PlanetHop! loves nothing more than a classic road trip. The feeling of just getting out there on the open road and letting it take you wherever it will is indescribable. Every day new adventures await, and there's no place in the entire world – at least in our opinion – where you experience this more than in the Florida Keys. The 129 miles from Miami to Key West will take you from glitz and glamor to the very heart of the Conch Republic. This is America's very own unique slice of the Caribbean, where you can dive into crystal clear waters, enjoy some of the world's best seafood, travel in the footsteps of Hemingway, and bask in the colorful glow of unequalled sunsets night-after-night-after-night. If this sounds like a dream come true and you want to find out how easy it is to turn it into a reality, read on...
By the cool neon glow of Miami's legendary South Beach promenade, I eased back in my chair to contemplate my future. It had taken me 716 days from the time I set out on my grand adventure around the world, 'til I once again stepped through the portals of my parental home. It had been a journey of a lifetime that had taken me to over 60 countries across 5 continents. But even epic journeys must come to an end, and this small chronicle marks the official end of my own personal wanderjahr (gap year).
I smiled across the table at Kathy, the Australian girl I had met in Africa, who had returned to America with me to see what our futures held in store for us
"So, where to from here?" she asked.
Before I had a chance to answer, the café waitress returned to our table with two large Margaritas and placed them on the table between us.
"As far as the road will take us," I replied. "All the way to Margaritaville!"
We had set out a week earlier, in the dead of winter, from my parent's home in New Jersey. The trip south down Interstate 95 had taken us the better part of 24 hours to make with the weather slowly changing from the deep freeze, to the eternal summer of Southern Florida. And with the change in weather, we had both quickly reverted back into the mindset that had gotten us through much of the past 2 years on the road.
It was our intention to set out in the morning on a 130 mile road trip south through the Florida Keys. I had come here for the first time years before with a college friend and then a couple of years after that for the second time with my friend Ash (yes, PlanetHop!'s co-founder Ash) and now I had returned for the trifecta.
"What's Margaritaville?" asked Kathy, who's originally from Australia.
Almost as if on cue, the sweet sounds of Jimmy Buffet's classic song Margaritaville rose from the beach bar across the promenade. Without realizing it, my foot unconsciously began to tap to the beat and a wash of memories flooded back to me from my previous adventures in the Keys – a place that was a world unto itself and to my thinking – the home to America's ultimate road trip.
"A true American classic from Jimmy Buffet," I said. "You'll get used to his voice – believe me – you'll hear it every day we're down here. You'll probably even start to hear it in your sleep."
Kathy smiled. "I'm not sure what it is, but I think I'm already starting to like this place."
"I had a feeling you would."
We set out in the morning, headed South across the Bay of Biscayne on US Route 1, the southern-most stretch of highway in the continental US. The Florida Keys are one of those special places that you find hidden throughout the world where the cares and stresses of modern life seem to simply fade away. Comprised of literally hundreds of islands joined by US1 – this is the land where pirates once ruled back in the 17th and 18th centuries, and has now been inherited by a generation of hippy descendants who strive to keep alive the ideal of an "endless summer".
From the moment you get onto US1, you'll quickly become aware of the mile markers that are your constant companion throughout the entire trip. These markers start at 127.5 and steadily work their way down to 0 at Key West, making it fairly easy to identify the exact location of all of the Keys' most popular attractions. I'll give you a rundown of some of the best of these, but if you want a full summary of everything on offer – mile by mile – I recommend you visit the Florida Rambler website. This is the most comprehensive guide I've ever run across of the Keys and will provide a great planning tool if you're considering a trip.
The first 20 miles of US1 provide a chance for you to shake off the glitz and glamour of Miami and replace it with the simple aesthetic beauty that is the trademark of the Florida Keys. Everything from the cool sea breeze, to the crystal clear turquoise waters screams PARADISE. You're guaranteed to quickly forget the city and start to think about what adventures await on the open road ahead. Well, there are lots, so get ready...
First off the mark is Key Largo – Cayo Largo in Spanish – which translates to Long Key. This is the longest of the Keys, measuring some 33 miles in length and proudly proclaims itself as "The Diving Capital of the World". This is where thousands of divers and snorkelers come each year to enjoy the warm waters of the Northern Caribbean; and the shining gem of the area is, without a doubt, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This park was first designated as a protected natural reserve in 1960, and since this time has acted to protect the only coral reef system in all of the continental United States.
I think it's pretty easy to understand why this place is so special, even without mentioning the fact that it's the home to one of the world's most unique underwater sculptures – Christ of the Abyss. Measuring a modest 8½ feet in height, the bronze statue of Jesus Christ has become legendary among divers and snorkelers since it was first placed here in 1965. However, what many people don't realize is that this is actually a replica of another statue which resides in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Genoa, Italy. But even though it may not have technically been the first, there's no denying the fact that it has surely resulted in divine providence being delivered upon the wonderland that is the Florida Keys.
Christ of the Abyss
From almost anywhere in Key Largo you can hop on a snorkeling and/or diving tour out to the statue for something around $100, which will include an additional stop at another location along the reef and a delectable seafood lunch to boot. It's guaranteed to be something that you'll continue to talk about for years to come!
Unfortunately – and for the 3rd time running – I wasn't able to fulfill my dream of gaining a blessing from the submerged Christ statue. The first time I visited I didn't have a dive license (and honestly hadn't even heard of the statue). On my second effort I made it all the way out to the reef, but due to terrible conditions I wasn't able to make the dive. 3 meter swells in 10 meters of water is enough to make anyone spew their guts (I can vouch for this from personal experience). Now, on this, my third visit, timing simply wasn't on my side. We only had a single week to explore the Keys and then make our way back up to New Hampshire, where I had committed to starting a new job. To this very day I fear I may have missed my last opportunity as a 4th visit seemed fairly remote at this point in my life. But as they say, you never know... Hopefully one day fate would smile on me.
With a somewhat heavy heart, we hit the road again. This lasted for several more road markers before we noticed an enormous sign on the side of the road publicizing the "Sale of all Sales" on everything dive and beach related. At Kathy's insistence, we stopped for some "retail therapy" and I discovered something that I had never realized in my two previous visits to the Keys. Apparently, Key Largo was one of the best places (in all of the US) to buy clearance dive and beach wear. Some of the deals were absolutely amazing, such as Teva sandals for up to 75% off what you would pay virtually anywhere else. Then there were the clothes that were going for nearly as good a deal. Needless the say, when we finally walked out the door, we had given both of our wardrobes a healthy injection that would easily see us to Key West (and beyond).
The next stretch of road saw us steadily eat up a handful more mile markers until we were greeted by an absolutely enormous Red Lobster – yes, you heard me correctly. It must have reached 25 feet or more into the air and was real in virtually every detail. I did some world-class rubber-necking out the window on the way past, but Kathy wasn't so easily satisfied.
"Pull over!" she cried, half way climbing out the window while we were still going 45 mph.
"What's wrong?" I asked in surprise as I pulled over into the parking lot of what turned out to be Rain Barrel Village, a local arts and crafts market.
"I've got to get a picture of this!" she nearly yelled.
"What? The Lobster?" I asked.
"Of course the lobster, what else do you think I'm talking about?"
While this might not be the most logical conversation we've ever had, I wasn't prepared to argue the point and got out of the car. It was only then that I recalled the strange (and somewhat fascinating) Australian obsession with everything "big". The list is extensive and includes such iconic sights as – The Big: Pineapple, Rocking Chair, Koala, Prawn, Orange, Kangaroo, Kookaburra, Iguana, Echidna and Crab – to name only a few. When you drive around Australia, you seem to come across one of these giant landmarks almost every day. Who can explain it other than to say that Aussies come from a big country and they just like big stuff. I guess everyone's allowed to have their quirks.
After she has taken nearly an entire roll (in the old speak), we decided to grab some lunch. We continued down the road for another mile before we came across a place called the Hog Heaven Bar & Grill. I wouldn't normally have even mentioned it if it wasn't for the fact that it is quite famous for its seafood baskets, which combine just about every variety of seafood into a fried concoction that can only be described as delectable. But the real thing that sticks in my mind is that it was the place where Kathy had her first (and last) ever Budweiser. I think her comment was – if I remember correctly – "What is this vile piss?"
Oh well, what can I say? She loves giant lobsters, but not the King of Beers. I guess no one's perfect.
We got back in the car and traveled for another 30 or so miles before we came to the city of Marathon. Being relatively "new" for the Keys, it was fairly well set up with restaurants or Tiki Bars as they are known in the Keys and a variety of accommodation options to suit most budgets. It seemed like the perfect place to break up our journey, so we reserved a cabin in a local campground and set off exploring. Marathon is not exactly the most exciting place in the Keys, but it does offer several interesting ecological sites in the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center and the unique Turtle Hospital, where you can see rescued sea turtles being lovingly nursed back to health. Then to top things off, there is Sombrero Beach – one of the few "free" beaches in the Keys and the perfect place to kick back with a beer (Samuel Adams this time for Kathy) and enjoy the sunset.
Ah, the end to another perfect day in the Florida Keys.
In the morning we woke refreshed and ready for whatever new adventures the road had in store for us. This came in the form of the legendary 7 Mile Bridge, which joins the Middle and Lower Keys and is one of the longest bridges of its kind in the world. In reality its only 6.79 miles in length, but this hardly matters when you're cruising across the brilliant turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
7 Mile Bridge
It was at about this point that I finally came to terms with the fact that the epic journey had consumed the last 2 years of my life was finally coming to an end. It's something I have to admit I had been struggling terribly to come to terms with since returning home. So much so that I had often considered asking Kathy if she wanted to just head off again and let the winds of fate took us where it would. But as I stared out the window, with the warm Caribbean air roaring through my hair, I finally realized that the term "all good things must come to an end" is something that you can't fight against and simply must accept. In that instance it was almost as if a weight was lifted off my shoulders and, for the first time in months, I started to look forward to the future.
I glanced over at Kathy and found her looking at me.
"What's wrong," she asked.
"Nothing, it's just good to be home."
Just to the north of the current bridge lies the original bridge, which was constructed in 1909. This was once part of the Florida East Coast Railway and was in operation until the new bridge replaced it in 1982. It was this antique steel and concrete version (at least part of it) that was destroyed in the old Arnie Schwarzenegger film True Lies. Today, it provides visitors with a glimpse into what the Keys were like years ago, not to mention a truly classic walking and/or biking path where you can enjoy the picture perfect weather that the Keys serve up in such abundance.
The 7 Mile Bridge ends at Pigeon Key, and from here it's a 45 mile run into Key West. I recommend you take a look at the Florida Ramblin' website if you'd like to know what lies between the bridge and Key West, as there's easily enough to consume another entire day. But for us, we decided to head directly to the unofficial capital of the Florida Keys and one of my absolute favorite cities in the entire world (and I've seen a few).
Key West was first visited by Ponce de Leon in 1521 and today is the southernmost city in the continental US. While it has a long and storied history, it's perhaps only in the last generation that this small slice of America has gained cult status as the "Conch Republic" in protest over a 1982 US Border Patrol Blockade. Since then it has become a hangout for the gay community, the seaside retreat of a long list of US Presidents and, above all, the place where a generation of Americans have come to experience the cool vibe of the Caribbean without leaving US soil. It's easy to understand the appeal.
A place like Key West has so much history and far more interesting sights than anyone could possibly list. However, there are 6 destinations that anyone who comes here should make certain to see before they leave. These aren't in any particular order and NONE should be missed.
#1 90 Miles to Cuba Buoy
Located at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets, this is arguably the most famous sight in the entire Florida Keys. The buoy states that "it's 90 miles from Cuba" and that "it's the southernmost point in the Continental USA". Shhhh, it's wrong on both counts, but who really cares as this is an absolute must for any visit to Key West.
Kathy at the Cuba Buoy
#2 Ernest Hemingway House
Located at 907 Whitehead Street, this is the home where Ernest "Papa" Hemingway wrote such classics as Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Amazingly, the descendants of Hemingway's cat "Snowball" still live on the grounds. I guess the place is just so cool they can't give it up. Anyway, it's a classic.
#3 Mel Fischer Treasure Museum
Located at 610 Whitehead Street, this is the museum that memorializes America's greatest treasure hunter, Mel Fischer. The museum's highlights include numerous pieces of treasure recovered from the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. This is also one of the only places that you're actually able to handle a real live gold bar; so enjoy the experience as opportunities like this don't exactly pop up every day.
#4 Seafood Buffet w/ Key Lime Pie desert
Troll the streets of Key West in search of one of the city's legendary all-you-can eat seafood buffets. You'll get shrimp (prawns), scallops, fish of all varieties, mussels, crab, lobster and all types of sides that will fill up even the hungriest PlanetHopper! However, the one thing you must keep in mind as you gorge yourself is to leave some room for a true Key West icon – a slice of authentic Key Lime Pie. There's no better way to top off a meal – guaranteed!
#5 Dry Tortugas National Park
While not technically in Key West, this remote national park is located approximately 70 miles off the coast and is where Ponce de Leon first set foot in the Keys. In the 1800's, Fort Jefferson was constructed here and served for nearly a hundred years as a Civil War fort, a prison, and then as an aquatic research center. Today, it is one of most interesting and remote national parks, where you can take in some history, soak up some sun and imagine what it must have felt like to be stranded here back "in the day". There's no doubt that this place will forever have a special place in American history and is easily worth sacrificing the time it takes to get here. You won't regret it.
Dry Tortugas National Park
#6 Mallory Square "Sunset Celebration"
I saved the best for last, as the Mallory Square "Sunset Celebration" is the quintessential Key West tradition. Each night of the year, the Mallory Square Plaza, in Key West's historic Old Town, is where everyone comes to watch the sunset. Here you'll find tourists, locals, arts and craft stalls and a range of street performers (snake charmers, jugglers, magicians, contortionists, etc.) that will truly blow you mind. Starting 2 hours before sunset, it is the one place in Key West that you absolutely have to be – period. And what a way to end the day!
OK – so how to sum up the Florida Keys? In short, it's simply America's greatest road trip (at least as far as PlanetHop! is concerned). It's got great diving, the weather is warm and sunny year round, the seafood virtually unequalled (don't forget the Key Lime Pie), it's got museums, national parks and it offers up some of the best sunsets you'll find anywhere in the world.
Speaking of sunsets, Kathy and I ticked off #6 on the list over a pair of Margaritas while seated at an outdoor bar overlooking the warm waters of the Caribbean.
"This place is pretty cool," Kathy said, taking a sip of her Margarita.
Almost as if on cue, the sweet sounds of Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville started to play in the background, just as the sun dipped below the horizon.
"I love this place," I replied. "What do you say we retire here in about 30 years or so?"
"I'll give it some thought."
"Do that," I replied as I gently tapped our glasses together. "God Bless Margaritaville."
So, after 2 long years, I had finally reached the end of the road and, while I didn't know what the future might hold, I had the distinct feeling it would be eventful. However, there was one thing that I was absolutely certain of and this was that if I ever decided to hit "the road" again, I knew exactly where I would begin my next wanderjahr from.
Whoever said there wasn't any continuity left in the world?
Mallory Square sunset
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There's not much in this world that can compare with a good road trip and it sounds like the Florida Keys offers an absolutely killer one indeed. The very idea of cruising down the road to Margaritaville makes us want to put the pedal to the metal and roar down the open highway. Once again, we'd like to thank David for sharing his experience with us!
David is President and Co-Founder of PlanetHop! and has spent much of the past 15 years traveling the world for business and pleasure. This article was adapted from a travel journal he kept during a 2-year jaunt around the world.
|Who (will enjoy)|
Perfect for the entire family, just leave the driving to the adults!
|What (to do)|
Explore all 129 miles of the Florida Keys where you can dive, fish, enjoy the sunsets, visit national parks and enjoy one of America's coolest cities (Key West).
|When (should I visit)|
The best time to visit is during the North American winter, when the weather in the Keys is absolutely perfect. During the summer months it can be brutally hot and humid.
|Where (to stay)|
The Keys offer a range of accommodation from camping to 5-star luxury, just be aware that many of the park campgrounds can book out up to a year in advance.
|How (much will it cost)|
Budget on about $200/day, keeping in mind that you can spend a lot more than this if you really like to pamper yourself.
Dave is President and Co-Founder of PlanetHop! and has spent much of the past 15 years traveling the world for business and pleasure. His longest journey was a two year romp around the world!