Travel | 18 comments
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Wind, rain and dark skies make for lousy weekend
The IBM conference I was attending last week in Miami ended on Friday, and Vera and I made plans for the weekend. We rented a car and traveled south, all the way to Key West. The Florida Keys are the southernmost tropical islands in Florida that you can actually drive to from mainland Florida. Key West, the southernmost Key in the US, sits at the end of the Keys, just 90 miles (144 km) from the coast of Cuba.
The “World Famous” 7 Mile Bridge during low tide in the Florida Keys
But the weather prognosis was not all that good. Unusually high rainfall totals were recorded Saturday — more than 9 inches fell on the day of our driving. Still I drove through scattered, heavy downpours, making it at times for a very dangerous driving.
Driving from Miami to Florida Keys (Key West)
Torrential rain and strong wind gusts in South Florida wasn’t really what I was hoping for, but the more we moved south the less rain fell and once we reached Key Largo and were driving through the Keys, rain stopped completely and the sky cleared somewhat. I was even able to snap several shots with my camera.
Overseas Highway 1 south – weather was not good
The Keys extend south and west of the Homestead area of Florida, close to Miami, FL. If you make the 130 mile drive across the Overseas Highway to the end, you will find Key West. Take a note of the Mile Markers along the overseas highway. They’re quick and easy reference tool to understand where you are. Major attractions are sited by mile marker, from MM 107 in Key Largo to MM 0 in Key West.
Along the way are many great experiences and picture perfect blue water and islands. Take your time and enjoy your journey through the Florida Keys. The 113-mile (181-kilometer) drive on Highway 1 from mainland Florida to Key West induces sensory overload. Did you notice the fish jumping as you cross the bridges? And did a Pelican happen to fly along with you at eye level while crossing the bridges? What did you think about all those Cormorants hanging out on the wires and standing on the old lobster traps out on the flats?
Besides the natural beauty along the route—tidal flats, teal waters dotted by distant islands—the so-called Overseas Highway awes you in its own right as an engineering marvel. Its concrete stretches across impossible expanses of water, the Atlantic spreading out to the left, the Gulf to the right.
Scenic driving – Highway 1 goes across the Keys
Highway 1 is festooned with classic Americana, from kitschy gift shops purveying seashell necklaces to burger stands offering shakes and fries. But that’s just the half of it. Beneath the ocean surface lies a separate world of Technicolor fish and coral reefs. Below are the five best dive sites you’ll encounter as you proceed from Key Largo, near the top of the island chain, down to Key West, at the end. At each spot, you’ll park at a dive shop and motor out to the reef on a boat. The entire dive experience takes two to four hours, leaving ample time to watch the sunset and enjoy a seafood dinner. Meanwhile, non-divers will find plenty else to do, from snorkeling to exploring state parks to visiting museums.
Ponce de Leon “discovered” the Florida Keys (from cayo the Spanish word for island) in 1513. They have, in their time, been the home to Native Americans, Spanish explorers, pirates, artists, dreamers and beach-bums.
Today the Keys are among the premier outdoor adventure destinations in the United States. Traveling from North to South the 1st Key is Key Largo, which features some of the best diving in the Keys at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Diving, snorkeling and glass-bottom boats provide visitors amazing views of undersea life and the Christ of the Abyss statue, a sub-aquatic bronze Christ.
Rain stopped for a moment on this beach
Begin in Key Largo
Key Largo calls itself the dive capital of the world. It’s home to the 70-square-mile (181-square-kilometer) John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (MM 102.5). The park has a visitor’s center and beach, a good place to hone your snorkeling skills before boarding a dive boat. The best undersea attraction of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (floridakeys.noaa.gov) is the wreck of the Spiegel Grove (www.fla-keys.com/spiegelgrove), a 510-foot (155-meter) retired Navy ship sunk as an artificial reef in 2002 and now resting 130 feet (39 meters) underwater near Dixie Shoal. Fish you might spot include trumpetfish and angelfish lurking along the hull, which is covered with sponges and soft coral. You can also stop at Molasses Reef, suitable for snorkelers. Local dive operators include Ocean Divers (522 Caribbean Dr. and Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort (MM 104.5), which offers morning coffee with its rooms and apartments.
The Rain Barrel – Artisan Village
The Rain Barrel
Make a stop at this interesting store. You can’t miss it because there is a gigantic lobster in front! Stroll through their tropical gardens and see local contemporary art and American crafts. Discover that one-of-a-kind creations in this store that makes shopping a fun experience.
Giant lobster –reminder that you’re in the Sea world!
Next is Key Islamorada, the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World”. Anglers can fish for a multiplicity of game species like marlin and tuna in the area’s crystal blue waters. Non-anglers can catch a show instead or swim with the dolphins, stingrays and sea lions at Theater of the Sea.
In the area: For breakfast, it’s Harriette’s (MM 95.7) known for its biscuits and generous servings. After a long day, treat yourself at Snapper’s Waterfront Restaurant (MM 94.5), frequented by celebrities. Before you leave the Upper Keys, visit the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum (MM 83, Islamorada), where you can try on antique diving equipment and see diving machines from the 1700s.
Tavernier, your next stop, accesses the Conch Reef. This is perhaps the Keys’ best drift dive, in which you descend at Point A, drift down current, then resurface at Point B, where the dive boat retrieves you. “It’s one of the most popular ways to see the reef,” says Brenda Mace, whose Conch Republic Divers (MM 90.8) offers twice-daily reef and wreck dives. Other reefs near the southern end of Pennekamp, many with names as colorful as the fish, include Hens and Chickens, Pickles, and Alligator.
The Heart of the Keys, Marathon, is a little town in the middle of the islands. This was our destination for the day. We booked a room in a small “Sea Dell Motel” which had really good reviews on the internet. We stayed there for 2 nights. Our 1st impressions when we drove up were a bit mixed. However once we saw the rooms, we were very impressed. Staff was very friendly and helpful and the Motel is close to shops and restaurants in Marathon, the small cinema is just across the street. The rooms are small and are simple but clean.
“Sea Dell Motel” after heavy rain falls – in Marathon
“Sea Dell Motel” – rooms are on the left with parking in front
The rooms were small and simple but clean.
Marathon is a good place to shop before taking the 7-mile bridge over the water, which offers stunning views of the ocean and the bay. Past Marathon lays a chain of small islands known as the Lower Keys. Here travelers will find unequaled diving at Looe Key Reef and pet-friendly beaches at Little Duck Key.
Castaway restaurant in Marathon
We loved this little slice of Sushi Heaven in the Keys. Not very easy to find, parking is 100 meters from restaurant. This waterfront restaurant has a bar outside plus, a large dining room inside. Inside it is very cozy wood ambiance. View of the fishing harbor from the windows. They have some great tasting honey buns they start you out with. Our waitress was very knowledgeable and made some recommendations. We had alligator filet for appetizer plus fish sandwich and grilled yellow tail snapper. Food was tasty, relatively quickly prepared and beer was cold!
The nightlife here can get a little crazy, but for some that’s part of its appeal. The nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square isn’t to be missed.
Overseas Highway over Florida keys
The “World Famous” 7 Mile Bridge during low tide in the Florida Keys.
Seven Mile Bridge
Since 1982, when a new Seven Mile Bridge section was completed to accommodate modern traffic and taller ships, the section known as Old Seven Mile Bridge (above) has served as a world famous fishing pier, jogging and walking route, and of course the major path to Pigeon Key.
Vera at ‘Seven-Mile’ Historic Bridge
No fishing from the bridge!!?
Presently, the Old Seven Bridge is embroiled in an emotional tug-of-war with its very existence at stake. While the concrete pylons of the famous structure are in remarkably good condition (see above), there is no doubt the steel supporting the roadbed has deteriorated. Now, the Florida DOT has closed the bridge to vehicle traffic – prohibiting even the beloved “Henry” from plying its span. Rumblings from Tallahassee portend a sad future for Old Seven – even fishermen may no longer cast from the span. Worse, a five-year commitment by Florida DOT to provide ferry service to Pigeon Key is jeopardized by severe budget shortfalls in Tallahassee.
Despite these threats to Old Seven, an incredible 100,000 people annually walk the span for exercise, for views of priceless sun rises and sun sets, to view the incredibly abundant water life just below, and to dream of another century when life was not so fast.
Pigeon Key National Historic Site, Florida
It is Located off the Seven Mile Bridge, Bayside. Pigeon Key is popular because of Henry Flagler and his East Coast Railroad Extension. Flagler was responsible for bringing railroad to the Florida Keys and much of the Everglades area as well, in the first half of the 20th century. The volunteer group named the Pigeon Key Foundation is responsible for preserving this piece of Florida Keys history and making it accessible to visitors.
Flagler’s railroad used Pigeon Key as a construction base site for his railroad project from 1908 to 1935 and the road which was built to the Key for this purpose is still used today. Although you can’t drive your car on the road/bridge to Pigeon Key, it is used by a trolley which takes visitors to Pigeon Key on the hour every hour between 10am and 4pm. The terrifying 1935 hurricane that wiped out much of the middle Keys destroyed Flagler’s railroad, and he decided not rebuild after the devastation. A few years after the hurricane, the first Seven Mile Bridge was built alongside Pigeon Key, right over the old railroad spans. Pigeon Key took on new life as the Bridge & Toll District headquarters. When the new Seven Mile Bridge was built in the early 1980′s, Pigeon Key was no longer part of the pathway for cars, but part of the old road was preserved for the trolley car and for joggers and walkers. It makes an excellent workout, at 2 miles to the island, four miles round trip. You can look down and see sting rays in the water sometimes.
Duck Key and other parts of the middle section of the Keys are often overlooked by divers, but “from Tavernier to Big Pine Key is where you find the most pristine diving conditions,” says Wendy Hall of Dive Duck Key (MM 61). “It’s quieter, with fewer residents here, and not as many commercial dive operations, so there’s less pressure on our reefs.” Lost and Found Reef, for example, has abundant life, such as vast schools of goatfish. “We get tons of giant sea turtles and spotted eagle rays,” says Hall. “We see them every day.”
Zdenko on Duck Key Island
In the area: Hawks Cay (61 Hawks Cay Blvd. www.hawkscay.com) is a major resort with its own restaurants and an enclosure where you can get in the water to interact with the dolphins. Its sizeable villas offer privacy and plenty of room for your dive gear. Little Italy (MM 68.5) on Long Key is a favorite eatery serving Italian cuisine, steaks, and lots of seafood. South of town, walk, bike, or take a ferry to historic Pigeon Key, where the railroad museum (MM 45) tells the story of the bygone era of industrialist and railroad magnate Henry Flagler, who built the first bridges linking Miami to Key West almost a century ago. In 1935, a hurricane flushed part of the railway into the Florida Bay. The surviving rail bridges were repurposed as roadway, and the Overseas Highway was born.
Looe Key, home of the offbeat Underwater Music Festival, is probably the most popular dive destination in the Lower Keys, the southern third of the island chain. And no wonder: No other site in the area has such dramatic underwater topography. Coral reefs rise from the seafloor into underwater mounds teeming with lobster and moray eels. Looe Key, serviced by Underseas, Inc. (MM 30.5, Big Pine Key), Looe Key Reef Resort & Dive Center (MM 27.5, Ramrod Key), and others, is especially attractive to snorkelers, who can readily view marine life from the surface and can easily free-dive to the tops of the mounds for an up-close look at the coral itself.
Big Pine Key beach with the old railway bridge in the background
Big Pine Key
In the area: Swing by the No Name Pub on Big Pine Key (N. Watson Blvd.) for pizza and a cold one after your dive. For a true Lower Keys immersion, check into the Sugarloaf Lodge (MM 17, Sugarloaf Key), a 31-room resort with private airstrip. Bahia Honda State Park (MM 37, Bahia Honda Key) beckons the dive-weary or sunbather with the nicest beach experience in the Keys—an abundant sand shoreline set against the backdrop of one of Flagler’s most impressive surviving rail bridges.
Key West, famous for its colorful locals, was also one of the first places in the Keys to be dived, says historian Tom Hambright. It’s known for its easy, relatively shallow dives with copious coral and fish. At the “Information Centre” when we asked where is the closest beach, they responded with “Miami Beach”! They were serious, because Keys are reef islands and there are no real beaches… well, not completely true, because Vera and I discovered Rest beach and Smathers beach on the East side of the town (close to the airport)!
Key West – Smathers beach
The “Southernmost City” is a launching point to nearby reefs such as the Eastern Dry Rocks and Sand Key; several notable wrecks, including the Cayman Salvager and Joe’s Tug; and more remote sites like the Dry Tortugas. The sites are so compelling, Hambright says, that before World War II, “one enthusiast would construct masks of wood and glass for friends and family to catch a glimpse of the reefs.” Local dive shops include Dive Key West (3128 N. Roosevelt Blvd.) and Subtropic Dive Center (1605 N. Roosevelt Blvd).
Zdenko at Mile ‘0’ – This is where Florida Keys scenic Highway begins.
Southernmost Point in the Continental USA – 90 Miles to Cuba
In the area
Almost everything on the island is accessible by foot. The Casa Marina Resort, used as military housing during WWII, is a trove of history. You’ll find old photos from the days when the only way to reach Key West was by boat or train and from the early years of the highway. Also visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (907 Whitehead St.) and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which displays treasures salvaged from the sea. Good restaurants include the Caribbean-themed Bagatelle, where you might try the tuna tataki appetizer, and Mangoes, for dining alfresco.
Traveling in winter avoids the summer and fall hurricane season, although for those interested in diving, summer offers the best water and wind conditions and hence peak visibility. Check current water and wind conditions at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Web site. For travel information, see the official tourism Web site www.fla-keys.com. From the car rental agencies at Miami International Airport, it’s a 75-minute drive to Key Largo.
Arial photo of Florida’s Keys
Do yourself a favor – in those several days you spend in Florida, rent a car and spend a couple days on the Florida Keys! We did, but that will be a different blog. If you can get to Key West, that would be great – it’s a crazy, little fun, low key town. The people are free spirited and fun. Good restaurants and shops and lots to do in the way of water sports (consider renting some jet skis). It’s not a long way from Miami in miles, but it does take about three hours to get to Key West because you have to drive kind of slow in the Keys. It’s a nice drive – 2 lane highway with water on both sides. You will enjoy it as we did.
Mike Theiss photos here: