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Florida Keysimage

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Key West :: Marathon :: Islamorada :: Key Largo

The Florida Keys consists of 400 islands stretching in a gentle arc across 150 miles of blue-green Atlantic Ocean, from Key Largo in the north to Key West in the south. Thirty of the more populated islands are linked by the U.S. 1 highway and the remainder are accessible only by boat.

Wars, fires, hurricanes and pestilence have all affected the development and history of these islands.  The earliest Spanish explorers sailed amongst these islands and reefs in 1513, giving them the greatest respect for what would happen to their fleet if blown ashore. 

Many vessels did suffer that fate, and by the early 1800's pioneer settlers on the Keys were involved in a thriving salvage industry that allowed some of them to amass great wealth. At the peak of the salvaging frenzy in the 1830s, Key West had the highest per-capita income in the USA.

In the late 1800's political unrest in Cuba, just 90 miles away, saw an influx of Cubans to the Keys, and Key West in particular. Among those new settlers were cigar manufacturers and before long, Key West had become the center of cigar manufacturing in the USA. That industry would subsequently move to Tampa.

The Florida railway baron Henry Flagler had built 156 miles (250 km) of railroad through to Key West during a period up to 1912. On September 2nd, 1935 a hurricane with winds up to 200 mph (320 kmh) and waves to 18 feet (5.5 m) tore through the Keys, flattening everything in its path. 500 people perished and Flagler's railroad was gone.

1938 saw the completion of Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) above the ruins of the old railroad and the Keys had become accessible to tourists with motor vehicles. Its days as a holiday haven for the masses had begun. 

For some, the drive from Miami to the Keys results in a somewhat unsettling sensation of having driven your vehicle off the land and onto the ocean. On either side, ahead and behind are miles of nothing but emerald ocean. As the road passes through the islands, fishing villages, luxury resorts, traditional hotels and an abundance of seafood restaurants dot the landscape.

The highway connects more than 30 of the populated islands in the Keys and the hundreds of other "unlinked" islands are home to much of the exotic flora and fauna. It is here in the relatively unpopulated, boat access only, islands that some of the best aquatic attractions are found.  The fishing is great with plenty of variety in the techniques required and in season, diving for lobsters is permitted in some areas.

While the Keys will always attract visitors who appreciate the peaceful waters and relaxed informality, it's the sea and the aquatic life in it that are the real attractions. The diving is incredible. Brilliantly colored reef fish, gently flapping rays, sports fish, turtles, dolphins and coral reefs are just some of the attractions that entice divers.

The Keys has a very fragile and susceptible eco-system and years of tourist traffic has taken its toll.  The reefs, which are commonly about 5 miles (8 km) offshore, are susceptible to damage and robust conservation efforts are now underway to ensure the area remains intact for future generations. 

All the towns throughout the Keys have a beach holiday town feel yet, with the exception of Sombrero Beach in Marathon, there are very few really great beaches on a par with those on the Florida mainland. Beaches are mostly in private resorts with a few small beaches in state parks.

There are three sections to the Keys with the Upper and Middle Keys being the nearest to Miami and the mainland.  As such they attract the majority of weekend visitors who arrive by boat or car for the fishing, diving or to just relax in Key Largo, Islamorada, and Marathon. The Lower Keys lie across the Seven Mile Bridge and consists of clusters of lightly visited, unspoiled islands teeming with wildlife. 

The protected areas of the Lower Keys are home to much of the area's endangered birds and animals. It s also the habitat for alligators, turtles, rabbits and any number of bird varieties.

Key West, made famous by the author Ernest Hemingway, is the end of the road. Yet far from being a remote outpost, it's actually the most popular town in all of the Keys with over 1.6 million visitors per year. Cruise ships plying the Florida - Caribbean routes disgorge passengers by the thousands who flock to the souvenir and T shirt shops. The permanent residents on the island have a reputation for tolerance of bohemian and alternative lifestyles.  Key West has for many years attracted painters, writers, devotees of the arts and crafts and people who seek an environment of fellow creatives.

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