Marking the miles to Key West

by Jon Surmacz on July 29, 2005

Bill Ford believes the 160-mile journey along U.S. Highway 1 from Miami to Key West is “just about the only decent road trip in the entire state of Florida.” And he ought to know. Ford used to run Harley-Davidson motorcycle tours from Orlando to the Southernmost City, and he says there’s “a real cult aspect” to the drive.

Maybe it’s the feeling that when you’re crossing the bridges from key to key, you’re riding on water. (It isn’t called the “Overseas Highway” for nothing.) Maybe it’s the legendary hangouts along the way, where crusty locals mix with weekend tourists — weathered institutions like Alabama Jack’s near Key Largo, Lorelei’s in Islamorada and Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.

Then again, maybe it’s the danger.

The drive starts with an unexpected adrenaline rush: a harrowing trip down an 18-mile, mostly two-lane strip of asphalt between Florida City and the islands called “The Stretch.” It isn’t uncommon for cars to zoom past you here at speeds topping 100 miles per hour. But more often than not, it’s a stop-and-go caravan of slow-moving campers, rental convertibles, and pickups hauling fishing boats. (If you want to avoid the mess, take Card Sound Road, which is more scenic, anyway.)

Highway 1 widens into four lanes at about Mile Marker 106, where you’re met with the next hazard: a speed trap. They don’t warn you about this in any of the tourist brochures, but they should.

There are other, more welcome, thrills in the Upper Keys. Like coming face to face with a barracuda or a nurse shark while snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, off Key Largo (Mile Marker 102.5). Or getting up close and personal with ospreys, pelicans and herons at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, in Tavernier (Mile Marker 93.6). Most motorists fly past these attractions on their way to Key West, oblivious to the excitement they’re missing.

Four lanes merge back into two as you continue down the road, and the highway remains a two-lane road for most of the rest of the trip. Squeezing all that traffic into two lanes makes things interesting. There are two kinds of motorists here — the ones who are in a hurry and the ones who aren’t — and they don’t always play nice together. It’s not unusual to see a rental car try to get around a slower truck by leaving the road and passing from the right, churning dust and pebbles in every direction.

Islamorada offers another kind of trap: the tourist trap. The World Wide Sportsman, a 26,000-square-foot mega-mall for outdoors enthusiasts, stands between you and the lower keys. Inside its cavernous retail space, you can tour the 46-foot sister ship to Ernest Hemingway’s sport-fishing boat Pilar and ogle tarpon and bonefish swimming in a giant aquarium. There are three restaurants on the property, all specializing in seafood.

If you want to get closer to the fish without eating them or chartering a boat, head a little farther south, past Mile Marker 78, to Robbie’s Marina, where you can feed a school of more than a hundred tarpon from a dock. This looks a lot easier than it is. You have to be careful because when you dangle a sardine above these hungry creatures, they tend to launch their 50-pound bodies out of the water to snatch the food from your fingers. Remember to let go of the bait.

South of Islamorada, the road carries you through a mesmerizing landscape. As you cross over the bridges linking the keys, the views become increasingly picturesque: a turquoise Atlantic Ocean on your left, an emerald Florida Bay on the right, each stretching away into to infinity. Overhead, a deep-blue sky holds a few puffy white clouds. The cars move along southwestward in a relatively orderly fashion, but then some driver will inevitably be smitten by the scenery and veer into the median.

In fact, it’s easy to go into a kind of trance and miss some of the attractions in this middle stretch of the Keys. Long Key State Park, in Layton (Mile Marker 67.5), is practically hidden on the ocean side of the island at the beginning of a long straightaway that leads on to one of the prettiest bridges in the Keys, the Long Key Viaduct. The Crane Point Museum of Natural History, in Marathon (Mile Marker 50.5), is easy to overlook, too. But try not to. It’s the kind of attraction where you could happily spend half a day exploring the exhibits and nature trails.

And then, magnificent before you: the Seven Mile Bridge. This is the longest and arguably the most scenic of the 42 spans on the Overseas Highway. On some days, you can’t see the end of the road. The sky and the sea merge into a collage of blues, and you feel the road might carry you clear across the Florida Straits to Cuba and beyond.

Resist the temptation to speed up here, because you’re about to cross onto Big Pine Key, home of the rare Key deer. These relatives of the Virginia white-tailed deer are about the size of large dogs, and they’re extremely friendly. A little too friendly, maybe. Every year, despite strict speed limits, dozens of these gentle creatures are struck by cars. There are said to be only about 750 Key deer left on the planet — most of them on this island and its little neighbor, No Name Key.
Make one more stop before you get to the Southernmost City, down at Mile Marker 17. Next to the Sugarloaf Motel-Sugar Loaf Lodge you’ll find Perky’s Bat Tower, a 50-foot structure built to attract bats, which were supposed to eat the island’s ubiquitous mosquitoes. It didn’t work, and now the tower is nothing more than a gee-whiz photo opportunity along the road.

Key West brings you to the end of the drive at Mile Marker 0. Every other week, some tourist tries to steal the “MM 0″ sign as a memento of his visit to the Keys. If you try to continue this tradition and fail, you may end up taking a walk directly across the street — to the historic Monroe County Courthouse, where you can tell the tale of your fine Florida road trip directly to the judge.

Christopher Elliott

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