The state of mind known as the Florida Keys

Tour: The 800 small islands extending from Florida's southern tip provide their own kind of laid-back pleasure.

Destination: Florida

April 08, 2001|By Kathryn Straach | Kathryn Straach,Dallas Morning News

The Florida Keys -- U.S. 1 from Humphrey Bogart's Key Largo down to Ernest Hemingway's Key West -- is the laid-back land of sunset celebrations, conch and Key lime pie.

Sea breezes from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean tickle palm trees and tanned skin. And deep blue water is never far from the horizon. Here, you'll find plenty of hammocks -- both hardwood and soft weave. The chain, consisting of about 800 islands, is more than an addendum to the state of Florida. It is a state of mind.

Mom-and-pop stores and restaurants thrive, and nautical themes dominate. If you've come here for miniature golf, bungee jumping, amusement rides, water parks or go-cart tracks, you'll be disappointed. Fun is found in nature. The setting offers abundant fishing, boating, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, hiking and wildlife viewing.

And the farther southwest you drive, the more laid-back and carefree you become. Must be something about changes in latitude, changes in attitude, as singer Jimmy Buffett would say.

My husband and I came here to celebrate an anniversary. We could have flown into Marathon or Key West, but why miss exploring this string of islands? Driving U.S. 1, which links many of the keys with 42 bridges, is part of the adventure. Besides, the drive gives visitors plenty of time to shift into the Key West frame of mind.

U.S. 1 begins in Fort Kent, Maine, and ends in Key West, Fla. The southernmost leg is the 126-mile Overseas Highway, which starts just south of Florida City.

Each mile along the route is noted in descending order with a green mile marker on the right shoulder. The signs end at mile marker 0 -- MM0 -- at the corner of Fleming and Whitehead streets in Key West.

The highway follows the trail blazed by Henry Flagler when he extended his Florida East Coast Railroad from Miami to Key West. The seven-year project was completed in 1912, but a hurricane in 1935 put the railroad out of business. The Overseas Highway was completed in 1938 and incorporates a few of the original railway spans.

Although beauty is never far away, some sections of the drive are more postcard-perfect than others. In some places, the road is so narrow that ocean is on one side while the gulf is on the other. You'll also see abundant RV parks and campsites, fast-food restaurants in the larger towns, boat and bait shops, forests and mangroves with swampy water.

Accommodations range from funky motels that must have been built when the road first opened to the ultra-swanky, such as Little Palm Island, where guests ferry to their lodging, Fantasy Island-style.

We chose to stay at the mid-range Banana Bay Resort in Marathon and Key West. Both look small and unimpressive from the road but wind back forever into lush foliage. We liked the canopied beds, ceiling fans, spacious rooms (particularly in Key West) and the friendly people.

Several couples in Marathon had their catch of the day cooked and shared it poolside. They recommended an excellent Cuban restaurant where we had fresh seafood, fried plantains and tres leches, a cake made with three milks, for dessert.

We also watched a sunset wedding at the resort in Marathon. While we drank beer in our loungers, the couple walked through the sand to a spot with the sun setting behind them.

The keys are divided into the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys and include five regions: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and Key West. The entire chain has been designated the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

It could take weeks to explore all that there is on land, on water and underwater. We had only a long weekend. Here's what we found:

Key Largo

Although Key Largo, the largest key, makes a big deal about Humphrey Bogart's 1948 movie, most of "Key Largo" was filmed in Hollywood. A few of the interior scenes were shot in the local Caribbean Club, and the boat used in the 1952 film "The African Queen" docks at the Holiday Inn most of the year. It was on tour when we visited.

A more natural attraction here is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the nation's first underwater marine park. It is home to about 50 types of coral, 600 species of fish and the submerged 9-foot bronze, "Christ of the Deep." Visitors can view the underwater attractions by snorkeling, scuba diving or aboard a glass-bottom boat.

Adventurers might like to sleep at Jules' Undersea Lodge, the only such accommodation in the world. Scuba-diving guests must descend 30 feet under the mangrove lagoon to enter their airtight rooms.

With approximately 600 square feet of living space, the hotel can accommodate six guests at one time. The rooms have televisions, VCRs, telephones, bathrooms and showers, and 42-inch portholes. The hotel shares space with Marine Lab, an underwater research and educational lab.


Known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, Islamorada features a large fleet of offshore charter boats and shallow-water back-country boats.

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