Two days after arriving in the Florida Keys, the realization hit me: I had found my home. This crescent of subtropical islands, where blue-green water unrolled to the horizon and palm trees rustled in the balmy February breeze, was where I belonged. Forever.
Unlikely? Not really. That sense of absolute belonging has turned scores of casual Keys visitors into longtime “locals” who create satisfying lives close to nature and far from the mundane pressures of the “real world.”
Surprisingly, you don’t have to be a local to share some of the elements that make Keys life so happily addictive — as long as you’re willing to explore, experience and embrace the unexpected people, places and moments you encounter.
While many destinations encourage vacationers to stay in “tourist areas” removed from favorite local hangouts, the Keys’ attitude is entirely different. Sit down at a bar or coffee house in the island chain and you’re likely to find a new local friend who’s happy to suggest activities and places to check out.
For example, I often encourage visitors to try one of my favorite Key West pastimes: biking or strolling through the Old Town neighborhood as evening falls. Just off Duval Street, the lively shopping and dining center, you’ll pass lovingly restored Victorian homes and cottages with lights blossoming in their windows and the luscious scent of jasmine drifting from flower-filled yards. Though I’ve done it hundreds of times, roaming those residential lanes at dusk still carries a quiet magic.
Speaking of favorites, don’t miss a trip to the Hogfish Bar & Grill, a hard-to-find hideaway on Stock Island in the Lower Keys. Most customers at the funky locals’ watering hole sit outdoors at weathered picnic tables overlooking picturesque vessels moored at the adjacent dock. Sample the world-class smoked-fish dip and fresh hogfish, a diver-caught fish with a light flavor.
After eating, stroll down the dock, greet the resident canines, and discover offbeat sculptures by local artisans who populate the dockside lofts. This small haven for live-aboard houseboats and sailboats is a true hidden gem.
In the Middle Keys, downtime means being on the water. Kayaking is a preferred pastime and a popular launch at Sombrero Beach makes water access easy.
Marathon-based outfitters offer rentals and trail maps for those eager to explore on their own, as well as escorted eco-tours through Sister Creek and the Boot Key Nature Preserve. Don’t forget your camera, since the quiet winding trails lead through mangrove forests alive with native birds.
And while the Keys are famous for their sunsets, many Middle Keys residents favor the sunrise. For an unrivalled view, join early risers strolling along the Old Seven Mile Bridge over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
A historic landmark that parallels the modern bridge, the span was the centerpiece of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad from 1912 to 1935. These days, a recently restored 2.2-mile section of it is open to pedestrians and bicyclists.
In Islamorada, life is mostly about fishing. Backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered in the Upper Keys area, and it’s home to scores of world-class charter captains — some of them second- and third-generation with an inherited passion for the respected Keys profession.
Soak up their tales over cocktails at the Lorelei, a favorite local hangout whose on-site marina is headquarters for both offshore and backcountry captains. Its casual bar overlooks Florida Bay, making it a great sunset-watching spot.
Key Largo residents might be tempted to keep one of their beloved eateries a secret, but fortunately they don’t. Ask where to have a great home-style meal and chances are you’ll be directed to Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen.
Founded in 1976, the unassuming café was named for the mother of original owner Jeff MacFarland in honor of her recipes. The menu features dishes ranging from biscuits and gravy for breakfast to fresh fish straight off the dock.
Mrs. Mac’s is decorated with license plates donated by guests who wanted to leave their mark on the place — and the “World Famous Key Lime Pie” sign is not an exaggeration.
Whatever you choose to do in the Florida Keys, however, make sure you indulge in plenty of water activities. For seasoned residents, free time is often spent snorkeling the shallows, stalking gamefish in the backcountry, diving a shipwreck site or taking a sunset spin on a friend’s boat.
Of course the suggestions here are just a few ways to experience the Keys like a local. But be warned — once you do, you might become mesmerized by the island lifestyle and find yourself returning for good, powerless to resist its magical appeal.