15 JAN 2019: It’s fair to say that Florida’s Keys, which string for 200 kilometres south from Miami over the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico, are not the uppermost destination for Canadians visiting the Sunshine State.

Canadians do comprise the Keys’ No. 1 international market, but regional spokesperson Ashley Serrate admits that places like Orlando and Daytona usually come to mind first when planning a trip. “But why not come and stay for a couple of days?” she says.

Citing easy access (from Miami or Fort Lauderdale), great year-round weather, a laid-back vibe, and the feeling of being in the Caribbean without leaving the US, Serrate says, “There’s something for everyone.”

Visitors, including pre- and post-cruisers from Florida’s southern cruise gateways, will discover a “small-town vibe where everybody is friendly and ready to welcome you,” she says.

With 1,700 islands in the archipelago, the idyllic destination is an eco-paradise of beaches, shallow-water flats, mangrove islets and coral reefs, providing habitat for a vast array of wildlife, including white herons, roseate spoonbills, pelicans, sea gulls, ospreys and countless underwater creatures including sea turtles.

It also affords amazing ocean views for those driving the Overseas Highway (Highway 1), which ribbons its way from just south of Miami all the way down to Key West through The Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary – an area of natural beauty that “seems to be a world away from big cities and theme parks.”

Starting roughly 45 minutes south of Miami, the approximately four-hour drive traverses 42 bridges – including the iconic Seven Mile Bridge – comprising what Orbitz calls “one of the most spectacular road trips of your life… a dazzling buffet of tropical landscapes, cotton candy skies and water in every imaginable shade of blue and green.”

Those stopping along the way will find charming boutique hotels, restaurants serving fresh seafood, and array of activity opportunities ranging from fishing, sailing, diving and other watersports, to museums, historical and cultural offerings, flora, fauna, and boutique-type shopping experiences.

With high season (January-April) kicking in and the after-effects of Hurricane Irma in 2017 firmly in the rear-view mirror, Travel Industry Today sat down with Serrate during a recent visit to Toronto to break down the destination’s five diverse regions for Canadians who may be curious, while also providing an update of what’s new for those in the know.

Key Largo

First stop in the Keys on the drive south from Miami (about 100 km.), Key Largo is the longest island in the chain and is the gateway to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater preserve in the US with 50 varieties of delicate corals and more than 600 species of fish. Visitors can scuba, snorkel or venture via glass-bottom boat excursion to the coral reef. Movie buffs can take a ride on the actual African Queen from the classic Bogart-Bacall film Key Largo, portions of which were filmed there.

Islamorada

The “new cool kid on the block” in the Keys, Islamorada has a great food scene, burgeoning arts district and is home to the Florida Keys Brewing Co. (owned by a Canadian). The destination is also heralded for its angling diversity and features the Keys' largest fleet of offshore charter and shallow-water "backcountry" boats, prompting claims that it is the Sport Fishing Capital of the World.

Marathon

Family-friendly Marathon is centrally located at the heart of the Keys between Key Largo and Key West and is home to both Seven Mile Bridge and Crane Point, a 25-hectare archaeological site that contains evidence of pre-Columbian and prehistoric Bahamian artifacts. Attractions include an intriguing museum, historic Adderley House and several nature trails, one of which passes by the Marathon Wild Bird Center. Other attractions include a dolphin research centre and turtle hospital that welcome visitors, the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, and Pigeon Key, which pays homage to the construction of the first railroad through the Keys.

Big Pine and the Lower Keys

A place to nurture one’s connection to nature, the Lower Keys provide endless activity options, such as diving and back country kayaking, while Bahia Honda State Park is a prime example of the area’s natural beauty. Big Pine Key features a national refuge for miniature Key deer, tropical forest and even a few alligators. Popular nature tours offer opportunities to view migratory and wading birds and the unique flora and fauna of this tranquil natural area of the Keys.

Key West

A unique mix of Jimmy Buffet laid-back lifestyle and party central, Key West is the final stop on the Overseas Highway, where the land ends and meets the sea amid 19th-century charm and contemporary attractions. Continental America's southernmost city, situated closer to Cuba than to Miami, is characterized by quaint palm-studded streets, century-old mansions and a relaxed citizenry of self-styled "conchs" (pronounced “konks”). The city maintains connections to one-time resident Ernest Hemingway (including the annual Hemingway Days festival – July 18 this year – and its hilarious look-alike contest) and is a noted LGBT destination (Pride Week starts June 7). The town really gets the party going during Fantasy Fest, a “sizzling celebration that combines Carnival with Halloween” for nine days at the end of October.

New and notable

Popular family-friendly Hawks Cay Resort re-opened on Duck Key in the Middle Keys last fall with a $50 million refurbishment, contemporary redesigned lobby, adults-only pool area and new dining venues. The 25-hectare, 177-room resort also offers 250 two- and three-bedroom villas, spa, kids’ activities centre and entertainment.

In Key Largo, Baker's Cay Resort, a Curio Collection by Hilton, is the Keys’ only Curio property. The new 200-room resort features two pools with a waterfall grotto, a winding nature trail lined with hidden beaches, dog Tiki huts with cooled water bowls, and beachside tequila and taco venue with house-made hot sauces crafted from peppers grown on on-site.

Now open, adults-only Bungalows Key Largo, is the first all-inclusive resort in the Florida Keys and features two in-ground pools, five food and beverage outlets that include three restaurants and two bars, 300 metres of shoreline and three boat piers.

Set to open in March at the Seven Mile Bridge oceanside, the 199-unit Isla Bella Beach Resort will feature an extensive spa, five pools, four food and beverage concepts, and a marina. Recreational activities will include bocce, croquet, oversized chess, complimentary bicycles, on-site watersports and guided fishing expeditions.

The new Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center near mile marker 30.5 showcases the Keys’ four federally protected refuges with exhibits, interactive events and a non-profit nature bookstore.

The 130-km.-long Florida Keys Sculpture Trail has debuted with nine large-scale sculptures donated by Key West philanthropists John Padget and Jacob Dekker. Seven of the nine works are installed at locations in Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and Key West. (keysart.com)



KEYS THE BEES KNEES

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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