Florida can get a bad rep, a place where overweight boozed-up Brits pour off 747s ready to hit the motel pool and maybe a barmaid or two before getting arrested by a Disneyland policeman dressed as Goofy. That’s not the real Florida.
Leaving the chaos of Orlando behind and heading south, down the coast, you hit the serenity of the Florida Keys, a world so different it’s practically another country. In fact almost was another country, the Keys actually tried to officially secede from the rest of America and in 1982 they declared independence, albeit for just one minute, but the point was made and The Conch Republic (so named after local Keys citizens, nicknamed ‘Conchs’) remained as a micronation and it’s easy to see why.
Firstly there’s the natural natural beauty and wildlife, the residents are not only proud of but are rightly protective of this. The region’s ‘Connect and Protect’ advocates the responsible use and preservation of the Florida Keys and its many flora and fauna. The Keys is also home to the third largest barrier reef in the world and the only barrier coral reef in continental United States. And it’s well worth a visit. The Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo work to study and restore the reef, creating coral reef farms but they also operate regular dives where dive-trained visitors can work on the reef to help to plant coral.
Alternatively, charter company Rainbow Reef runs regular stop-off-and-snorkel excursions for $45 at their reef farms as well as the reef itself, where you can swim among tropical fish and, if you’re lucky, a turtle. And for the non-diver, there’s still the opportunity to learn about the science of coral reef restoration at the world-renowned Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, open daily, where you can get up-close with touch pools, viewable-working labs and high-tech interactive exhibits.
As David Attenborough is forever reminding us, the reefs are hugely important and are being constantly damaged by mankind. One way of giving back is to visit The Turtle Hospital, where as well as learning about the destruction wrought on the natural environment, you can see healing turtles, before they’re released back into the wild. Or, if you fancy something a bit more upbeat than injured turtles then check out a Dolphin Watch and Snorkel Tour with Fury Waters Adventures. I saw so many pods of dolphins I genuinely didn’t know where to look, a turtle even swam within touching distance, just to show off.
If you really want to get to the heart of the Keys then where better than in the midst of the mangroves that line the shores? A four hour kayaking excursion with Big Pine Kayak Adventures costs $125 per person and will have you up-close-and-personal with Mother Nature and her (harmless) mangrove tree crabs. At the other end of the glamour spectrum, don a cocktail dress and take a Land’s End Sunset Sail from Sebago Watersports for $69.95 per adult and sails round Key West. You’ll even get you a glimpse of the private island where Oprah owns a property, though sightings of Oprah not guaranteed with tickets (I didn’t see her).
As you’d expect from any coastal area, seafood dominates most restaurant menus but as sustainability is so important to the Keys, they’ve come up with an interesting way to protect their local delicacy of stone crab – while still eating it. The brutal sounding (but, I’m assured, kind) method involves fisherman ripping off the crab’s biggest claw, which will regenerate, and then releasing them back into the wild. Stone crab claw is eaten either dipped in butter or with a tangy mustard sauce. The crab season runs from 15th October to 15th May.
When it comes to dining out, there’s a huge amount of variety; from local favourite Chef Michael’s, Islamorada, to upmarket dining options like Elements Lounge & Restaurant, plus with Cuba just over the water, Cuban influenced restaurants like El Meson de Pepe abound and are fantastic.
If you want to dine with a view try Hungry Tarpon at Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada, where you can feed the fish and pelicans as well as yourself, or the Lighthouse Grill at Faro Blanco just by the historic lighthouse and Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar overlooking the marina, are both well worth checking out. Or hit the bars. As you’d expect in such an environmentally conscious location, plastic cups and straws are hard to find, but amazing bars aren’t. On Duval Street you can (and should) help yourself to Key Lime Pie shots at the only totally eco bar in town, The Green Room.
But whether you’re there for the food or the wildlife, you’ll have to agree the Keys are one of America’s greatest kept secrets. Let the Mancunian hordes pile into Orlando, just don’t tell them that four hours south of Space Mountain lies paradise.
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Sample Package: Valid for travel in October 2019 (not including the dates of Fantasy Fest), America As You Like It (0208 742 8299,www.americaasyoulikeit.com) is offering a 7-night trip to the Florida Keys from £1,458 per person. Price includes return flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to Miami, two nights at the Islander Resort in Islamorada, one night at the Tranquility Bay Beachfront Hotel & Resort in Marathon, four nights at the Marquesa Hotel in Key West and compact car hire for the duration. Prices are subject to availability at the time of booking, based on two adults sharing room only accommodation.
Flights: Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to Miami. For further information or to book www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770.
Activities: Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (www.hemingwayhome.com) – $14 general admission per adult. The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (www.keywestbutterfly.com) – $12 general admission per adult
Restaurants: Midway Café and Coffee Bar (www.midwaycafecoffeebar.com). No Name Pub (www.nonamepub.com). Blue Heaven (www.blueheavenkw.com). Butterfly Café (www.tranquilitybay.com/dining/butterflycafe). Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen II, Key Largo (www.mrsmacskitchen.com).