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An archipelago born of an ancient coral reef, cut off from the country until Henry Flagler’s railroad famously braved the hurricanes and humidity in 1912, the Florida Keys skip and jump across aquamarine waters for 127 miles between Miami and Key West. Long associated with drunk escapists and serious fishing (thank you, Jimmy Buffett and Ernest Hemingway), the islands have grown more family-friendly over the years, but you still need not travel far to find a boisterous bar bedecked in bras and far-flung license plates, patronized by some bizarre combination of bikers, fishermen, drag queens, and sunburned tourists. But it’s not all kitsch and sea views: There’s a distinct island culture at play here, an anything-goes liberalness and unhurried serenity that feels far, far away from mainland America. Even in quirky, rowdy Key West, you can walk a block or two from the action and find yourself on a mellow side street, where Caribbean music wafts from old wooden houses and roosters wander the bougainvillea. The easygoing mind-set extends to the culinary realm as well: The best restaurants in the Keys tend to be no-frills, picnic-table affairs where the day’s local catch determines the menu and preparations are simple, or family-operated Cuban restaurants dishing cheap, authentic fare well off the main drag. Slip on your flip-flops and prepare to consume a whole lot of seafood, key lime pie, and, well, margaritas. Legends die hard down here.
Think southeast Florida and your mind will probably conjure long stretches of palm-tree-fringed beach, spring break parties, and ritzy waterfront homes with yachts to match. And you’d be right. But if you look beyond the high-rises and sunbathers you’ll find a birders’ paradise dotted with incredible banyan trees and home to funky museums and art stores, peaceful state parks with great hiking, and a fun local gastronomy courtesy of the sparkling Atlantic*—which is never too far away—and the many immigrants (and Northerners!) who’ve settled here over the decades, from Miami’s Cuban population to the area’s prominent Jewish retiree contingent. Thanks to years of suburban sprawl, you can’t judge an eatery by its cover: Some of southeast Florida’s best seafood is found not in fancy digs or beachside shacks but in nondescript strip malls. You may have to work a little harder to track down the real deal, but it’s well worth the GPS, we promise.
*Please note that where applicable, we’ve tried to recommend seafood deemed “best choices” or “good alternatives” for the region by the Monterey Bay Aquarium sustainable seafood guide.
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