Beginning about 300 miles south of Daytona Beach is the shimmering necklace of islands known as the Florida Keys.
From Florida City on the mainland, the islands stretch in a gentle 113 mile arc before ending at Key West, the southernmost point in the U.S. There are 43 islands connected by 42 bridges, the longest is the Seven Mile Bridge. In total there are more than 1,700 islands, but most of them are very small and uninhabited.
The Keys separate the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean, but are truly representative of the islands of the Caribbean. The word "Key" is derived from the Spanish word "cayo," meaning small island. You can still see "cay" or "kay" used there and throughout Florida.
Ponce de Leon first charted the islands in 1513 and pretty quickly Key West became the largest city in Florida. That growth was driven by the active salvage business that sprang up from the many shipwrecks that happened on the near shore reefs. Over time, the shipwrecks were not happening as rapidly as needed, so local pirates began helping to make that happen. Until this day the bustling little town of Key West has a certain rougue-ish feel.
For decades, the Florida Keys have been a playground for my family. I began to go there with friends in the mid-1970s to snorkel for lobster. Before our children were born, Lana and I would go down each winter to buy fresh shrimp from the boats and cook them under a bridge on an open fire. Once our two kids came along, we would go to the park on Bahia Honda to camp, fish and swim.
Be forewarned, the Florida Keys are not loaded with sandy beaches. The islands are the remains of pre-historic coral reefs, leaving a hard surface throughout.
A few sandy beaches like Key West and Bahia Honda have been constructed by hauling in sand. No, these islands are not for sun bathing and lying on a beach. The Keys are for boating, fishing and snorkeling.
Of course, there are plenty of other things to do. In the 1980s, we took our children to Grassy Key where we were able to swim with the dolphins. Great fun!
Lana and the kids loved to poke through the many curio shops in the lower Keys. There you can watch your leather sandals be made or see cigars being rolled.
Perhaps the best thing my family found were the small key deer on Big Pine Key. Each evening the cute little deer would come to the screen door of our motorhome begging for treats like an apple or carrot. When our kids were small, they just loved that.
The sundown festival on Mallory Square in Key West is a daily party.
Of course, it is a fisherman's paradise and for many years I have taken advantage of that. Fishing there is so prolific I once met a man from Connecticut who told me had been coming down for years and always paid for his trip by selling the fish he caught from a small, 16-foot jon boat. Very nice.
Some years back, each summer we were privileged to go down to Key Largo with Lana's sister, Alma, and her husband, George, to stay in a beautiful home belonging to friends of theirs. We fished, ate great seafood and each evening could walk the streets to pluck a fresh coconut that had fallen.
Just off Key Largo is America's only underwater state park, the John Pennecamp Coral Reef. What a gorgeous place! Just like swimming in a beautiful aquarium. Crystal clear water loaded with tropical fish of all kinds. A must see if you go.
Folks, we are so blessed to live in such proximity to American's most beautiful tropical islands outside of Hawaii. Actually there is nothing like the Keys in Hawaii or anyplace else in the world. A very special place and only a five-hour drive away.
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, “The World’s Greatest Beach” and “I Swear the Snook Drowned.” Email questions and comments to email@example.com or call (386) 441-7793.