Let’s imagine you’ve got only two or three days to explore the entire Florida Keys. While that’s definitely not an optimal situation, since the island chain’s five diverse regions should be explored at a leisurely pace, some people can only escape their “real world” responsibilities for a few short days.

Christ of the Deep Key Largo

The iconic Christ of the Deep statue is one of Key Largo’s most unforgettable dive sites. (Photo by Michael Oliver)

If that’s true for you, look to local residents for insights into the perfect short-term itinerary. What experiences do they recommend to visiting family and friends, and to newcomers eager to discover the island chain? Some recommendations are compiled here to help you maximize enjoyment in a minimal timeframe.

Start on the northernmost island of Key Largo, renowned for diving, snorkeling and backcountry touring. From there, follow the Florida Keys Overseas Highway all the way to Key West, driving at an easy pace and stopping along the way.

EXPERIENCE ONE: Take a snorkeling or scuba excursion and see stunning coral formations and brilliant tropical fish at Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park — America’s first underwater preserve and a predecessor to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Get more information here.

EXPERIENCE TWO: Head for Islamorada, renowned as the Sportfishing Capital of the World. Join one of Islamorada’s charter captains or guides for world-class fishing in offshore, reef or shallow backcountry waters. The Keys lay claim to more saltwater fishing world records than any other angling destination on the planet. To find a captain, click here.

Turtle release Florida Keys

Bette Zirkelbach (left) and Richie Moretti (right) of the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital release “Don,” a rehabilitated loggerhead sea turtle, at Sombrero Beach in Marathon with assistance from volunteers. (Photo by Mari Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

EXPERIENCE THREE: After catching your fish (maybe yellowtail snapper, tuna or dolphin fish, also called mahi-mahi), turn it into a meal. Bring it to one of the Keys restaurants that “cook the catch.” There’s nothing like savoring a perfectly prepared and seasoned fish, and knowing you reeled it in. Get a taste of the island chain’s culinary scene here.

EXPERIENCE FOUR: Meandering through Marathon, stop in at the world’s only licensed veterinary hospital specializing in sea turtles. A dedicated team at the Turtle Hospital rescues, rehabilitates and nurtures sick and injured turtles — and when possible, releases them back into the ocean realm. Don’t miss taking a guided behind-the-scenes tour of this one-of-a-kind facility. For a preview, click here.

EXPERIENCE FIVE: Now drive down the Overseas Highway to Big Pine Key where, if you’re lucky, you can spot (and photograph) a real-life “Bambi.” Tiny, shy Key deer are an endangered species that live only in the Lower Keys. They’re about the size of large dogs and can be found grazing around Big Pine — especially in the early morning hours and at dusk. Learn more about the deer and the Lower Keys’ National Key Deer Refuge here.

Key West home staircase flowers

Bike or stroll through Key West’s Old Town to glimpse fascinating historic architecture and lush foliage.

EXPERIENCE SIX: Once you reach Key West, you can do anything from taking an art stroll to visiting a Hemingway hangout. But one of the very best activities is wonderfully simple: rent a bicycle and pedal around historic Old Town past colorful Victorian homes, white picket fences and luxuriant foliage. Biking down the narrow lanes, you can smell exotic flowers and peek into hidden gardens, marvel at architectural beauty and exchange smiles with the local residents you pass.  Enjoy a Key West overview here.

As you’ll discover on your Florida Keys journey, the islands boast a lively seafaring history, flourishing creative community, balmy subtropical climate and natural wonders that include continental America’s only living coral barrier reef.

Yet the Keys’ most important asset is intangible: a laid-back vibe that seems worlds away from everyday cares. Guided by recommendations from friendly locals, soak up that vibe whether you have two days or two weeks to spend in the magical island chain — and you’ll find yourself refreshed, renewed and ready for more.