The Florida Keys

by Stephen Frink

The Florida Keys are well known for their underwater delights. Washed by clear tropical waters and home to North America's best coral reefs; plus a fascinating portfolio of historic and modern shipwrecks; the Keys attract hundreds of thousands of divers each year. Fortunately, enlightened conservation methods have retained the underwater appeal of this destination. Ecological traditions in the Keys go back to 1960 with the creation of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and were reinforced in the 1980s with the creation of both the Key Largo and Looe Key National Marine Sanctuaries. During the summer of 1997, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary became reality, affording heightened levels of marine protection to the entire area. This will ensure that the amazing quantities of colorful marine life and pristine corals that so define the Keys dive experience will endure.

Yet, as rewarding as it may be, there is more to a Keys dive vacation than the time spent underwater. Most daily dives are two tank excursions that occupy four to five hours. That leaves much of the day and night for other leisure activities. And, no place does leisure better than the Florida Keys.

Take Key West for example. Despite its strong appeal as a dive destination; with exciting shipwrecks such as the Cayman Salvage Master and Joe's Tug complementing wondrous coral reefs found at places such as the Western Sambo's, Lost Reef and Ten Fathom Ledge; Key West is even more famous for its terrestrial delights. More than any other area in the Keys, it has a strong historical tradition obvious in its unique conch architecture. The gabled roofs, gingerbread architecture, cupolas, porches and wreckers' walks define a style of building found only here. While other destinations might bulldoze the old to make room for the new, in Key West these conch homes and buildings are revered and lovingly restored. Their functionality might be improved with the addition of central air-conditioning but it would be sacrilege to replace the galvanized steel roof, scuttles, shutters and hand-planed Dade County pine that might have been installed by some ship's captain in the 1830s.