Enjoy a Green Vacation
Carpooling makes incredible sense with regard to fewer greenhouse gas emissions, less traffic and less pollution, and remains highly recommended for residents and commuters. Key West, in particular, is largely a pedestrian city as recreational areas of Old Town is easily reached by walking. Bicycling is woven into the Keys culture, which flourishes with several bicycle rental companies throughout all of the islands.
Yet other modes of transportation to and within the islands of the Florida Keys include these environmentally friendly driving alternatives that either use bio-diesel fuels or eliminate driving and emissions altogether:
Key West Park & Ride allows visitors to park their car and get free public transportation around Key West, and both Electric Cars and Pedi-cabs are available for hire in Key West and along famous Duval Street.
Five 6's Taxi features an environmentally friendly hybrid vehicle fleet, and were one of the first taxi companies in Florida to roll out hybrids. The fuel-efficient vehicles are estimated to achieve about 38 miles per gallon in the city, reducing emissions by 80 percent. Five 6's fleet of vehicles can accommodate groups up to 14 people as well as an ADA-compliant Para Transit Taxi to accommodate electric and manual wheelchairs.
Rental car companies available at both mainland and Florida Keys airports offer within a certain class of vehicles the US EPA Certified Smartway® distinction, meaning those cars are scored favorably in both air pollution and greenhouse gas categories. Vehicles that receive the Smartway® designation are very good environmental performers relative to other vehicles. When making reservations for rental cars, inquire about their availability of these cars or if their customers have the opportunity to participate in an optional carbon offset program, helping fund projects that work to remove harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Hybrid rental cars are available for rent at Florida's major mainland airports for visitors that wish to fly into a mainland airport and drive down to their Keys vacation.
Back to the top
Almost all visitors realize the need to protect favorite destinations. Those guests are willing to participate in a hotel's green program.
Several Florida Keys properties are part of the Florida Green Lodging Program, which established environmental guidelines for hotels and motels to conserve natural resources by implementing water-saving measures, executing energy-saving techniques, helping reduce solid waste and taking steps to prevent pollution.
Designated clean marinas and lodging properties have demonstrated their commitment to succeed in protecting Florida's resources while also saving money and garnering good publicity. For example, individual lodgings with a clear environmental agenda may offer energy-efficient light bulbs, towel and sheet-changing options, soap and shampoo dispensers, guestroom recycling baskets and food-related waste reductions.
Many Keys hotels and motels also have implemented a water conservation and reuse programs that encourages guests to use towels and linens more than once during their stay, and install high-efficiency faucet aerators in every guest room. The hotels and motels not only save water, foster energy efficiency and reduce operating costs, but educate Keys residents and visitors how they can protect South Florida water resources in simple ways.
Back to the top
In addition to a catch-and-release ethic of sportfishing, world-class diving and a rich literary and artistic community, the Florida Keys offer an appealing variety of public parks and environmentally oriented eco-attractions, whether it is swimming side by side with a dolphin, walking among thousands of butterflies, navigating through tropical forests and botanical gardens or visiting a conservation area to observe the unique protected animal species in their natural habitat.
Parks & Recreation Sites are abundant in the Florida Keys, and span all five regions.
Conservation museums include Crane Point Hammock,
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and
Butterfly Conservatory & Nature Museum.
Preservation Museums include Museum of Art & History at the Customs House,
Lighthouse & Keepers Quarters Museum,
Fort East Martello Museum & Gardens,
Pigeon Key Foundation & Marine Science Center,
The Oldest House,
West Martello Town and Key West Garden Club.
There are two frost free botanic gardens in the continental United States. The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort opened in 2011 and provide daily tours for the public to the only "ethnobotanic" garden in the southeastern USA, and endeavors to enhance visitors' understanding of the significant role plants play in our everyday lives. The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden is home to many endangered and threatened flora and fauna, and is a special place where you can appreciate biodiversity and learn more about its importance. The forest has two of the last remaining fresh water ponds in the Keys and is a major migratory stopping point for neo-tropical birds from places as far as South America, as well as being home to many rare birds in the Florida Keys.
Other highlights include:
To protect a portion of the Florida Keys' barrier reef, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established off the Upper Keys in 1963 as America's first underwater preserve. The park hosts more than a million visitors annually, offering them numerous opportunities to observe abundant wildlife through recreational and educational experiences.
Pennekamp is incorporated into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, widely regarded as a national treasure, which was established in 1990 by the United States government. The sanctuary encompasses 2,900 square nautical miles of coastal and oceanic waters and submerged lands. Not only does this area surround the entire landmass of the Florida Keys, it also includes vast stretches of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The creation of the sanctuary allows for the management of the region's special ecological, historical, recreational and aesthetic resources. Within its boundaries lie mangrove islands, historic shipwrecks filled with rare artifacts, tropical fish and other marine life. Environmental enthusiasts can volunteer in the protection and preservation of the sanctuary.
The Marathon Wild Bird Center is one of the leading wild bird rescue centers in the Florida Keys, nestled in 64 acres of lush hardwoods as part of Crane Point Hammock. Tavernier's Florida Keys Wild Bird Centre, the northernmost of the eco-attractions, is also a haven for bird lovers, and was a labor of love of its founder, the late Laura Quinn, whose name graces the visitor center's Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary.
Each facility's primary purpose is to rescue, rehabilitate and release ill, injured and orphaned wild birds. Boardwalks and nature paths wind through shaded cages that house wild hawks, ospreys, spoonbills, egrets and more. Some are there to recuperate and will later be released, while others would be unable to survive in the wild on their own and have become lifelong inhabitants.
Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key is a research and educational facility that's home to a family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. The center and its staff, winners of numerous awards, specialize in behavioral research and maintain liaisons with university research programs and independent scientists around the world. Visitors to the center can participate in enjoyable and educational programs that provide knowledge and insights about dolphins, their environment and their remarkable abilities. Through a number concepts research study, researchers discovered that the marine mammals could identify simple math and distinguish the difference between numbers they were presented on a board.
Well known for dolphin-assisted therapy programs provided to children with special physical and emotional needs, the nonprofit Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo also features marine science educational programs, in addition to the experiential learning, education and swim programs offered at Dolphins Plus.
Marathon's Turtle Hospital, is the only facility of its kind in the world. At the hospital, opened in 1986, founder Richie Moretti and his staff treat injured sea turtles and, when possible, return them to the wild. Educational tours of the facility are offered to introduce visitors to the resident sea turtles and to the hospital's curative programs for loggerhead, green, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley turtles. The hospital's goals include working toward environmental legislation to make beaches and oceans safer and cleaner for sea turtles.
The Key West National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1908 in response to a fashion trend that was decimating migratory bird populations, then-President Theodore Roosevelt created this first wildlife refuge of the Florida Keys to protect and preserve a breeding ground for migratory species.
The Lower Keys are home to the National Key Deer Refuge, established in 1957 to protect and preserve habitats for wildlife, most notably the diminutive Key deer. A subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, Key deer range in size from 45 to 80 pounds fully grown.
The refuge encompasses more than 8,000 acres of prime Key deer territory ranging from Bahia Honda Key to the eastern shores of Sugarloaf Key, out to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. It also is a stopping point for thousands of migratory birds each year, and a winter home for many North American bird species including the roseate tern and peregrine falcon.
The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938, provides safe nesting and breeding areas for great white herons and other migratory birds and wildlife. White herons are North America's largest wading bird and, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are found only in the Florida Keys and on the South Florida mainland. Stretching between Key West and Marathon, the refuge features more than 375 square miles of open water and islands in the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors' primary access is by kayak, canoe or shallow-draft boat, although the refuge manages lands on Upper Sugarloaf and Lower Sugarloaf Keys that are accessible by car.
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center — Located on the Key West waterfront at Truman Annex, the 6,400-square-foot center showcases the underwater and upland habitats that characterize the Keys, with an emphasis on the continental United States' only living contiguous barrier coral reef that parallels the island chain. The Living Reef Exhibit features a 2,400-gallon reef tank with fish and invertebrates indigenous to the Keys, and interactive and touch-screen modules, text and audio/video components showcase stellar underwater footage about the vibrant Keys ecosystem and reef. Learn about the environment and cultural resources in the Keys through Discovery Saturdays.
Dry Tortugas National Park is a remote offshore preserve that lies approximately 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. The park contains the Civil War-era Fort Jefferson, believed to be the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Dry Tortugas is the largest no-take marine reserve in the continental United States. Snorkelers, divers, boaters and researchers enjoy a pristine marine environment while protecting the region's important coral reef habitat. The park is divided into a historic preservation zone where visitors can enjoy guided tours, diving, recreational fishing and other activities; a managed natural/cultural zone offering solitude and activities such as swimming, diving and recreational fishing; the protected Research Natural Area, where boaters can enjoy the environmental richness while preserving marine resources; and special protection zones for areas requiring protection from human impact. Dry Tortugas National Park can be accessed via ferry or by private vessel.
Back to the top
The Florida Keys are filled with eco-friendly things to do while on vacation. Like walking tours, they are designed to interact with nature, are inexpensive and low-impact, and help visitors get to know the Keys more intimately:
Kayaking the backcountry waters of the Florida Keys, and you'll see one of the world's most diverse marine life ecosystems. The quiet, shallow backwater region of flats and mangrove islands has inspired many naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts to combine environmental tourism with the sport of sea kayaking.
Where the freshwater from the Everglades mixes with the saltwater of Florida Bay is an environmentally fascinating place. Key Largo is unique among the Keys in that it abuts Everglades National Park, the third largest park in the continental United Sates, along its southeastern-most border. Winding tributaries and tiny creeks are covered with a canopy of old-growth mangrove trees overhead. Manatees are regular visitors, especially during the winter months. For those who enjoy wilderness camping, outfitters in the Keys offer extended kayak and canoe trips from Flamingo, a national park outpost where the Everglades meet the sea, to Everglades City on Florida's west coast. Tour boats and air-boat rides through the grassy interior of the Everglades can also introduce you to the wildlife and wilderness.
Kite Surfing & Kite Boarding — Adrenaline enthusiasts enjoy virtually any adventure that catches air and goes fast. For an exhilarating rush over seagrass flats, try a backcountry safari where kiters slip through estuaries past marine life.
Sailing is the oldest means of emissions-free travel. Choose a sailboat or yacht that is powered up by water or wind. Or if you use an engine-powered yacht, look for one with an eco-friendly generator that puts the boat on autopilot, helping to cut back on fuel consumption and pollution. There are numerous locations throughout the Keys to rent a sailboat; or enjoy a sunset or snorkel sailing adventure. Sailing aficionados also have exciting opportunities to watch fast-paced regatta races in the Keys. January brings sailing enthusiasts two chances to celebrate wind and waves in the warm subtropical climate of the Keys, with the North American Multihull Sailing Association North American Championships and Tradewinds Midwinter Nationals, and the annual Acura Key West races.
Paddleboarding — When the winds are too much (or simply nonexistent) for kiteboarding, standup paddling is a perfect stand-in sport for fun and a core physical workout. It's possible to use the board for surfing, traversing on a "downwinder" (riding the board backed by tradewinds to cover long distances), as a fishing or diving platform, or just quietly enjoying secluded eco-tours through the backcountry flats in an environmentally friendly way.
Snorkeling & Diving — Thousands of recreational scuba divers are hosted in the Florida Keys each year, where they can snorkel or dive the third largest barrier coral reef in the world. Divers in the Florida Keys have a unique opportunity to explore historic shipwrecks and military vessels purposely sunk as artificial reefs along a trail that stretches from Key Largo to Key West. A Florida Keys Wreck Trek was created to encourage an appreciation and understanding of the Keys' maritime heritage, and these artificial reefs take pressure off the natural reef system by promoting marine ecosystems in areas that were generally featureless ocean bottom while at the same time creating new recreational diving areas that thrive with aquatic life. Professional dive operators as well as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary staff help educate recreational divers about coral reef etiquette.
Catch & Release fishing — Conservation efforts designed to enhance fish stocks have been driving the fishing ethic in the Keys for decades. Keys guides pioneered catch-and-release fishing. Size and bag limits, and more recently bans on gill nets and fish traps in state waters, have enabled stocks to grow and stabilize.
Back to the top
Coral Restoration — Divers can become citizen scientists, and work side-by-side with marine scientists to aid in reef restoration during build-a-reef opportunities set in the Upper Florida Keys. Scuba divers learn from and work with coral restoration expert Ken Nedimyer and marine scientists about coral health, corals' function in marine ecosystems, identification of natural and manmade threats to coral and means to protect the resource. The Coral Restoration Foundation is a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to restoring coral reefs, and has opportunities to get involved and even Adopt-A-Coral.
Other ways you can volunteer for environmental, conservation and preservation activities during your vacation include:
- Keys Voluntourism — Whether you have special skills or interests, or just want to help out, you can connect with the causes and charities that are dedicated to protecting and improving the quality of both human and animal life in The Florida Keys. Find causes that range from reef restoration and beach clean-ups to helping kids or spending time working in a wildlife refuge.
- Adopt-A-Reef Clean Up programs — Divers volunteer to clean up monofilament fishing line from the reef and other fragile areas. From Sanctuary Friends Foundation of the Florida Keys. Occur in April and September.
- Bleach Watch — During your next trip to the reef scuba Divers and snorkels can actually help the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Mote Marine Laboratory monitor the coral. Just report back through this program whether you saw healthy reef or any evidence of coral bleaching episodes.
- Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) — REEF is a non-profit organization that encourages recreational divers and snorkelers to conduct fish surveys during their normal dive activities. Surveying can be conducted year round. Contact REEF to find out how you can conduct a fish survey during your next dive or snorkeling trip.
- Reef Relief — If you will be sailing or yachting to the Keys, this private environmental group has information on clean boating practices in the protected waters of the Florida Keys.
Dolphin encounters — The Federation of Tour Operators has adopted a set of guidelines for animal attractions featuring whales and dolphins, primarily with regard to general animal welfare, training and programs. Florida Keys marine mammal facilities assure visitors that they will see and interact with dolphins that are happy, healthy, well cared for and loved. Such facilities exist in Key Largo, Marathon, as well as wild dolphin encounters off Key West.
Bicycling enthusiasts throughout the country enjoy the freedom of US1 and the Overseas Highway, linking over 100 miles of islands with 42 bridges — one being seven miles long. Not only are many areas of the Keys bicyclist-, and pedestrian-friendly with designated walkways and pathways, the Key West city buses and the Key West Express ferry also permit riders to bring their bikes along, and most cab companies have bike racks on their taxis.
Some important resources for cyclists:
Back to the top
Dining & Food
Eating locally is one of the best ways to support a community — shopping at local, organic, artisanal stores and seafood markets, and dining at area restaurants that prepare dishes with locally sourced ingredients. And, it's fun to celebrate by finding foods in a new place that you cannot get at home!
Keys restaurants across the island chain are implementing programs to become more green such as recycling, switching to biodegradable take-out containers, reducing energy consumption, switching to eco-friendly cleaning products and installing low-flow bathroom fixtures.
The Florida Keys can boast early settlers ranging from Bahamian fishermen to Cuban cigar makers and New England merchants. With such a rich melting pot, it's natural that the indigenous cuisine came to incorporate diverse and delicious influences — with a reliance on an abundant array of fish and seafood harvested from surrounding waters.
Commercial fishing, in fact, is the second-largest industry in the Keys. Fresh catches that grace a restaurant table at night were probably unloaded at the docks that morning, and fish and seafood headline nearly every restaurant menu.
Seafood markets are brimming with sustainable choices such as the clawless spiny lobster, Key West pink shrimp and fish caught in local waters, such as mahi-mahi, grouper and snapper. Stone crabs, renowned for their sweet and succulent meat, are a popular delicacy. Because nearly all of the crab's meat is contained within its grapnels, these are the only portions of the crustacean that are harvested. Once the claws are removed, the crab is returned to the sea where, over the course of up to two years, the claws regenerate. It is for this reason that stone crabs are considered a renewable resource, and the Florida Keys are responsible for about 40 percent of the state's overall harvest.
A number of annual festivals celebrate the Keys' favorite crustaceans, notably the Key West Lobsterfest, the Key West Seafood Festival and the Original Marathon Seafood Festival.
Organic and healthy eateries are emerging in the Keys, who use "real food" — unprocessed food free of pesticides, chemicals, preservatives, hormones and antibiotics — as a basis for menu creation. An Islamorada hydroponic farm now supplies local eateries with year-round fresh produce, which is a benefit of the Keys' year-round favorable climate. Hydroponic gardens use much less water and yield crops such as lettuce and tomatoes within three to four weeks, or fruits within a couple of months.
When it comes to dessert, it's almost impossible to spend time in the Keys without sampling succulent fruits and Key lime pie, the island chain's signature dessert. Although there are no commercial Key lime groves in the Florida Keys today, Key Largo boasted a large Key lime industry until about the mid 1930s. Restaurants throughout the Florida Keys and Key West continue to use Key limes and their juice to enhance seafood dishes and sauces, as well as in pies.
Back to the top
How Keys Communities Are Becoming More Green
Local newspapers use biodegradable bags to deliver their papers, and use natural inks produced from plant sources such as soy and other environmentally friendly materials. The newsprint is produced from a combination of recycled stock and paper from renewable farmed trees, and excess newsprint and recycled newspapers to a paper recycling and production company in Fort Lauderdale.
Back to the top