One of the most exciting parts of this trip was getting to Key West. If you’re going to try to find the shortest and most expeditious way of getting there, I think you’ll miss the fun and the stops. I love to stop along the way and discover something delightful. And there were plenty of delights. As I had indicated earlier, when we set out that morning, we were not thinking Key West. However, by the time you hit Key Largo, and stop at the Tourist Center and look at the incredible job they’ve done with information, brochures, and lodging and recreation ideas, you are going to push further.
On the way down, we didn’t do much exploration at Key Largo aside from remembering Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and that they have the replica (or the original??) of the African Queen which we saw on the way back. And of course, there was that song about Key Largo…The amount of construction going on is simply astounding. I hope that they will be able to fill all of these new apartments and condos that are being built
.Interestingly, there are many more "keys" that one learns about on the road down. If you were uninitiated, as I was, it was fantastic to be able to know that there were more keys than just Largo and West. I prided myself in knowing that there was one called Islamorada. Anything beyond that was unimportant. Then it becomes clear when you look at a dedicated map of the area that there are literally hundreds of these little isles, and that the route that connects all of them pays tribute to the inhabited ones. One name in particular stuck with me, and it was " Bahia Honda" and I wondered if it had anything to do with the vehicle…but then again, how could it? Does anyone really stop at "Tavernier"? What about "Marathon"? Many people spill over into "Boca Chica" when there’s no room in Key West; we met a couple with their children one of the beaches who had rented an entire house in Boca Chica, and said it was preferable to stay there and drive into the Key West madness when they felt the need to go to a bar, or shopping. There is a marine sanctuary and a coral reef state park at opposing ends of the chain. I think we got lost in that state park on the way back, and I loved it. I kept searching the grassy fields for alligators on the loose, but they must have known, so they hid.
What is most impressive is what remains of the Flagler Bridge (see photos). If you know a little bit of Florida’s history, then you’ll know that Flagler is one of its honorees. You can tour his house in West Palm Beach, and it’s quite luxurious. He was a railroad magnate and was very involved with opening routes and facilitating transport in Florida. He undertook the building of the oversea train trestle in 1910, subsequently destroyed in 1935 by a hurricane. Shortly thereafter, the US Government got involved and built the Seven Mile Bridge (positively amazing!!!) and extended US Route 1 to run all the way down to Key West. The first mainland stopping point is Florida City, which used to serve as a checkpoint for illegal immigrants and such; there were protests and complaints that this procedure was hurting tourism in the Keys, and it is at that time that Key West supposedly seceded from the US, and declared itself an independent "Conch Republic". You will see signs to that effect everywhere when you reach Key West.
There are lots of gift shops on the way down, and you may want to save some time to visit; the one that I discovered was in Islamorada, Islamorada Hammocks, was well worth the time spent. They have a tremendous selection of drum art (and other island goodies) at significantly lower prices than Key West or Miami Beach for that matter. We also had lunch in a great little restaurant, whose owner came from Hawaii. There we met a man who had retired down here from North Carolina, and was the produce vendor to the restaurant. He talked a blue streak and it was impossible to ignore him.
One of the highlights was our unplanned stop at Veteran’s Beach where the water revealed a most striking characteristic: though very transparent and shallow, there appeared to be a path unfettered by algae that winded itself in a non-descript form, and it was just too far in for me to see where it ended. Despite the warning against the dangerous Portuguese man o’ war, which was posted quite clearly at the parking area, I couldn’t resist throwing myself in with total abandon. In fact, the water was so clear, that I had lost the car key during my antics, and of course, this put Chuck in total panic. We returned to the water, following the path, and there was the key, totally visible from 5’4" above!!!
Some wealthy folks inhabit these parts, you know. On our way back, we did turn off at Key Largo and went past a huge marina with yachts that would make you cry. There was ongoing construction, of course, but we went to look at some of the inhabited real estate, part of which was waterfront property and the other faced a lagoon. Many of them looked unoccupied, and I imagined they must have been northeast just to escape the torrid heat. What was also quite eerie was driving down a strip of land and being completely surrounded by water on both sides: this becomes all the more dramatic on the 7 Mile Bridge. It’s as if you’ve reached the end of the world, and in a way, you are reaching the southernmost point on the US East Coast. It had us thinking about Cuba a lot.