Welcome to the Florida Keys, a string of islands, which when connected by route US 1, provide passage to the southernmost point in the United States. These islands have some of the most unique scenery, attractions, and history in the United States, as well as ready access to the only living coral reef in North America.
This is my journey through the Florida Keys. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. As I sit at my desk, only a few hours since my return from the Keys, I am already anticipating my next trip down.
Heading south from the last town on the mainland, Florida City, I drive down route 1 in anticipation of what I might see while traveling through this tropical wilderness, which are the Keys. Within a few miles, I have the choice of staying on the main road the tourists follow down or, taking the far less traveled and more scenic, Card Sound Road. I choose the road less traveled, and I'm glad I did. There is a small toll bridge on Card Sound but the scenery and the experience are worth the price.
The first thing to reach the senses is the smell of the mangrove trees growing in the waters surrounding the Keys, which, if you've ever been to the Keys, is a most wonderful reminder that you are back. It makes me feel like I've just returned from a long trip, like I'm home again.
Even though I'm the one driving, I can't help but look around and enjoy the sites that surround me. There are miles of trees, birds, some of which you'll only see down here, like the cormorant, the pelican (fisherman of fishermen) and the egret, a beautiful white bird with long legs and neck which give it a view into the water below without ever having to take flight. And, if you've ever been near the ocean, there is that point, just past the trees, where you know, the land ends and the ocean begins.
Just as the toll bridge comes into view, there is a little rest stop, Alabama jacks; a must for the Jimmy Buffet fans. This is one of his stops on his first trip to the Keys years ago. Jack's is a welcome stop for the road weary traveler; right on the water, where the climate is tropical and hot, and the drinks are cold. If you are lucky, you may see some of the local fisherman hauling in their catch and stopping by to cool off before heading home. Vast arrays of fish swim by, as I enjoy a seat overlooking the cool waters at the first and only stop on this wonderful little road.
A short drive to the end of Card Sound Road and I find myself back at US1, in Key Largo, where Humphrey Bogart filmed the movie of the same name.
Key Largo is the first of the islands to welcome you to the Keys; the most modernized by far, yet a sea of swaying palm trees abound. It is a Mecca for divers, fisherman and tourists alike. There are stores on both sides of the two-lane road where you can find everything from dive gear to shells to t-shirts. John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park is the place to go if you want to dive, snorkel or take a ride in a glass-bottom boat. Here you will find a protected marine sanctuary where you can see hundreds of multi-colored tropical fish and sea life, only minutes from shore.
As I head out of Key Largo and drive down US 1, the scenery begins to change. The hotels fade away, the dive stores and, souvenir stores slowly disappear. I begin to see the natural beauty of the Keys. More palm trees begin to fill the landscape. The smell of the ocean is strong in the air. On the left is the ocean while on the right is the Gulf of Mexico; both within sight at the same time, both a beautiful site.
I take a deep breath of the fresh, crisp, salt air and think back to the days of old, of how it must have been when all that was here were the tropical landscapes and the native Seminole Indians. That was then and this is now. There is a different beauty here for all of us to enjoy, as the Keys unfold down this tropical roadway.
I pass some of the lesser-known Keys such as Tavernier and Plantation Keys, wonderful places to find adventure and the beauty of nature, though I need an insider to help me discover what lies here. I decide to continue on. I pass over a bridge or two and come to a sign, which welcomes me to Islamorada The Purple Isles; I consider it the party Key. Here I can find what I seek with no help.
Islamorada has some of the biggest attractions of the upper keys and is a favorite destination of locals from the mainland to come for a short holiday, or long weekend. First there is the Theatre by the Sea where anyone can stop in and swim with the dolphins, while getting a picture taken with the friendly animals; as they tow you or give you a dolphin-kiss. Again, I have a choice of lodging which can accommodate most styles and tastes. Then I find a myriad of choices for the adventurous of heart. Here are boats to take out diving, snorkeling or fishing, enough to fit most any mood or budget. If there is time, all are available for a reasonable price to keep me happy for a week!
After I get back from my adventures on the water I have the choice to go to a rather nice all you can eat buffet at Whale Harbor, with seafood galore and the more traditional fare for the less adventurous. For the more adventurous are the Lorelei, with live music regularly and one of the best places to watch the sunset in the upper keys, and the Tiki bar at Holiday Isle, where the drink is the rum runner and the main activity is dancing the night away. For a great meal and oysters on the half shell, there can be no other place in Islamorada but Bentley's. Happy-hour starts at four and runs until six, featuring twenty-five cent oysters, chicken wings and shrimp, as well some of the best French Onion soup I can remember.
A little farther down the road are more shops with enough souvenirs to satisfy the most die-hard treasure hunter.
I really enjoy a good meal while on vacation, (and who doesn't) so my last stop in Islamorada is the Islamorada Fish Company. This is a wonderful place to buy fish for the grill or sit on the dock by the water and enjoy a fish sandwich for lunch. They catch a lot of their own seafood, so if you are there at the right time, you'll see them bringing in the days catch.
Whether you like to eat, shop take an adventure or just laze around on a hammock by the ocean, this is a great place to fill you with whatever you desire.
Well I'm full and pretty content, just thinking about all there is to do and eat in the keys. When I return, I'll take you through Marathon, in the middle keys, and finally down to Key West.
So, until next time...