The new place to be in the Florida Keys | CNN (2023)


Think of the Florida Keys and the tried-and-true destinations of Key West, Key Largo, and maybe, if you’ve been before, Islamorada, quickly come to mind.

But in between all that, in an area known as the “Middle Keys,” a destination known as Marathon is emerging as the new place to be.

“Marathon used to be this sleepy little town with not a whole lot to do, so people blasted by it on their way down to Key West,” said Kelly McKinnon, executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation and a Marathon resident. “But it’s a really great destination now, and there’s no shortage of things to do here anymore.”

Once a local fishing community, Marathon, which is spread across more than a dozen small islands, has seen its stock rise rapidly in recent years thanks to a flurry of openings and investments that include fresh full-service resorts, revived recreational opportunities and revamped historical sites.

New resorts welcoming a new era

For a long time, a large portion of Marathon’s prized, westernmost real estate was occupied by an RV park. But when it was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017, it was built back as a luxury waterfront resort.

Opened in 2019, Isla Bella Beach Resort isn’t the resort that began the change in Marathon. There are several other lovely beach resorts in the area, such as Hawks Cay Resort and Tranquility Bay Resort, which preceded it and are owed that honor.

The new place to be in the Florida Keys | CNN (1)

Isla Bella Resort, which opened in 2019, is one of the resorts bringing a more luxurious experience to the Middle Keys.

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Isla Bella is, however, the one that points to the destination’s future, alongside Valhalla Island Resort, a 66-acre complex being built by Bass Pro Shops Founder Johnny Morris.

There are still plenty of affordable lodging options in Marathon – cottages, inns and small hotels that can be had for less than $200 a night. But the above resorts, all with peak-season winter room rates around $500 or more, signal that Marathon, a destination that would have laughed at fetching such prices in the past, is ready to welcome a new kind of traveler.

The AAA four-diamond Isla Bella has 199 guest rooms spanning 24 waterfront acres with a private beach, five oceanfront pools, a spa, and an on-site marina where fishing charters, sunset tours, jet skis, scuba diving, and kayak rentals can all be arranged just steps from the room.

But the best perk of Isla Bella is its location. Not only its southwest-facing sunset views, but the ability to walk to the Old Seven Mile Bridge, a must-visit recreation area steeped in Keys history.

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Saving ‘Old Seven’

Changes in Marathon have not been limited to private investments. Public spaces are in play, too, and one of its most compelling accomplishments was the result of intense community collaboration.

After being condemned and sitting lifeless for more than five years, the old Seven Mile Bridge on the west end of Marathon reopened last year looking better than ever.

Originally constructed in the early 1900s by Henry Flagler, “Old Seven” was part of the railroad that connected Miami and Key West. It was converted for automobiles in the 1930s, and then was replaced in the early 1980s by the overseas highway we use today (constructed adjacent to the old bridge).

The new place to be in the Florida Keys | CNN (2)

Old Seven has become a recreation area that stretches across the water.

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Once vehicular traffic was gone, Old Seven became a place of recreation – fishing, biking and walking. But, in need of major repairs, it closed in 2016. It took more than five years, help from multiple nonprofits, and the coordination of three levels of government to restore it.

Old Seven finally reopened last year, sporting a brand-new, 2.2-mile recreational path that leaves from Marathon and takes visitors on a journey out over the clear, bright blue water, with limitless views of the ocean and offshore islands. The bridge is a haven for scenic walking, wildlife viewing (birds, manta rays, turtles, fish), exercise, and catching the sunset.

The local team of nonprofit organizations working on the cause drew inspiration and guidance from the creators of the Highline Project in New York City. In fact, the Highline team came down to Marathon and gave a presentation to help the Seven Mile Bridge supporters organize and fundraise.

Flagler himself was from New York, and tributes to him remain. Historical signage offers context where the path begins, and there’s another reminder of its history out on the bridge: The guardrails are made from the old railway tracks.

Visiting the new Old Seven today, you’re likely to see locals using it as an exercise or walking path, running out to the end and turning around. But don’t be fooled. There is indeed a destination at the end of the bridge, and a very historical one at that.

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A walk (or bike ride) back in time

Walk or bike out to the end of Old Seven and you’ll notice a ramp leading down to a small, five-acre island that, with small shacks and palm trees, looks something like a castaway’s haven.

This is Pigeon Key, where from 1908 to 1912 about 400 men lived on this tiny little island while building the overseas railway between Miami and Key West. Accessible only via boat while the Old Seven was being restored, you can once again access it “via land.”

McKinnon said it’s a blessing to have the island accessible via the bridge again (for the first time since 2016), which should be a boon to visitation, preservation and raising awareness.

The new place to be in the Florida Keys | CNN (3)

Pigeon Key recently became accessible via bridge again after a restoration project.

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“Pigeon Island is one of the most historically significant places anywhere in the Keys,” said McKinnon. “The Keys wouldn’t exist today if those guys didn’t do what they did back then, and it has that Old Florida charm, not to mention the last bastion of Flagler-era buildings that you can’t see anywhere else.”

Pigeon Key recently completed an award-winning restoration project, and now offers three historical tours a day of the old encampment and accompanying museum (book online). After the tour, you can hang out on the island, relaxing at its beaches or snorkeling its coral reefs. Those needing extra accessibility can take the new Pigeon Key Express tram, which follows the same recreation path on Old Seven and departs twice daily.

The restoration of Seven Mile Bridge and preservation of Pigeon Key are perhaps the best examples of community accomplishment in Marathon. But start hanging out at the local watering holes, and you’ll see there’s much more to the story.

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King of the jungle

As it tends to go with “newly discovered” destinations, the bigger headlines give way to local gems that were there all along.

If it’s the sunset you’re after, Sunset Grille & Raw Bar is an institution for island drinks and the most direct views looking west. At Keys Fisheries, discounted dockside prices on the region’s famous stone crabs are available during happy hour at the upstairs bar overlooking the harbor, or try the lobster reuben at the picnic table restaurant. There’s live music at Dockside Bar & Grill and great views of Boot Key at the tiki-inspired Burdine’s Waterfront.

For a unique and feel-good seafood experience, pencil in a meal at Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar.

The new place to be in the Florida Keys | CNN (4)

Castaway Waterfront Restaurant & Sushi Bar makes use of the invasive lionfish with eye-catching preparations such as the roll on the right.

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Owned by ex-Navy man John Mirabella, the restaurant prides itself on catching and preparing invasive lionfish. An active waterman, Mirabella can be seen spearfishing for lionfish in videos on the restaurant’s televisions. Initially, all the lionfish were sourced locally, some of it by Mirabella himself; now, due to demand, Mirabella sources from other destinations struggling with lionfish, like the Caribbean.

The tasty and picture-worthy lionfish King of the Jungle sushi roll is presented with the head and tail of the fish. If the restaurant doesn’t look too busy, you might ask if they have time to make a secret menu item: the Spicy Tuna Stuffed Avocado. Once a menu staple, its methodical creation process now restricts it to those in the know.

Hang around the bar at Castaway long enough and you may get tipped off about the local sand volleyball games at Sombrero Beach, one of the longest public beaches in the Keys, where the endangered loggerhead turtles lay their eggs April through October. Sombrero Beach was recently named as one of the top 25 best beaches in the US for 2023 by Tripadvisor. For a chill picnic sunset, head to the locally-beloved Sunset Park.

The new place to be in the Florida Keys | CNN (5)

Sombrero Beach is one of the Florida Keys' longest public beaches

Pop into the Turtle Hospital to meet local endangered sea turtles, or the Dolphin Research Center, which balances education, research, and visitor engagements, like swimming with dolphins. The Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters offers snorkeling within the aquarium’s own coral reef, perfect for families to get up close and personal with tropical fish, sharks, and stingrays in a safe environment.

Once educated about the local marine environment, you’re ready for the real thing. One can snorkel, fish, kayak, camp, and lounge at Curry Hammock State Park, or take a kayaking tour out to Boot Key - a small island once connected to Marathon until a hurricane knocked out the bridge (you can see the old bridge from Burdine’s).

More to come

All signs say that Marathon will continue its momentum far into the future.

Marathon Airport, which hasn’t had commercial flights for about 15 years, may be on the path to bringing commercial service back, and the Valhalla Island Resort is expected to open as soon as 2024.

Mirabella said he thinks Marathon is primed to welcome a wide range of visitors like never before.

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“Marathon has always been a place for fishing and diving and low-key family vacations in the Keys,” he said. “But now we have so many new hotels and such a wider range of activities that it’s becoming a destination for everyone.”


Which Florida Keys has the clearest water? ›

Dry Tortugas National Park is located approximately 67 miles west of Key West. What is this? The remote islands are a bit difficult to reach, and the trip is expensive unless you visit by private boat. But, the Dry Tortugas have the clearest water in Florida, by far.

What is the prettiest Florida key? ›

While Key Largo is undoubtedly the prettiest of all the Florida Keys, it's also one that's home to plenty of activities for the avid beachgoer. With scenic views like this, it would be tough not to fall in love with such a beachside beauty!

Can you swim in the water in the Keys? ›

Yes, Key West has several swimmable beaches. The island is located in the Florida Keys, which is known for its clear blue waters. Some of the best beaches for swimming include Smathers Beach, Higgs Beach, and Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.

How many days are enough for the Florida Keys? ›

How many days should you spend in the Florida Keys? 5-7 days is perfect for a Florida Keys Road Trip, so many things to do. (and there's also a National Park bonus!) Florida Keys tours range from snorkeling to seeing dolphins in the wild.

Which key has the nicest beach? ›

Sombrero ranks at the top of the list of best beaches in the Florida Keys. In fact, in 2023 Sombrero was the only South Florida beach to make the “best beaches in the US” list on TripAdvisor.

Which side of the Florida Keys is best? ›

Key West. There are plenty of reasons why Key West is the most popular destination in the Keys. With everything from gorgeous historical buildings (like Hemingway's Home) to bumping nightlife and great food, a stop here is a no-brainer.

What is the most expensive part of the Florida Keys? ›

The 8.5-acre estate in Islamorada has a whopping quarter mile of private beach. This is the most expensive home on the market in the Florida Keys. Lifestyle Production Group/Ocean Sothebys International Realty. This is the most expensive home on the market in the Florida Keys.

Which Florida Keys are least crowded? ›

Big Pine Key

This sparsely populated island is mostly devoid of luxury and nightlife, especially as you move further away from US Route 1.

What is the safest key in Florida? ›

Key Largo is the uppermost Key and has many advantages when compared to the other Keys, chief of which is its proximity to the mainland. Being the closest to Miami makes moving to Key Largo that much easier. The Key is a popular destination and is seen by many as the best area to live in the Florida Keys.

Can you drink tap water in the Keys? ›

The Source

The FKAA delivers approximately 17,000,000 gallons per day of high-quality drinking water to the residents of the Florida Keys. The FKAA 's primary water supply, the Biscayne Aquifer, is a superior source water meeting and exceeding all regulatory drinking water standards prior to treatment.

Can you drink on the beach in Florida Keys? ›

Beaches Where You Can Imbibe

Lido Key, for a relaxing experience as long as you leave the glass bottles at home. Madiera Beach, which allows drinking from plastic bottles or cups only. Redington Beach, with the same glass bottle prohibition as Cocoa Beach. Siesta Key, which also prohibits glass bottles.

Will the Florida Keys eventually be underwater? ›

Well, according to the Miami Herald, many of the main roads in the Florida Keys could be underwater as soon as 2025.

What is the busiest month in the Florida Keys? ›

March is peak high season in Key West, but the weather is great, with every day at 75°F and low humidity. The downside is higher prices for flights and lodging. April sees a small dip in crowds, and May is a great shoulder season time to come. Prices drop and and crowds thin.

What month is best for Florida Keys? ›

Best time to visit the Florida Keys for great weather and events. If you want great weather, aim to plan your trip during the dry season between December and March. Hurricane season has been and gone, the temperature is pleasant and the mugginess is bearable.

What is the cheapest time of year to visit the Florida Keys? ›

The fall (September–November) is the low season in Key West, and room rates can drop by 50 percent or more. The hot, storm-prone summer months also see lower prices, and you'll find decent discounts in April and May after the winter crowds thin out.

Which Florida key is most like the Caribbean? ›

Big Pine Key, Florida

Located about three-quarters of the way down the Florida Keys at Mile Marker 37, on Big Pine Key, this gem is one of Florida's southernmost state parks, with flora and fauna that originated in the Caribbean. In other words, it's about as close to the cerulean sea as you can get.

What beach do the locals go to in Key West? ›

A popular hang out among locals, Smathers is where many of the Spring Break visitors to Key West flock for fun in the sun. The beach is located on the south side of the island on South Roosevelt Boulevard.

Which Florida key is the most walkable? ›

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Which key is best to stay on? ›

Key West is undeniably the most popular of places to stay in the Florida Keys. This southernmost part of Florida and the US, only 90 miles away from Cuba, is where you can find the nightlife and all the action when it comes to entertainment in the Keys.

Which Florida key is the warmest? ›

Key West has to be one of the sunniest and warmest places in the United States year round. Our climate in the winter maintains at around 75-80 degrees with warmer days mixed in.

Where do the rich live in the Keys? ›

The priciest neighborhoods in Key West are The Meadows, Old Town, Casa Marina and Truman Annex. The Meadows is the smallest of these. In the late 1800's and early 1900's The Meadows was underdeveloped grassland and contained a few homes, several cigar factories, a few stores and the Key West dairy.

Which Florida key is best for retirement? ›

The Florida Keys

It's impossible to narrow down just one city in the Keys to retire in since it really is a matter of preference. Key Largo is the closest to the mainland, so it's perfect for anyone looking to jet off to nearby Miami (it's less than an hour and a half away!).

What is the most populated key in the Florida Keys? ›

The western terminus of the Florida Keys is sometimes considered to be Key West, the most populous and economically developed of the islands.

What is the most tropical place in the Florida Keys? ›

If you're looking for the most tropical places to visit in Florida, Bahia Honda is the place to go. This majestic island in the lower Florida Keys has some of the clearest water around. Because the island is virtually uninhabited, visitors will be able to enjoy a more natural landscape.

What is the most remote beach in Key West? ›

The most remote and isolated beach in all of the Florida Keys, the Fort Jefferson Beach at the Dry Tortugas offers visitors a truly one of a kind beach experience. Garden Key and the rest of the Dry Tortugas are located 70 miles west from Key West, with only miles upon miles of water around the small islands.

How long does it take to drive along the Florida Keys? ›

Driving the 110-mile stretch of Florida Keys takes around 2 hours and 30 minutes without stops and 3 hours 30 minutes with stops.

What is the number 1 safest city in Florida? ›

Which city in Florida has the lowest crime rate? The Villages has the lowest county violent crime and property crime rate in Florida. What is the safest area to live in Florida? According to our research, the three safest cities in Florida are The Villages, Palm Coast, and Riverview.

Is crime bad in Florida Keys? ›

The chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime in Key West is 1 in 49. Based on FBI crime data, Key West is not one of the safest communities in America. Relative to Florida, Key West has a crime rate that is higher than 68% of the state's cities and towns of all sizes.

How long does it take to drive from Miami to Key West? ›

A: The drive to Key West takes approximately 4 hours from Miami. The distance is 159 Miles (256 KM).

Can you swim on the beaches in the Florida Keys? ›

Boasting temperate waters and more than 3,400 hours of annual sunshine, the beaches of Key West are some of the most popular destinations on this tropical island paradise. You can enjoy the sun, sand and warm water as well as a variety of activities like swimming, snorkeling and fishing.

How deep is the water at Florida Keys? ›

It is 93 mi (150 km) wide at the narrowest point between Key West and the Cuban shore, and has been sounded to a depth of 6,000 feet (1,800 m).
Straits of Florida
Average depth1,800 metres (5,900 ft)
6 more rows

Can you drink walking around in Key West? ›

Florida Keys Have Open Container Laws

No alcohol, please. The Florida Keys & Key West do enforce open container laws that prohibit open containers of alcohol on most public beaches, parks and streets; including world-famous Duval Street.

Can you sleep on the beach in the Florida Keys? ›

First off, there are not actually that many sandy beaches on Key West, or in the Florida Keys. Of those, there are absolutely no beaches where you could pitch a tent and sleep overnight without getting disturbed, hassled, or forced to move. There are “No Camping” and “No Overnight Parking” signs everywhere you look.

Is it safe to walk in Key West at night? ›

The crime rate in the Florida Keys is low, but you should still use common sense when exploring Key West, especially at night and around hectic Duval Street and Mallory Square. Exercise caution when going into the water as well; be sure to heed all flags and warnings from authorities.

Can you smoke on the beach in Florida? ›

Person smoking a cigarette at the beach. Since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill over the summer allowing local governments to ban smoking on public beaches, Miami Beach, Ft.

What will happen to Florida in 2030? ›

The population will continue to grow; Florida will have about 5 million new residents. About 1 in 4 Floridians will be 65 or older. Non-ethnic whites will become a minority by 2030, and nearly 1 in 5 Floridians will be foreign-born. People will pack the cities.

Do the Florida Keys have sinkholes? ›

Located on Big Pine Key, the Blue Hole offers a short trail and observation deck where you can immerse yourself in nature. The Blue Hole is a large sinkhole. The sinkhole became a quarry and the limestone was used to construct roads in The Keys as well as Henry Flagler's Oversea Railroad.

Why is Florida Keys so expensive? ›

In addition, restaurant prices have risen, and you can spend lots of money on admissions and tours. But the reason Key West commands high prices is that it is a special one-of-kind city and it's a long way from alternative places to lodge.

When not to go to Key West? ›

The worst time to visit Key West is August and especially September for a high risk of rain from the annual Caribbean hurricane season. Visitors who favor land activities will find that winter also is a good time to go. Visitors who favor water activities may want to go from late spring to early summer.

Is it humid in the Florida Keys? ›

The Keys have a rainy season and a dry season. The rainy season runs from May through October, and during that time, the islands get three-quarters of their yearly rainfall. The rainy season also brings very high humidity, making days feel hotter than the mercury reads.

Is the drive from Miami to Key West worth it? ›

Driving from Miami to Key West is one of the most beautiful drives in the USA you can do. Here's where to stop along the way. Taking you from the glitz and glamour of Miami to the natural beauty of the Florida Keys, the Miami to Key West drive is definitely one to do in daylight.

Is Florida Keys worth going to? ›

Are the Florida Keys Worth Visiting? Absolutely, yes! There are a thousand and one reasons to take some Florida Keys tours or just wander around and explore the Keys for yourself.

Do you need a car in Key West? ›

You don't really need a car in Key West unless you're planning to do a lot of shopping or are heading out to multiple far-fetched points in the Keys. The island is only four miles long and about one mile wide, so almost everything is located within walking distance.

How many days do you need in the Florida Keys? ›

While it's always ideal to spend more time in any destination, I recommend staying for at least four days in the Florida Keys, if not longer. To accomplish many things to do in the Florida Keys, you'll need a solid five days.

What is the rainiest month in Key West? ›

The driest month in Key West is February with 1.51 inches of precipitation, and with 5.45 inches September is the wettest month.

Where is the clearest ocean water in Florida? ›

Just east of Destin on Hwy 98, Panama City Beach marks the end of the beaches of South Walton. These beaches are widely considered to be the clearest and pure in the country. There is nearly no river runoff in the area and the St. Andrew Bay filters much of the sediment out.

Is Key West or Key Largo prettier? ›

Both islands are beautiful, but Key Largo has more natural beauty whereas Key West has more tourist attractions and historical sites. Key West is a small island city with a bustling nightlife and plenty of activity. Key Largo is a larger, less developed island with a more relaxed and laid-back vibe.

Is Clearwater better than Key West? ›

Clearwater has a better beach, Key West has a better overall view and selection of activities. The price is about the same depending on where you stay and what you do in both places, with Key West coming in slightly under budget more often than Clearwater.

What is the super rich island in Florida? ›

Fisher Island is a census-designated place in Miami-Dade County, Florida, United States, located on a barrier island of the same name. Since 2015, Fisher Island has the highest per capita income of any place in the United States. As of the 2020 census, the population was 561.

Where is the bluest ocean in Florida? ›

Destin is commonly awarded as having the best blue water in Florida however the entire Emerald Coast has similar coloring. Destin has the clearest water due to its proximity to Choctawhatchee Bay.

What beach in Florida has white sand and blue water? ›

Clearwater Beach

What makes it stand out among the 35 miles of beaches that stretch from Dunedin and Honeymoon Island south to St. Pete Beach is its powder-soft, glistening white sand, not to mention its width! The beach seemingly stretches on and on from the turquoise water to Mandalay Avenue and Gulfview Boulevard.

What beach in Florida has the most sharks? ›


Shark attacks at New Smyrna Beach have totaled 32 since 2010, averaging about three attacks per year. There have been 23 more shark attacks on this Florida beach than on any other beach, and it's thought that NSB has 10 times more shark bite incidents than any other place in the U.S.

What beach in Florida has no waves? ›

Calusa Beach, Big Pine Key

With gentle or nonexistent waves, this beach in the Florida Keys is one of the best spots in the state for littles. It's shallow, and fun snorkeling opportunities happen right off the sand, making this stretch a great way to spend a relaxing family afternoon.

What is the most popular key in Florida? ›

1. Key West. Key West is one of Florida Key's most famous and greatest keys. As we mentioned, it is the southernmost point of the Florida Keys, but it is also the southernmost point of the mainland US.

Why is Key Largo so popular? ›

Key Largo is the first of the fabulous Florida Keys and is the self-proclaimed Dive Capital of the World. It is home to the world's largest artificial reef, the 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the African Queen. Everglades National Park is just a short trip away from Key Largo.

Which Florida Keys are the safest? ›

The Islands of Marathon have virtually no crime or traffic congestion and thus is seen to many as the best place to live in the Florida Keys.

Is Key West swimmable? ›

Boasting temperate waters and more than 3,400 hours of annual sunshine, the beaches of Key West are some of the most popular destinations on this tropical island paradise. You can enjoy the sun, sand and warm water as well as a variety of activities like swimming, snorkeling and fishing.


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