If that's true for you, look to local residents for insights into the perfect short-term itinerary. What experiences do they recommend to visiting family and friends, and to newcomers eager to discover the island chain?
Some recommendations are compiled here in "The Keys Can't-Miss List" to help you maximize enjoyment in a minimal timeframe.
Start on the northernmost island of Key Largo, renowned for diving, snorkeling and backcountry touring. From there, follow the Florida Keys Overseas Highway all the way to Key West, driving at an easy pace and stopping along the way.
Can't Miss #1: Take a snorkeling or scuba excursion and see stunning coral formations and brilliant tropical fish at Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park — America's first underwater preserve and predecessor to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. For information.
Can't Miss #2: Head for Islamorada, renowned as the Sportfishing Capital of the World. Join one of Islamorada's charter captains or guides for world-class fishing in offshore, reef or shallow backcountry waters. The Keys lay claim to more saltwater fishing world records than any other angling destination on the planet.
Can't Miss #3: After catching your fish (maybe yellowtail snapper, tuna or dolphin fish, also called mahi-mahi), turn it into a meal. Bring it to one of the Keys restaurants that "cook the catch." There's nothing like savoring a perfectly prepared and seasoned fish, and knowing you reeled it in. For a taste of Keys culinary highlights, visit fla-keys.com/keysvoices/local-seafood-stars-in-keys-cuisine.
Can't Miss #4: Meandering through Marathon, stop in at the world's only licensed veterinary hospital specializing in sea turtles. A dedicated team at the Turtle Hospital rescues, rehabilitates and nurtures sick and injured turtles — and when possible, releases them back into the ocean realm. Don't miss taking a guided behind-the-scenes tour of this one-of-a-kind facility.
Can't Miss #5: Now drive down the Overseas Highway to Big Pine Key where, if you're lucky, you can spot (and photograph) a real-life "Bambi." Tiny, shy Key deer are an endangered species that live only in the Lower Keys, and the Lower Keys' National Key Deer Refuge. They're about the size of large dogs and can be found grazing around Big Pine — especially in the early morning hours and at dusk.
Can't Miss #6: Once you reach Key West, you can do anything from taking an art stroll to visiting a Hemingway hangout. But one of the very best activities is wonderfully simple: rent a bicycle and pedal around the historic Old Town past colorful Victorian homes, white picket fences and luxuriant foliage. Biking down the narrow lanes, you can smell exotic flowers and peek into hidden gardens, marvel at architectural beauty and exchange smiles with the local residents you pass.
As you'll discover on your Florida Keys journey, the islands boast a lively seafaring history, flourishing creative community, balmy subtropical climate and natural wonders that include continental America's only living coral barrier reef.
But the Keys' most important asset is intangible: a laid-back vibe that seems worlds away from everyday cares. Guided by recommendations from friendly locals, soak up that vibe whether you have two days or two weeks to spend in the magical island chain — and you'll find yourself refreshed, renewed and ready for more.
A culinary comparison of the world's premier fishing destinations ranks Florida as the steak of the world, and that would make the Florida Keys the filet mignon.
Nowhere else can one play blitzing bonefish on the flats, grapple with grouper on the reefs and battle billfish in the Gulf Stream — and all within the same few hours.
The unparalleled quantity and quality of game fish in the Keys is owed to a fusion of fortunate geography, favorable geology and fertile ecosystems.
But until the early 1900s, few visitors could enjoy its bountiful fishing waters due to limits of transportation.
Visionary industrialist Henry Flagler changed that in 1912, with his railroad connecting Florida's mainland to the subtropical islands stretching from Key Largo to Key West.
The first major inkling about the special fishing opportunities in the Keys spread when famed author Zane Grey became a regular member of the Long Key Fishing Club.
In 1938, Flagler's railroad was transformed into the Florida Keys Overseas Highway.
As more people moved to the Keys throughout the 20th century, visitors flocked there to experience rod-bending battles with bonefish, tarpon, grouper, snapper, sailfish, tuna and scores of other gamesters.
An industry developed around it. Tackle stores and marinas blossomed, as did fishing clubs. A group of young men with new motorized boats began earning a living guiding others to productive fishing sites.
Ernest Hemingway made Key West his home in the 1930s, composing famous novels while pursuing a passion for deep-sea fishing. Photos of Hemingway posing with catches of monstrous marlin appeared in newspapers worldwide. Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush made regular visits to fish the Florida Keys.
The worldwide exposure was heightened by visiting journalists and broadcasters. Curt Gowdy filmed many TV episodes of ABC's "The American Sportsman" depicting famed guides such as captains Jimmie Albright and Stu Apte with celebrity anglers Ted Williams, Bing Crosby and others. Scores of fishing tournaments sprang up including the still popular annual Key West Marlin Tournament and the Redbone series.
While more world-record catches have been recorded in the Keys than anywhere else, far more potential world records likely have been caught and released in these waters as well.
It's therefore time for you also to take your place on the bow of a flats skiff or in the fighting chair of a charter boat and become part of the special heritage of fishing intrinsic to the Florida Keys.
Doug Kelly is a veteran outdoor journalist and a representative for the International Game Fish Association. He's the author of "Florida's Fishing Legends and Pioneers" (University Press of Florida), which includes many of the colorful characters who contributed to the popularity of fishing in the Florida Keys.
The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden located on Stock Island is accepting volunteers for help in the visitor center, nursery, garden and office. No experience is necessary and training is provided. Volunteer hours also apply toward community service for students as well as city, county and state programs. For information and an application, call 305-296-1504 or visit http://kwbgs.org/volunteer.aspx.
An emerging voluntourism and ecotourism program is underway to restore the Historic Grimal Grove Garden, located at 285 Cunningham Lane near mile marker (MM) 30.5. A microclimate for rare tropical fruit trees, the 2-acre site was developed by Adolf Grimal, who became acclaimed for his achievements in working with tropical fruit.
Led by the nonprofit Growing Hope Initiative, a diversity of volunteer groups are welcomed including college, faith-based, youth, corporate and environmental groups as well as families, individuals and more. GHI members have been working in a volunteer capacity to revive the grove and rehabilitate this agricultural landscape.
Florida Keys animal rescue organizations welcome volunteers to assist with simple tasks such as walking dogs for exercise. Safe Harbor Animal Rescue of the Florida Keys, the Florida Keys SPCA and the Upper Keys Animal Shelter each can accommodate volunteers.
Recreational sport divers can help keep Florida Keys reefs alive and healthy by joining working dives with marine scientists from Key Largo's Coral Restoration Foundation to learn about environmental impacts on Florida's reefs through education to restore endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals. The two are among the reef-building species with the best chance to propagate and create new habitats. Volunteers help clean and prepare corals for planting, or also can apply to become seasonal interns. Call 305-767-2133.
Scientists with Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory, a substation of the Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory located in Summerland Key near MM 24, are planning to combine their critical reef research and coral restoration efforts with volunteer recreational divers. Expected to premiere this summer, plans call for hands-on dives to outplant and restore endangered reef-building corals like brain, star, staghorn and elkhorn corals to Lower Keys coral nurseries and restoration sites. Call 305-745-2729.
Capturing and removing lionfish helps prevent the invasive Indo-Pacific species from voraciously preying on invertebrates and juvenile fish such as grunts and hamlets, and stealing resources from domestic species like grouper and snapper along the Florida Keys' reef tract.
Reef Environmental Education Foundation, whose mission is to conserve marine ecosystems, partners with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the dive community to educate divers on how to capture and remove lionfish from Keys waters. The organization also stages lionfish derbies where divers earn cash and prizes and sample the edible, tasty fish during post-derby parties. A derby is scheduled Saturday, Sept. 12, in Key Largo at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Divers can participate from their own private vessels or join a local dive operator's charter. Call 305-852-0030.
Divers also can make positive impacts through everyday conservation actions to leave an area cleaner than they found it.
Cutting and removing monofilament fishing line eliminates a potential entanglement for other divers. Picking up lost fishing tackle, especially hooks, beads, swivels, and sinkers, as well as removing cans, bottles, plastics and refuse from the reef can make a huge difference over time.
After calling Key West home for more than 22 years, Smith knows its food, characters and culture. Curating the restaurants and stops on her company's current tour, the Southernmost Food Tour, was easy for her.
"I want to show people my side of the island because there's more than meets the surface," Smith said. "Key West has a lot of depth."
Smith guides guests through the banyan-shaded streets of the island on a three-hour, 1-mile, leisurely paced walking tour that stops at six restaurants and emporiums. From beginning to end, guests sample Key West flavors ranging from Bahamian and Cuban dishes to local seafood and tropical fruits.
The food circuit begins at Camille's Restaurant and finishes with a rum and vodka tasting at the Key West Distillery on Southard Street. Each restaurant on the tour supports the local community, since everything from the seafood to the produce is local and fresh.
In addition, participants stop at Key West landmarks such as the Southernmost Point. They also visit lesser-known sites and discover architectural, historic and cultural tidbits that enhance the experience.
"I care how the island is portrayed," Smith said. "People expect me to tell them what to eat and where to eat it, but they get a lot more out of it than that."
Now in its fifth month, Made in Key West Food Tours has attracted the attention of numerous visitors despite minimal advertising. To date Smith has hosted more than 250 people on the unique and tasty excursion.
Tours begin at 11:30 a.m. and take place rain or shine. The cost is $65 for adults and $45 for children.
Tour information: keywestfoodtours.com or 1-800-656-0713
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
The 13th annual symposium is to explore Truman's 1946 attempt to provide national health care and its effects on subsequent programs including Medicare and President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.
The keynote speaker is to be Dr. Robert Wah, president of the American Medical Association and a nationally recognized expert on health information technology. He practices and teaches at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health.
Other scheduled speakers include Claudia Anderson, supervisory archivist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library; Dr. Michael Devine and Dr. Raymond Geselbracht, both formerly with the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo.; Steven Edwards and Dr. Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago; and Truman grandson and author Clifton Truman Daniel.
Events are to begin at 6 p.m. Friday, May 15, with a reception and Wah's keynote presentation on the grounds of the Little White House, 111 Front St. Meticulously restored to its appearance in Truman's day, the property is Florida's only presidential museum. Guided VIP tours are to be offered during the reception.
Saturday's symposium events start at 8:30 a.m. in the conference center at the Marriott Key West Beachside Hotel, 3841 N. Roosevelt Blvd.
Scheduled presentations and panels spotlight topics including "LBJ, Medicare and Medicaid: Advancing the Truman Legacy," "The Current State of Health Care in the U.S." and "Truman, National Health Policy and a Legacy of Government Activism."
Event information and ticketing: trumansymposium.com or 305-294-9911
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
The multifaceted motorsports event features motoring, boating and flying group rallies from Miami to Key West, with participants making several stops along the route through the Florida Keys. Presented by the Florida Powerboat Club, it also provides opportunities for fans to watch the action, meet the poker run teams and check out their high-speed machines in the Keys.
Throughout the day Friday, May 15, "poker runners" are to travel from the Florida mainland throughout the Keys to Key West, with multiple stopover checkpoints planned.
Motorists can drive the scenic 113-mile Florida Keys Overseas Highway, crossing 42 bridges including one nearly 7 miles long, while powerboaters travel the Atlantic Ocean just off the curving island chain. Meanwhile, participating pilots can get breathtaking aerial views of the Keys and the marine life of the Atlantic, Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico.
By 5 p.m. Friday, all participants should be in Key West for the Key West Poker Run Village parties and events. The village is to be set up at Conch Republic Seafood Co., 631 Greene St., and the surrounding Historic Seaport area.
Enthusiasts can visit the village from 5-10 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday to mingle with participants and view displays of vehicles and vessels. The automobile lineup includes exotics, imports, American muscle and classic cars of all descriptions, while custom choppers and Harley Davidson touring motorcycles will add to the mix. Powerboats on display are to include the latest offshore V bottoms and catamarans from leading builders around the nation. Admission is free.
Other attractions include a Saturday night dinner and awards ceremony for poker run participants and a free day Sunday to explore Key West.
"Our event aims to promote the entire adventure of traveling through the scenic Florida Keys, and landing in Key West is like reaching the 'pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,'" said poker run founder Stu Jones.
According to organizers, the event is to be filmed for an episode of "Powerboating in Paradise" slated to air on the Sun Sports television network in Florida.
Registration is $195 for a motorbike with one rider; $395 per car, coach or airplane; and $595 per boat or yacht.
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest
Daily camp activities on the water include snorkel and kayaking expeditions, dolphin watch excursions and glass-bottom boat cruises.
Those who prefer land-based fun can explore attractions and museums including the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, Key West Lighthouse and Mel Fisher Maritime Museum showcasing 17th-century shipwreck artifacts and treasures.
Nightly drag shows are offered as well.
In addition, special events are planned each day. The May 14 schedule includes an opening "KampFire" and sunset viewing at Key West's Pier House Resort, located at 1 Duval St. Attendees at the 6:30-8:30 p.m. soiree can enjoy music, games and food while meeting fellow "kampers" and booking their festival activities.
Watersports action takes center stage May 15 with offerings including personal watercraft tours and all-day excursions featuring a wide rage of on-the-water offerings. That evening, festival participants can view a free outdoor movie at Key West's Bayview Park.
The following day, water lovers can drive their own boats on a backcountry snorkeling safari and enjoy "Kamp Games" at LGBT hotspots on Key West's Duval Street. A sunset sail on a 65-foot catamaran rounds out the day's activities.
Sunday morning, Kamp Key West attendees can explore the island city's museums and historic attractions. Subsequent activities include an all-male clothing optional pool party at Island House Resort, 1129 Fleming St., a traditional tea dance at La Te Da, 1125 Duval St., and offbeat drag queen bingo at the 801 Bourbon Bar, 801 Duval St.
The concept made so much sense to Bartlum's fellow shipbuilder, Richard Roberts, that he too decided to float his Bahamas house to Key West.
Today the Bartlum and Roberts homes, successfully reassembled and located at 703 Eaton St. and 408 William St., are the only ones known to have been shipped to the island city.
Unique as they are, they certainly aren't the only architectural treasures in Key West. In fact, the island's Old Town historic district, believed to be the largest predominantly wooden one in the entire United States, includes almost 3,000 structures. There are few better ways to discover the "locals' Key West" than to explore this intriguing residential area.
Take a leisurely stroll or bike ride through the historic district and you'll realize how many influences contributed to its fascinating blend of architectural styles. You'll spot elegant two-story homes with wraparound verandahs rubbing shoulders with tiny, flower-decked cottages, or a tumbledown structural hodgepodge next to a restored Victorian gem.
Many houses are painted in tropical pastels or adorned with the wooden lacework known as gingerbread, and some have small openings called scuttles in their roofs for improved air circulation. White picket fences provide a finishing touch almost too picturesque to be real.
A good number of these Old Town homes date from the 19th century and reflect the building styles and cultures of the early settlers: Bahamian shipwreck salvagers, New England sea captains and Cuban cigar barons.
Some were built by the shipbuilder-carpenters of the 1800s who turned their skills in crafting sloops and schooners to land-based projects. Now known as Conch houses, they most often have two stories with wraparound verandahs and shuttered doors and windows.
Others date from the greatest building surge in Key West's early history when thousands of Cuban cigar-industry workers migrated to the island following their country's Ten Years' War. As well as constructing large factories, Cuban cigar barons routinely bought blocks of property where they put up cottages for their workers.
These single-story cigarmakers' cottages are sometimes called shotgun houses and most have a side hall with three rooms, one behind the other. Why the name? Because if someone fired a shot through the front door, the bullet would emerge cleanly out the back door.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, cigarmaking and sea-based industries made Key West the richest city in Florida. The prevailing Queen Anne architecture reflected this wealth with its rambling elegance, towers and turrets, balconies and porches.
Rich exterior trim and decoration, like the delicate wooden gingerbread, is typical of Key West's late Victorian-era homes. This decorative cutout work, found in porch and stair banisters and brackets, reflects the interests and eras of the old island.
In fact, some homeowners chose gingerbread patterns that had special personal meaning, like the dwelling of a bar and gambling hall owner whose banisters are patterned with cutout whiskey bottles and card motifs.
Key West residents realized the value of their architectural heritage in the 1960s, after several historic dwellings were torn down to make way for modern development. The Old Island Restoration Foundation was created to safeguard architectural gems and encourage their preservation. Today, most historic houses have been restored to their former glory and live again as single-family homes or bed-and-breakfast guesthouses.
Whether ornate mini-mansions or simple cigarmakers' cottages, they clearly reflect Key West's individualistic heritage. In fact, from shotgun houses to scuttles, the island's architectural diversity remains one of its most colorful treasures.
Certainly you can enjoy those activities almost anywhere along the 125-mile subtropical island chain. But the destination's vibrant and multifaceted vacation opportunities enable you to do much more than passively "see the Keys" or "visit the Keys."
The Florida Keys combine the features of a welcoming American small town with those of a Caribbean destination rich in mañana mindset, irreverent humor and unexpected joys. Don't just "see" these unique and individualistic islands —instead, experience them exuberantly and actively as a participatory adventurer.
The best way to begin your experience is to make a connection with Florida Keys locals. One of the Keys' greatest "natural resources" is the friendly, easygoing people who make the island chain their home.
As you explore the Keys during your vacation, you're likely to meet charterboat captains, artists, restaurateurs, animal rescuers, attractions operators, musicians and many others. Strike up conversations with them and you'll find that insights from these creative, quirky, independent people offer a unique window into the Keys' distinctive environment and culture.
For example, try kite-boarding with one of the Middle Keys' experts, fueled by the ever-present breeze on the shallow flats. Catch and release a silvery tarpon under the guidance of an Islamorada charterboat captain, feeling that throat-catching wonder when you let it slip back into its saltwater home.
Savor the flavor of cool, tart Key lime pie at a waterfront restaurant while the sound of an island band sets your feet tapping — and ask the servers and musicians where their favorite local hangouts are. Plunge into the spectacular underwater world off Key Largo on a professional dive or snorkel excursion, and soak up crewmembers' insights into the Keys' lesser-known underwater wonders.
Connect with the unique ecosystem while kayaking through the tranquil Lower Keys backcountry, watching the graceful sway and dance of sea birds and tropical fish as a naturalist/guide points out hidden wonders. Reawaken your creativity during classes and seminars led by Key West artists and artisans, or satisfy your sense of heritage by following the route of the historic Overseas Railway.
You can even make a lasting difference during your vacation by joining Keys-based scientists and volunteers helping to preserve the region's coral reef environment.
When you open yourself to chatting with Florida Keys residents, seeking their insights and recommendations for off-the-beaten-path adventures, you can immerse yourself in the Keys and forge a lasting connection with the colorful, magical islands.
In fact, rather than being a typical "tourist," you can practically become a part-time local — enjoying a vacation experience that fills your senses and leaves you feeling vibrantly alive.
Fans of live music can choose from more than 50 shows at venues including favorite Key West bars and restaurants, waterfront resorts and boutique inns, a historic Cuban cultural center and a catamaran during sunset sailing cruises.
Most shows feature a rotating group of writer/performers who play their hits, introduce new melodies, share creative insights and relate the stories behind their songs. Many performances are free including afternoon and late-night offerings at the festival's headquarters, the Smokin' Tuna Saloon at 4 Charles St.
The star-studded talent lineup features Raul Malo, solo artist and frontman for the Grammy-winning Mavericks; Liz Rose, acclaimed for co-writing numerous hits with pop sensation Taylor Swift; Jack Ingram, whose hits include the summertime anthem "Barefoot and Crazy"; Jeffrey Steele, writer of more than 80 top 10 songs; Rhett Akins, who has penned 18 number-one singles; festival mainstay Chuck Cannon, whose songs for countless artists have received more than 25 million airplays; Texas singer/songwriter and master storyteller Robert Earl Keen; and BMI Icon Award winner Dean Dillon.
Featured musicians are to star in a free outdoor concert in the 200 block of Key West's famed Duval Street beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 9. The "main stage" performers are Grammy-nominated recording artist Chris Young, singer/songwriter Josh Dorr and country rocker Logan Mize.
Other scheduled festival highlights include ticketed Thursday and Friday evening shows at the Key West Theater at 512 Eaton St., Tropic Cinema at 416 Eaton St. and the majestic Cuban cultural center known as the San Carlos Institute at 516 Duval St.
In addition, attendees can celebrate the Key West sunset with celebrated musicians during ticketed Friday and Saturday sailing excursions on the Fury Catamarans.
Presented by international performing rights organization BMI, the Key West Songwriters Festival benefits St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.