Since the days of the Caribbean pirates the Florida Keys have been an escape from the straight and narrow – a world away but just off shore. Of course now there are cruise ships docking in Key West rather than pirate ships. But the soft balmy Caribbean breeze and teal blue waters remain largely the same. Some of the recklessness remains as well.
This string of over thirty major islands below southern Florida (the keys) is connected by by a single highway (Hwy 1). It begins with the big island of Key Largo and ends 100 mile later in Key West. One stretch of the highway spans across the ocean for seven miles. Each key has its own flavor and pace.
The key to enjoying the keys is slowing down and getting off the main highway, which is largely an eyesore. It’s the sleepy lagoons, inlets and bays that are off the main commercial drag that are the real Keys.
I’ve always made it a ritual to stop at the first island, Key Largo, and decompress by snorkeling. In my experience the snorkeling tour of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is excellent. The boat takes you through the mangroves and then out a few miles to the teal blue waters near the reefs. It’s like swimming in a gigantic aquarium.
You can also kayak in the mangroves and swim on a beautiful beach at the John Pennekamp State Park. If you swim out a little ways from the beach you can dive down a few feet to see several sunken cannons from Spanish warship from the 1700′s.
The big party town in the Keys is all the way out at the end of the string in Key West. The main street, Duval, bisects the old town from one water front end to the other. You can stroll or stagger along this stretch through endless bars, restaurants and stores. You can buy goofy paraphernalia and get plenty goofy yourself. Rent a bike to explore the island or take the tourist train for an interesting historical tour. The old homes built from the original hard wood pine salvaged from shipwrecks are amazingly beautiful and sturdy.
And be sure to try the stone crabs, key lime pie . . . visit Hemingway’s house . . .
Ok, forgive me for playing tour guide. I just want to make sure that if you make it down to the Keys that you have the time of your life. I know I have.
The above photos are from several trips I’ve taken over the past few years. I love the Keys and with their extreme latitude and attitude they are a fitting first stop for the Great American Road Trip. It hurts to leave them behind in my rear view mirror. But the magnificent North American continent is calling and it’s time to hit the road. I drove North along the Atlantic Coast past an almost endless and unbroken chain of towering developments until we reaching West Palm Beach.
Next Stop – Lunch at the Breakers Resort in Palm Beach