The Florida Keys are essentially a collection of numerous coral reef and limestone islands that string out in a gentle southwesterly curve from the southern tip of the Florida mainland. While some of these are little more than tiny mangrove islets, others are large enough where entire cities have sprung up.
The Florida Keys, for touring purposes, can be broadly divided into four groups: Upper Keys, which include the islands of Key Largo and Islamorada, among others; Middle Key, at the center of which are the Marathon Islands; Lower Keys, which are often referred to as the "Natural Keys" and take in Sunshine Key and end at Stock Island among others; and Key West, the southernmost and most famous and exciting of them all.
First and longest of the Keys is Key Largo (MM 106-91), bordered on the west by Florida Bay and the backcountry of Everglades National Park, and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream. Key Largo gained a romantic aura when it was featured in the 1947 movie classic of the same name, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Today, the bar featured in a number of the movie’s scenes, the Caribbean Club, is still open. Another Bogey classic, The African Queen, comes to life at the Holiday Inn Key Largo marina, where the boat featured in the movie is on display seasonally. Key Largo is also famed as the site of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater park in the US, whose 55 varieties of coral and 500 species of fish make for some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world. The park also offers sunset, eco-tours and glass-bottom boat tours, nature trails, a beach, camping, and canoeing. Key Largo counts sportfishing, beaches, dolphin encounter facilities and an underwater hotel among its many other attractions.
Following Key Largo is the group of islands known as Islamorada (MM 91-65), or “purple isles,” a name bestowed by the Spanish, who were enamored of the islands’ violet sea snails and purple bougainvillea flowers. Encompassing Plantation, Windley, Upper and Lower Matecumbe Key, and Long Key, Islamorada is known as the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” and it’s no idle boast. Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey and Harry Truman all fished Islamorada’s waters and today, the area boasts the Keys’ largest fleet of offshore charter boats and shallow-water back-country boats.
Islamorada is also home to some great reef and wreck diving, as well as tennis facilities, bicycle trails, historic walks, ecotours, dolphin-themed attractions, and a state park, the Long Key State Recreation Area, loaded with activities such as camping, canoeing, nature trails, a beach and picnic grounds.
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