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Thursday, 16 July, 2015, 15 : 00 PM [IST]

The Florida Keys & Key West: Hidden Islands of Florida

Located off the southern coast of Florida, The Florida Keys are a coral cay archipelago. A stretch of tropical islands, The Florida Keys & Key West is a perfect destination to relax, unwind, and indulge in activities like fishing, boating, and scuba diving. Rashmi Pradhan takes you through this less-explored part of Florida
The Southeast state of the US, Florida is known worldwide for the beaches in the city of Miami, and for the city of Orlando, which is home to Universal Studios, Walt Disney, and Tampa—the venue of IIFA Awards 2014. However, on my recent visit to the Sunshine State, which was organised by VISIT FLORIDA, I got a taste of a different side of Florida. We visited the islands, The Florida Keys & Key West. Besides the southernmost point of Florida Keys that is Key West, islands like Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and the Lower Keys are unexplored and newer destinations to Indian travellers.

Stretching about 120 miles off US’s southern tip, between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, The Florida Keys is an ideal gateway for leisure activities, water sports, shopping, nightlife, beaches, and historic sites. Of the different islands, the Key West—southernmost point, lying around 90 miles north of Cuba—is the heart of The Florida Keys. It’s known more for its coral reefs— destinations for diving and snorkeling—than for its beaches. The weather in the Keys was pleasant during out trip.

The first island that we visited on The Florida Keys region was Islamorada. On day one itself we experienced the wine and food of the region at the Islamorada Wine Festival. An array of wines, and cooking classes awaited us amid the turtle beach. The next stop was the ‘History of Diving Museum’, a nonprofit educational institution focused on the story of man’s quest to explore the underwater. The museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving, displaying, and interpreting artefacts, antiques, books, documents, photographs, and oral history related to the History of Diving. The museum’s artefacts have been provided with the generous support of its founders, doctors Joe and Sally Bauer, who hold one of the world’s largest collections of historic diving equipment and research documents.

Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters
Located in the city of Marathon, Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters was among the most memorable encounters during our tour of the Keys. It feels as if the entire marine world has come together at this vast aquarium. The mission of the founders of the aquarium was to introduce people from all walks of life to the magic of the ocean and its majestic creatures. The aquarium has 50 species of coral and 500 species of fish. Spread across 75 sq miles under water, the attractions at the aquarium include guided tours, feeding the shark and tarpon, interactive touch tank, and encounters include swimming on coral reefs, interacting with nurse sharks, petting a stingray, Iguana encounters, and private aquarium encounters.

We had to choose between swimming on coral reefs and feeding the stingray; I opted for the latter and was all set for it, wearing the underwater suit. During the encounter, the professional marine biologist taught us about the stingray. We had the chance to have a trained stingray rest on our lap on our underwater-seated stingray bench. The barbs had been removed from all rays. The process was very simple - keep the fish on your hand and the stingray will come and eat it. Sounds simple but when the stingray nibbles the food it gives a ticklish feeling to the fingers. But soon we were accustomed to the process and enjoyed every bit of it.

The Florida Keys is not only about watersports, but also about conservation of aquatic animals. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon was set up with four main goals: a) rehabilitate injured sea turtles and return them to their natural habitat, b) educate the public through outreach programmes and visit local schools, c) conduct and assist with research aiding to sea turtles (in conjunction with state universities), and d) work toward environmental legislation, making the beaches and water safe and clean for sea turtles.

The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
The most relaxing and refreshing part of our stay in the Key West was a visit to The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. It was completely a magical world of butterflies, offering a breathtaking journey through an impressive collection of flowering plants and trees, colourful birds, and cascading waterfalls. I completely enjoyed the beautiful, winged creatures flying all around during the stroll through the tropical paradise. Spread across 5,000 sq ft, The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory is home to 1,200-1,500 butterflies of 50-60 species from all around the world, along with over 20 exotic bird species, all under a climate-controlled, glassenclosed habitat.

The Conservatory is visited by 200-1,200 people every day. It is a perfect attraction for families, group travellers, and individuals. The Conservatory has a Learning Center to explore the butterfly anatomy, physiology, lifecycle, feeding and migratory world of the Monarch. One can also get a rare, close-up view of a variety of live caterpillars feeding and developing on their host plants. The Conservatory has a gift shop offering a wide assortment of butterflies- and nature-related souvenirs.

Seven Mile Bridge
The Seven Mile Bridge is a famous bridge in The Florida Keys. It connects Knight’s Key (part of the city of Marathon) in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. The current road bridge was constructed between 1978 and 1982. The vast majority of the original bridge still exists, although the swing span has been removed. The 2.2-mile section to Pigeon Key, used as a fishing pier and long open to motor vehicles to give access to the key, was closed to vehicular traffic in 2008 after the unsupported sections began to sag. As of 2015, the section remains open to pedestrians and cyclists.

Sawgrass Mills and Sawgrass Recreation Park
If you want to ‘shop till you drop’, there is no better a place than the largest outlet and value retail shopping destination in the US, the Sawgrass Mills. With more than 350 stores, the Mills has everything, from fashion and jewellery, to electronics, sporting equipment, beauty products, home accessories, toys, and more. There are also many F&B outlets here. There is something for everyone in this enclosed, air-conditioned, and climate-controlled mall, located just 30 minutes from Miami International Airport and 15 minutes from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Sawgrass Recreation Park was previously a fishing camp. Over 30 years, it was transformed from a fishing camp into an airboat attraction in the 1970s, and has now become one of South Florida’s top destinations for visitors. In 2005, shortly after Hurricane Wilma, the Soverns’ family acquired Sawgrass Recreation Park, and expanded the exhibit areas to allow adoption and rescue of reptiles and mammals. The family’s philosophy was to not just make each visitor’s experience a meaningful one, but to also educate the public about how fragile and important it is to preserve and protect our beautiful Everglades. We had a 30-minute airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, under the guidance of an experienced captain.
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