Though I had my doubts about the usefulness of this guide to me, as my upcoming trip is Keys only, National Geographic as publisher was tempting.
Contents include: Miami History and Culture, Central Districts, Miami Beach, Key Biscayne & Virginia Key, Coconut Grove & Beyond, Coral Gables, South Miami, Excursions from Miami. This is by far the bulk of the book, covering pages 13 to 156. The Upper Keys, Middle Keys, Lower Keys, Key West & Dry Tortugas get about 80 pages, with a smaller after section on ‘Travelwise.’
The material devoted to the Keys is both well organized, nicely photographed and helpful. The book is thicker than Fodor’s, made up of heavy glossy pages and containing many photographs. Margins at the beginning are used to give information on addresses, phone numbers and websites. They make a big deal about ‘insider tips,’ but the majority do not seem particularly useful. One on Bahia Honda Key says, “Experiencing the Keys is best done by diving in, floating on, and flying over he shallow seas. The natural beauty of Bahia Honda is stellar from a Keys Hopper helicopter.” Uh, thanks for the self-promotion, NG Contributer and tour operator.
Where National Geographic shines is in it’s focus on each Key one travels through, along with several historically significant ones. Bahia Honda Key, for instance, has a quick description, a color photo of the shoreline, and details on the state park. It mentions a self-guided nature trail, and the kinds of plants and resident birds one might see. A section on ‘Diving and Snorkeling’ encourages travelers to check at the concession stand for tours and conditions and mentions that one can rent a small boat or kayak. The final section mentions fishing, with a highlighted box discussing the deceptive size of different Keys. Interspersed through these is interesting background information. One page (with photo) is devoted to Looe Key diving, a reef that is considered one of America’s best dive spots. There’s a two-page spread on tropical hardwood hammocks, which are low rises on the reef that are havens for animals.
This approach gives a nice in-depth feel to the variety of the Keys, giving time to such lesser known Keys such as Lignumvitae Key, Indian Key, and No Name Key. Some of the places it describes could certainly be considered tourist attractions, but they are generally of the nature or historically-focused sort. It gave me a better sense of how to see the Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key and combine it with the Blue Hole, a former quarry. I did see many of the same things mentioned in Fodor’s such as Theater of the Sea, Windley Key Fossil Reef State Park, feeding tarpon at Robbie’s Marina and a bird sanctuary. They both mention kayaking, although NG has an entire page of various places one might engage a boat through the entire Keys. Surprisingly, no mention of the Turtle Hospital that I could find, nor Aquarium Encounters.
The description mentions an extensive ‘travelwise’ section. Eh, not so much. A couple pages on transportation, mention of newspapers, post offices, fishing licenses, disability resources, visitor information centers, emergencies, lost credit cards and road services (extraneous and obvious, as ‘Road Service’ is for AAA members, and the credit cards are for specific companies). ‘Hotels & Restaurants’ is rather thin, with the bulk of recommendations devoted to the Miami area and Key West. Key Largo has three hotels and five restaurants mentioned, and the entire Middle Keys only two hotels and one eatery. Like Fodor’s, there is a tendency towards listing pricey establishments, and anything highlighted as ‘Something Special’ is bound to be pricey indeed (over $80 for an entree and over $280 a night for lodging).
Overall, NG presents a tour through the Keys that is heavy on the natural and historical experiences over the more commercial types of enterprise. Right up my alley; just wish they could have devoted a whole book to it.