On a recent trip to the mainland (gasp!), my wife and I paid a visit to Fairchild Tropical Gardens. It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived here 25 years, and that was the first time I’d experienced these beautiful gardens that have graced Miami since the mid-1930s. It’s really worth the trip; don’t wait 25 years like I did.

For those who haven’t been, there are so many examples of tropical plants and trees from around the world, some specimens very much endangered in their own native habitats. There’s everything from small delicate orchids to large baobab trees, and everything in between. There are so many varieties of palms, a two-and-a-half acre rainforest, beautiful lakes, and educational resources as well. It’s truly a worthwhile visit, and I’m just sorry we didn’t go sooner.

That visit brought to mind a couple of points: first, how lucky we are to live here in this tropical wonderland; and second, how many wonderful attractions we have right here in our islands! As Fairchild is most certainly cultivated and landscaped, Crane Point Hammock here in Marathon shows off 63 acres of natural tropical hammock. If you’ve never taken the time to wander through these woods, do yourself a favor and schedule a visit. Crane Point shows off the natural uplands of the Keys better than almost anyone.

On the underwater side, our natural living coral reef is what brings people here.

Pennekamp State Park, Sombrero Reef, Looe Key, and our various wrecks feature a diversity of marine life that has to be seen to be appreciated. Our reefs are kind of like undersea gardens, and these little coral polyps are the gardeners and land- (sea?) scape architects.

Not many people get as up close and personal with the natural world as we can here in the Keys. The Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key offers encounters with dolphins and other marine life, as does Hawks Cay and Theater of the Sea. And many times, when the Keys get national TV coverage, it’s quite often when another turtle is released back into the wild, courtesy of the fine folks at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. The Wild Bird Center in Marathon helps our injured feathered friends get healthy with the goal of releasing them back to their habitat; there are, however, numerous birds who are full-time residents of the Center because their injuries were too severe and prevented their release. It could be the only way you’ll ever get close to some of these species.

History buffs can go back in time at Pigeon Key, where the railroad settlement from the early 1900s still exists in today’s space age. Gold and silver lovers (as well as salvors and pirates searching for treasure) will appreciate the booty stored at the Mel Fisher Museum in Key West. While in Key West, stop by the library to check out our islands’ history, as written and recorded by the people who made it.

Our climate allows those of us with green thumbs to try our own hands at tropical gardening. My brown thumbs try not to get to close to living plants… but I sure can appreciate what real gardeners can accomplish.

So, while we’re enjoying the autumnal slowdown, let’s take some time to enjoy the great attractions we have right here in our own backyard. It’ll put a little jingle into local cash registers, and it will also help out our collective tropical soul.

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