By Carol Shaughnessy
Two days after arriving in the Florida Keys, as I strolled along the Gulf of Mexico shore, the realization hit me: I had found my home. This crescent of subtropical islands, where blue-green water unrolled to the horizon and palm trees rustled in the balmy February breeze, was where I belonged forever.
Unlikely? Not really. That sense of absolute belonging has turned scores of casual Keys visitors into longtime "locals" who create satisfying lives close to nature and far from the mundane pressures of the "real world."
Surprisingly, you don't have to be a local to share some of the elements that make Keys life so happily addictive — as long as you're willing to explore, experience and embrace the unexpected people, places and moments you encounter.
While many destinations encourage vacationers to stay in "tourist areas" removed from favorite local hangouts, the Keys' attitude is entirely different. Sit down at a bar or coffee house in the Keys and you might find yourself next to a local shopkeeper, dive instructor or second-generation fishing guide who is happy to suggest activities and places to check out.
For example, I often encourage visitors to try one of my favorite Key West pastimes: biking or strolling through the Old Town neighborhood as evening falls. Just off Duval Street, the island's lively shopping and dining center, you'll pass lovingly restored Victorian homes and cottages with lights blossoming in their windows and the luscious scent of jasmine drifting from flower-filled yards. Though I've done it hundreds of times, roaming those residential lanes at dusk still carries a quiet magic.
Speaking of favorites, a trip to the Hogfish Bar & Grill, a hard-to-find hideaway on Stock Island just off Key West, tops my list of treats. Most customers at the funky locals' watering hole sit outdoors at weathered picnic tables overlooking picturesque vessels moored at the adjacent dock. Sample the world-class smoked-fish dip and fresh hogfish, a diver-caught fish with a light flavor.
After eating, stroll down the dock, greet the resident dogs and cats, and discover offbeat sculptures by local artisans who live and work in dockside lofts. This small haven for live-aboard houseboats and sailboats is a true hidden gem.
If you're spending time in the Lower Keys, you'll probably explore the backcountry shallows, a nature-lover's paradise. But for a weekend "sport" enjoyed by locals, head to the Big Pine Flea Market at mile marker (MM) 30.2.
Open Saturdays and Sundays from October through July, the outdoor market draws scores of people searching for bargains. Friendly vendors raise pop-up "stores" featuring everything from nautical gear and lobster floats to semiprecious jewelry, comfortable T-shirts and sundresses. Exploring the lively marketplace has been a Lower Keys tradition for more than 25 years, and the socializing is as much fun as the "treasure hunting."
In the Middle Keys — a boating hotspot that's home to the famed Seven Mile Bridge — downtime means being on the water. Kayaking is a preferred pastime and a popular launch at Sombrero Beach, MM 50, makes water access easy.
Marathon-based outfitters offer rentals and trail maps for those eager to explore on their own, as well as escorted eco-tours through Sister Creek and the Boot Key Nature Preserve. Don't forget your camera, since the quiet winding trails lead through mangrove forests alive with native birds like herons, egrets and cormorants.
And while the Keys are famous for their blazing sunsets, many Middle Keys residents favor the sunrise. For an unrivalled view, join early risers — some accompanied by their dogs — strolling along the Old Seven Mile Bridge over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
A historic landmark that parallels the modern bridge, the span was the centerpiece of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad from 1912 to 1935. Today a 2.2-mile section of it is open to pedestrians and bicyclists.
In Islamorada, life is mostly about fishing. Backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing were pioneered in the Upper Keys area, and it's home to scores of world-class charter captains, some of them second- and third-generation with an inherited passion for the respected Keys profession.
Soak up their tales and tips over cocktails at the Lorelei, a favorite local hangout whose on-site marina is headquarters for both offshore and backcountry captains. The Lorelei is easy to find — a super-sized mermaid figure reclines at its entrance at MM 82. Its casual dockside bar overlooks Florida Bay, making it a great sunset-watching spot.
Key Largo residents might be tempted to keep one of their beloved eateries a secret, but fortunately they don't. Ask where to have a great home-style meal and chances are you'll be directed to Mrs. Mac's Kitchen at MM 99.
Founded in 1976, the unassuming café was named for the mother of original owner Jeff MacFarland in honor of her recipes. Sisters Angela and Paula Wittke purchased it in the late 1980s, and today's menu features dishes ranging from biscuits and gravy for breakfast to fresh fish straight off the boat.
Mrs. Mac's is decorated with license plates donated by guests who wanted to leave their mark on the place. All dishes and sauces are homemade from scratch with Keys flair — and the "World Famous Key Lime Pie" sign is not an exaggeration.
Whatever you choose to do in the Florida Keys, however, make sure you indulge in plenty of water activities. For seasoned Keys denizens like me, the turquoise ocean is a constant and necessary part of life. Free time is often spent snorkeling the shallows, stalking gamefish in the backcountry, diving a starkly beautiful shipwreck site, lazing on a secluded beach or hitching a ride on a friend's boat for an impromptu cruise.
From on-the-water adventures to restaurant picks, the suggestions here are just a few ways to experience the Keys like a local. But be warned — you might become mesmerized by the offbeat island chain and find yourself returning again and again, powerless to resist its magical appeal.
Middle Keys residents favor a sunrise walk across a landmark 2.2-mile section of the old Seven Mile Bridge open to pedestrians and bicyclists.
After eating out in Key West, stroll down the waterfront docks at Safe Harbor Marina along Front Street, greet the resident dogs and cats, discover works by local artisans who live and work in dockside lofts and soak up the oceanfront flavors.
Keys neighborhoods are bicycle-friendly, especially in Old Town Key West.
For many Keys residents and their families, free time is often spent snorkeling the shallows, stalking gamefish in the backcountry, diving, lazing on a secluded beach or hitching a ride on a friend's boat for an impromptu cruise.
The Keys' turquoise ocean is a constant and necessary part of life.