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Riding In Paradise

White sand beaches, water that will dazzle you with a kaleidoscope of colors, from azure blue to green to aqua, wonderful fresh seafood, and a wide range of activities to delight every interest are all waiting for you in the Florida Keys . The Keys offer us the opportunity to take a tropical vacation without leaving our own country.

The islands of the Florida Keys are sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and stretch 110 miles southwest from Miami , connected by a series of bridges and causeways. Here you will find world class fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling, boating, sailing, kayaking and eco-tours, along with historic sites, fine and casual dining, and a variety of entertainment. At the end of your fun filled days, you can retire to the comfort of your motel, tent campsite, or RV, with a view out the window of palm trees, beaches, and ocean.

As you start your journey into the Keys, the first thing you may notice is that there are few soft sand beaches. While mainland Florida has wide, sandy beaches, the Florida Keys has a living reef that extends its length, the only living reef in the continental United States. There are some beautiful beaches to be found, but they are relatively small. You may also be disappointed to discover that actual ocean views from the highway are few and scattered, especially in the upper Keys. Land is at a premium here, and much of it is developed. Much of the highway in the upper Keys is lined with an endless string of motels, resorts, scuba shops, boat dealers, and restaurants. But keep on riding, there are many hidden jewels to be found in this magical land.  

The first island you will encounter is Key Largo. Key Largo offers some of the finest diving and snorkeling in the Florida Keys. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater park in the United States, is a popular tourist attraction, offering 47 camp sites for both tent campers and RVs. Clean restrooms with hot showers are available, as are laundry facilities. State park campgrounds in the Keys fill up fast, and reservations are recommended well in advance. Maximum stay is two weeks.

While exploring the mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks in the park’s upland areas offer visitors a unique experience, it is the coral reefs and their associated marine life that bring most visitors to the park. Many enjoy the view from a glass bottom boat tour, but visitors can get a closer look by scuba diving or snorkeling through the reefs. Divers from all around the world are attracted to the park’s reefs. Several dive companies run guided trips from the park and to reefs and sunken wrecks just off Key Largo .

Canoeing and kayaking through the park’s waters are popular activities, as well as swimming at the beach. The Visitor Center has a 30,000 gallon saltwater aquarium and theater showing nature videos. Locations in the Florida Keys are designated by their location on the overseas Highway, U.S. Highway 1. Mile marker 106 is in Key Largo, at the beginning of the Keys, and mile marker 0 is located in Key West at the end of the island chain. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is located at mile marker 102.5 in Key Largo .

Islamorada, known for its world class sport fishing, is the next island you come to on your journey down the Keys. Bonefishing is especially popular, with large bonefish up into the 10 lb. range, and charter tours offshore for trophy sailfish.

Long Key, originally known as Rattlesnake Key, is home to Long Key State Park at mile marker 67.5, which has 60 campsites, all overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The Long Key Lakes Canoe Trail provides visitors with the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely "paddle" through the park’s shallow water lagoon.

Marathon Key, located midway down the Keys, is known as the heart of the Florida Keys and offers many activities, from fishing to enjoying the antics of the amazing dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center, located at mile marker 59.

Marathon is connected to the lower Florida Keys by the Seven Mile Bridge. This is the longest and highest bridge in the Keys, and has been seen in many movies and television shows.

Little Duck Key, at the south end of the Seven Mile Bridge, is home to Veterans Park, a small park and beach just as you come off the bridge on the Atlantic side that is a perfect place to pull over for a picnic, to play in the water, or to watch paddlers launch a kayak.

A short ride past Little Duck Key brings you to Bahia Honda Key and Bahia Honda State Park. Visitors can picnic on the beach and take a swim, or simply relax and enjoy the balmy sea breezes. Anglers can fish from shore or bring a boat and launch at the boat ramp. The park's concession rents kayaks and snorkeling gear, and offers boat trips to the reef for snorkeling excursions. We had a great time paddling kayaks in the water just offshore.

There are three different campgrounds at Bahia Honda State Park, one of which has 48 sites and can accommodate large RVs, while the others are for tent campers. There is also a bathhouse with hot showers. Again, campsites are in high demand, so plan ahead. Reservations may be made up to eleven months in advance by calling Reserve America at (800) 326-3521 or online at www.reserveamerica.com.

From Bahia Honda Key you can get a good view of a decrepit old railroad bridge, a surviving span of tycoon Henry Flagler's ill fated Overseas Railroad, which linked Key West to the mainland. The Great Hurricane of 1935 destroyed the Overseas Railroad and claimed hundreds of lives in the Florida Keys . The old railroad bed was the basis for the Overseas Highway that makes access to the Keys easy for travelers today.

Most visitors consider the ride between Bahia Honda and Key West to be the most spectacular stretch in the Keys. There are no shopping malls, no fast food restaurants, few restaurants and resorts, but here you will find plenty of water.

The speed limit on Big Pine Key is 35 miles per hour, and strictly enforced, to protect the endangered Key Deer. These tiny creatures, no bigger than a large dog, are found nowhere else in the world except on this island. At Big Pine you can also book a dive and snorkel trip to Looe Key Marine Sanctuary, part of the reef system that runs along the length of the Keys.

Key West is the end of the line, in more ways than one. Home to Indians and pirates, sponge divers and shipwreckers, drug runners, artists and authors, rebels, and misfits of every ilk, Key West has a long and colorful history. The island measures two miles wide by four miles long, but they sure pack a lot into that small space!

Here you will find four star rated resorts, neighborhoods of small cottages and beautiful Victorian homes, upscale shops, nightclubs, open air bars, charter boats, and the ghosts of the adventurers who helped give this island paradise its quirky personality. Did you know that Key West once seceded from the United States? In 1982 the Border Patrol established a roadblock at Florida City, where the Keys end and the mainland begins. The people of the Keys were so offended to have to prove their citizenship to pass through the roadblock that they formed their own nation, the Conch (pronounced konk) Republic! Each April, Key West celebrates Conch Republic Days to commemorate its secession from the Union .

The revolution was quick and painless – one minute after announcing their secession, the Conch Republic surrendered to the United States and demanded $1 billion dollars in foreign aid and war relief to rebuild their shattered nation!

Key West has a population of approximately 27,000 fulltime residents, but that number is swelled by the thousands of visitors who come here year round by motorcycle, automobile, RV, airplane, and cruise ship.

Key West has attractions for visitors of all ages, from author Ernest Hemingway’s home to historic Fort Zachary Taylor, the Key West Aquarium, President Truman’s Little White House, and don’t forget the Sunset Celebration every evening at Mallory Square.

A good introduction to Key West is the Conch Train tour, which covers the entire island, and passes all of the local places of interest. Key West even has a ghost tour that takes visitors on a walking tour through town and highlights all the haunted homes!

Duval Street is the traditional heart of Key West, several blocks of shops, restaurants, and open air bars where you can let it all hang out. We didn’t find Duval street to be as wild as we had expected, but we also didn’t spend a lot of time there after dark, when the serious partying begins. Duval Street and the area around it is home to such famous watering spots as Captain Tony’s Saloon and Sloppy Joe’s Bar, celebrated in song and story for years.   

The shallow waters that surround Key West and the Lower Florida Keys have much to offer divers, snorkelers and fisherman. There is no place else in the country to see so many species of marine life in one place. Shipwrecks and reefs, both artificial and natural coral, are home to hundreds of species of tropical and game fish. You can book full and half day fishing charters at the City Marina, and several outfitters offer three hour snorkeling trips that will accommodate everyone from beginners to experienced veterans.

Fishing in Key West holds many opportunities. Fishermen can expect to catch tarpon, bonefish, permit, shark and barracuda. Fly fisherman from all over the world come to the Florida Keys to saltwater fly fish. Wreck and reef fishing is very productive in the waters around Key West. Snapper, grouper, cobia and kingfish make for a great catch for dinner.

Though much of the shoreline is covered with resorts, Key West has four public beaches. Smathers Beach on the south shore of the island, is the largest, and in our opinion the prettiest. Nearby Higgs Beach is smaller, but very popular. Fort Zachary Taylor State Park has a small beach that offers swimming and sunbathing, and snorkelers can explore the rock-pile barriers just offshore to see small tropical fish. South Beach, at the foot of Duval Street is very small and parking, even for a motorcycle, is almost impossible to find.

As you can see, there is much to see and do in the Florida Keys , and we have barely scratched the surface here. But don’t take my word for it, start planning your own trip to paradise!

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