The Florida Keys & Key West
The Florida Keys consists of a series of islands connected by Hwy 1 across stretches of ocean. At the end of the road is the famed town of Key West, a mere 90 miles from Cuba. To get there by car there is only Hwy 1 to use, a two lane road that few would call a highway. It is not a highway because there are numerous stops and towns along the way and when you add traffic that seldom ever goes higher than 50 mph, it explains why it will take at least two hours from Key Largo (a town at the start of Keys) to reach the end. From Miami, it is 160 long miles. Marathon is 111 miles from Miami and key Largo, 60 miles.
Hwy 1 crosses some 42 bridges over the sea connecting numerous little islands, the longest is the 7-mile bridge, some 35,000 ft. It is wondrous when crossing in a car over a ocean for so many miles. The Keys have five main areas: Key Largo, at the start, Islamorada, Marathon (the center), Lower keys and then Key West. For the most part, the road to Key west is rather uneventful and boring because in many sections you have little view of the ocean due to vegetation or low level buildings. The main towns are Islamorada and Marathon before Key West is entered. Both are small and between the two, Marathon has more to offer in scenic quality. It has one of the Keys best beaches, Sombrero Beach at the end of Sombrero Beach Rd from Hwy 1. It is a wonderful place with palms and restroom facilities. The water is 83 degrees. It also has one of the best restaurants at 7 Knights Rd. just before the 7-Mile bridge, just off to the left. The roof is thatched for a real tropical feeling and open air. After Marathon, there really is not much except nice views of vast ocean. The exception is Bahia Honda Key. This key does have the BEST beaches in all of the Keys at Bahia Honda State Park. The main beach once in the park is to your right. Very picturesque with restrooms and small concession stand. There is some limited hiking to the old rail bridge. If you veer to your left, there are longer beaches also with only restrooms. Once can wade out for 100 yds. because it is shallow. These beaches are seldom crowded.
There is a nice hotel in Marathon. We spent a night there for $80 and I would give it 3.5 stars. It had a kitchen, two beds and a pull-out overlooking a canal full of sailboats and a mile from Sombrero Beach. The Name is Boatman's Sombrero Hotel (see map).
From Marathon, which is central in the Keys, it still is almost an hour to Key West even though its 40 miles. If traveling on Hwy 1, the best time is early morning or night if you want to reduce travel time.
The end of the Keys is Key West town, which reminds one of a small New Orleans Mardi Gras section. The buildings are vintage from another era in many places, especially along Duval Street, which has many touristy things. Entering the town from Hwy 1 requires a decision: left or right. If you go left along South Roosevelt Blvd. it will take you along the ocean front boardwalk past Martello Tower, near the small airport and past Smathers beach (which is okay). After veering right and taking a left on Atlantic Blvd., you will see more beaches (Rest, Higgs, South, and eventually come to the old Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and boat docks. There are many tourist interests in and around Mallory Dock and Duval Street which is very near.
If you take a right after leaving Hwy 1, you will be on North Roosevelt Blvd. No beaches on this side but a lot shops and businesses that may be of interest. You can also reach the old Navy dock with a Coast Guard relic ship by continuing until White Street. Take a right and go down all the way. The Old historic seaport is there also.
Key West does have some high rises but overall they are few. Key West is an old town and it shows. Streets are narrow and it has an overall old look about it. It just reminds one of New Orleans French quarter. The atmosphere at night is party and there are lots of places to hang out and socialize. In the day, it can be a hub of recreation around the pier areas. The beaches are narrow but they are better than no beach! The water is multi-colored of blues and simply fantastic off Ft. Zachary. Parking in Key West is iffy. It is a real premium. Once you park, leave the car and simply walk all around, it is not that far from one side to the other. I like Key West better at night because it is hive of activity. During the day, between the heat and humidity, one just wants to get wet in the 84 degree water!
Weather on the Keys can change rapidly in a day or few hours. You might have sun and then clouds appear that will deluge you with rain for 20 minutes, clear up and be sunny again. Hey, its tropical!