To the south, Key West has a Mardi Gras mood with Fantasy Festivals, Hemingway look-alike contests and the occasional threat to secede from the Union. It’s an island whose melting-pot character allows crusty natives to mingle (more or less peacefully) with eccentrics and escape artists who lovingly call this 4-mi sandbar “Paradise.” Although life elsewhere in the island chain isn’t quite as offbeat, it’s nearly as diverse.
In the Atlantic, dive spectacular coral reefs or pursue grouper, blue marlin, and other deep-water game fish. Along Florida Bay’s coastline, kayak and canoe to secluded islands and bays or seek out the bonefish, snapper, snook, and tarpon that lurk in the grass flats and in the shallow, winding channels of the backcountry.
More than 600 kinds of fish populate the reefs and islands. Diminutive Key deer and pale raccoons, related to but distinct from their mainland cousins, inhabit the Lower Keys. And throughout the Florida Keys you’ll find such exotic West Indian plants as Jamaican dogwood, pigeon plum, poison wood, satin leaf, and silver-and-thatch palms, as well as tropical birds, including the great white heron, mangrove cuckoo, roseate spoonbill, and white-crowned pigeon.
Mangroves, with their gracefully bowed prop roots, appear to march out to sea. Day by day they busily add more keys to the archipelago. With virtually no distracting air pollution or obstructive high-rises, sunsets are a pure, unadulterated spectacle that each evening attracts thousands of Florida Keys vacationers to waterfront parks, piers, restaurants, bars, and resorts.
Weather is another Florida Keys attraction: winter is typically 10°F warmer than on the mainland; summer is usually 10°F cooler. The Keys also get substantially less rain, around 30 inches annually, compared to an average 55 to 60 inches in Miami and the Everglades. Most rain falls in quick downpours on summer afternoons, except in June, September, and October, when tropical storms can dump rain for two to four days. Winter cold fronts occasionally stall over the Keys, dragging overnight temperatures down to the high 40s.