Driving Through the Keys - Orlando / Florida Guide
Florida Guide > Travelling
If you have time, the drive down from Miami to Key West is one not to miss, particularly the crossing of Seven Mile Bridge, The Keys are home to the longest living coral reef in the western hemisphere, and there are more dive shops per square mile than anywhere else in the world. If you like snorkelling then the Keys have crystal clear waters that enable snorkellers to swim along the surface and look down into a fascinating panorama below. From Miami, you can either take US Highway 1 all the way down to the Keys, or take the Florida Turnpike and join Highway 1 at Florida City.
Key West is the southernmost point of the USA, but before you reach it you will have to cross 42 bridges over the sea, including the famous Seven Mile Bridge – but that, alone, is worth the drive. Key West is approximately 159 miles from Miami, and just over 90 miles to Cuba, and the road is quite narrow, frequently with no passing allowed, so allow plenty of time for this visual feast. In peak holiday times this road can become very busy and can slow you down considerably, particularly as you try to return to Miami it can be literally nose to tail. Parts of the road do not allow overtaking, either, and this can slow you down. On the way to Key West you will drive through Key Largo, Tavernier, Islamorada, Marathon, Lower Keys, and Big Pine Key.
Key Largo, called the ‘Dive Capital of the World’, is first, with the Everglades National Park. To the west are the tranquil waters of Florida Bay, whilst to the east are the clear blue waters of the Gulf Stream, and the nation’s only living coral reef. If you want information, then stop off at the Florida Keys Visitor Centre, where there is a picnic area, clean restrooms, plenty of maps and lots of information on restaurants, diving and snorkelling, shopping water sports, accommodation etc.
On the way you will see the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and Key Largo National Maritime Sanctuary. Those who enjoy diving can explore the 510ft USS Spiegel Grove, which is the largest wreck you can dive down to in US waters. This large ship was purposely scuttled in order to create a new reef for divers. Almost as soon as it was sunk, the ship began to attract marine life, such as groupers and shoals of colourful tropical fish. Marine experts are hoping that natural corals will eventually envelop the Spiegel Grove. There are daily snorkel and scuba trips, glass bottom boat tours, sailing and canoe and kayak rentals. If you like fishing then you can chase tarpon or bonefish. But if you like dolphins then you can visit one of the educational dolphin facilities, and interact one-to-one with the bottleneck dolphins there.
Tavernier, a historic place with nature trails and dolphins, is also the final resting place of the ‘African Queen.’ This boat was the used in John Houston’s classic film of the same name, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, and you can see it free of charge.
Islamorada is next, called the ‘Sport Fishing Capital of the World.’ You can try your hand at fishing for Mahi-mahi, Tuna, Sailfish, Groupers, Wahoo and Snappers but I would suggest stopping off at the ‘Theater of the Sea,’ which is a marine mammal adventure park, with stingrays, dolphin and sea lions, set within 17 acres of lush tropical gardens. You can see live performances of dolphins, and sea lions. For an extra charge you can join a special Marine Mammal Swim Program, and get close to dolphins, sea lions and sting rays. You can learn all about them, and then get in the water to swim and play with a dolphin or a sea lion.
We stopped off at the Bayview Motel, on Conch Keys, just past Long Key Bridge at Mile Marker 63. Made famous by a British television programme about living in Florida, this run down motel was purchased by a British couple seeking the good life. It was fascinating to see what they had done to the place, and how enthusiastic they still were about their new life, despite the many difficulties they encountered. However, the place still needed a lot doing to it, and the renovation work did not appear to be of a very high standard. We have often wondered if they ever completed this mammoth task, or gave up and went back to the UK. We sat on the dock behind the motel sipping a cool drink, and we were fortunate enough to see a large manatee glide gently into the dock. This fascinating and gentle creature stayed for a while, allowing us to get really close, before it turned tail and slipped out into open.
Marathon, is situated at the mid point of the Florida Keys island chain, and has a small airport. Sombrero Reef is one of the most beautiful sections of the natural coral reefs of the Keys. At the north eastern end of the town there is Crane Point Hammock, a 64 acre area of historic sites, museums, walking trails, tropical trees and wild flowers. At Pigeon Key you can see the tiny island that was home to those who built Flagler’s railway. The Dolphin Research Center and the Turtle Hospital are working to preserve two of Florida’s most famous marine creatures.
Here you will also find the famous Seven Mile Bridge, a stunning piece of engineering that seems to stretch forever, and which is the longest segmented bridge in the world. You won’t be able to resist stopping to take in the view of this fantastic bridge which appears to go on forever. There are places where you can stop and take photos. It is certainly an experience to be driving along it, with water on either side, as far as the eye can see.
Built between 1979 and 1982, Seven Mile Bridge is actually 35862 ft, or 6.79 miles long, and passes over a channel between the Florida Strait and the Gulf of Mexico. Constructed of concrete, it has 440 spans. The original bridge, constructed between 1909 and 1912 was badly damaged in a hurricane, but you can still see parts of it, which are used as fishing piers. The new bridge is stunning, and near the centre it rises in an arc to provide 65 ft clearance for boats to sail under. It has been used in several films, including Licence to Kill and Close up and Personal, so you may well have seen it before, without realising.
The Lower Keys are unspoilt, and begin soon after you leave the famous Seven Mile Bridge, as the chain of islands turns west. Duck Key is home to the Veterans Memorial Park, and here you can find sandy beaches and picnic area, so it is a great place to stop off. A little further on you will find the Bahia Honda State Park and Recreation Area, which has white sandy beaches and abundant wildlife. Bahia Honda Key is often listed as one of the most beautiful beaches in America. Big Pine Key, at marker 33, is the main shopping hub of the Lower Keys, but there is solitude, too, in the National Key Deer Refuge. It is a beautiful and peaceful park, which is home to the beautiful little deer which stand only 2 1/2 ft tall.
Your drive will finally end, at the cosmopolitan and enchanting city of Key West, which we always find fascinating. Just 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, it is the last of the keys, and has a population of 25,000. Here there are palm lined streets, tin roofed conch houses, gingerbread mansions, and the home of Ernest Hemmingway, museums, the Conch train, and restaurants and small shops galore. It is slow moving and relaxed, a place where T-shirts are the norm – no need to dress up here! It’s usually far too hot anyway.
It is always a pleasure to visit, with its busy little streets, and sparkling white and pastel painted wooden houses. The classically built 19th century houses are designed to combat the heat and humidity of the region. With their wide porches, shutters and overhanging roofs they allow the cool breezes to circulate. We like to take a leisurely walk along the various streets to look at these beautiful houses. It is the T-shirt capital of the world, and everywhere there are small shops bulging with all sizes, colours and prints, and you may want to spend a little time exploring the shops and boutiques.
However, it is Key West’s quaintness which is so interesting. Exotic tropical plants, and trees abound, and the houses are individual and unique, lovingly restored and beautifully painted. For us, each time we visit it yields new delights, another quaint house, the delicious ice cream, or perhaps time spent browsing amongst the souvenirs in the Conch Train Shop. It is refreshingly cool in there, which can be a relief as we have always found Key West to be blisteringly hot. However, at night there are street artists, jugglers, musicians and the whole city comes alive in a different way.
There are loads of things to do in Key West, including seeing Ernest Hemmingway's house, still with its vast collection of six-toed cats, The Little White House, where President Harry S Truman used to spend time, the many museums, including the Mel Fisher Museum, and no trip to Key West would be complete without a ride on either the Conch Train or the Trolley.
The only downside is that it can get very busy with cruise ships, which frequently dock here, and as it is a small town, based mainly around Mallory Square, it can be a bit crowded. However, the ships are usually long gone by mid afternoon, so it should not be too much of a problem.
Even if you can’t do the full journey to Key West, don’t miss driving along the Seven Mile Bridge – it is truly an experience to savour - and don't forget to try delicious Key Lime Pie.
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