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The Florida Keys: On The Overseas Highway

Assigned to write about the Florida Keys for our TourBook and online travel information, I stopped to explore several of the islands in the chain on my way to Key West, my final destination.  I was hoping to find some hidden treasures, the type that normally aren’t found in the standard travel guide but are worth checking out, if only for the sake of having a few good stories to tell your buddies back home. Here are a few highlights.

There are different ways one can travel to and/or through the Keys – you can fly into the airports at Marathon or Key West, but in my opinion, if you do that, you’re missing the point. Or you can really see these tropical isles, wending your way on two or four wheels down U.S. 1 (otherwise known as the Overseas Highway) on a leisurely road trip.

I prefer the second option: piloting an air-conditioned automobile, singing along to my Blondie CDs (not exactly Jimmy Buffett, but “The Tide Is High” is about as tropical as my taste in music permits) and taking in the sights is much more enjoyable than sitting in a stuffy airplane. 

Before I reach my first stop, Key Largo, I see the highway’s concrete barriers are painted a refreshing shade of aqua, a sign that things are different in the Keys. Later, I discover that the barriers were added in 2008 and that the color (Belize blue) was handpicked by Wyland, an artist well-known for his vivid, lifelike paintings of marine creatures.

Key Largo lies between mile markers 91-107. To many people, this town’s name automatically brings to mind the 1948 movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I had heard that part of the movie was filmed at the Caribbean Club, a lounge still standing today (mile marker 104). Of course, I had to go check it out, if only to walk on the same ground as Bogey and Bacall. The “Crib” (as the locals call it) is small and nondescript, except for the large blue and white sign outside that screams the club’s name and claim to fame.

I walked inside and took a look around – sure enough, the bar was filled with Bogart and Bacall memorabilia, and there was a small statue of Bogie guarding the back door. The rest of the decor was standard-issue dive bar with a few tables and chairs, a small stage where barefoot guitarists play, and a pool table: nothing fancy.  I reached for my camera, and that’s when I thought I heard a few comments coming from the bar area, something about how tourists come in to take pictures without buying a drink. Oops; my bad. But I get it: I’m sure that tourists come here all the time, walk in, snap a few pictures and leave without buying a drink or saying a word. Since the late 1930s, the Club has been a hangout for locals who probably feel like this is their second home, and I can see how this sort of behavior might be somewhat insulting. (In my own defense, it was the middle of the day, a time when I usually don’t drink anything stronger than Coca-Cola, and I didn’t have a lot of time to waste, but I guess I could have plopped down a couple of bucks for a soda. Besides, I bet the regulars have some good stories to tell.)

So if you’re looking for some genuine Keys atmosphere, pull up a barstool and stay awhile (but don’t forget to buy a drink or two; Bogie probably bought his share.) And don’t forget to check out the postcard setting behind the club, where you’ll find Florida Bay and boat docks as far as the eye can see; I saw folks docking their boats and walking up to the club, most likely to quench their thirst with an ice-cold brew. Sounds like quite the life, doesn’t it?

A highlight of my trip, emphasis on the word light, was observing a sunset, Key Largo-style. If you asked most people where to see sunsets in the Keys, Key West would probably be the first place mentioned. Many visitors to the Keys watch the well-hyped sunset there, but while it’s quite lovely, the crowds and performers at Mallory Square detract from what I think should be a quiet, awe-inspiring experience. Not so in Key Largo, where you can enjoy nature’s show without feeling like a canned sardine.

I discovered this serendipitously as dusk approached on a lovely evening, when I just happened to be traipsing around the grounds of the Marriott Key Largo Bay Resort near its Breezer’s Tiki Bar (mile marker 103.8). There were only a handful of people around; a couple on a bench, a few kids under a tiki hut. I looked toward the still waters of the bay, and the sun began its graceful descent toward the horizon. The palm trees and tiki huts that bordered the bay became black silhouettes as the sky took on a heavenly gold and peach glow. It was the quietly awesome experience I had been hoping for.

Another moment that stands out was my encounter with a Key deer. On my last trip, I had driven through Big Pine Key, land of the diminutive deer, but to my dismay I spied not a one. An endangered species, Key deer are the smallest race of deer in North America, only 25-30 inches in height at the shoulder. There are only 700-800 in existence and they can only be found in the Florida Keys, primarily at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. The deer often venture out of their safe habitats to forage on nearby roadsides and sometimes approach people for handouts, but about 30-40 a year are killed by motor vehicles while crossing the roads. As a result, it is illegal to feed them, the speed limit on US 1 in Big Pine Key is 35 mph and I was hyper-vigilant about my driving.

Driving south on US 1, I turned onto Key Deer Boulevard and drove slowly, keeping my eyes peeled for an adorable deer.  To my surprise, it didn’t take very long at all. On the opposite side of the street, I saw one foraging through the scrub and munching on some fresh greens. I pulled over on my side of the road, parked the car, grabbed my camera and waited for traffic to clear before I crossed the road. I was pretty certain that the deer would run off as soon as she saw me, but she stayed right where she was, slowly moving every now and then to another green patch. She shyly glanced at me from time to time with gorgeous brown eyes (probably looking to see if I had any food) and I stayed a distance away.

I just wanted to stare at this beautiful creature for as long as I could and I didn’t want her to run off. After a minute or so of standing very still and holding my breath, I slowly and carefully took a few photos. The deer started to move further into the scrub and I pressed the shutter release several more times, wanting to capture this moment forever. And then she was gone. I don’t believe I have ever felt such inner peace, quiet bliss and just plain awe as I did right then. Thank you, deer.   Read more Florida Keys blogs's Florida Keys Travel Guide provides a destination overview, suggested activities, restaurants, attractions and nightlife, and top picks and recommendations from AAA's professional travel editors.
  • charles rinehart

    A really great article. I have been visiting the Florida Keys since 1994, and their is so many things to see and do. It is the perfect place for a weekend or a vacation. Just beautiful in the Keys. All the best.

  • Charles Rinehart

    [b]I also want to add my recommendations on things to do in the Florida Keys. My two favorite places to eat are the Cracked Conch Restaurant in Marathon and the Conch Republic Seafood Company at the Key West Seaport. The seafood chowder is incredible at the Conch Republic. The red. Also don’t miss stopping at Robbie’s to feed the giant tarpon at the boat dock. Bahia Honda State Park is another must stop. Just a spectacular place. And if you have time, go on a party boat deep sea fishing for at least a 4 hour trip. Very affordable prices too. You’ll love it. Take care.[/b]

  • David Ralph

    The florida keys are a special place indeed. I had to visit them for work back in 1986, and being born and bread in New York, I felt that the pace was too slow for me.

    However, the charm of the Keys is you can select any pace of life you want from feeding the tarpon at Robbies, to great gamfishing in Islamorada, I have even drunk a few at a great New York style bar on Duval Street Key West.

    I am planning to move to Duck Key shortly, and for one will look forward to the life… is paradise


  • Dan Hawkins

    My family and I visited the Florida Keys on the first week of Jan. 2012. It was our first time visiting the Keys and what a great experience. We visited some of the breathtaking state parks and visited Key West. The Keys have so much to offer for a new visitor, it can be somewhat overwhelming. Below are some things we did that may give you some ideas when you plan your trip to the Keys.
    Our home base in the Keys was Marathon. It is in the center of the Florida Keys and the starting point of the famed seven mile bridge. Marathon is known as a fisherman’s paradise. It has a lot of things to do. You can snorkel over its offshore coral reef, kayak, jet ski, fish or just sit back and relax on it’s beautiful beaches.
    Sombrero Beach located on the Atlantic side of the island. This beach is beautifully maintained and offers handicap accessible amenities such as a new playground, showers, restrooms, and nicely shaded barbeque pavilions that you can have a picnic and enjoy the day. The parking at Sombrero Beach is free. One thing we enjoyed doing was looking at the coral that is on the edge of the beach. Look in the holes and you can see fossils of sea creatures from long ago. What a unique experience. You can also rent a kayak, or easily put in your own, and kayak and go through Boot Key. It provides many hours of exploring the wild habitat of Florida’s mangroves. (I recommend you get a tour if you can as you can get lost hours in the groves, although many of the trails are marked to help prevent this.). We really enjoyed the trip so much that I started to blog about on my website

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