There are folks who think Islamorada is not just a place: it’s a state of mind. They may be right. All the Florida Keys posses their own unique island beauty, yet Islamorada has something special. It gets under your skin. People become Islamorada-fanatics, returning year after year. Or even moving there.
(An Islamorada idyll. Photo by Pietro Valocchi, Flickr.)
Islamorada isn’t a single isle, but instead a village of islands in the Upper Keys. Their names sound vintage: Tea Table Key, Lower Matecumbe Key, Upper Matecumbe, Windley Key, and Plantation Key. Guidebooks will tell you the Spanish named these “Islas moradas” or purple islands, but a Keys historian I know discovered that in fact one of the founders intended the name to mean “home island” or “island home.” Which feels right, because no matter where you come from, these islands quickly feel like a refuge from all the world’s cares.
(Sitting on a dock by the bay. Photo by Island Runaways.)
Pronounce it “I-la-mor-AH-dah” and you’ll sound like a local. It’s known as the sportfishing capital of the world, with “backcountry” fishing on Florida Bay and on the other side of the islands, the Atlantic Ocean. To say there are a lot of top-notch fishing guides based here is like saying there are several stars in the sky. Sailfish, marlin, bonefish, and wahoo are just a few of the specimens that lure anglers to these parts. Inside the mammoth World Wide Sportsman store is enough gear to outfit a decent-sized village, along with a mesmerizing aquarium and the sister ship to Hemingway's beloved boat, Pilar.
(The massive World Wide Sportsman store. Photo by Island Runaways.)
But even if you never pick up a rod, you’ll still find plenty to do. For better or worse, I’ve never fished here myself, but I am nevertheless a committed fan to these tropical Florida islands. If you’d prefer to look at fish rather than catch them, snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities abound on the Florida Reef. Sailing, kayaking, paddleboarding and other watersports can be found at almost every turn. The beaches here are sometimes on the smallish side, since the Keys are formed from ancient coral reef. But that doesn’t bother me personally, and if you give Islamorada a chance, it probably won’t bother you.
(Bothered by a small beach? Nah. Photo by Ricymar Photography, Flickr.)
Do you love classic roadside attractions? You’re in luck here, with places like Theater of the Sea and Robbie’s Marina, where you can feed truly giant tarpon and shop for souvenirs. Or take a tour of mysterious Indian Key, a tiny island with a fascinating history. Or Lignumvitae Key with the 1919 Matheson House. Speaking of history, you’ll want to drop by the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center for a look at their exhibitions, like Legends of the Line. Art lovers can explore the galleries of the Morada Way Arts District, which holds an evening Art Walk the third Thursday of every month.
(At the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center. Photo by Island Runaways.)
There is plenty to do in Islamorada, yes, but if you truly want to experience the place you must allow some time to do nothing at all. Grab a chair by the sea, sit back, and let your gaze rest on the horizon line where the sea and sky meet. Watch a pelican soar by. Listen to the mellow surf.
(Unparalleled sunsets. Photo by Ricymar Photography, Flickr.)
Around dusk, be sure to be near the water to watch the sunset. Sometimes we stop at a bar or restaurant like Lorelei and order a margarita and a Corona to toast the colors as they illuminate the fading sky. As you settle in for the heavenly light show, you may wonder: why would I want to be anywhere else? Or: Have I ever been this relaxed? These islands don’t try to be anything but themselves, and the people who live here seem to think they’ve cornered the market on paradise.
They may just be right.