Florida Keys – When you look at a map of Florida, you can see that it is a long peninsula stretching southwards with the Atlantic Ocean on the east side and the Gulf of Mexico on the west side. Right at the end of the peninsula there is an archipelago of small islands that head southwards in an arc to the west into the Gulf of Mexico – and these islands have been named the “Florida Keys”, the word ‘keys’ being a geographical term used to define a sandy island that rises above a coral reef. The ‘Florida Straights’ is the name given to the 90 mile wide body of water that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Florida Keys has around 1700 islands, most tiny and uninhabited, but there are 43 islands all connected by 42 bridges, the longest being the 7 Mile Bridge which connects Knights Key in the Middle Keys to Duck Key in the Lower Keys. The 43rd island at the end of the string of islands is Key West in Lower Keys, with the Outer Keys being islands further on that can only be reached by boat, and the uninhabited Dry Tortugas Islands that in the Dry Tortugas National Park, where Fort Jefferson is located.
All of the islands stand just above sea level, which means that when Hurricanes and storm surges hit the islands, floods and damage can be severe. Key West at its highest point is just 18 feet above sea level. The only access to the 43 islands is by air, water or via the Overseas Highway 1 that passes over the bridges that connect each of the islands to each other. In 1910 the Overseas Railroad was built (see History of Florida section), but this was destroyed by a Hurricane in 1935, also destroying buildings and roads with over 500 people dying as the destruction took place. Hurricanes still can play havoc in the islands.
From Miami to Key West is a distance of around 130 miles, with the island of Cuba a further 90 miles further on. All along the coastline and to Key West there are beaches, coral reefs off-shore and resorts, with Marine Parks – Biscayne National Park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Bahia Honda State Park and the Dry Tortugas National Park, with these bordering the Everglades National Park to the west side too.
All of these are Parks and Sanctuaries are special, and if you have the time, travelling slowly down the coastline and island hopping will make for a great holiday, stopping wherever you feel inclined. Getting off-shore, diving, snorkelling, paddling a canoe or just looking down into the water all have their own excitement. There are also unexpected treats too – just like seeing small Key Deer on Big Pine Island; stopping at Islamorada, that calls itself “the sports fishing capital of the world and seeing the small steamboat called the ‘African Queen’, made famous in the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. See www.africanqueenflkeys.com
With so many islands and coral reefs it is little wonder that in days past, there were many ship wrecks off the Keys, and today many of these form underwater wrecks that have become havens for fish and divers to explore. A number of ships have also been deliberately sunk in the waters too, to form artificial reefs that attract all sorts of tropical fish and marine life who make it their home.
The under-water world is a whole new world to discover, and if you have never done it before, then you should try to do it here in Florida Keys. Once you have done it, be it with a mask and a snorkel, or by taking a Padi Course and tank dive, you may well be hooked. If snorkelling remember to have suntan protection on your back as it faces directly to the sun as you face down into the water. Bring your mosquito spray too, if heading on a canoe into areas around mangroves.
Key West is the best known of all the islands in the Florida Keys, as it has the biggest permanent settlement with a population of around 25,000 people, and it also has the most visitors, with about a million tourists arriving on flights, on cruise ships, by boat and by road.
Key West also has significant history, being first inhabited by Calusa people, with the first Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de León stepping ashore here in 1521. Its location on the northern side of the Florida Straits with Cuba on the southern side also made it a strategic location and the Spanish established a small garrison here, although it remained as a small fishing village for over two centuries. Between 1763 and 1783 it came under British control, then reverted back to Spanish control, until 1822 when it came under American control, and between 1845 and 1866 a Naval Base and Forts were built here – including Fort Zachary Taylor, the round East Martello and West Martello Tower as part of the Fort Taylor complex, and out on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas Islands, Fort Jefferson was built too.
Key West development started with fishing, salt and ship salvaging, and then with the Navy establishing a base here, further development occurred. Its closeness to Cuba also led to trade between the two locations, and cigars began to be made here too. The Key West to Havana Ferry service operated for some years up until 1959, and the airline, Pan Am started its operations here in 1926, providing the first mail service from Key West to Havana in 1927. Pan Am went on to become one of the world’s biggest airlines, before collapsing in 1991. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when it looked like a Nuclear War between the USA and Russia was imminent, but was luckily averted, an Embargo was placed on all trade between the USA and Cuba. Russia had been supporting the Cubans and building missile bases on the island, causing President Kennedy to act. That embargo still continues today, but there are signs in 2015 that it may be lifted. By the time you read this, it may have happened.
Today Key West development and industry is centered around Tourism – with its almost perfect tropical climate, casual beach lifestyle, diving, fishing, shopping and other water sports as well as its claim to be the southern-most point of the United States making it a destination that most Americans want to experience at least once.
While most people will head to Key West by the Overseas Highway 1, there is also the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail – a paved trail for bikes and walkers that runs from Key Largo (Mile Marker 106.4) to Key West (Mile Marker 0). The Trail crosses from island to island over many of the original Flagler built Railroad bridges, and about 70 miles of the planned 106 miles is completed. To find out more see www.floridastateparks.org/trail/floridakeys