There really isn’t one Florida Key more beautiful than another, but if you make the drive down US-1 (the Overseas Highway) through the entire chain you get to see the little differences that make each one unique. Sure, you can fly into Key West, and for many that is the best way to get there, but if you can make the drive you really see what Keys life is all about.
Forget the GPS, the mechanical voice will be mostly silent. Navigation down through the Keys is so simple: follow the road south to the mile marker (MM) you want, and any stop you make will be either ocean side on the left, or bay side on the right.
Key Largo, the largest of the chain, at the top and closest to Miami, is a bit like keys light; a quick and close Keys experience that offers many bigger city comforts. But it is also home to John Pennekamp State Park, where the largest living coral reef in North America makes it a diving and snorkeling paradise. Pennekamp park is fairly small on land but vast underwater, and the snorkeling trip they offer is well worth the money.
Islamorada, starting at about MM82, is a village made up of Tea Table Key, Lower Matecumbe Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Windley Key and Plantation Key. Spanish explorers called Islamorada thepurple island, and with its tarpon mascot, the Islamorada chain has made its reputation as a fishing destination. When you’re in Islamorada you’re in the company of some of the best offshore and backcountry anglers in the world.
Have lunch at Lorelei, MM82 bayside, and with any luck you’ll get to see a manatee drinking from a garden hose—one year we learned just how much manatee love fresh water as we watched a Lorelei employee let a manatee drink its fill, just like giving a bottle to a baby.
On Lower Matecumbe, at the southern end of Islamorada, we rented a boat for the afternoon from Robbie’s Marina. We left the tourists feeding the giant resident tarpon from the docks and motored out on a perfectly flat ocean to a reef named Chica Rocks. Schools of docile Queen Angelfish, an endangered Hawksbill turtle, a smiling and curious Porcupinefish, and the phantom-like Barracuda kept us busy as we swam around the shallow coral heads. Out on waters calm and clear and under a brilliant blue sky, our picnic lunch never tasted better. On the return trip to the docks we were followed by two Bottlenose dolphin—the highlight of everyone’s day.
The Spanish named Bahia Honda Key deep bay, and at Bahia Honda State Park we rented kayaks to paddle out to a small rocky island. We explored the tidal pools and snorkeled the shallow turquoise water while enjoying the view looking back at the remnants of the overseas railroad from offshore. The waters are full of sponge, soft corals, sea fans and you can explore the turtle grass beds for hours and see only a fraction of the tiny creatures that live there. Bahia Honda has one of the few sandy beaches in the Keys, and its seemingly international popularity can make it a crowded place to visit. I think we were the only English speakers other than the employees of the park. I heard languages I could not even identify at MM37.
Big Pine Key, starting at about MM33, is the main home of the endangered Key Deer. Don’t get a speeding ticket on Big Pine. They’ll be watching you pass through. Road kill is the biggest killer of these miniature cousins to the white-tail, and besides, if you’re in a hurry to get to Key West, you’re missing the whole point, so go back and read the first paragraph. I saw a bumper sticker there that I liked. It read Slow Down, This Ain’t The Mainland.
I never worry about speeding tickets in the Keys. My biggest driving infraction there would be going too slow.
When you finally get to Key West, MM0 and the Southernmost Point, your experience can be fast or slow, noisy, quiet, crowded and secluded. A great visit to the Conch Republic is all of this, and a great visit anywhere in the Keys is all in the details.
And that is another story altogether.
August 11th, 2012