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The Florida Keys are a chain of more than 400 islands loosely but linearly scattered across the Atlantic like jewels on a necklace. They string out from the southern tip of Florida all the way to the Dry Tortugas National Park, some 70 miles further west than live-and-let-live Key West, the USA's most popular tourist destination and the town that's literally at the end of the road.
If you're heading to the continental USA's southernmost point, then Key West will be your final destination, but don't miss out in the rush to get there. You're in the most laid-back part of America so slow down the pace...
Driving the Overseas Highway
The best way to get a feel for how remote the Keys really are is to drive the Overseas Highway from Key Largo to Key West. It's a journey of around a hundred miles that can be completed in a couple of hours if the traffic is clear, but with so much to see en route it's far better to make a day of it, or even longer if you have the time.
The latter half of the route is the most scenic; from Marathon over the Seven Mile Bridge to Big Pine Key and onwards to Key West. You'll get uninterrupted views of the sea from here, and if you time it right you can drive straight into a technicolour sunset.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Located just north of Key Largo, John Pennekamp State Park was the first undersea park in the United States, and the 70 sq nautical miles of coral reef is by far the best place in the Keys to dive and snorkel.
Landside, there are campsites and nature trails, picnic spots and beaches, but to really appreciate the beauty of the park, you need to get out onto the water. If you don't want to flipper-up and take the plunge, view the reef through a glass-bottomed boat or take a kayak for a meander through the mangrove-lined waterways.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is just north of Key Largo, at mile marker 102.6 (Oceanside)
The Dolphin Research Center at Marathon
Although it's a popular international tourist destination with more than 50,000 visitors per year, the large saltwater lagoons of the Dolphin Research Center remain a non-profit research and education facility, with the stated aim of promoting peaceful coexistence between marine mammals and humans.
Around 20 dolphins and two attention-seeking sealions call the DRC home, and there are a number of ways of getting up close; the most hands-on being the Trainer for a Day programme, where you'll prepare meals in the 'Fish House', take part in a Deep Water playtime experience, and learn how to interpret dolphin sounds.
The DRC is just off the highway at Marathon, at mile marker 59 (Bayside)
Bahia Honda State Park
It was Henry Flagler's ambitious but ultimately doomed railroad to the Keys - a hurricane finally put paid to it in 1935 - that first turned the little island of Bahia Honda Key into a tropical tourist destination. It's remained largely undeveloped, which lends it something of a wilderness feel, and it's not unusual to spot more herons on the park's three beaches than people.
The remains of the railroad - the historic Bahia Honda Bridge - stand lonely in the sea at the southern end of the park, though it makes for a dramatic fishing pier and photo opportunity, especially as the sun goes down.
Bahia Honda State Park is located at the southern end of Bahia Honda Key at Mile Marker 33 (Oceanside)
Watching the sunset from Mallory Square
If you time your arrival into Key West carefully, you'll be able to dive headfirst into the activity that the town is most well-known for: watching the nightly sunset celebration from Mallory Square, the waterfront plaza in the heart of the Conch Republic's old town.
It's not called a celebration for nothing, so don't expect peace, quiet and contemplation. You'll share this moment with many, many others but it's all in a spirit of mutual appreciation for the remarkable view, so find yourself a vantage point and settle in. Expect live music, tightrope walkers, buskers, craft stalls, street food, magicians, psychics and lots of cruise passengers in questionable t-shirts.
Cycling the back streets of Key West
If you're here for a day or more, consider hiring a bike. It's easily the best way to see more than the main tourist strip of Duval Street, and the flat, grid-like layout of the town makes for an easy ride. A few blocks north of the waterfront, you'll find the residential part of town where grand pastel coloured antebellum-style houses sit next to vintage Victorian cottages, all fronted with white picket fences and shaded by palm trees and banana plants.
The roads are quiet in the heat of the day, but go for a ride in the early evening and you'll see kids playing out in the street and neighbours making small talk on their front porches. It's an insight into the far slower, local pace of life. Try Eaton Bikes for rentals by the day or the week - and they'll drop off at your accommodation too.
Ernest Hemingway Home
The Ernest Hemingway Home with its extended family of sixty-odd polydactyl (six-toed) cats, is the most popular tourist attraction in Key West. The fabled author lived for more than ten years in this Spanish colonial style home and had Key West's first swimming pool built in its grounds, costing $20,000 – a small fortune at the time. "Take the last penny I've got" said Hemingway to his builder, and pressed it into the cement by the pool. It can still be seen today.
Hemingway's writing studio remains exactly as it was; his Royal typewriter and Cuban cigar-makers chair still in place. Some of his most famous works - Death in the Afternoon, For Whom The Bell Tolls - were worked on here.
The best Key Lime pie
The dessert of choice throughout Florida and the Keys is the Key Lime Pie, and any hunt for the perfect slice will inevitably resolve itself in Key West. Here's where the pie was invented, allegedly by the personal cook of the town's first millionaire, who serendipitously discovered that sweetened condensed milk and lime juice went rather well together.
Everywhere serves Key Lime pie in Key West, from roadside diners and casual cafes to the fanciest high end restaurants. In the face of such bewildering ubiquity, we followed the advice of a local and headed to Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shop. The presentation may be on the no-frills end of the scale, but the pie is exactly how it should be - creamy, pale yellow, and tart.
Cuban Coffee Queen
As a helpful sign on the wall explains, Cuban coffee is a type of espresso which originated in Cuba after espresso machines were first imported there from Italy. Specifically, it refers to a shot of espresso that is sweetened with sugar while it's being brewed.
If you like your coffee hot, sweet and milky you won't go wrong at this relatively recent but already much-loved Key West coffee shack, and while you're at it join the queue for a Cuban sandwich as well. The Key Wester - two eggs, cheese, bacon and sausage on pressed Cuban bread is a five dollar bargain, and if you get one for breakfast it'll do you for lunch too.
Cuban Coffee Queen, 284 Margaret Street, Key West
The obligatory sunset cruise
A simple walk through Mallory Square will tell you everything you need to know about the average Key West visitor - there isn't one. Bohemians, retirees, dropouts, spring breakers, suburban Floridians, yachties and a large gay contingent all find a welcome here, so it's no surprise that there are as many different types and providers of sunset cruises as there are tourists.
One thing they do have in common though, is a commitment to showing you a good time. Whether you're looking for a full-on party cruise, a reggae and rum sail or a more sedate trip on one of Classic Harbor lines elegant schooners, the cocktails will be flowing till the last slither of orange dips below the horizon (at which point everyone ooohs and claps...).
Fine dining at Fin
Tucked down the end of a narrow alley off the mayhem of central Duval Street sits brand new Fin, a high-end Caribbean-inspired 'small plates' restaurant serving tapas sized portions of incredibly inventive, flavourful food. This is not a place to visit if your benchmark for a decent meal is feeling stuffed to the rafters at the end of it, but rather a place to linger over every mouthful in a beautiful setting and appreciate the art of experimental cooking.
For a varied taster of the innovation on offer, try the Costa Rican peach palm with almond pesto and the caramelized diver scallops with coconut to begin with, followed by Spanish flatbreads with manchego cheese and shaved black truffle, and the Yellowtail snapper with sweet garlic fondue. Not cheap by any means, but a culinary experience unlike anything else in Key West.
Fin, 613 1/2 Duval Street, Key West
Virgin Atlantic operate daily flights to Miami from London Heathrow. Log on to www.virgin-atlantic.com for the very best fares or visit Virgin Holidays for a tailor-made trip. Ever been to the Florida Keys? Where are your favourite places? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.