There are three ways to get to Key West, by air, by water, or by the most gorgeous stretch of highway we have traveled in years. Homestead is the jumping off spot from the Florida mainland. Several years ago Hurricane Andrew devastated this region, particularly the town of Homestead. We did notice that many buildings, signs, utility poles and traffic lights looked “new”, or rather all seemed to be the same age. The community had done a good job of recovery.
After Homestead we had a dramatic change of scenery as we crossed the swamp. At one time the Everglades National Park border was the west shoulder of the highway. Many sections of the highway were long no passing zones. Apparently this is disturbing to the majority of drivers down here. The DOT had put out a series of Burma Shave type signs to humorously let people know how many more miles till the next passing zone. Leaving the swamp we drove on a long causeway. Most of the time tall shrubs (mangrove) blocked the view of Barnes Sound. Occasionally we could see the dark blue choppy waters. Road signs had warned us that in case of storms this causeway would be closed and access to the keys would be from the Card Sound Road Toll Bridge only.
At the end of the causeway was Key Largo. I visited here with my parents in 1961 and remember only having Key Lime pie. I can see why. This key is one of the largest and doesn’t seem much like an island from the highway. Mostly it seems like a business district. We stopped for a travel break at a Waffle House. The coffee is very good, and if it is lunch time, I highly recommend the “scattered and smothered”. On the road again we soon crossed the first of 42 bridges connecting the Florida Keys on Highway 1 between Key Largo and Key West. We both were stunned to see the color of the water. It is shallow and calm and a startling shade of aqua/turquoise. Osprey commonly build nests on top of tall poles stuck out in the water. We have often referred to them as bird-on-a-stick. The brown pelican is ubiquitous in the keys. We saw them in the air, on the water and on the bridges. They perched on the rails of the narrow highway bridges despite heavy traffic. Some of the abandoned bridge sections appeared to be rookeries, lots of birds and lots of bird poop. Homes and fishing camps dot the islands. Some are quite rustic, others quite sophisticated. Marathon is the most “normal” island, meaning it has gas stations that are recognizable and a McDonalds and supermarkets. There were more bridges and smaller islands in the Lower Keys. If you came here on a long vacation, you would have to like boating, fishing, or watching the water. Of course reading, napping and watching the water are good alternatives. There aren’t many tourist attractions, which is not such a bad thing. Mile markers are important locaters where driveways are hidden from view by shrubs and mangroves. We did see a few beach access points, but they don’t have a lot of advance warning, so know your mile marker. Another driveway locater is the manatee or dolphin mailboxes. Made of molded concrete these whimsical statues added a comical touch to our drive.
Ollie’s is a seafood restaurant on Islamorada Key that is worth the stop. The staff were friendly and there was a sense of family. I had two huge crab cakes that were delicious. You can arrive by boat or car. You also can have a view of the highway and the waterway from the same table. Another rest stop on this island, is at a well advertised (think Wall Drug) place called Key Lime Products. It was a fun gift shop stocked with all things Key Lime. I bought a tin of Key Lime coolers. They are small cookies with powdered sugar coating, lime flavor and they melt in your mouth.