The Florida Keys has always evoked images of pristine blue waters, great fun in the sun, and just a place to get away from your troubles in an atmosphere of where everything is laid back. Ever since the Beach Boys sang "Kokomo", I can picture myself relaxing underneath the sun, drinking a Pina Colada without a care in the world.
While most people prefer to fly into Key West or the smaller airport in Marathon, I actually prefer to fly into Miami and drive the 3-4 hours to Key West. Perhaps on a subsequent trip, I will fly into Key West, but being my first time I wanted to see it all. The drive allows you to do that. The Florida Keys are made up of over 1700 islands or keys as they are called. Most of the keys are uninhabitable and they extend from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas, which is seventy miles past Key West. The Keys are broken up into three classes, the Upper Keys, Middle Keys, and the Lower Keys.
The trip begins as you enter the tip of the Florida Peninsula on US Route 1. This route begins and ends (depending on how you are going) in Key West, eventually traveling up the eastern seaboard into Maine where it terminates at the Canadian border. The first stop is in Key Largo, part of the Upper Keys. There are numerous visitors’ centers where you can get brochures and book tours throughout the Florida Keys. Key Largo is known as the "Diving Capital of the World" and attracts millions of tourists every year ready to explore the living coral reefs off its shore. This is also a great place to grab a bite to eat and top off with gas.
US 1 in the Keys is also known as the Overseas Highway. This highway is a 127.5 mile long road that connects the Keys and includes the Seven-mile Bridge, connecting Knight’s Key to Little Duck Key. Before there were automobiles, the Overseas Highway was originally the Overseas Railroad. However, most of the railroad was destroyed during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Construction of the highway used the existing parts of the railroad. Over time, the road has been modernized and parts of the old road are still standing. Although closed to vehicular traffic, they are now used as walking paths or as piers to fish off of.
The Overseas Highway will take you over the rest of the five Keys in the Upper Keys going through the town of Islamorada as you enter the Middle Keys. The Middle and Lower Keys begin to get interesting names. You will begin to cross over Keys with names such as Conch Key, Crawl Key, Fat Deer Key, and Boot Key. Marathon is the third largest town in the keys and the halfway point between Key Largo and Key West. Marathon covers seven different keys and is also a great place to stop before continuing to Key West. We stopped off at Porky’s Bayside, which has great BBQ and a view of the water. Make sure you try a slice of their fried Key Lime Pie.
With one hour to go and Key West on the horizon, we entered the Lower keys, which contain more keys than the others. We crossed over No Name Key, Ramrod Key, Sugarloaf Key and Knockemdown Key. As you travel over these Keys, beware of the Key deer. They are an endangered species native to the Keys. Efforts have been made to protect these deer from being killed by moving vehicles by putting up barriers to prevent them from crossing the road. They are able to cross underneath the road instead. Although there are barriers, watch your speed in these protected areas as these roads are heavily patrolled. I was informed while I was there that seeing a Key deer is rare probably due to the low population. I never saw one and if you do see one, consider yourself lucky.
After the long but beautiful drive, we entered Key West, the southernmost city in the continental US. Although the road ends here, the Keys stretch for more than seventy miles past Key West to the Dry Tortugas, accessible only by boat.
Although, the drive from Key Largo to Key West is only 2 hours, set aside at least 4 hours for meal breaks, shopping, and some great picture taking. Each key is unique and although you won’t cross over every one, you can still access them by boat and if only for a little while, it can be your own private island.