Soak up the magic of Florida’s island paradise – but keep your eyes peeled for any crocodiles that are longer than ten feet, writes Lizzy Buchan
‘Watch out for Carlos,” one of the rangers tells me as I set foot on one of the southernmost points of the United States.
Carlos, it turns out, is a nine-and-a-half-foot long crocodile who is roaming freely around Fort Jefferson, a civil war era fortress based nearly 70 miles west of the Florida Keys in the Dry Tortugas National Park.
He washed up more than a decade ago after a hurricane and has made himself at home on the island. Apparently crocodiles don’t bite until they grow to more than ten feet long, and Carlos is just below that marker. I have to say this is not very reassuring.
Although it is part of the US, the Florida Keys has a vibe more akin to Cuba or the Caribbean than flashy Miami or the genteel paradise of mainland Florida.
Named from the Spanish word cayo, meaning small island, the Keys dangle off the end of the mainland US like five distinct jewels strung on a sparkling pendant.
Each island has its own character, from diving-mad Key Largo and the sport fishing paradise of Islamorada, to family-friendly Marathon and the chilled Big Pine Key. The most famous is Key West, which hangs out at the bottom just doing its thing, as the great and good flock in to soak up a bit of its magic.
Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls and Death In The Afternoon there in a sprawling mansion surrounded by six-toed cats, while playwright Tennessee Williams is thought to have used the proceeds from A Streetcar Named Desire to buy a house in the town’s Duncan Street.
Leaving Miami’s urban sprawl in our rear-view, we start our week-long trip breezing down through the brightly coloured houses and shacks of Key Largo and Islamorada.
I soon realise the Keys may seem laid-back but it is hardly a backwater, especially when the host at the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada confides there is a piece of the Berlin Wall in one of the suites.
Celebrating its 70th birthday this year, the hotel has a rather starry visitors book as presidents George Bush Snr and Harry S Truman were regular guests, while actors Paul Newman, Steve Martin and Ray Liotta also swung by for the fishing, the food and the fabulous ocean view.
Islamorada is a great base to enjoy the relaxed luxury of the Keys while exploring its impressive natural bounty. When Scots naturalist John Muir founded the US National Parks Service a century ago, he wanted to preserve the soaring pines and craggy canyons of his beloved Yosemite Valley in northern California. The Florida Keys just happens to have two national parks up its sleeve but it isn’t making a song and dance about it, in true Keys style.
The swampy mangroves of the Everglades spill over into the Keys with their abundant bird life, fish and rare species such as manatees and American crocodiles.
Rugged boatman Timothy Arce takes us out from Bud and Mary’s Marina in Islamorada on his boat, The Shrimp, which conveys us on a soaking but spectacular journey towards the brackish water of Flamingo, the closest part of the Everglades. He was born and raised on these waters and tells us about how he has taught his young daughters to spear fish, and how best to fight off an alligator.
The other national park is the Dry Tortugas, which can be accessed from Key West by a two-hour trip on a boat known as the Yankee Freedom. The seven coral and sand islands provide impressive snorkelling as the coral reefs also include a number of shipwrecks teeming with marine life.
On dry land, and safe from Carlos, we explore the historic Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, whose most famous prisoner was Dr Samuel Mudd after he was convicted of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
As well as its National Parks, the island chain is also surrounded by 2,900 square miles of marine sanctuary, which has been closely preserved for more than a quarter of a century. Catching a glass-bottomed boat tour in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a great way to see the marine sanctuary and marvel at the wildlife below, although perhaps not best for those prone to sea-sickness.
For all its marine life and natural beauty, the Keys also has a lot to offer landlubbers in search of fun, food and a stiff drink or two.
Hemingway certainly worked hard and drank harder in Key West, which boasts an impressive range of hostelries and live music joints to pass the warm nights.
Sunset from Mallory Square is not to be missed, so we grab a key lime milkshake or two and wind our way through the crowds of musicians, dancers and cats filling the streets.
We rub shoulders with a few wannabe pirates in a nod to the Keys’ swashbuckling past, as the residents of the Conch Republic often made their money through treasures from shipwrecks on the coral atolls around the island chain.
A fabulous trail of wrecks surrounds the island, attracting divers from all over the world. On my last night I share a cigarette outside a Key West bar with an old guy named Joe, who has lived in this little bit of paradise for his entire life. When I tell him I am from Scotland, he chuckles generously and winks, saying: “I’d love to go, Scotland has the best wreck diving.”
I like to hope he’s telling the truth but with myth and magic in their blood, these Keys storytellers are always spinning you a yarn.
• Virgin Atlantic flies twice daily from London Heathrow to Miami and has economy fares from £627 per person (www.virginatlantic.com, 0844 2092 770). Cheeca Lodge and Spa in Islamorada (www.cheeca.com). The Westin Key West Resort & Marina in Key West (www.westinkeywestresort.com). Popular restaurants in the Keys include Latitudes at Sunset Key (www.sunsetkeycottages.com/latitudes-key-west), Marker 88 (www.marker88.info) and Stoned Crab (www.ibisbayresort.com/its-your-resort/the-stoned-crab/). Visit www.fla-keys.co.uk for more information.