Unlocking the Florida Keys

There’s so much more to Florida than the theme park hub of Orlando, with its Disney this and Universal that. While that’s a whole heap of fun, the Sunshine State also boasts vibrant resorts, classy coastal retreats, plus the unique and beautiful interlinked islands of the Florida Keys.

Driving down through the Keys will see you stumble upon getaway spots, boardwalks and must-try water sports. Then there are the world-beating sunsets and turtle hospitals, the secluded romantic spots and bouncing beachside grills frying up delicious fresh fish.

The Keys are all you want them to be and so much more. There’s a lot to pack in, especially if your time here is short. So here are the things you really need to do on a 48-hour stay in the Florida Keys that you’ll remember forever.

The Bay of Biscayne

If we’re being picky, Biscayne National Park isn’t actually part of the Keys – it’s so close to downtown Miami that you can still see the city. But it’s your gateway to the south of Florida, and with 95% of the park being underwater, it’s the perfect place for those who enjoy spending time on the water – or just relaxing next to it.

Find where the mangroves meet the coral reef and head out on a canoe or kayak trip to get a closer look at the diverse wildlife, dolphins and stingrays.

At the south of the park sits Elliott Key, the most northerly of the real Florida Keys. It’s accessible only by boat, so you’ll need to park up and hop on board to visit the seven-mile-long uninhabited spit of land. If you have the time, it’s a great place to picnic or camp out and spend the night under the stars.

The Key to happiness

Key Largo is the first Key you can drive down on your road trip, and the daddy of them all. One of the undoubted highlights is the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – the very first undersea park in the US, it’s a 25-mile-long wonder of the natural world.

The National Marine Sanctuary is one of the world’s finest places to dive – or if you’re not that way inclined, just take a spin on one of the glass-bottomed boats. A relatively recent addition to the bottom of the sea is the USS Spiegel Grove, a huge boat sunk to create a new reef ecosystem.

Film buffs will want to make a beeline for the African Queen steamboat, immortalised by the Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart movie classic of the same name, and now over a century old.

Duck dynasty

Drive on past Plantation Key, Islamorada and Layton to Duck Key, one of the most petite but prettiest Keys. You’ve reached pretty much the halfway point now, so indulge yourself with some sunset watching, or enjoy some snorkelling in the warm waters.

You’ll find the family- and couple-friendly Hawks Cay Resort here, with everything from standard rooms to penthouse suites and luxury villas for that splash of island life.

Go paddling, fishing, kiteboarding, diving or make the memory of a lifetime with a dolphin encounter. Whichever you choose, by now you’re fully in the swing of the Keys.

Grab some fuel before you head off again at Angler & Ale. Conch chowder, local shrimp and catch of the day are all on the menu. And it would be rude to visit this part of the world without sampling the tang of a Key lime pie.

Go West

From Duck Key you’ll make your way past plenty more tempting islands, some of them narrow, many of them wider such as Big Pine Key and Torch Key. But this is a whistle-stop tour, so motor on to the very last of them all, Key West.

The most famous of the islands, it’s also one of the most diverse. You can bathe, bask and bake in the sun, sure, but you can also grab a culture fix at the Hemingway Home, where legendary author Ernest Hemingway once lived, wrote and hosted his famous friends.

‘Papa’ took over the mid-19th century home in 1931 and you can take a tour to see many of his personal artefacts. You’ll also notice a fair few cats knocking around – some of them six-toed descendants of Hemingway’s own cat, Snowball.

By the time you’re in need of a bite to eat, head over to Sloppy Joes on Duval Street. A fixture since 1933 and the originator of the sandwich of the same name, this former Hemingway haunt still hosts an annual lookalike contest.

You’ll find Duval Street home to plenty of buzzy bars, while you won’t want to miss Mallory Square’s nightly Sunset Celebration.

If you’re looking to push the boat out for dinner, book a table at Latitudes. We’re not kidding about the boat – this stunning restaurant beneath the gently swaying palms is only accessible by shuttle boat. Feast on blackened grouper, moreish lobster salad and local amberjack.

Finally, at the cross of South Street and Whitehead Street, you’ll find Southernmost Point – not just of the Keys, but of the continental US. It’s a photo opp must before you start heading back to mainland Florida.

While 48 hours might not give you enough time to experience all of the Keys’ treasures, it should still deliver a flavour of this amazing part of the world.

Car hire in Florida is the best way to Key-hop, whether you’re here for white knuckle adventures on the water or just want to dip your toes in the azure sea and plan your next, longer visit to this beautiful oasis.