Florida Keys Drive, North to South

Florida Keys Vacation SpotThe Florida keys as a vacation spot is both “standard Florida” as well as an escape of everyday life.  I recently took a drive down this island chain, via the Overseas Highway.  I marveled at what had changed…and what had stayed the same from my last visit, roughly 10 years ago.

Key Largo — Enter the Keys

While it’s not really the northernmost island, Key Largo is considered the gateway to the rest of this tropical island chain.  This area changed the most from the last time I ventured down.

Key Largo has always been the most like the mainland, in terms of chain restaurants, chain hotels, and outlet stores.  And, I am sad to say, that this influence is even more pronounced now.  At least in comparison to points south.

Still, there are reminders that this isn’t just a piece of the mainland.  John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is one of them — a diving mecca for the world.  Little motels have still survived here and there, as well as tiny restaurants that boast unique Keys-inspired offerings.  So if you can’t make it to points further south, you can still have a great time in Key Largo.

Islamorada — The Keys Begin

It’s not really until we got to Islamorada that the Keys really started looking like what they are — coral and limestone islands in a sea of ultra-clear tropical waters.  Not to say they don’t look that way in Largo…just that you can’t see the waters from the highway.

But starting in Islamorada, the island spiWaters in the Keysrit begins.  There are more unique places to stay, interesting places to eat, and the icon of the Keys, Theater of the Sea.  Not to mention one of the big draws of the islands — the beautiful waters.

There are plenty of places to pull over on the side of the road and mosey over to the water.  The waters are for the most part pretty shallow in these areas, but clear and warm.   Limestone rocks dot the shore, and if you bring some snorkeling gear, you can see sights below the surface — fish, sea grasses, maybe even a lobster or two at certain times of the year.

If you’re looking for sandy beaches, though, you may be in for some withdrawal symptoms.  Anne’s Beach is in the Islamorada area, once of the few natural sand beaches in the Keys.  However, there isn’t all that much of it (sand, that is).  Still, it’s natural and it’s pretty, so it’s worth a stop.

One restaurant worth mentioning in Islamorada is the Green Turtle Inn.  It’s a shadow of its former self, in that the building that used to be the entire restaurant only about 1/3 is still the restaurant proper.  However, if you would like some lobster mac and cheese, it’s definitely the place to stop  (in a word…YUM)!  The catch of the day is also superb, and the Key Lime pie is still as tasty as ever.  Be prepared for a large tab for your meal, though, as it is pricy.  The food is worth it, though.

Further on Down the Chain — Marathon and Beyond

Marathon is roughly the middle of the drive between Largo and Key West.  It boasts an airport (very tiny) as well as chain stores, restaurants and hotels.  It also boasts some places to stay that are not the standard chains, restaurants that prepare seafood in a variety of delicious ways, and some unique places to shop.

Florida Vacation SpotOh, and the waters here are fantastic for boating, snorkeling, diving, fishing…you get the idea.  I must say that Marathon didn’t change a whole lot since my last visit, even though it passed through some hurricanes since then.  The pace is slower here, more like the “Keys time” that I remembered.  Still, if you are hankering for a Big Mac, you can find one, so it’s rather a pleasant mix of mainland and tropics.

The 7 Mile Bridge is what links Marathon, in the Middle Keys, to the Lower Keys.  It’s a wonderful drive over the stretches of waters that vary from green to turquoise to blue and back again.  Plenty of sea birds float the skies or sit on the wires of the phone and electrical lines.  And while the phone and electrical lines aren’t the most scenic, they are necessary.  And, they are only on one side of the bridge.

Bahia Honda Key is on the other side of the bridge, and Bahia Honda State Park takes up a good deal of the island.  Worth a stop if you like beautiful tropical beaches — and this one is natural sand as well.

After Bahia Honda and Big Pine Keys, you’ll come to various small islands, and finally terminate your drive in Key West.  On our trip, we turned around before we got to Key West, since we were only taking a day drive, and the traffic in Key West would have added an hour all by itself.

The Keys as a Florida vacation spot, is a destination very much worth considering, even if it’s just a day trip.  The scenery, the places to stop, the food to eat — they all spell a wonderful place to spend a day, a week or even longer.  Enjoy!

 

 

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