Holidaymakers looking to get up close and personal with nature will find some unusual and unmissable encounters waiting for them in the Florida Keys.
The 125-mile subtropical chain of islands, beginning south of Miami, is home to an abundance of animal life and offers some unique experiences, including the chance to spot a rare breed of miniature deer and visit the only spot in the USA where alligators and the endangered American crocodile co-exist.
Key Largo — take a walk in the woods
Wildlife observation at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park is outstanding, with more than six miles of guided nature trails to be followed on foot or bike. Set amidst one of the largest tracts of West Indian tropical hardwood hammock in the USA, as well as lignumvitae trees, mahogany mistletoe, butterfly orchids and wild cotton, the state park is home to 84 protected species of plants and animals. Numerous resident and migratory tropical bird species to be spotted include white-crowned pigeons, mangrove cuckoos, black-whiskered vireos and La Sagra’s flycatcher. Since the mid-1990s, the state pPark has also become a popular spot for butterfly watching due to its incredible diversity of species that includes the Schaus’ swallowtail, silver-banded hairstreak, and both hammock and mangrove skippers. Park visitors who value expert local knowledge can join a ranger-guided tour, while keeping eyes peeled for rare tree snails as they feed on the lichens and bark of the tropical trees. Entry to the park costs $2.50 (£1.75) per person.
Islamorada – visit the unusual neighbours
Many travellers may be unaware that Everglades National Park abuts the near-shore waters of Key Largo and Islamorada. Waters around the Upper Keys are an ecologically fascinating place where fresh water from the Everglades mixes with the saltwater of Florida Bay, making the area a popular spot for sport fishing. As America’s largest subtropical wilderness, the Everglades are home to a range of rare and endangered species and the only place in the world where the threatened American alligator and American crocodile co-exist. Keys visitors might consider taking a day trip by car to the Flamingo outpost, the southernmost point in mainland Florida. The route is punctuated by walking trails and observation decks that offer stunning views of the famous park. Eco-tourists can also see dolphins, sea turtles and manatees along with a wide variety of bird species. Numerous operators in the Keys offer eco-tours to Florida Bay and Everglades National Park from Islamorada. While in the Islamorada area, visitors should also keep a look out for the brown pelican – a great place to spot these is at Bud N’ Mary’s Marina.
Marathon – swim with the locals
Discover one of the Keys’ newest attractions, Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, which offers visitors the chance to learn about marine species and enjoy guided aquarium tours featuring spotted eagle and cownose stingrays and also nurse sharks. A highlight for most visitors is the Coral Reef Encounter, which offers the opportunity to get into a tank to swim with a variety of fish including French angel fish and eagle rays. In the company of a local marine biologist, participants are separated from ocean predators, including several shark species, by a clear Plexiglass screen – and can even feed them, an experience not allowed in ocean waters, through a specially-designed feeding port between the tanks. General admission starts from $20 (£14) for adults and $15 (£10.50) for kids (ages 4-12). Additional interactive encounters start from $25 (£17.60) per person.
While in Marathon, don’t miss the Turtle Hospital, which is believed to be the world’s only state-licensed veterinary hospital dedicated to treating injured sea turtles and even has its own ‘turtle ambulances.’ Since it opened in 1986, the organisation has helped save and release over 1,500 of the endangered creatures. Educational programs take place several times each day and entry costs $22 (£15.40) for adults and $11 (£7.70) for children (4-12). Children under age four are admitted free. Tour reservations are recommended.
Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys – spot the unique deer of the Keys
Best known as the ‘natural Keys,’ the Lower Florida Keys have long advocated the responsible use and preservation of the natural wonders found in their midst. Stop at the 9,200-acre National Key Deer Refuge to see the endangered Key deer, the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer, which stand at around one metre tall and weigh between 65 and 85 pounds. Unique to the Lower Keys, Key deer inhabit 20-25 islands in the area, ranging from No Name and Big Pine Key westward to the Sugarloaf Keys and close to 1,000 remain in the wild. While at the refuge, visitors should also keep eyes peeled for 23 other endangered or threatened plant and animal species. There is no entry fee for the refuge.
Key West – stroll among the butterflies
At The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory on Duval Street in the heart of Key West, visitors can stroll through a tropical habitat in a glass-enclosed conservatory, surrounding themselves with hundreds of butterflies from some 50 to 60 species, together with numerous types of exotic colourful birds including flamingos. A 15-minute film explains the life cycle of butterflies and their role in the natural world, while a wall-size mural map details butterfly origin and other displays highlight the annual migration of monarch butterflies, which has been called one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world. Visitors can also watch butterflies hatch in a special metamorphosis chamber. Entry costs $12 (£8.40) for adults and $8.50 (£6) for children (4-12 years).
And while in Key West, don’t miss the unique six toed cats at The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. There are 40-50 at the property, many direct descendants of the writer’s own cat Snowball. Entry to the house costs $13 (£9.10) for adults and $6 (£4.20) for children (5+).
Travel to the Florida Keys
Jetsave (0871 231 2271, www.jetsave.com) is offering a seven-night multi-centre holiday to the Florida Keys from £1,099 per person – a saving of up to £224 per person. The offer includes three nights at the four star Hilton Key Largo, two nights at the four star Amara Cay Resort Islamorada, and a final two nights at five star The Reach Resort Key West. The offer also includes car hire and return international flights from London Heathrow with British Airways. Based on two adults travelling on 08 October 2016.
For further information on the Florida Keys & Key West, visit www.fla-keys.co.uk.