It is a self-declared republic, but neither a passport nor a visa is required. You can get there by boat easily from anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard or the Gulf Coast. You can provision at a local supermarket, your U.S. greenbacks are gladly accepted, and the natives speak English (more or less). The local dress code runs heavily to cargo shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.
This is, of course, the Florida Keys, a boating destination par excellence.
The Keys have been called the 51st state, and there’s truth to the idea. Like a grudgingly adopted child, they bear little resemblance to the rest of the country. The Keys are as much a state of mind as a string of islands, populated over the centuries by smugglers, pirates and scalawags.
The attraction of the Florida Keys is that you can have the best of the Caribbean or South Pacific without leaving U.S soil. Coral reefs teem with tropical fish, tall palm trees shadow the beaches, the water is bathtub warm, and the locals are friendly. You can spend weeks exploring this necklace of approximately 800 islets without duplicating any. Some boaters are so enchanted, they never leave.
Our adventure started at Key Largo, which is nicknamed the “Dive Capital of the World” because of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. A word to the wise: Throughout the Keys, watch your chartplotter and depthsounder carefully, as shallows abound. Another dive delight farther along is Sombrero Key Light on the barrier reef (the third-largest living coral reef in the world). This site is a sanctuary with no anchoring, no spearfishing, no kidding.
Throughout the Keys are dozens of marinas for every size yacht. Islamorada, nicknamed the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” is home to fleets of charter boats for ocean and flats fishing. We treated the kids to Hawks Cay Resort and Marina, which let them pet tame dolphins. You’ll pass the Seven Mile Bridge; Big Pine Key in the lower Keys is a refuge for miniature Key deer that have come back from near extinction.
Key West is best described as part carnival, part tourist trap, part history. Once home to literary greats Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, not to mention music idol Jimmy Buffett, Key West offers skippers a choice of several marinas, often connected to resorts with all the amenities.
Do the tourist stuff: see the Southernmost Point Buoy, marking the southernmost point in the continental United States; get your picture taken next to mile marker 0; and watch the sunset at Mallory Square until you’ve seen all the street performers, magicians, jugglers and vendors who arrive for the last rays. Pub crawl Duval Street starting at Sloppy Joe’s, or check out the Hemingway House with his beloved six-toed cats.
Once you’re dosed (or overdosed) on Key West, you might cruise over to the Dry Tortugas about 70 nautical miles west to enjoy the silence of an anchorage. There, you can explore Fort Jefferson, an 1800s fort that blockaded Southern shipping during the Civil War.
Heading back to the mainland, you can set a course for the west coast of Florida, including Pine Island Sound and the shell-laden islands of Sanibel and Captiva.
If you prefer to return to Hawk’s Channel on the Atlantic side of the Keys, Moser Channel is a deepwater (7- to 8-foot) pass under the Seven Mile Bridge. A good overnight spot nearby is Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club.
Once you’ve cruised the Keys, you can declare yourself a Conch and fly the Conch Republic flag (motto: We Seceded Where Others Failed). Just don’t miss the annual Conch Independence Day celebration in Key West. If you thought Mallory Square was crazy at sunset, well….