EXPERIENCE eco-tourism in the Florida Keys
If you are a “green traveler” you will enjoy the abundant eco-tourism in the Florida Keys. Whether you are in the upper, middle or lower Keys, you can find any sort of eco tourism experience.
The Upper Keys:
In Key Largo and Islamorada, where KeysCaribbean Luxury Resorts Villas & Marinas has two exclusive locations, Mariners Resort Villas & Marina and the Historic Tavernier Inn
Key Largo is a window onto the Everglades:
Visit an ecotour outfitter in Key Largo and chances are you’ll be looking out the window at the environmentally fascinating place where freshwater from the Everglades mixes with the saltwater of Florida Bay. Key Largo is unique among the Keys in that it abuts Everglades National Park along its southeastern-most border.
Dusenberry Creek and its many winding tributaries are a popular spot for full or half-day kayaking and canoe trips. Old-growth mangrove trees form a jungle canopy overhead as you make your way through the tiny creeks. If you’re lucky, you will see a manatee, which are regular visitors, especially during the winter months.
Those who prefer the feel of sea kayaking can explore the more marine environment of Key Largo’s Atlantic shore, an area of shallow sea grass flats and patch corals. Sea kayakers should also explore the waters of Florida Bay, where large sea turtles and 100-pound tarpon are common sights.
Some Key Largo outfitters also offer extended kayak and canoe trips for those who enjoy wilderness camping. They will arrange 7-day paddling trips from Flamingo, a national park outpost where the Everglades meet the sea, to Everglades City on Florida’s west coast.
For those who do not kayak or canoe, there are also tour boat operators who are happy to introduce you to the wildlife and wilderness. You can even arrange an air-boat ride through the grassy interior of the Everglades, which is less than an hour’s drive away.
If endangered toothy beasts are your thing, you can also arrange a visit to Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a tidal lake that is a nesting area for crocodiles. Visitors can view the crocks from a distance that is safe for you and the crocks.
There is also plenty to do in Key Largo on days when it’s too windy to venture onto the water, or you just need to spend a few hours on dry land. Key Largo’s 5-acre Wild Bird Center has a display of native and migratory birds that have been nursed back to health but can’t be released into the wild. Wooden walkways also take visitors over samplings of Key Largo’s varied habitat. You will learn that six inches of elevation make a huge difference in the types of plants and animals one finds in the Keys.
As you’ll discover, Key Largo has a little something for everyone who is interested in ecotours.
If you think Montana is Big Sky Country, you should check out Islamorada. It is a gateway to one of the most varied watery wildernesses in America. Climb onto an ecotour boat here and you are in a stunning marine environment of coral formations, tropical fish and dolphin pods. Now head northwest into the fabled backcountry, and in just minutes you are in a world of manatees, crocodiles and roseate spoonbills. Some tour operators will take you all the way to Flamingo, a national park outpost situated where the Everglades spill into Florida Bay in Everglades National Park.
If human-powered craft are more your style, you’re in luck too. Vast sea-grass beds and shallow tidal flats are easily accessible from marinas, resorts, and parks along U.S. 1, the Overseas Highway. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent or you can hire a tour guide.
Tiny Lignumvitae Key is a fascinating stop for paddlers or boaters who want to stroll through a tropical forest thriving atop the remains of an ancient coral reef. Today, the island is home to Lignumvitae State Park and Botanical Site.
Lignum vitae is Latin for wood of life, and the lignum vitae tree was once used in ship building. The island bearing its name lies just a mile from U.S. 1 on the bay side, and is reachable only by boat, kayak or canoe. This raised patch of land, called a hammock, tops out at just 18-feet above sea level yet it is the highest point in the Keys. That might be why early 2Oth century settlers called it home. Today, you can still visit the Matheson House, built in 1919.
Indian Key on the Atlantic Ocean side of Islamorada is another site reachable only by private boat or tour. To walk on this island is to walk where Native Americans walked for thousands of years. In the 1830s, a Staten Island businessman set up an outpost here to salvage cargo from ships stranded on the nearby reef. Success was short lived for the settlers. In the early morning of August 7, 1840, a band of Indians attacked them. Some settlers survived by hiding in a turtle kraal, a pen used to raise sea turtles for food. Today, the island is home to Indian Key State Historic Site.
Islamorada is a playground for anyone interested in the environment, wildlife, and history.
The Middle Keys:
In the Middle Keys, KeysCaribbean Luxury Resorts & Marinas has the Village at Hawks Cay Villas on Duck Key, Indigo Reef Resort Villas & Marina and the Coral Lagoon Resort Villas & Marina vacation rentals in Marathon
Glance at a chart and you’ll notice that Marathon is situated on Vaca Key smack dab at the midpoint of the Keys island chain. Take a closer look, and you’ll notice numerous large shoals and coral humps, some within just two miles of shore.
An experienced kayaker armed with a Global Positioning System navigation receiver can easily find these shallow-water coral patches. They are magnets for beautiful sea life from sea turtles to tiny tropical fish. Most of the areas are so shallow that snorkeling offers just as good a view as Scuba diving.
Less experienced kayakers can paddle to some of these areas on calm days with the help of a guide. Closer to the shore, kayakers can watch 5-foot sharks cruising the shallows or egrets and herons snatching tiny fish.
Marathon, perhaps more than anyplace else in the Keys, should attract the ecotourist who wants to visit a place with a purely marine feel to it. There are relatively few uninhabited mangrove islands or shallow-water flats here, but there is still plenty to experience.
In May and June, thousands of huge tarpon roll and shimmer in the natural channels passing under the famous Seven-Mile-Bridge. Stop your kayak or canoe at Bahia Honda State Park and walk slowly through the calf-deep shallows. With any luck, you’ll spot a four-foot barracuda scouting the white sand for a careless needle fish. You might even see a school of bonefish rooting for crabs.
Terns and ruddy turnstones work the shoreline looking for food while above you hovers the black shape of a frigate bird.
If you need a break from the water, consider a hike through the 64-acre Crane Point Hammock which is not far from the center of Marathon. A hammock is a raised patch land with just enough soil on it to support an amazing variety of plant life, including tropical hardwood trees, which are the hallmark of Crane Point.
White crowned pigeons, raccoons, ibis, herons, clouds of dragonflies and butterflies are regular residents along the two miles of trails. Archeological evidence shows that Indians and prehistoric Indians called this place home. Anyone who visits can easily see why.
Ecotourists should remember Marathon when they plan a Keys vacation.
The Lower Keys:
In the Lower Keys, KeysCaribbean Luxury Resorts & Marinas has the Coral Hammock Resort Villas and Kings Point Marina & Condominiums vacation rentals
When you cross the Seven-Mile-Bridge and approach the Lower Keys, the geography suddenly changes and so do the ecotourism opportunities.
The Upper and Middle Keys are oriented roughly on a north-south line along the Overseas Highway. There is much more sea than land there. But beyond the Seven-Mile-Bridge, the islands suddenly take a westerly turn toward the sunset. And starting at Big Pine Key, there is suddenly more land than sea.
For centuries, powerful tides have whipped back and forth between the islands of the Lower Keys. This action has formed a ring of tiny uninhabited mangrove islands and shallow grass flats to the north of the main islands.
Welcome to the fabled Lower Keys backcountry, home to the glistening waters of the Content Keys and Snipe Point.
At Big Pine Key or Sugarloaf Key, you can rent kayaks and explore portions of the backcountry on your own or sign up for a variety of guided tours. If you feel like taking a drive, you might head up the Keys to Bahia Honda State Park, where huge barracuda cruise through the sandy shallows.
Out in the Lower Keys backcountry, it’s not uncommon to spot a pod of dolphins feeding in water seemingly much too shallow for them.
Paddle along the edges of the uninhabited mangroves and you are almost sure to see blacktip, lemon, nurse or bonnethead sharks. They often cruise in inches of water looking for easy meals. Egrets, herons, kingfishers and white-crowned pigeons are typical of the bird life.
On the Atlantic side, the mangrove-lined Coupon Bight is a popular kayaking destination at Big Pine Key. Experienced sea kayakers or those on guided tours can venture into the open ocean to snorkel over patch reefs at any of the Lower Keys.
But you don’t have to take to the water to have an ecotour in the Lower Keys. Big Pine Key is famous for its pines and the diminutive version of the white tail deer that has evolved among them. Park along one of the roads passing through the National Key Deer Refuge and you are almost certain to see one of these deer. Please don’t feed or pet them. Managers want to keep the Key Deer as wild as the Lower Keys backcountry itself.
These are some of my favorite experiences this week in the Florida Keys. If you’re coming down to visit and stay with us at the KeysCaribbean Luxury Resorts & Marinas in our vacation rentals, share your favorite experiences with us in the comments section of our blog…
Visit our blog next Tuesday with updated experiences in the Florida Keys…