Natural Instinct: A Slow Travel Guide to the Florida Keys

Key West is the center of the action in the Florida Keys, but the other Keys offer plenty of nature and relaxation
Key West is the center of the action in the Florida Keys, but the other Keys offer plenty of nature and relaxation | © Ganesh Ampalavanar / EyeEm / Getty Images
Photo of Doug ONeill
9 September 2021

Kayak through sharks and stingrays, meet manatees and stay in barefoot beach hotels on this necklace of tropical islands, skimming the shore of the Sunshine State.

Running southwest from the tip of the Florida mainland, the Florida Keys are a 125mi (200km) string of islands and sandy spits (linked by the engineering marvel of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway) where travelers come for the snorkeling, boating, fishing, scuba diving, wildlife viewing and just plain old chilling out. The main center is laid-back, foodie-hippie haven Key West, with hammocks waiting to cradle you at the end of every natural-blessed day.

NYAH Key West

Budget Hotel, Chain Hotel
4.1/5 (947 Reviews)
NYAH key west
Courtesy of NYAH / Expedia
Price Drop
Now from $157 per night

If all you want is a comfortable bed and a dress code that calls for shorts and tees, Not Your Average Hotel (NYAH) is perfect for you. Ditch any notion of formality. For starters, some rooms have bunk beds, and it’s a fuss-free continental breakfast. The value is in the outdoor activities. You can relax poolside (there are three to choose from) or take advantage of the excursions: snorkeling, jet skiing, kayaking, fishing, parasailing, jeep adventure tours, guided kayaking and SUP boarding among them.

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Little Palm Island Resort & Spa

Resort, Spa Hotel
4.9/5 (45 Reviews)
Little Palm Island Resort and Spa
Courtesy of Little Palm Island Resort and Spa / Expedia
The food-obsessed, Miami-based Zagat guide has praised the restaurant at Little Palm Island, so you can count on excellent food when you book one of the 15 thatched-roof beachfront bungalows. Sequestered on a private island in the Lower Florida Keys, the resort has 30 suites in total. Do the math: it means a maximum of 60 people on the island, so you’ll pretty much have that beach all to yourself. And because you’re in the Keys, you must try the Key lime pie.
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National Key Deer Refuge

Park
Map View
2CB367P Endangered Key deer in the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys. Odocoileus virginianus clavium
© Tim Clark / Alamy Stock Photo

True, most wildlife fans come to the Florida Keys to see marine animals: barracudas, loggerhead turtles, stingrays and manatees. But some come to see the endangered Key deer, a relative of the North American white-tailed deer. Only 600 to 800 of the endangered species remain, and they roam this 8,500-acre (3,450ha) protected reserve at the center of Big Pine Key. Staff are on hand to answer questions about the mammals and their habits.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Park
Map View
BM29P7 Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida, USA
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Dry Tortugas National Park, which comprises seven small islands, is one of the most biodiverse nature spots in Florida, but one of the least-visited national parks. That could be because you can only reach it by seaplane. It’s worth the trip, though: in addition to pristine beaches, kitted-out campgrounds on Garden Key and birding sites, there’s also historic Fort Jefferson, which once functioned as a Civil War prison.

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  • Old Wooden Bridge Resort

    Resort
    Map View
    2F0D54D Kayce Homminga, left, Capt. Bill Keogh of Big Pine Kayak Adventures and Henry Adams, a kayaking enthusiast from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, paddle their kayaks by a mangrove island in the backcountry north of Big Pine Key, Florida. (Photo by Steve Waters/Sun Sentinel/MCT/Sipa USA)
    © Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

    Captain Bill Keogh has been guiding kayakers (beginners welcome) through the Lower Florida Keys (including Summerland Key, Big Coppitt Key and Stock Island) for more than two decades. As a trained nature guide and educator, he’ll have you paddling the shallow waters of the Keys, or maybe take you on his Custom Backcountry Tour to see sharks, stingrays, dolphins, turtles and birds. Tours depart from the Old Wooden Bridge Resort.

    John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

    Park
    Map View
    AY4PMW Off Boynton Beach, Florida, a diver shines her torch on two Caribbean Spiny Lobsters
    © Aquascopic / Alamy Stock Photo
    John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is home to the only living coral barrier reef in the United States – known simply as the Florida Reef – and the third-largest coral barrier reef in the world. The park is a popular destination in Key Largo for snorkeling, scuba diving and swimming. For those who don’t want to get into the water, it’s easy to arrange a glass-bottom boat tour to appreciate the aquatic life.

    The Key West Butterfly Conservatory

    Building, Park
    Map View
    W6DYGN Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
    © David James / Alamy Stock Photo

    Imagine standing in a glass-enclosed (climate-controlled) habitat surrounded by 60 butterfly species and 20 exotic bird species. That sums up a visit to the Butterfly & Nature Conservatory in Key West. The Conservatory also houses a Learning Center, where you can discover cool facts about butterfly anatomy, migratory habits and life-cycle highlights. Be sure to greet the two resident flamingos, Rhett and Scarlett, on arrival.

    Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary

    Park, Natural Feature
    Map View
    2B5RJXF Gray angelfish (Pomacnathus arcuatus) swimming above a coral reef, Looe Key, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, United States, color
    © Allison Bailey / Alamy Stock Photo

    Bahia Honda Park may be virtually uninhabited, but it’s the ideal place to join a snorkeling tour to the nearby Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. More than 150 species of fish, including barracuda and parrotfish, have been sighted at Looe Key Reef. Divers have also seen stingrays and sharks. The real draw for many is the 7,000 years’ worth of colorful coral growth, including staghorn, elkhorn and fire corals.

    Plantation Key Fitness

    Fitness Studio, Yoga Studio
    Map View
    FWY771 stretchings on the beach at sunset, yoga exercises, silhouettes of couple
    © Anna Berkut / Alamy Stock Photo

    Islamorada, just south of Key Largo, is a string of six very laid-back islands popular with snorkelers and divers for its reefs – but also as a place to just chill. You can book beach yoga sessions with Plantation Key Fitness. If yoga doesn’t float your boat, there’s always Zumba or hardcore fitness classes on the beach. Meet your instructors at Founders Park on Overseas Highway.

    These recommendations were updated on September 9, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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