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8 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Florida Keys

To the south of Miami are the Florida Keys, a chain of coral islands of varying size which extend for more than 110 miles between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.Until a devastating hurricane in 1935 they were linked by a rail line extending to Key West, from which there were boats to Havana, Cuba. The boldly engineered Overseas Highway, US 1, now runs over 42 bridges and numerous artificial causeways to the south-eastern tip of the United States. The little islands of Sands Key, Elliot Key, Cotton Key and Old Rhodes Key, lying off Biscayne Bay, are now part of the Biscayne National Underwater Park, established in 1980. Off Key Largo are the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.

Islamorada claims to be the "sportfishing capital of the world" although many people also head to Marathon for fishing. On Grassy Key is the Dolphin Research Center, where the TV series "Flipper" was filmed. Marathon is the second largest town in the Keys. The new Seven Miles Bridge, built in 1982, leads to Bahia Honda State Park, with a beautiful bathing beach. On Big Pine Key is the National Key Deer Refuge, home miniature deer known as Key deer.

In the early days, pirates used the Keys as a temporary base during their pillaging runs. However, much of this activity stopped after 1822 when the U.S. Navy began to patrol the waters and built a base in Key West.

The Keys coral reef is the only one found in the continental United States. It played a large role in the area's early economic development. When ships crashed into the shallow reefs, locals would salvage the cargo and resell it. This practice, known as "wrecking", was one of the first industries to bring prosperity to the region. Other important regional economic ventures were sponge fishing and cigar manufacturing.

1 John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
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Off Key Largo are John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the only living coral reef in the continental United States. The rich underwater life and a number of wrecks attract large numbers of snorkellers and scuba divers. The park has a small swimming area with a shell covered beach, but many people come here to snorkel or dive. There are picnic areas and an information center with displays on the habitats and marine life. A variety of tours are available, including glass bottom boat tours for a close up look at the world beneath the ocean surface.

The longest of the Florida Keys, Key Largo is a good introduction the Keys lifestyle, with many marinas, tackle shops, and diving opportunities.

2 Bahia Honda State Park

Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
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Bahia Honda State Park is home to what is undoubtedly the nicest beach in the Keys, and arguably in all of Florida. The park actually has two separate beach areas, one large stretch facing the open ocean, and another smaller beach area which looks across to the old railroad bridge. Views are impressive from either side. There is a campground area, as well as picnic sites.

3 Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park
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Located in the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles from Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is accessible only by boat or seaplane. This archipelago of seven beach ringed islands is also home to Fort Jefferson, a massive fortification that takes up one island in its entirety. Most visitors come to the islands on tours from Key West.

4 Hemingway House

Hemingway House
Hemingway House
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Located in Key West, this former home of author Ernest Hemingway is an important piece of Florida's cultural history. Visitors can tour the home and see the free roaming cats, who are descendents of Hemingway's original pet cats.

5 Marathon

Marathon
Marathon
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Marathon is the commercial and sportfishing center of the Middle Keys. Charters are easily arranged from here. Settlements on the island can be traced back to the 1800's. In 1908 Henry Flagler's overseas railway reached the village of Marathon and became the headquarters of the railroad's final Key West extension.

6 National Key Deer Refuge

National Key Deer Refuge
National Key Deer Refuge
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Located between Marathon and Key West, Big Pine Key is home to Key deer and the National Key Deer Refuge. This miniature species reaches the size of a large dog when full grown. The refuge was established in 1957 and was created as a sanctuary for the endangered Key deer, which were almost non-existent by the 1950's due to hunting. Also on Big Pine Key is Blue Water Hole, a freshwater pond located in a former quarry that attracts turtles and alligators.

7 Dolphin Research Center

Dolphin Research Center
Dolphin Research Center justthatgoodguyjim / photo modified
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The Dolphin Research Center allows visitors to learn about Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Experience the different "dolphinalities" during narrated sessions. Visitors can also watch the trainers interact with the dolphins.

8 Southernmost Point in the continental USA

Southernmost Point in the continental USA
Southernmost Point in the continental USA
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Key West is home to the United States' most southern piece of land. A striped marker, one of the most photographed sites in the city, stands at the location on the seafront.

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