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.”
Yet 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 open to exploring and experiencing the islands’ offerings.
For example, try one of my favorite Key West pastimes: biking or strolling through the Old Town neighborhood as evening falls. Just off Duval Street, the island’s lively shopping and dining center, you’ll pass lovingly restored Victorian homes and cottages with 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, a trip to the Hogfish Bar & Grill, a hard-to-find hideaway on Stock Island just off Key West, tops my list of treats. Sit outdoors overlooking the marina, and 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 dogs and cats, and discover offbeat sculptures by local artisans living and working in dockside lofts. This small haven for live-aboard houseboats and sailboats is a true hidden gem.
Open weekends from October through July, the outdoor market features pop-up “stores” with everything from nautical gear and lobster floats to semiprecious jewelry, T-shirts and sundresses. Exploring the lively marketplace has been a Lower Keys tradition for more than 25 years.
In the Middle Keys — a boating hotspot that’s home to the famed Seven Mile Bridge — downtime means being on the water. Kayaking is hugely popular and a launch at Sombrero Beach, MM 50, makes water access easy.
Marathon-based outfitters offer rentals and trail maps for solo explorations, as well as escorted eco-tours through Sister Creek and the Boot Key Nature Preserve. Don’t forget your camera to capture shots of mangrove forests alive with native birds.
And while the Keys are famous for their blazing sunsets, many Middle Keys residents favor the sunrise. For an unrivalled view, join early risers (and their dogs!) strolling along a section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
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 a passion for the respected Keys profession.
Soak up their tales over cocktails at the Lorelei, a local hangout whose on-site marina is headquarters for both offshore and backcountry captains. The Lorelei is easy to find — a giant mermaid sculpture reclines at its entrance at MM 82.
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 they’ll mention Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen at MM 99.
Founded in 1976, the unassuming café was named for the mother of original owner Jeff MacFarland. Sisters Angela and Paula Wittke purchased it in the late 1980s, and today’s menu features dishes ranging from biscuits and gravy for breakfast to fresh-off-the-boat fish.
Whatever else you choose to do in the Keys, enjoy plenty of water activities. For locals like me, the turquoise ocean is a necessary part of life. Free time is spent snorkeling the shallows, stalking gamefish in the backcountry, diving a starkly beautiful shipwreck site, lazing on a secluded beach or boating with friends.
From on-the-water adventures to restaurant picks, the suggestions here are just a few ways to experience the Keys like a local. But be warned — you might become mesmerized by the offbeat island chain and find yourself returning again and again, powerless to resist its magical appeal.