If you’re heading to the Keys soon, or planning a trip to the 120-mile long island chain, remember, there’s much more to the tropical archipelago than Key West, although the Southernmost City is pretty amazing.
From snorkeling on Molasses Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in Key Largo to fishing for mahi mahi in the “Sportfishing Capital of the World” that is Islamorada, the Upper Keys is famous for the adventures it offers.
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But even if you’re taking a road trip and you’re ultimate destination is Key West, here’s a few places you should check out on your way down (or really, out west).
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
On the ocean side of U.S. 1 at mile marker 102.1 is a true Keys treasure, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Whether you just want to relax at one of the park’s two beaches, or you have something more adventurous in mind, the Pennekamp offers plenty of fun activities to last the whole day.
The park contains beautiful winding mangrove creeks that are ideal for paddling, either on kayaks or standup paddleboards. You can either bring your own or rent them from the park. The water is usually crystal clear and you can see right down to the bottom as you make your way through the mangrove-lined waterways. You’ll be sure to see a variety of fish and wild bird species on your way. One of the most amazing aspects of the journey how the quiet envelops you as you drift along and take in the sights.
For those wanting to get up close and personal with the abundant sea life in the protected underwater park, Pennekamp offers snorkeling tours that start out at $29.95 for adults and $24.95 for those under 18. For the more experienced, the park has scuba tours that start out at $75 per person, which includes tanks and weights. Be on the lookout for the iconic Christ of the Deep Statue.
Those who want to view the fish and reef but don’t want to get wet can book a trip on the park’s glass bottom boat. Tickets are $24 per adult and $17 for children 4 to 11.
There is an $8 per car admission fee into the park. For more information, call 305-451-6300 or go to pennekamppark.com.
A little farther down U.S. 1 in Key Largo is one of the country’s most intimate marine mammal encounters, DolphinsPlus. Seven dolphins live in the open-water park off mile marker 99 on the ocean side of U.S. 1.
You can choose to either buy a spectator pass for $10 ($5 for children) or opt for a more personal visit with the dolphins. You can get a smooch from one of the mammals for $59 or take a structured swim with them for $210.
There’s also a weeklong summer camp for kids ages 6-10 for families who plan on spending a longer period of time in the Keys.
For more information, go to www.dolphinsplus.com or call 1-866-860-7946.
Theater of the Sea
Billed as “one of the oldest marine mammal facilities in the world,” Theater of the Sea at mile marker 85.7, ocean side, has dolphins and sea lions, as well as non-mammal residents like parrots, sea turtles, nurse sharks, tropical fish, sting rays and alligators.
Swim-with-the-dolphin programs start at $199, which includes general admission. You can simply “meet the dolphin” for $95, or you can “pet, feed and hold a nurse shark” for $95. There are other programs as well, like painting with the sea lions and swimming with the rays.
Or you can opt to watch the dolphins and sea lions and take in the many shows Theater of the Sea puts on for the general admission price of $35.95 for those 11 years old and up and $22 for ages 3 to 10. Go to https://TheateroftheSea.com for more information or call 305-664-2431 for more information.
No first-time trip to the Upper Keys would be complete without a visit to Robbie’s Marina, mile marker 77.5 on the bay side of U.S. 1 in Islamorada. World famous for its tarpon feedings, where guests get to hand feed the giant “silver kings,” Robbie’s also has many retail shops, a restaurant that serves cracked conch, fish tacos, lobster frittatas and more, and activities like snorkeling, fishing, parasailing and an “Island Heritage Tour aboard the 43-foot Happy Cat boat.
Robbie’s is also home to both offshore and backcountry charter fishing boats, as well as the Capt. Michael party fishing boat.
For more information, go to https://Robbies.com or call 305-664-8070.
Florida Keys History & Discovery Center
The Keys are as rich in history as they are in natural beauty. While many tourists’ knowledge of the island chain’s past may be limited to Jimmy Buffett or maybe Flagler’s Railroad, there’s so much more that went into the archipelago’s evolution from a remote fishing and sailing outpost to one of the most visited places in the world.
The Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, mile marker 82.1 on the ocean side of U.S. 1 in Islamorada (on the property of The Islander Resort) is the go-to place for those wanting to learn more about what is now Monroe County. The first floor features a rich array of historical photographs, many chronicling the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, from noted Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson’s collection. The second floor is home to a variety of exhibits. The museum also features a library, named after Wilkinson, that is home to bound copies of the Miami Herald’s former sister Keys papers, The Reporter and the Keynoter, going back to 1963. The Museum is curated by historian and author Brad Bertelli.
For more information, go to www.keysdiscovery.com.
Morada Way Arts and Cultural District
Off the Old Highway (which used to be the only highway in the Keys in the days of the railroad) in Islamorada is the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District, an eclectic mix of studios, restaurants and bars. It’s one of the few places in the Keys outside of Key West where you can walk around, eating and drinking and listening to music and checking out some great art walk.
Morada Way is located next to the historic 1945 Hurricane Monument at mile marker 81.6 and takes up about a half mile of the Old Highway. Every third Thursday of the month, the district holds Art Walk, which features food trucks, vendors, artists and music.
For more information, go to Morada Way on Facebook.