A drive through the Keys
Sunset in Key Largo. Photo credit: Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bureau
By Linda Perney
Special to amNewYork
You come here for the water. Not the beach, necessarily, although there are those. This chain of islands extends some 113 miles south of Miami, all linked together by one of the countrys most remarkable roads the Overseas Highway surrounded, naturally, by water. To make the drive takes about four hours if you do it all in one go.
But if you do, you miss the sense of a place removed from anywhere else. This is a place where nature takes its own course: where mangrove swamps and coral reef rule; where manatee and dolphin thrive; where the clear blue of the Florida straits defines the territory.About an hour out of Miami, you hit Key Largo, and when you get there, your first stop should be John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater state park in the country. You can follow the wooden walkways as they wind through the wetlands. But the real show here is underwater: Go snorkeling along the only living coral reef in the continental US or, better, learn to dive.
Farther south, you come to Islamorada, sport-fishing capital of the world. Or at least thats what they call it. You can go for sailfish, tuna, dolphin, kingfish, snapper, grouper and shark.
If its dolphin youre interested in, head for the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, where you can swim with them. But Marathons biggest attraction is actually just outside town: the Seven Mile Bridge.
Arcing over the water, it leads to Little Duck Key. The new bridge was opened in the early 1980s, but its also an older part of Floridas history. In 1912 the original bridge was opened -- built by the legendary railroad man, Henry Flagler, who pushed his Florida East Coast Railway through the state, and then on down through the Keys.
Flaglers dream was wiped out by the hurricane of 1935. But the bridge remained, converted from track to roadway. Driving over it now, you can get lost in the blue of the water, the pale, soft haze of the sky, above the water, but somehow, part of it.
In Big Pine Key, get out of the car and off the water for a few hours. Rent a bike for a close-up look at the National Key Deer Refuge, a pine forest thats home to the miniature Key deer. Just two and a half feet tall, they were almost extinct when the refuge opened in 1957; now there are 700 of them.
Key West is the last stop on the highway. Once a refuge for grifters and those who plain didnt fit any place else, it later became respectable: Harry Truman spent time here during his presidency, a familiar sight in Hawaiian shirt and two-tone shoes.
Its now a brassy tourist town, where cruise ships spill thousands of visitors out into the towns quaint streets. Needless to say, there are T-shirt vendors and souvenir hawkers to take advantage of them.
But wander the palm-lined streets after the cruisers have returned to their ships, admire the gingerbread houses, and the gas lights. Stop off for a quiet drink and take in the sunset over the water, and you begin to understand the pull of the place.
WHERE TO STAY
There are hundreds of resorts, hotels, motels and B & Bs in the Keys. Here are a few mid-price places to stay. For more choices, go to www.fla-keys.com; make sure to check the Valucation section for deals and special packages.
Dove Creek Lodge is a resort-style hotel; most rooms have balconies or porches; fishing trips can be arranged.
$199-$399 per night
147 Seaside Avenue, Key Largo
Drop Anchor Resort is a cool-looking resort with a Caribbean feel, surrounded by gardens landscaped with jasmine, gardenia and bougainvillea.
$129-$219 per night
84959 Overseas Highway
Paradise Inn is a collection of Conch-style buildings, including beautifully restored cigar-makers cottages and Bahamian-style houses.
$269-$599 per night
819 Simonton Street
Angelina Guest House In the bad old days it was a bordello (or so they claim); now its a relaxed guest house with hammocks out by the pool. Note: those $99 rooms have shared bathrooms.
$99-$199 per night
302 Angela Street
WHERE TO EAT
58000 Card Sound Rd., Upper Key Largo
Laid-back and relaxed for a late lunch; plus, theres live country Western music. Conch fritters with two sides, $7.95. Go early, though, they close at 7 PM.
1240 Overseas Highway, Marathon
Open-air and beachy. Seafood dinners go for $9.95, and theres great Key lime pie.