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THE Florida Keys are a chain of stunning coral islands, all strung together by the 113-mile-long Overseas Highway, which whips down America’s southern coast into the Gulf of Mexico like a scorpion’s tail.
Comprised of five unique districts – Key West, Big Pine and the Lower Keys, Marathon, Islamorada, and Key Largo – the Keys are a true American jewel.
Whether your dream holiday entails action-packed water sports or non-stop relaxation, it’s an idyllic world of marinas, mangroves and blissed-out beaches.
For us Brits, it’s also an off-season paradise that’s best enjoyed in autumn or spring, away from summer’s storms and humidity. Even in January, average temperatures don’t drop below 16°C.
Bikes are a great way to explore the Keys. Do it in style by hiring a Baja Fat Tire – ideal for cruising over sand with ease – from Bike Marathon Bike Rental.
Cycle over the ocean on the historic old Seven Mile Bridge to Pigeon Key. Hire costs £21 per day and includes a basket, lock and helmet (Bikemarathonbikerentals.com).
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After all that legwork, grab lunch at Sunset Grille & Raw Bar, right on the beach at the foot of the bridge.
Sit poolside under a thatched tiki hut and tuck into a grouper fish sandwich, £17, followed by home-made Key lime pie, £6. Don’t miss happy hour – daily 3-6pm (Sunsetgrille7milebridge.com).
West is best
Key West is the southernmost point of the US, and at different times has been both one of the country’s poorest and richest places.
Now the self-styled capital of the Conch Republic (pronounced “konks” – and named after the beautiful shells that were once common here), the island spans just two by four miles.
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Orientate yourself with a hop-on trolley tour, with expert guides blending quirky anecdotes and history to give you a real insight into this eccentric town. Day passes cost from £42 (Trolleytours.com/key-west).
Don’t miss the house where Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his greatest books – the resident six-toed cats are direct descendants of his own furry friends. Entry costs £14 per adult (Hemingwayhome.com).
While on the history trail, visit the Little White House where Harry Truman ran the US for large parts of his presidency. You can even ride in one of the presidential limousines.
Tours cost from £21 (Trumanlittlewhitehouse.org). At sunset, catch Mallory Square’s charming street party, and later head for Duval Street, where the bars are filled with live music and dancing.
If heart-pounding action is your idea of a good holiday, then there’s no better place to get stuck in than John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo.
Unleash your inner adventurer by hiring kayaks and exploring one of the trails into the mangrove wilderness, from £17 per hour. Just make sure you get some clear directions or you could end up in the ocean!
If diving is your thing, then take a snorkel or scuba tour down to the haunting Christ of the Abyss statue, which featured in Netflix’s Bloodline. Tours cost from £32 per adult and £29 for under-18s (Pennekamppark.com).
If you’d rather get that underwater experience while on dry land, don’t miss meeting the Keys’ most charming residents: the turtles. Take a tour of Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, where the incredible team helps animals recover from illness or boat strikes.
Tours cost £25 per adult and £13 for kids under 12 years, with all proceeds going towards turtle conservation. Book ahead, as places are limited (Turtlehospital.org).
Food in the Keys is all about the sea, and you’ll soon be an expert on local fish like grouper, mahi mahi and yellowtail snapper. The Fish House in Key Largo is a local institution that serves an elaborate array of the local catch in a relaxed atmosphere.
Portions are huge, so skip the starters and dive straight into the legendary baked stuffed mahi, £28, or mussels marinara, £20 (Fishhouse.com).
In Key West, a long al fresco lunch at Blue Heaven is a must. Sit in the leafy courtyard among the wild chickens (yes, really) and enjoy Caesar salad with local shrimp, £19 (Blueheavenkw.com).
For an extra-special dinner, visit nearby Bistro 245 for its exquisite seared tuna, £15, washed down with a perfect agave margarita, £10 (Bistro245.com).
The Keys also boast many excellent micro-breweries, and beer lovers should head to the Florida Keys Brewing Company for a delicious tasting session and some very generous samples, £13 for five 5oz pours (Floridakeysbrewingco.com).
With so much to explore, having a great base is essential. Banana Bay is a boutique resort in central Marathon, which makes it ideal for exploring the Upper and Lower Keys. The hotel’s rooms are spacious and modern, and look out over either the marina or the ocean.
It also has one of the deepest pools in the archipelago, and a world-class breakfast. Rooms cost from £210 per night, including breakfast (Bananabay.com).
For a more affordable but still brilliant option, Captain Pip’s at Knight’s Key Inn is just round the corner and has an outdoor swimming pool, barbecues and kayaks and bikes to rent. Rooms cost from £104 per night (Captainpips.com).
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Just a stone’s throw from both hotels, you can hire a jet ski from Banana Bay Marina. We guarantee that zipping under the Overseas Highway at 50mph with the Gulf of Mexico shining on the horizon deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list! Hire starts at £100 (Chartered-rentals.com).
Plan your trip at Fla-keys.co.uk.
Purely America offers seven nights in the Florida Keys from £1,899 per person, including return flights from London Heathrow to Miami with BA, luggage and car hire, insurance, fees, unlimited mileage and accommodation.