Many travelers associate the Florida Keys with Ernest Hemingway, fishing, classic drinking spots and golf-cart-driving retirees. But this southernmost region of the U.S. has always had a lively eco-tourism scene. Even popular islands like Key West are not far from lush national parks and underwater nature preserves. These parks and preserves are the backbone of an impressive list of eco-tourism attractions.

With cruise ships and an overload of tourists in certain areas of coastal South Florida (not to mention general ocean pollution and oil spills), the fragile marine and land ecosystems of the Keys often find themselves in precarious positions. Recognizing both the need for tourist dollars and the need to protect its natural landscapes, officials in the Keys recently launched an annual event focused on the environment. EcoWeek will be held yearly to raise awareness of environmental issues among tourists, tour industry workers, businesses and the public. While it has always been possible to have a low-impact vacation in the Keys, recent efforts have made it more convenient to go green.

Sleep green

Earth-friendly sleeping options in the Keys range from rustic campgrounds to greened-up resorts. The Waldorf Astoria’s Casa Marina Resort is a reasonable upscale option. It purchases some of its power from renewable sources and has a recycling and water conservation program. The Hilton Key Largo Grande Resort, near the John Pennekamp Marine Park (see below), offers similar eco-friendly features.

Camping is a more natural (and much cheaper) option. State park campgrounds are the outdoor sleeping best bet, both because of the facilities and because these camp sites put visitors in close proximity to the region’s best natural attractions.

Go green

Getting to the Keys via public transportation is possible. Greyhound buses regularly run between Miami International Airport and popular islands like Key West. The Key West Express Ferry runs between Palm Beach and the Keys regularly as well. There are park-and-rides throughout the region that allow drivers to take public transit. Many people, even those who are not overly environmentally conscious, decide against driving because of a lack of parking in high traffic areas like Key West. With bike and scooter (and electric golf cart) rentals prevalent on Key West (and, to a lesser extent, on the other islands), there is really no need to get behind the wheel.  

Eat green

Fast food meets the organic and vegan movements at Key West’s Green Republic. This unique restaurant has been operating successfully in Key West and is about to go national with franchise locations in Chicago and Las Vegas. Republic’s menu is built around sandwiches, soups and smoothies. All dishes are made using sustainably grown plants and natural sugars. Meals are in the McDonald’s-like price range ($5-$10).

Help Yourself is another Key West eatery that has the goal of making organic, sustainable foods accessible to convenience-minded diners. Its breakfast and lunch menus include wraps, sandwiches, granola and salads, as well as Asian-themed hot meals like coconut curry and miso soup. There is an organic market held outside the venue every Monday morning. The kitchen at Help Yourself relies on local, sustainable ingredients and has a composting and recycling program.

See green

One of the highlights of Key West is the Audubon House. Visitors can pay their respects to famed ornithologist and artist John Audubon by viewing his works and strolling through the on-site gardens. The house is one of the best examples of the island’s architectural restoration movement.

Sparsely inhabited Big Pine Key is home to a large herd of Key deer. These animals live in the National Key Deer Refuge, a 9,000-plus acre habitat, and are a favorite of nature-loving visitors. Thirty miles to the south, Key West National Wildlife Refuge covers over 200,000 acres, though only 1 percent of the park is actually on land. The park is a nesting place for birds and sea turtles. Because the refuge has fragile ecosystems, access is restricted to some areas.

Another protected but visitable site is the Research Natural Area of Dry Tortugas National Park. This no-fishing, no-anchor zone is dedicated to scientific research and habitat preservation, but visitors will find that snorkeling, kayaking and other water-based activities are still possible (a permit is required for private boats). Most of the waters around the Florida Keys are part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The seas are teeming with marine life and covered with fragile coral beds. For those who don’t want to venture into the waters, the Eco-Discovery Center, on Key West, is a museum that offers some education-oriented activities and exhibits that introduce the natural side of the Keys.

A similar educational experience can be found in an outdoor setting at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden. The forest is home to endangered species while the garden is the only truly “tropical” (frost-free) botanical garden in the U.S. It includes a section where butterflies reside and the site’s grounds are also a nesting place for exotic birds, including bald eagles.

With all the conservation efforts happening in the Keys, it is easy to get involved. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon comes to the aid of area sea turtles that are unable to survive, for whatever reason, without aid. The hospital has fund-raising events and also allows the public to come to releases, when rehabilitated turtles are returned to the wild. Tours of the facility are run three times per day.

The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center is a conservation and education organization funded by donations. Visitors to the center can help support the nonprofit’s efforts to rescue and rehabilitate birds (or provide sanctuary for birds that cannot be returned to the wild). Visitors can wander the on-site sanctuary, where the winged residents are allowed to move about without being confined to cages.

One of the most accessible and user-friendly places to explore the marine habitats of the Keys is Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Snorkel and scuba tours launch for the park’s headquarters regularly and there are glass-bottom boat tours for those who want to glimpse the fragile underwater landscapes without getting their feet wet. There are also canoe and kayak rentals for those who want to venture out alone without relying on gas-powered motors.

Natural areas and conservation are important in the Florida Keys. While people could continually argue about the success of these conservation measures, no one would be able to argue that it is impossible to have a low-impact (or even no-impact) vacation in this region. The prevalence of nature, both in the water and on land, makes this one of the best eco-tourism destinations in the southeastern U.S.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

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