... the rocks, from far away, appeared to be men in the throes of suffering.” The name stuck, mainly due to the sheer volume of ships wrecked on the rocky shoals and the men lost at sea when the aforementioned vessels sank.
See the Eagle, an intentionally sunk ship that serves as a dive attraction. The Windley Key was once two islands known as the Umbrella Keys. The water between was filled in, resulting in one island with a center of loosely sedimented rock. The main quarry complex is now a Florida Park Service geological site. The quarry was once the location of Mizner Industries (1928), a service that would channel out fossilized coral and ship it to Miami, where it would be finished into a marble-like product. The process involved a channeling machine — a gasoline-powered, track-run chiseling device that would essentially separate the rock so that it could be cut and cubed in large volume. The rusted skeleton of the channeling machine still stands on the northernmost rim of the quarry. The area also houses the Theater of the Sea, which gives adults and children the chance to swim with dolphins, as well as snorkeling and viewing of indigenous wildlife. At Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Site, you can ascend to the highest elevation in the Keys — a staggering 18 feet.
The northernmost island on the Key, Largo is only 50 miles from two of Florida’s major airports. Largo is located between the Everglades in the west and North America’s only living coral reef to the east.
Key Largo has a well-deserved title as the “Dive Capital of the World” because of its large steps in marine conservation. In 1960, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park, the first conservatory of its kind, opened followed by the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary 15 years later. Statues, ships and reefs abound in the waters surrounding Key Largo, with many educational and entertaining opportunities.
In addition to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park and the National Marine Sanctuary, Key Largo hosts a wealth of diving opportunities. You can explore Bibb and Duane, dual 327-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutters, intentionally sunk in 1987 to attract divers of beginner to veteran status, as a safe dive site. The Benwood wreck, sunk in an attack during World War II, provides a firsthand glimpse of how schools of fish will thrive in a man-made environment, as swarms of grunt and porkfish (in addition to many others) call this ship home. Likewise, Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot Navy vessel, was intentionally sunk in the summer of 2002 to add yet another controlled dive location. Lastly, Christ of the Abyss is an
easily accessible Largo landmark, cast in bronze; it is sandwiched between the Dry Rocks coral formation in a shallow 25 feet of water.
If diving isn’t your game, Largo’s proximity to the Everglades makes it a prime location for kayakers, photographers, bird-watchers and other nature-minded people. On the island itself, many art galleries have opened and with them several gourmet restaurants as well as pubs, hotels and shops for when the sun goes down.
Located in the middle of the Keys, Marathon is known for its delicate balance of booming industry and beautiful natural surroundings. It not only offers several well-maintained public beaches but also a modern airport as well as a nationally recognized harbor (Boot Key Harbor), boasting many different marine activities. Marathon is also home to the Dolphin Research Center and Turtle Hospital, both known worldwide as specialist centers for marine-fauna rescue and conservation.
Marathon’s most well-documented trait is its standing as a fishing village. The Golden Age of Marathon was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where it was the premier location of fishing imports for Florida. Flagler’s Railroad figures heavily into the history of Marathon — the railroad was an extension from Florida proper into the Keys; the route went through the Everglades, over open water and into the Keys. Flagler’s project broke ground in 1906 and employed the assistance of several unskilled laborers. The task was daunting and was projected to take five to six years with an estimated cost of $50 million. During construction, many of the laborers resided in Pigeon Key (a small isle in the present-day Marathon area). The project was completed in January 1912. However, in 1935, after 23 years of problem-free service, a giant tidal wave overtook the train on its stop in Homestead (a small station after Islamorada). The wave washed the train (and most of the village) out to sea. Days later, more than 500 casualties were found, but the real head count still remains unknown. The route was never rebuilt.
As mentioned earlier, Marathon boasts two renowned conservation facilities, the Dolphin Research Center and Turtle Hospital. It also has Crane Point Hammock, a 64-acre protected reserve of walking trails, museums and historic sites. Diving and snorkeling your fancy? Try Sombrero Reef, North America’s only living coral barrier reef. The reef is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The island also has a modern hospital, as well as several dining and shopping hotspots.
BIG PINE AND LOWER KEYS
The Lower Keys are Florida’s best-kept secret. They have been the getaway spot for more than 75 years. The islands are home to earthy mangrove forests as well as miles of unspoiled beaches. The area is also known for calm, warm diving water away from the more commercial dive areas.
Big Pine had humble beginnings, most notably as a post-Depression shark-processing center. Workers would catch sharks, skin them and send their meat and skins north to Miami and New Jersey, respectively. Due to its relatively short shelf life, shark meat rarely made it north of Georgia. The skins, however, were a stronger alternative to traditional leather; sharkskin was tougher than cowhide and, once it was cured, was stronger still — a material called shagreen. The material became popular with shoemakers and garment makers, though somewhat more costly than cowhide.
The multitude of Lower Keys (Little Torch, Cudjoe, Sugarloaf and Summerland, among others) each have their own individual histories, and many offer localized museums and traditional restaurants in addition to many specialty shops.
The Lower Keys are home to many quiet resorts and single-family homes, in addition to RV campgrounds and picnic areas. Big Pine is the area’s “designated” shopping district, with several specialty shops as well as general goods and services. Little Duck Key (upper half of the Lower Keys) offers Veterans Memorial Park — pet-friendly, sandy beaches and a multitude of picnic areas — the perfect choice for a family day getaway. Bahia Honda Key, located a few miles away, has Bahia Honda State Park, another perfect camping and picnicking area with beaches that often make the Top 10 lists of beautiful beaches in the country, for many magazines. Looe Key is the diving destination, with several possibilities for diving and snorkeling the Looe coral reef. The Looe coral reef is home to the annual Underwater Music Festival — an offbeat multimedia display. Previous highlights included a troupe of snorkeling, guitar-playing Elvises, an underwater art gallery, an underwater masked ball (complete with “costumed” dancers) and a “Divas of the Deep” exhibit, featuring sirens who “sang” along with the orchestra. In addition to the traditional broadcast, the festival is projected into the deep, via speakers mounted beneath a flotilla of pontoon
boats. Visit www.lowerkeyschamber.com for more information.