A Few Days In

An Eco-Friendly Guide to the Florida Keys

by Stephanie Vermillion
Islamorada An Islamorada sunset. Photo by Rob O'Neal / courtesy of Florida Keys & Key West.

Smart travelers (that's you, dear Fathom reader) are increasingly concerned that their wanderings not have a negative impact on the places they visit. This is a trip to Key West that lets you enjoy and help the wildlife flourishing above and below water.

FLORIDA KEYS — Tropical beaches and Tommy Bahama crowds abound across the 125-mile-long Florida Keys, but that’s not why I visited this southernmost travel hotspot. My trip to the Florida Keys centered on one over-arching (and adorable) theme: wildlife.

Located 60 miles southwest of Miami, the Florida Keys are home to more than 40 animal species. Many, like the Key deer, are only found in the Keys' ecosystem. And that’s only counting land mammals. Underwater, marine life — pelagics, snapper, and sharks — flourishes across North America's only coral barrier reef, which stretches 170 miles from Miami down past Key West.

With the potential for manatee and sea turtle sightings — not to mention the chance to see a rare red-footed booby — I was hooked on a Florida Keys vacation. But given that climate change and human impact are causing massive destruction of Florida's coral reef (only a depressing four percent of Florida's reef is still living, according to the Coral Restoration Foundation), I couldn’t just swoop in, see wildlife, then leave. I wanted my trip to help the wildlife, endangered and otherwise, I was there to see.

My challenge was made easier by the impressive variety of sustainable hotels and restaurants, not to mention wildlife-safe activities, that make it easy to build an eco-friendly Florida Keys itinerary. Here’s how to do it.

The Seven-Mile-Bridge. Photo courtesy of Florida Keys & Key West.

The Scene

Sixty miles from the Miami International Airport, the Florida Keys are a 125-mile-long chain of islands connected by the Overseas Highway. The Keys are known for calm beaches, drastic landscapes, fresh seafood, and vibrant nightlife — not to mention an epic roster of rare wildlife. The Florida Keys' first region, Key Largo, is about 60 miles from Miami International Airport. Driving north from Key Largo to the southernmost region, Key West, takes about two hours, although most visitors spread their trip out over at least two or three days. The vibe varies across the area's five north-to-south regions:

Key Largo, the northernmost region that's home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, is renowned as a diver's paradise.

Islamorada, the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, attracts professional and amateur fishing enthusiasts.

Marathon has one of the Keys' most scenic vistas: the Seven Mile Bridge.

Big Pine is the place to go if you want to see Key deer, which now have a healthy population after once reaching near-extinction levels.

Key West draws the highest number of tourists, with sights such as Ernest Hemingway’s home and a busy nightlife scene.

Turtle rehab at Turtle Hospital. Photo by Stephanie Vermillion.
Turtle release into the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Stephanie Vermillion.

If You Only Do One Thing

Visit The Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Touring its Rehabilitation Facility — formerly a dilapidated strip club and motel — visitors feel a sense of hope for the area’s endangered sea turtles. The Keys are home to five species of endangered sea turtles: hawksbill, green turtle, Kemp’s Ridley, loggerhead, and leatherback.

These turtles have called Earth home for millions of years, and the Turtle Hospital is making major strides to keep them safe for millions more: They've already released thousands back into the wild. Guests can explore the Turtle Hospital's facilities on a 90-minute educational group tour; the visit includes a behind-the-scenes look at the hospital and rehabilitation area, with the chance to feed its permanent residents at the end.

What to Do

See Rare Birds at Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary
93600 Overseas Highway, Tavernier; +1-305-852-4486
Founded by the "Bird Lady" Laura Quinn, the nonprofit Florida Keys Wild Bird Center is a natural refuge for 90 non-releasable birds. All birds start at the adjacent Avian Rehabilitation Hospital, where staff treat the area’s sick, injured, and orphaned birds. Those that can’t safely be released into the wild live in natural and roomy enclosures at the bird center. Travelers can visit and learn about the sanctuary’s nearly 40 unique species 365 days per year.

Visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
102601 Overseas Highway, Key Largo; +1-305-451-6300
The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the United States’ first undersea park. Its 178 nautical miles include coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps — not to mention various birds and marine life — that travelers can enjoy while snorkeling underwater or relaxing on a high-speed, glass-bottom boat. Kayaks and paddleboards are also available for rent.

An owl ponders the author at Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary. Photo by Stephanie Vermillion.
Diving with the Coral Restoration Foundation. Photo courtesy of Coral Restoration Foundation.

Dive with the Coral Restoration Foundation
5 Seagate Blvd., Key Largo; +1-305-453-7030
Leading the charge on Florida Keys' sustainable travel mission, Coral Restoration Foundation takes divers underwater to explore its innovative Coral Tree nurseries. These nurseries are part of the CRF's longstanding efforts to curb the widespread loss of coral species. CRF grows new coral on its Coral Trees; after six to nine months, volunteers take this coral and outplant it on the Florida Reef Tract. They’ve outplanted more than 90,000 corals to date. The CRF hosts a variety of restoration dives throughout the year, and offers PADI Coral Restoration Certifications.

Learn about Wildlife at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center
30587 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key; +1-305-872-0774
The new Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Nature Center features 1,500 square feet of exhibition space where visitors can learn about area wildlife, including the Key deer. From this starting point, travelers can gather maps and details about nearby interpretative trails like the Manillo Trail, as well as the Blue Hole Observation Platform, where visitors can spot wildlife like the alligator, osprey, green herons, and turtles.

Just any old Key West sunset.

Join the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square
400 Wall St., Key West
As the skies come alive with sunset colors, the scenic Mallory Square fills with artists, performers, psychics, musicians, and visitors who cheer as the sun hits the water. (This is just so Florida.) It’s best to arrive at least an hour before the sun goes down to partake in the lively festivities and get a seat for the spectacle that is Key West’s southernmost sunset.

Visit The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
907 Whitehead St., Key West; +1-305-294-1136
Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote in this quiet Old Town Key West home for more than a decade. Guided educational tours take visitors through his home — which has also long been home to dozens of cats — with insights into the architecture and his Nobel Prize-winning work, followed by a stroll through the colorful gardens.Ex

A view from the water. The lobby at Baker's Cay. Photo courtesy of Baker's Cay Resort.
Baker's Cay restaurant. Photo by Stephanie Vermillion.
Parrot Key Hotel. Photo by Stephanie Vermillion.

Where to Stay

Baker’s Cay Resort
9700 South Overseas Highway, Key Largo; +1-305-852-5553
The new 13-acre Baker’s Cay Resort in Key Largo is a sustainable traveler's dream. From the hotel shampoos that benefit ocean charities to the chef’s on-site pepper garden, the serene, 200-room resort is perfect for a one-night stopover or a multi-day getaway. Baker’s Cay has a variety of onsite trails, multiple pools, and watersports like stand-up paddle boarding. The house-made hot sauces, beach-view restaurants, and dog-friendly policy — they host Paw Happy Hours — make it difficult to leave, although bikes are available for guests.

The Gardens Hotel
526 Angela St., Key West; +1-305-294-2661
While it’s part of the National Register of Historic Places, Key West’s The Gardens Hotel is more than historical; it’s sustainable. The charming cottages and colorful guest rooms have built-in rain gutters that collect water for use across the ground’s tropical gardens, and solar panels power the laundry facilities. The Gardens Hotel has a heated outdoor pool, a wine gallery, a spa, and bicycle rentals.

Parrot Key Hotel & Villas
2801 N. Roosevelt Blvd., Key West; +1-305-809-2200
Key West's newly refurbished Parrot Key Hotels & Villas makes guests feel at home in condominium-style accommodations, although the ocean views and patio-adjacent beaches are a constant reminder this tranquil getaway is far, far away. The hotel makes sustainability a priority through its eco-friendly platform, EarthView, which tracks the hotel's energy use and water and waste impact. The on-site Grove Kitchen & Bar serves fresh cuisine and tropical cocktails; guests can take the hotel shuttle into town for quick access to the restaurants and shops along Duval Street in Old Town.

Mrs. Mac's Kitchen. Photo by Stephanie Vermillion.
Lunch is served at Mrs. Mac's Kitchen. Photo by Stephanie Vermillion.
At Mrs. Mac's — or anywhere down here — Key Lime Pie is a must. Photo by Stephanie Vermillion.

Where to Eat

Key Largo Conch House
100211 Overseas Highway, Key Largo; +1-305-453-4844
While it has some of the Keys' best conch fritters and has welcomed the likes of Emeril, the Key Largo Conch House remains tied to its laid-back and welcoming roots. The family-owned restaurant serves sustainable seafood in an eclectically decorated dining room and adjacent patio. Highlights include highly praised conch tacos and award-winning lobster bisque.

Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen II
99020 Overseas Highway, Key Largo; +1-305-451-3722
Mrs. Mac's Kitchen has been a Florida Keys staple since 1976; it now has two locations in Key Largo (Mrs. Mac's Kitchen II is slightly roomier than the original). The down-home, relaxed eatery — the longest-running restaurant in Key Largo — is decorated with diverse sea décor that complements its award-winning "konk" chowder, alligator tenders, conch steak, and fresh fish.

Castaway Waterfront Restaurant
1406 Ocean View Ave., Marathon; +1-305-743-6247
Under lionfish hunter and owner John Mirabella's helm, the restaurant pairs conservation with consumption. Mirabella was the first to hunt and serve lionfish, an invasive species harmful Florida's reefs. His creative menu now has such unique concoctions as lionfish tartare and whole lionfish fillets, helping diners protect the local reefs in the easiest way of all: eating.

The Stoned Crab
3101 N. Roosevelt Blvd., Key West; +1-305-294-4350
The Stoned Crab is another sustainable Florida Keys establishment, with an Eco Bar that serves organic and sustainable wines and spirits as well as ingredients from farmers committed to environmental protection. Sustainable cocktails include eco-mojitos and eco-margaritas, and the certified-local seafood menu keeps patrons at the bar for dinner.

Another sunset for good measure. Even the birds stop to watch it. (Isn't that a nice thought?) Photo by Stephanie Vermillion.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Key West International Airport welcomes flights from operators like Delta and United Airways, but the Keys are also accessible with a rental car from Miami International Airport (60 miles from Key Largo).

Getting Around
A car is the easiest way to explore the Florida Keys at your own pace. Those solely visiting Key West can get by with ride-sharing apps and hotel shuttles.

When to Go
Spring between March and May is the ideal time to visit the Florida Keys, particularly given June through November is hurricane season. Winter is also ideal in terms of climate, but this is when the Keys welcome the largest number of tourists.

Money Matters
Tip here as you would other places in the U.S., with meals and drinks, for taxis or ride-sharing services, and when staffers help with bags.

Local Customs
Given its eco-friendly priority, Florida Keys travelers should pack or be prepared to purchase reef-safe sunscreens. Places like Key West have already banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, but local hotels and shops sell reef-safe sunscreen to keep travelers sunburn-free.

What to Pack
"Keys casual" is the motto when it comes to dress here; bring flip-flops, a swimsuit, and walking shoes if you plan to hike or bike ride.

For Your Bedside Table
When in the Keys, read your Papa. Based on the life of a Key West fishing boat captain, Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not is the perfect novel to set the mood for a trip through the Keys.

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