The Overseas Highway | Road Trip the Florida Keys
So you want to visit Key West but don't want to pay the high price to fly directly in? Maybe you are just one of those people who feel there is no better way to experience America than by driving across it. If you fall in one of these categories, there are few drives more beautiful that than of the Overseas Highway which traverses through the Florida Keys.
The distance from Key Largo to Key West is about 100 miles and will take you approximately two hours. That is of course if you drive straight through. For those who want to enjoy the experience, here is a detail of some sites along the way and must-do's where the road ends. Join along as we make your trip an adventure rather than just another long car ride.
As you drive down the Dixie highway out of Miami you will cross out upon the open ocean and see signs identifying the Overseas Highway. Consisting of a patchwork of roads connected with the remains of early 20th century oil baron Henry Flagler's Overseas Railway bridges, the road will carry you through island by island all the way down US Route 1. Mile marker signs will count down the distance to Key West, which is officially Mile Marker 0 and the end of the road.
While the Florida Keys consist of over 1700 islands, more frequently referred to as "keys", only a small percentage are accessible by bridge- 43 at last count. These land masses are actually the remains of ancient coral reefs that have been exposed as a result of lowered ocean levels. Their isolation has lead to the evolution of plant and animal species that are found nowhere else in the world.
The first main area you will encounter is that of Key Largo, which is the largest of Florida's Keys. The majority of this key is actually northeast of the Overseas Highway and would require a left turn once you get into Key Largo instead of a right towards Key West. This northern area is mainly home to protected land, much of which is not accessible to tourists.
For those with the time to spend, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park offers incredible scenery, most of which is below the waterline. Named the first undersea park in the United States, it is part of that which has been dubbed the 'Diving Capital of the World'. Over a million visitors a year come from far and wide to experience a living reef which covers over 175 square miles.
For those with the skill and determination, the statue deemed 'Christ of the Abyss' sits in 25 feet of water about eight miles off of shore. The 4000 lb bronze sculpture is one of the most visited underwater attractions on earth and a must see if diving the area.
Have you ever been to the Florida Keys?
Robbie's Marina - Islamorada
Driving further south you will arrive in Islamorada, which consists of six keys. Just as Key Largo deems itself the 'Diving Capital of the World'. Islamorada likes to term itself ' The Sport Fishing Capital of the World'. Rarely will you travel more than a few minutes without seeing a marina stocked with professional guides willing and eager to take you out on the water for a tour.
Since you are already passing by it, there is one stop that must in Islamorada. Signs touting Robbie's Marina scream for you to stop and "Feed the Tarpon"! For those not familiar with what that means, a tarpon is a species of saltwater fish that grows up to eight feet long and have been known to reach a weight of over 250 pounds. Their existence can be traced back to pre-historic times.
As legend has it, Robbie and his wifev helped to save the life of a tarpon that had been spotted off his dock with a cut jaw. Enlisting the help of a doctor friend, the jaw was stitched up and a full recovery was made. The fish not only came back to visit (and eat) everyday after that point, but brought friends who continued the trend. Now everyday there is a group of over 100 that continue to hang around each day for a free dinner.
For an admission of $1, and $3 buckets of fish, visitors to Robbie's are given the chance to feed these large mouthed residents and watch as they jump out of the water for a feeding. Not to be outdone, hungry pelicans show up in force to coax a meal also. While the signs ask you not to feed these beggars it turns out to be irresistible to most participants.
Kids will love this cheap entertainment and you will undoubtedly come away with some good pictures.
The Turtle Hospital- Marathon
Situated in the middle of the Florida Keys on seven islands sits the city of Marathon. Over 10,000 residents call this area home, including 4,500 + who reside in houseboats. The city boasts many family activities from golfing, fishing, snorkeling, to spending a relaxing day at Sombrero Beach, a tucked away favorite among residents.
Among the facilities in town there sits a hospital which serves a specialized inhabitant of the Keys. 'The Turtle Hospital' is situated along the side of the road in Marathon on the Overseas Highway. Founded in 1986, the facility utilizes an old abandoned roadside motel and bar to rescue, rehabilitate, and release turtles into the wild which have been injured from boat rudders, ingested plastics or other medical afflictions such as tumors.
For parents with kids, this is another must see. The tour is well thought out and takes visitors through a detailed presentation followed by a trip to the operating room and then the "guest" rooms which house tanks full of recovering turtles. It is heartwarming to see the work put in by workers, many of which are volunteers.
Over 1500 turtles have been helped by this facility and it continues to find new ways to contribute to the well being of the species. Researchers utilize the facility to find new ways to help endangered populations. For anyone interested they provide a regular newsletter to keep track of residents and their successful rehabilitation.
Seven Mile Bridge- Knight's Key to Little Duck Key
While the 'Seven Mile Bridge' is not technically that long, it runs in parallel to it's predecessor which was built in the early 20th century as a way for trains to reach Key West. The 'Overseas Railway' as it was termed operated for years until the effects of Hurricanes rendered it unusable and the funds were not available to repair it. For years after, this section of the railway carried traffic both ways on a harrowing journey in which the width of the road was barely enough for two cars.
In 1983 the new and improved rendition was completed, thereby ending service on the original. Wider and safer than it's predecessor, travelers are now able to make the drive without a white knuckle grip and both eyes glued on the road. In fact, one cannot help but look left to glance out over the water and admire the scenery. A quick peek to the right and you will be able to see the Overseas Railway in parallel.
If observant, one will notice on entire section of the old bridge missing as you cross over. For the movie buff you will note that this was blown up for the movie "True Lies" with Arnold Schwarzenegger. There are obviously no plans to connect the bridge together again. Other notable films that have used the engineering marvel are Mission Impossible III, License to Kill, and 2 Fast 2 Furious.
National Key Deer Refuge- Big Pine Key
As you cross into Big Pine Key you will notice multiple signs and lights instructing you to slow down. A 30MPH speed limit is strictly enforced during nighttime hours by an ever present police presence. Along the side of the road you will notice large fences meant to keep animals safe from the danger of the roadway. All of this is an effort to protect the last remaining members of the Key Deer species which number less than 800.
Established in 1957, the Refuge consists of 9,200 acres that were set aside to not only protect Key Deer but also other endangered species. Large swaths of land are kept in their wild state to help stabilize populations.
To the visitor, there are many opportunities to look for residents of Big Pine and No Name Key on marked trails roads. A visitor center provides maps and personal representatives that can help plan a tour of the area. While you will not always be successful in seeing the deer, especially during the day, you will most likely see other residents. One pond is known to house alligators and if they are there it will not be hard to spot them.
You've made it! Your 110 mile expedition down the length of the Overseas Highway was successful and you have now arrived in a place many consider paradise - Key West. Be aware that the atmosphere is very infectious and once you arrive it will be hard to leave it behind.
Your first stop should take you to the corner of South and Whitehead Streets for a picture opportunity that few who visit Key West pass up. The Southernmost Point Marker proclaims a distance of a mere 90 miles to Cuba via the ocean tides. Visitors line up at almost all times of day to take a picture next to an old sewer junction that was painted to look like a large buoy. While it is not actually at the Southernmost point, it is the furthest a tourist can get to it as other areas are not accessible.
Driving back up the road towards downtown Key West you will pass the home of one of the city's most famous residents. The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is open to tourists year round. For a $13 adult admission ($6 kids) you can explore the home and gardens of one of America's most famous authors. During your tour you will no doubt come into contact with one of the over 40 six toed cats that are descendants of Hemingway's original cat, Snowball.
Further down the road you will come to the place where the action is. Duvall Street in Downtown Key West is a playground for adults and kids alike with restaurants, bars, live music, and of course, street performers. Jimmy Buffet opened his first Margaritaville here in 1985 and it continues to draw visitors nationwide. With a menu consisting of island inspired dishes and drinks, it is a great place to stop to soak in the atmosphere.
Due to it's proximity, the town also touts authentic Cuban food restaurants to satisfy your hunger. A personal favorite is that of El Mason de Pepe which is located in Mallory Square down on the water. The food is incredible and the ambiance is no less striking with the inside made to look like a Cuban town. The kids will enjoy getting their picture taken in faceless cutouts that transform them into character.
The Sunset Festival- Key West
After dinner you will inevitably spill out into the middle of the action down in Mallory Square, the official 'Home of the Sunset'. Every day of the year residents and tourists alike gather to celebrate another day in paradise as they look out to see the sun set over the water.
In addition to the natural beauty, there is a multitude to entertainment provided by street performers. Rarely will you find an area that matches the sheer number of acts that flood Mallory Square as the sun sets.
Musicians, clowns, magicians, comedians, mimes, and artists combine with trained animal acts to keep visitors occupied. For their time you will always find a bucket or a hat moving around the circle afterwards in search of tips. With the crowds that flock to Key West year round, and the fact this is a nightly event, many of these performers make their living by entertaining crowds.
Overall, if making the trip to Key West, make sure to at least make the drive down from Miami. With the scenery and things to do along the way you will find the trip to be more than worth it.