FLORIDA KEYS — Whether you’re a winter weary Northerner looking for a subtropical break, a stressed out urbanite craving some laid back relief or a nature and scenery lover in need of a fix, a Florida Keys road trip satisfies many a need — though it’s a haul to get there from here and you will likely want to fly into Key West or even Miami to start your trip.
Starting in Key Largo, the biggest and easternmost of the keys, and traveling along the Overseas Highway to Key West (the westernmost key), Route 1 takes you over 44 islands and 42 bridges, including the Seven Mile Bridge, one of the world’s longest. Along the way you’ll find a mix of beach bars, restaurants with a wide range of price points and ambiance, coral reefs, state parks, upscale and down-home communities, alluring beaches, all sorts of water adventures, and the flotsam and jetsam of amusements and gift shops synonymous with the tourist trade.
Adding icing to the cake, you’ll bask in subtropical temperatures and get to try as many versions of key lime pie as you’d like. You’ll find the tasty confections all over the keys with different sweetness levels, textures and tweaked, nuanced versions including one that comes frozen on a stick and looks like a creamsicle.
At this juncture, you just might be wondering about the difference between an island, a key and an islet. It’s all a matter of size. An island or isle is any piece of sub-continental land that’s surrounded by water. A key, also spelled caye or cay, is a small, low-elevation, sandy island on the surface of a coral reef.
I found the experience of traversing one islet after another surrounded by ocean exhilarating. Ironically, a week after I returned home, I saw that “Travel + Leisure” ranked the Overseas Highway among the top ten scenic routes in America.
The highway began first as a railway in 1912 when Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler, who wanted to link Key West with the mainland, laid track over a land and water route. Twenty-three years later, the infamous Labor Day hurricane damaged and partially destroyed much of the infrastructure. The state of Florida then purchased the roadbed and used much of the remaining rail network to build the highway.
The state maintains a series of mile markers along the road with the “0” marker located in Key West with Key Largo at 106. About 30 miles long from end to end, Key Largo proves a welcome introduction to the world so admired by Parrotheads (aka, Jimmy Buffett fans). Known as the “Diving Capital of the World,” Key Largo is home to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the nation’s first underwater park.
The above-ground portion offers visitors a chance to hike mangrove and wild tamarind trails, and canoe and kayak rentals are available for those who may want to explore the 2.5-mile trail through the mangrove swamp. The Visitors Center also holds a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, nature exhibits and a theater that screens nature videos. For those who may not be fond of exploring the coral reefs by scuba, trips on a high-speed glass-bottom catamaran are offered daily as are snorkeling and scuba boat trips.
Outside Pennekamop Park, the island has dozens of vendors and operators who specialize in aquatic adventures including parasailing, kayaking and canoe tours and rentals, eco-tours, charter fishing outings and more.
Film buffs might be pleased to know that the iconic vessel that starred in the 1951 Bogart/Hepburn flick “African Queen” is still ship-shape and sound. Built in 1912 for service in Africa, the Queen plied the waters of East Africa until 1968 when the steamboat was brought to the United States. Before ending up in the Marina Del Mar, part of the Holiday Inn complex at mile marker 100, the steamboat worked in San Francisco and Oregon. Currently, the newly restored boat is available for public, 1.5-hour cruises through the canals and channels and out into the Atlantic. The captain will even let passengers handle the tiller for part of the trip and while the old original steam boiler in the middle of the boat in currently out of commission, it’s a visible memento and a cherished relic.
You could actually spend the day at the Kona Kai Resort, Gallery and Botanic Gardens, a place so all-inclusive you might not have to leave the property, except perhaps to eat. Thirteen tropical rooms and suites allow for an intimate stay in stunning bungalows surrounded by carefully tended gardens that eventually abut the white sandy beach.
The check-in office also serves as an art gallery, and the grounds sport an in-ground pool, hammocks for lazing under the coconut palms, and lighted tennis and shuffleboard courts. Just off the pier, guests can enjoy complimentary kayaks and paddleboats.
It’s a long 120-mile drive from Key Largo to Key West but the experience of islet hopping is exhilarating. Once there, you’ll understand why everyone from Ponce de Leon to Harry Truman, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and poet Robert Frost found it alluring. Today colorful characters still call the festive key home and can be seen frolicking on Duvall Street, especially come evening.
On a more sober note, Old Town is a trove of gorgeous architecture dating from 1886 to 1912, much of it done in tropical colors and encompassed by tropical landscapes. First-time visitors might be startled to see chickens and roosters running around all over town. Don’t harm them, however, because Key West is part of a National Wildlife Refuge where avians of all sorts have a protected status.
On historic Whitehead Street, the Hemingway House is open for guided tours. The Nobel Prize-winning author penned part or all of his most renowned novels in the two-story home in which he lived from 1931 to 1939. Interestingly the polydactyl cats (six-or seven-toed) that roam around like they own the place are all descendants of Hemingway’s original pet “Snowball.”
Across the street, the Key West Lighthouse is open to the public with access to the top via 88 circuitous steps. Several blocks away, the Harry S. Truman Little White House harkens back to the 1890s when it served as the naval station’s command headquarters during the Spanish American War and later, in World Wars One and Two. In 1946 Truman made the cozy residence his winter White House, a place where he could get away from the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital.
Since then, several presidents have visited the site, which is now a museum that holds many of Truman’s personal effects including the famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign atop his desk.
Near Mallory Square, where daily Sunset Celebrations attract folks looking for a chance to watch artists, street performers and musicians, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum holds many of the artifacts recovered from the 1622 sunken treasure fleet of Spanish galleons. More than just artifacts, the museum also addresses issues like the slave trade, real pirates of the Caribbean, and the science of shipwrecks.
There’s much more to discover in Key West than a two-day visit can accommodate, but information on other attractions in Key West and the other keys can be had by visiting fla-keys.com or phoning 800-352-5397.
Dave Zuchowski has been writing about travel for 26 years, and his articles have made the pages of many newspapers and magazines across the country, including AAA, Pathfinders, West Virginia Magazine, Southsider, and Westsylvania. He writes for the Herald-Standard Newspaper, based in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.