There's one small section of the Florida Keys that remains an original American hideaway, combining blissful nature and a bucket-of-beers way of life. Sandwiched between the Keys' rowdiest spots – Key West and Marathon – exists actual tranquility, a ribbon of protected, mostly uninhabited islands lined with warm Gulf waters, deserted beaches, and knotted mangroves.
The gateway from the north is the stunning Seven Mile Bridge, and if you're smart, you'll have booked one of the six cabins on the far side, at Bahia Honda State Park – they offer a peaceful escape on the tranquil bay, and are some of the only accommodations between the rowdier Key West and Marathon. Each cabin has a full-service kitchen, deck, and can fit up to six people [from $120 per night (May-October) and $160 per night (November-April); floridastateparks.org].
In this part of the Keys, the fun comes from barhopping, trying each place to see where the crowd is the craziest. No Name Pub is a juke joint that's been around since 1931 and bills itself as the best casual dining in all of the Florida Keys. They've got killer pizza and a barroom that's never without more than a handful of colorful locals. It's a great place to hang and catch a few endangered Key Deer. Or the waterfront tiki bar at the Sugarloaf Lodge, an Old Florida standby, where you might run into a marine biologist – the scientists down here wear their beards long and look like they used to follow the Grateful Dead. It depends which boat captains have had a good week, and where the sun or the breeze is, all a bunch of intangibles that you can't really know until you try. Basically, if you don't leave drunk and laughing, you did something wrong. Try again tomorrow.
More information: To get here, fly to Marathon and drive 30 minutes west. The Keys Fisheries Market and Marina is the best place to get any kind of fresh seafood in the Middle Keys – and possibly in all of South Florida. Take some conch fritter mix or key lime pie to go from the market window or have the best lobster Rueben you'll ever taste at the restaurant. Take a leisurely stroll around the marina to digest and take in the boats that have come to dock. Call up Captain Andrea Paulson for a backcountry kayaking tour around Sugarloaf Key, through mangrove islands and sand flats. It's an active yet relaxing way to float around the Keys and take in the water and wildlife. Bonus: You can bring your pets along [from $240 for a two-person all-inclusive package; keyskayaking.com].