MARATHON, Florida Keys — Called the boating and family destination of the Keys, Marathon includes Boot, Knights, Hog, Vaca, Stirrup, Crawl and Little Crawl keys, East and West Sister's Island, Deer and Fat Deer keys, Long Pine and Grassy keys. It incorporated as the City of Marathon in 1999.
Settlements on the islands of Marathon can be traced back to the early 1800s, when Bahamians established tropical fruit farms and New England fishermen inhabited the region.
Centered on Vaca Key, Marathon got its name from workers constructing the monumental Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad from mainland Florida throughout the Keys in the early 1900s. Working night and day to meet the grueling construction schedule, crews reputedly said, "This is getting to be a real Marathon."
Crossing the shimmering waters south of Vaca Key is the Seven Mile Bridge, one of the longest segmental bridges in the world. The Old Seven Mile Bridge running parallel to the modern span was the jewel of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad and a turn-of-the-century technological marvel that took four years to construct.
The spirit of this trestle's past can be found on Pigeon Key, the original construction headquarters and staging area for construction of the bridge. The island's museum contains artifacts from the Florida Keys railroad era, along with models, a video about the railroad, and antique postcards and photos depicting early life on Pigeon Key.
Throughout the region, environmental attractions provide visitors opportunities to swim with dolphins, explore hardwood hammock and rainforest areas, stroll white sand beaches and enjoy an abundance of water sports.
World-class sport fishing can be found offshore on the reef and flats, along the bridges and in nearby Everglades National Park. Challenging the mighty tarpon or "Silver King of the Keys" near the bridges of Marathon is a test of strength, endurance and boating skill.
Snorkel and scuba dive excursions fulfill most divers' appetites. The beautiful underwater world at Sombrero Reef and the ghostly Thunderbolt shipwreck — named for its seagoing duty as a lightning target — are two of Marathon's world-class dive attractions.
Kayakers can paddle through the solitude of local backcountry waters or fish from a kayak. The fast-growing sports of standup paddling and kiteboarding find many devotees in the Marathon area.
Visitors can charter a fishing boat or sailboat, play golf and tennis, take in the theater and eat at fine restaurants ranging from upscale cafés to funky waterfront seafood spots.
Marathon boasts homey resorts, luxury accommodations, marinas and the conveniences of a modern community, including a 58-bed hospital and plenty of shopping opportunities, while retaining the charm of its roots as a 19th-century fishing village.
Florida Keys Marathon International Airport, located at mile marker (MM) 52 bayside, is home to two full-service fixed-base operators who offer private and charter aircraft accessibility, jet and aviation fuels, maintenance, tie-down, pilot and passenger facilities. The airport also offers Greyhound bus pickup, airport taxi service and rental car agencies, as well as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection airport user fee facility. For information about airport services, call 305-289-6060.
The Marathon region is approximately a 2.5-hour drive from Miami International Airport and a one-hour drive from Key West International Airport.
Crane Point, MM 50.5 bayside, Marathon; 305-743-9100, www.cranepoint.net. This 63.5-acre tract is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the Keys. Crane Point contains evidence of prehistoric Indian artifacts and was once the site of a Bahamian village. The Museums of Crane Point include the Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys Children's Museum. Other features include nature trails, one of the oldest homes in the Keys outside of Key West, a wild bird rehabilitation center, rainforest, butterfly garden and flight habitat.
Curry Hammock State Park, MM 56.2 oceanside, Little Crawl Key; 305-289-2690, www.floridastateparks.org/curryhammock. Fishing, swimming, kayaking and picnicking are offered at this waterfront park, which also offers a popular beach launch for kiteboarders.
Keys Cable, MM 59 bayside on Grassy Key; 305-414-8245, www.keyscable.com.
Billed as the nation’s first cable park to offer full kiteboarding instruction, the park has two two-point cable systems that are independently operated atop a seven-acre lake, allowing for a fully customized ride for one rider at a time. The park offers full equipment rentals as well as instructional and private coaching. Half-day, full-day and membership rates are available. Keys cable is open daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Dolphin Connection, MM 61 oceanside, Hawk's Cay Resort, Duck Key; 305-734-7000 or 888-443-6393, www.hawkscay.com. Hawk's Cay Resort guests and non-guests can interact directly with the dolphins in either a saltwater lagoon or dockside encounter.
Dolphin Research Center, MM 59 bayside, Grassy Key; 305-289-0002, www.dolphins.org. This acclaimed non-profit marine mammal research and education facility offers a swim program called Dolphin Encounter. Visitors also can try Dolphin Dip, a wade-in program that offers the opportunity to get waist-deep in the water with the resident dolphins. Meet the Dolphin and Paint With a Dolphin are among the other interactions available.
Key Colony Beach Golf & Tennis, 8th Street at MM 53.5, Key Colony Beach; 305-289-1533. A nine-hole, par-3 public course is open seven days a week, along with two lighted hard courts.
Marathon Community Theatre, MM 49 oceanside, Marathon; 305-743-0994, www.marathontheater.org. Comedies, musicals, dramatic presentations and readings are offered at the popular theater whose history dates back to 1944.
Old Seven Mile Bridge, MM 47 bayside, Marathon. Once the centerpiece of the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, the bridge remains a historic and scenic landmark stretching beside the contemporary Seven Mile Bridge. A prime spot for walking, jogging, cycling and sunset viewing, it also provides access to Pigeon Key.
Pigeon Key, MM 47 bayside, Marathon; 305-743-5999, www.pigeonkey.net. Dotted with quaint cottages, historic Pigeon Key formerly served as a camp for laborers erecting the Seven Mile Bridge. The island now showcases a museum and offers opportunities to picnic and snorkel. Tours are available by ferryboat to the island, departing from the Pigeon Key Visitors Center on Knights Key, MM 47.5 oceanside.
Sombrero Beach, Sombrero Boulevard at MM 50 oceanside, Marathon. This well-maintained Middle Keys gem is a free-access public park and beach that features a kayak launch, volleyball courts, children's playground, shady picnic pavilions equipped with cooking grills, freshwater shower and restroom facilities. The park at Sombrero Beach also is handicapped accessible.
Turtle Hospital, MM 48.5 bayside, Marathon; 305-743-2552, www.turtlehospital.org. Opened in 1986, the Turtle Hospital treats injured sea turtles and, when possible, returns them to the wild. Daily educational tours introduce visitors to the resident sea turtles and the hospital's curative programs for loggerhead, green, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley turtles.
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