The three hour drive through the Florida Keys is surely America's most unique
motor journey. No other place in America combines the scenic ocean views of
the Overseas Highway with a local community that is proud to show off its
history and natural wonders.
Key Largo is the first island you will see as you enter the 110-mile Florida
Keys chain. It is our longest island and the one where Humphrey Bogart and
Lauren Bacall battled Edward G. Robinson and a hurricane in the 1948 gangster
movie “Key Largo.”
Today, visitors can take a tour on The African Queen, the boat Bogart and
Katharine Hepburn fell in in the 1951 movie, “The African Queen,” which is
set in World War I Africa.
After Key Largo you will reach Islamorada, a village of homey islands that
includes Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. Morada
means purple in Spanish, and lore has it the early Spanish explorers named
these isles for the floating purple sea snails, or janthina janthina, they
probably saw feeding on jelly fish near the islands.
Two offshore islands here have special pasts. On Indian Key, you can see
site where early settlers were attacked by raiding Indians. Set foot on Lignumvitae Key and your are walking on an ancient, modestly elevated patch
of land where tropical hardwood trees, including the lignum vitae, have taken
root. Both islands are accessible only by boat.
Islamorada also prides itself as the Sportfishing Capital of the World. Here,
you can venture offshore on a charter boat for a chance at the beautiful,
acrobatic sailfish or the magnificently colored
dolphin fish, a.k.a mahi-mahi.
Hire a guide and you can take to the shallow near-shore waters to catch
the mysterious ghost of the flats, the bonefish, or venture into the
backcountry to catch redfish and tarpon.
Keep heading southwest from Islamorada, and soon you will see Long Key State
Park. Here, you can walk through undeveloped tropical forests that are
representative of the Keys wilderness of a century ago. Get back on the road
and you will come to Grassy Key. At the Dolphin Research Center here you will
have a rare opportunity for one-on-one contact with these intelligent mammals.
Next, you will reach Marathon, a small city at the mid-point of the Florida
Keys. Nearby is Key Colony Beach, a beautiful village of quaint homes and
marinas. If golf is your game, you’ve
come to the right place. Both Marathon
and Key Colony have excellent courses.
Marathon at the heart of the Florida Keys is also home to Crane Point
Hammock. This 64 acre reserve is some of the most historically and
archaeologically-rich land in the Keys. Pre-Columbian artifacts have been
discovered here, and the site is home to the Museum of Natural History of The
Florida Keys and the Children's Museum.
After Marathon, you will reach the foot of the Seven Mile Bridge which is the
gateway to the Lower Keys. Don’t pass up the small island below the bridge.
Pigeon Key once housed the workers who built Flaglers' railroad in the early
1900s. Today, you can take a tour of this island and view a snapshot of life
in the early 20th century.
After the Seven Mile Bridge, the vast sweep of the Straits of Florida and the
Gulf of Mexico can easily be seen from Bahia Honda Bridge. Stop at the state
park here and you can experience a beach that is frequently listed as one of
the most beautiful in the United States. It’s easy to see why the Keys are
recognized as America's Caribbean Islands.
Big Pine Key and the rest of the Lower Keys are next. Big Pine is the jumping
off point for Looe Key, a shallow coral formation that is one of the most
spectacular shallow water dive locations anywhere. Big Pine is also home to
the diminutive Key deer, a subspecies of the white tail deer. There are even
a few alligators in a pond nicknamed the Blue Hole that’s tucked away in a
pine and palm grove.
Keep exploring and before long, you’ll find yourself in Key West, the final
stop on the Overseas Highway. Here, the land meets the sea amid 19th-century
charm and 21st-century attractions. This is the nation's southernmost city,
and it is actually closer to Havana than Miami.
Stop the car and take a stroll amid the tiny, colorfully-restored homes where
thousands of cigar workers lived in the 19th century. You will also see huge
mansions that were built by business tycoons and city leaders. Some have been
converted into guest houses and inns with modern swimming pools and lush
Stop to chat with the locals and you might come across one of the native-born
Key Westers, who call themselves Conchs. Be sure to ask the Conchs about the
Key West of their childhood, from the tropical fruit trees in their yards to
the namesake shellfish they gathered in the shallow near-shore waters.
You can easily see why novelist Ernest Hemingway found inspiration for some
of his best work here. Hemingway purchased a pre-Civil War mansion on
Whitehead Street in the 1930s and lived in it for nearly a decade. These
days, thousands of visitors seek out his home which is now a museum.
Treasure hunter Mel Fisher also called Key West home. Using Key West as a
base, he recovered millions of dollars worth of gold and silver from the ship
Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a 17th-century Spanish galleon that sank 45 miles
west of Key West. Years before he died, Fisher had the good sense to
establish the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society
Museum, where visitors can
view and even
touch some of the riches of the Atocha and the Santa Margarita.
If you’ve timed your
drive right, you’ve reached Key West just in time for
sunset. Visitors and local artists gather on the dock at
Mallory Square each
evening to celebrate the end to another tropical day. Musicians, jugglers,
mimes, and the occasional fire-eater entertain you while local food vendors
keep you fed. The daily sunset celebration has become one of Key West’s
After sunset, the fun is just beginning. When the night falls, chances are
you can find a restaurant or watering hole to meet your tastes. Many bars
offer live music, including New Orleans-style jazz and local tropical
creations. If you like plays or musicals, you’re in luck too. Key West has
several small theaters that showcase performances by local acting troupes.
And the island even has a symphony now.
When you lie down at the end of the day, you’ll realize the drive was worth it.