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Before You Book- Learn The Secrets Of Florida Keys Islands

florida keys islands

There are over 1700 islands in the Florida Keys. That statistic not only puts the Bahamas island count of 700 to shame but it also means that you need to come back again…and again…and again.

The Florida Keys islands are nestled in the sparkling blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

From the pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters to the lively communities and diverse wildlife, the Florida Keys offer a tapestry of experiences catering to tourists and locals seeking unforgettable adventures.

We’re letting you in on which ones are the absolutely best to visit and sharing a bit of their storied past. We’ll also be exploring the top 5 things to do at each island.

So, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for an exceptional adventure!

The Florida Keys Islands' Vibrant And Lively Culture

Sun-kissed islands, laid-back charm, and a cultural fusion born of sun-drenched waters. The Florida Keys hum with a unique spirit.

Native, Spanish, and Bahamian rhythms blend in lively art scenes, pulsating music venues, and fresh seafood feasts, serving up conch fritters and Key lime pie to upscale waterfront restaurants offering gourmet cuisine, there is something to satisfy every palate.

This fusion of cultures and flavors is the Keys’ irresistible charm.

Key West, the crown jewel of the Keys, beckons visitors with its lively atmosphere, colorful historic architecture, and renowned sunsets at Mallory Square.

Key Largo, the gateway to the Keys, entices divers and snorkelers with its breathtaking coral reefs and underwater wonders in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Marathon, the heart of the Keys, provides a perfect balance of relaxation and excitement, with its stunning beaches, water sports opportunities, and a rich fishing heritage.

Islamorada, known as the Sportfishing Capital of the World, lures anglers and water enthusiasts with its crystal-clear waters teeming with marine life.

Further south, Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys offer a tranquil retreat amidst nature’s beauty, with pristine beaches, nature reserves, and the fascinating Key deer population. Each of these Florida Keys islands boasts its own allure, making them a must-visit for anyone seeking an unforgettable tropical escape.

Let’s get into the top 5 islands and the top things to do on each island.

A documentary of Florida Keys: The Place of Limitless Parties

Discover hidden-gem beaches,  explore the Florida Keys food scene, find the perfect accommodation, experience the Keys’ stunning waters, and much more.

Best Islands In The Florida Keys

florida keys islands communities

Key West

Key West is Florida’s southernmost subtropical paradise, uniquely blending history, climate, natural beauty, cultural diversity, architecture, and an undeniable romantic getaway.

Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, and Jimmy Buffett, to name a few famous people who found solace and inspiration in the island city, whose heritage was inspired in large part by Bahamian wreckers, commercial fishermen, spongers, and Cuban cigar makers, lived on palm-lined streets with gingerbread mansions and tin-roofed conch houses.

You can explore various historic attractions in Key West via biking, strolling, taking public transportation, pedicabs, tour trains, trolleys, or taxis.

Top 5 Things To Do in Key West

Key West Duval Street

A trip to Key West would be incomplete without a stroll down Duval Street. This famous boulevard, lined with restaurants, bars, art galleries, and souvenir shops, stretches for only a mile and is close to many of the city’s most well-known attractions.

Get a taste of Key West Key Lime Pie from Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, take a ghost tour, or listen to live music at the famed Sloppy Joe’s bar. The best part is that you can people-watch for free here.

Keep in mind that Duval Street becomes a hotspot for bar hoppers after dark, so families may wish to make dinner reservations elsewhere.

Key West Mallory Square

Head to Mallory Square on the island’s northwest edge for a spectacular sunset view. This is one of the best sites on the island to catch the sunset and revel at the end of the day during the Sunset Celebration (a free, nightly arts festival that begins approximately two hours before sunset).

However, because it is one of the best places to watch the sunset, it is also highly crowded, especially with cruise ship passengers.

Key West Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park

For the cleanest beach and clearest waters in Key West, visit Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park on the island’s westernmost tip. You may sunbathe, walk, ride, fish, and learn about history in one location. 

This beach provides excellent snorkeling opportunities. Pack some food and charcoal with your snorkeling gear: it has plenty of BBQ grills and rental equipment.

If you grow weary of hanging out on the beach, visit the park’s old fort. The fort was constructed in the mid-nineteenth century and was used throughout the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. There are both guided and self-directed tours available.

Key West Dry Tortugas National Park

Located approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is a breathtaking and remote natural gem showcasing the Florida Keys’ unspoiled beauty. One of the standout features of Dry Tortugas National Park is its centerpiece, Fort Jefferson. This massive, hexagonal-shaped fortress, constructed in the 19th century, is a testament to the island’s historical significance.

Birdwatchers will also be delighted by the park’s avian inhabitants. Dry Tortugas serves as a critical stopover and nesting site for migratory birds, attracting a diverse range of species.

Key West Conch Tour Train

The Conch Tour Train is an excellent choice for those who want to learn about Key West’s history but don’t have a lot of time to spend meandering around various sights. This narrated 75-minute trip swings through Key West’s famed Old Town, highlighting the city’s rich history. The trip stops three times for visitors to get refreshments and stretch their legs.

Key Largo

Key Largo, the northernmost of the Florida Keys, is an hour’s drive from South Florida’s two major airports. The island has unique botanical beauty, including tropical hardwoods, flowing creeks, a national park, two state parks, and a portion of a national marine sanctuary.

There are accommodations for all interests, ranging from modest family-owned cottages to magnificent resorts, holiday houses, and condominiums. Key Largo’s seaside attractions include scuba diving, snorkeling, an underwater hotel, sport fishing, eco-tours, beaches, and educational dolphin encounter programs.

Top 5 Things To Do in Key Largo

Key Largo Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Most of Key Largo’s dive spots are located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a 2,900 square nautical mile protected region. The sanctuary, established in 1990 to conserve valuable coral reefs and other aquatic animals, is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Florida. Grecian Rocks, French Reef, and Molasses Reef are popular dive locations off the coast of Key Largo, and divers can also explore many nearby shipwrecks.

Because of its shallow waters, Molasses Reef was recommended for snorkeling, while Grecian Rocks are praised for its clean waters and plenty of fish.

Key Largo John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John D. Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, named after a former Miami Herald newspaper editor and notable Everglades naturalist, was established in 1963 as the United States’ first underwater park. The state park is 25 miles long and 3 miles wide, and it is home to various aquatic plant and animal species, as well as mangroves and birds.

The park can be enjoyed in a variety of ways by visitors. Snorkeling and scuba diving tours let visitors see the beautiful coral reef and the popular Christ of the Deep underwater statue, while glass-bottom boat tours allow visitors to stay dry. In addition, there are 47 campsites and designated areas for swimming, fishing, and picnics.

Key Largo Everglades National Park

South Florida is an excellent day trip for nature enthusiasts visiting Key Largo. The park’s entrances are distributed throughout the Sunshine State; the closest to Key Largo is the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Homestead, about a 37-mile drive north.

Visitors to Everglades National Park will encounter the greatest subtropical wilderness in America (preferably in your car, as there is no public transit and automobile services have difficulty navigating the area). The park is home to a diversity of plant species and various habitats, as well as manatees, crocodiles, alligators, Florida panthers, and other animals. For visitors of all ages, outdoor activities abound, including bike and hiking paths, bird-watching, kayaking, camping, fishing, and a variety of ranger-led tours and programs.

Key Largo Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park

Visitors to Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park can ride their bikes or walk along more than 6 miles of accessible nature trails. Dagny Johnson, a local environmental activist, inspired the park’s name. It also has one of the greatest tracts of West Indian tropical hardwood hammocks in the country. 

The park protects 84 plant and animal species, including flora such as mahogany mistletoe and wildlife such as the American crocodile. A picnic pavilion and on-site bathrooms are available for visitors’ comfort. The majority of the pathways are paved, making them wheelchair accessible.

Key Largo Spiegel Grove

The USS Spiegel Grove, a former Navy ship, was purposefully sunk 6 miles off the coast of Key Largo in June 2002 to maintain the undersea habitat as a constructed reef. The 510-foot freighter is one of the largest ships ever sunk for that purpose, and it immediately attracted fish and other aquatic life.

In the present day, the wreck benefits the environment and the diving community. Because of its distinctive features and abundance of colorful fish, it is a favorite dive destination among many recent reviews. However, due to this artificial reef’s vast size and orientation (the ship was resettled nose-up following Hurricane Dennis in 2005, with its deepest spot at 130 feet), instructors advised that only experienced divers attempt Spiegel Grove.

Marathon

Marathon is a 10-mile-long family-oriented island community in the heart of the Keys island chain, which consists primarily of Vaca Key, Fat Deer Key, and Grassy Key.

The area’s lodgings, which include private waterfront vacation houses, modest hotels, beachside inns, and tropical, family-style resorts, celebrate Marathon’s fishing heritage, old-Keys culture, and seafaring customs. The neighborhood is well-known for its annual seafood festivals and waterfront restaurants that catch and serve fresh fish, lobster, and stone crab claws from the surrounding waters. Anglers can catch offshore billfish and tuna in winter, bridge-hugging tarpon in spring, and dolphin fish in summer.

Top 5 Things To Do in Marathon

Marathon Bahia Honda State Park

Bahia Honda Key is an isolated white-sand beach on a pristine spur between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, featuring some of the world’s purest waters. This place isn’t simply for beachgoers and stargazers. It has something for everyone who appreciates being outside, whether on land, in the air, or at sea.

It attracts day trippers, overnight campers, beachgoers, and mariners. Hiking trails with breathtaking views of tropical hardwood hammocks, sea grapes, and Jamaican dogwood are available. Kayaking and snorkeling in the waters to observe star corals and other marine life would be ideal for active sports enthusiasts.

Marathon Sombrero Beach

With its soft sand beaches, blue waters, and shady picnic places, Sombrero Beach is a true treasure of the Middle Keys. This family-friendly beach with calm waters is a popular spot for water activities such as snorkeling, kayaking, diving, and simply relaxing on the beach. 

If you are an expert swimmer, go further into the water to see tropical fish and turtles. This public beach is one of Marathon’s biggest attractions. Weekends are the busiest, so get there early or throughout the week to grab a decent place along the ocean.

Marathon Keys Cable Park

The Keys Cable Watersports Park is not a typical destination, but it should be noticed during your Marathon visit. The major feature at Keys Cable Park, located on Grassy Key midway between Key West and Marathon, is a pristine 7-acre lake with two cables.

By hauling riders across the river through overhead lines, the cable system eliminates the need for a boat. The operator may control the speed and stop the ride if you fall using an independent 2-point system. Even if you fall, the operator will retrieve the handle, and you will continue your trip from that spot in the lake.

Cables, paddleboards, foil boards, kiteboards, surfboards, and magnificent beaches are available for recreation at Keys Cable Park. Bogos botanical beer garden, complete with tropical fruit trees, offers 20 craft beers on tap, drinks, and light nibbles. The park is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Marathon Keys Helicopter Tours

Looking for something exciting to do in Marathon? Helicopter tours are one of the most fantastic Marathon activities. See Bahia Honda State Park, Hawk’s Cay, the Seven Mile Bridge, Sombrero Beach, Pigeon Cay, and more from above on a helicopter Keys tour.

Keep your eyes peeled because sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, stingrays, and other aquatic life will be visible from above.

Marathon Dolphin Research Center

This 90,000-square-foot dolphinarium opened in 1984 and is home to many California sea lions and dolphins. Are you a fan of marine mammals? This Dolphin Research Center is home to several friendly California sea lions and bottlenose dolphins.

In addition, the center offers classes, conferences, and events to educate the general public about these creatures. Interactive activities with dolphins, such as the Family Dolphin Splash and the Dolphin Encounter Swim, are even better.

Islamorada

Islamorada is a group of six islands located between the salty wilderness of Everglades National Park and the deep blue waters of the Florida Strait: Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Lower Matecumbe Key, and the distant islands of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key.

Islamorada, a community of islands where backcountry sport and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered, may have the world’s largest density of professional offshore and backcountry charter boats with tournament-grade captains.

In the tradition of Ted Williams, Jimmy Albright, and Cecil Keith, highly skilled recreational fishing guides practice their profession here.

Top 5 Things To Do in Islamorada

Islamorada Indian Key Historic State Park

Kayak to Indian Key Historic State Park to experience the past while immersing yourself in nature. This 11-acre uninhabited island, once a bustling town that served as Dade County’s original county seat, provides the ideal environment for a range of nature-based activities from 8 AM until sundown.

This historic state park can only be reached by boat or kayak due to its isolation from the mainland. It provides opportunities for fishing, hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, picnicking, swimming, and wildlife viewing. Explore the ruins of this ghost town by strolling through the rebuilt street system for a one-of-a-kind experience.

If you don’t have your kayak, don’t worry; you can rent one from Robbie’s Marina or Backcountry Cowboys.

Islamorada Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

Are you ready to encounter extraordinary scenery? If so, Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park should be on your list.

Once a quarry used by Henry Flagler in the early 1900s, all that remains is a fossilized coral reef teeming with over 125,000-year-old fossils.

The tourist center should be your first stop, where you can obtain an overview of what you’ll see. You may also see displays about the park’s history and Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad here. You can relax at the neighboring picnic tables after wandering around the 8-foot-high quarry walls and admiring preserved quarry machinery pieces.

Islamorada Morada Way Arts and Cultural District

Finding evidence of “Main Street America” in an area famed for its stunning, rough beaches may come as a surprise. While the islands of the Keys are home to a variety of settlements, they lack the classic city core found in so many towns on the mainland. The Morada Way Arts and Cultural District, on the other hand, is an exception.

This quirky six-block strip is the only classic small town “main street” between Miami and Key West, and it’s a joy to explore. You can easily spend a few hours getting lost amid the artists’ creations and handicrafts of local artisans in this delightful district dotted with galleries, cafés, stores, and art studios, not to mention picking up a few unique pieces for your home along the way. Many festivals and community activities, such as the annual Seafood Fest, take place here, as well as sidewalk shops and art fairs.

Islamorada Florida Keys Brewing Company

Head to Keys Brewing Company, the Upper Keys’ first microbrewery, when you’re in the mood for a cold one.

This locally owned brewery has been open since 2015 and offers 30 delectable beer variations ranging from “Hoppy Beer” and “The Lighter Side” to “Red, Ambers, and Browns” and “Florida Weisse Sours.” Beer enthusiasts can visit the taproom for a tasting flight, a growler fill of staples, seasonal brews, and limited releases, or simply kick back and relax in the beer garden while savoring wonderful beer.

Beer enthusiasts should take advantage of a brewery tour to see their 20-bbl brewhouse and speak with a brewmaster to learn the secrets of their unique island beer. Those who aren’t into beer can spend their time in the beer garden playing gigantic Jenga, hula hooping, and cornhole or in the taproom admiring mosaic artwork constructed from thousands of bottle caps from top-rated brewers.

Islamorada History of Diving Museum (1)

Those interested in tracing 3,000 years of underwater diving should visit the History of Diving Museum.

The museum, which has been open since 2005, houses one of the world’s largest collections of diving memorabilia, including diving helmets, armored suits, hand-operated air pumps, and other accessory equipment, as well as prints, first-hand historical accounts of significant events, photographs, film, books, videos, and other memorabilia.

Interactive exhibits explain the stories of well-known local divers and highlight the history of humankind’s sea exploration.

Big Pine Key and The Lower Keys

The Lower Keys, where the Florida Keys island chain takes a beautiful westward swing toward the sunset, are home to two national wildlife refuges, a national marine sanctuary, and a state park teeming with terrestrial and marine wildlife.

From the west end of the Seven Mile Bridge at Little Duck Key at MM 40 to Stock Island at MM 5, this quiet region of small islands is connected by family-owned resorts, RV parks, campgrounds, quaint B&B and licensed vacation homes, as well as eclectic restaurants, a strong sense of community, native wildernesses, and rich history.

Take a boat ride to explore the crystal-clear shallow waters of the secluded sand bars of the Lower Keys, or go fishing in the backcountry or the deep blue water offshore beyond the reef.

Top 5 Things To Do in Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys

Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys Florida Keys Wildlife Society

Visit the Nature Center of the National Wildlife Refuges Complex, which allows visitors to enjoy and learn about birds and other species.

See the exhibits with the major topic ‘Connections in Nature,’ which includes a film and theater section, a shallow water tank, a Key deer tale display, and a moving exhibit exhibiting the Miami blue butterfly. Allow your children to explore the kids’ zone, which is filled with books and games.

Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge

The National Key Deer Refuge, established in 1957, protects and preserves the Key deer and other wildlife resources on Florida Key. It covers a large region and contains tropical hardwood hammocks, pine rockland forests, marsh wetlands, mangrove forests, and freshwater wetlands. 

Over 20 endangered animal and plant species call it home. The most notable sighting will be of the Key deer, the smallest subspecies of the white-tailed deer. It’s an endangered species found exclusively in the Lower Florida Keys.

Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys Blue Hole

This section of the National Key Deer Refuge is a must-see for anyone visiting the area.

The Blue Hole is a sinkhole in the limestone that was widened by quarry blasting a few years ago. The limestone mined here was utilized for road fill and the Henry Flagler Overseas Railroad.

The Blue Hole has a freshwater layer on top of a layer of saltwater from the sea. This means that freshwater goes down for around 22 feet before meeting seawater. This is also an excellent place for birdwatching while on a trek.

Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys Big Pine Key Flea Market

Visit the Big Pine Key Flea Market, the town’s largest and most fun shopping experience. This place has an ever-expanding selection of food, household goods, and crafts. Soaps, boating and fishing supplies, handcrafted crafts, jewelry, beachwear, vegetables, equipment, and apparel can all be found here. 

Big Pine Key Flea Market is famed for its fish fry and is one of the top free things to do in the Lower Keys!

Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys Old Bahia Honda Rail Bridge

The historic Bahia Honda Rail Bridge was part of the Overseas Railroad and was built between 1905 and 1912.

It was built specifically to transport a single track of the Florida East Coast Railway from Bahia Honda Key to Spanish Harbor Key across the Big Spanish Channel. Despite the channel’s 24-foot depth, its unusual steel truss architecture permits it to thrive.

The bridge was devastated after a hurricane in 1935, but engineers rebuilt the foundations and transformed it to become part of the Overseas Highway. The bridge is now managed by the Bahia Honda State Park, which allows pedestrian traffic at the easternmost stretch of the bridge, which provides picturesque views of the surrounding area.

florida keys islands tropical paradise

The Florida Keys Islands truly stand as a remarkable tropical paradise, where nature’s beauty and captivating secrets intertwine to create an unforgettable experience for visitors. From the moment one sets foot on these enchanting islands, a sense of awe and wonder permeates the air, inviting exploration and discovery.

While the Florida Keys Islands have long been renowned as a popular tourist destination, their secrets continue to unfold for those who venture beyond the well-trodden path.

Florida Keys Islands History

Keys charm for millennia! Pre-Columbus tribes feasted on maritime bounty. Spanish explorers dreamt of youth’s fountain, found riches in giants – logging lush mahogany.

Keys embraced visitors, battled exploitation, bore witness to sculpted landscapes.

Spanish, unfazed by harsh climate and sparse resources, mapped these “useless” isles, setting stage for centuries of transformation.

florida keys history juan ponce de leon

“Martyrs” turned islands: Ponce de Leon’s gloomy first impression gave way to “Keys” – Spanish for “little islands.”

Drawn by the riches of the Caribbean, ships met their fate on the Keys’ reefs, birthing a boom in 19th-century wrecking.

Bahamian wreckers followed Spanish galleons laden with gold, eventually settling in Key West after Florida became US territory, seeking citizenship – and new plunder.

florida keys history the first settlement

Keys, lonely and bone-strewn (Caloosa burial grounds!), remained untouched by US westward expansion.

First settlers landed in Key West’s “Bone Island” (1820s), Florida still a territory. Other Keys lay wild till post-Civil War, when homesteaders arrived, crafting homes from shipwreck wood.

florida keys history henry flagler

Railroad Revolution: Flagler’s iron serpent conquered the Keys, ending isolation in 1912. Despite hurricanes, the railroad spurred agriculture, fishing, and tourism. But depression and changing industries, like lighthouses replacing wrecking, weakened its grip. The 1935 hurricane dealt the final blow, leaving tracks for cars to roll south instead. According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Labor Day hurricane 1935 damaged most of the railroad. It killed 200 World War I veterans in a 17-foot storm surge, just as relief efforts and tourism interest in the Keys began to blossom.

Military Roots: Before tourists flocked, soldiers landed. Fort Taylor, built two decades after first settlers, was Key West’s military anchor. From army base to Navy stronghold, its presence continues to shape the island’s identity.

florida keys history the island today

On July 7, 1997, the Florida Keys WEA purchased its first 344 acres under the Conservation and Recreational Lands (CARL) and Preservation 2000 (P2000) programs.

Since then, additional lots have been added to the project through the CARL, P2000, and Florida Forever environmental land acquisition initiatives. The 928-acre Johnson Tract on Sugarloaf Key, purchased in 2015, was the most recent addition.

These conservation properties are bordered by federal, state, and county parks.

The distinctive geology and warm climate are more akin to the Caribbean than the rest of Florida, and many uncommon plants and animals continue to attract eco-tourists.

The principal industries of the Keys are fishing, scuba diving, and various forms of leisure tourism.

However, tourism development and a growing year-round population have had a negative impact on the natural tropical fauna and plant ecosystems, making it critical that those that remain to be safeguarded.

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Florida Keys Islands FAQs

The Florida Keys are a chain of islands located off the southern tip of Florida, USA. They extend southward from the southeastern coast of the Florida peninsula, starting from the city of Miami. The islands stretch for about 120 miles (193 kilometers) and are connected by the Overseas Highway, also known as U.S. Route 1. The southernmost point of the Florida Keys is Key West, which is approximately 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of Cuba.

The Florida Keys comprise a chain of numerous islands, but there are several main islands that are well-known and popular among visitors as they are hubs of tourist attractions. Starting from the northernmost point and heading south, some of the main islands in the Florida Keys include:

  1. Key Largo
  2. Islamorada
  3. Marathon
  4. Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys
  5. Key West

The Florida Keys hold a special allure and offer a variety of unique features that make them a truly special destination. Some highlights that make the Florida Keys stand out are its natural beauty, coral reefs, outdoor activities, unique wildlife, historical significance, and relaxed island lifestyle. 

These factors, combined with the warm climate and pristine natural surroundings, make the Florida Keys a truly special destination that captures the hearts of travelers from around the world.

When explorer Juan Ponce de Leon surveyed the Keys in 1513, he named them Los Martires (meaning “the martyrs”) because they reminded him of distressed men. The term “Key” is derived from the Spanish word “cayo,” which means”small island.” The Florida Keys hence mean “little islands of Florida,” and the brief history of the Florida Keys begins with the Spanish.

The city closest to the Florida Keys is Miami, Florida. The main access point to the Keys from Miami is via the Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1), which connects the mainland to Key Largo, the first island in the Keys chain. Miami’s international airport, Miami International Airport (MIA), is a major transportation hub for travelers visiting the Florida Keys.

The best month to visit the Florida Keys depends on personal preferences and what activities you are interested in. The Keys have a tropical climate with warm temperatures throughout the year, but there are a few factors to consider when planning your visit:

  • Weather
  • Crowds
  • Events and festivals
  • Outdoor activities

 

Ultimately, the best time to visit the Florida Keys depends on your preferences and what you want to experience.

Janelle
Author: Janelle

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