Road Trip Through the Florida Keys

The most dramatic drive on the East Coast, from party-hearty Key West up to the Everglades

From there we move on to theHemingway Home and Museum, where the writer lived with his second wife, Pauline, and their two sons from 1931 to 1940. A grizzled guide, who could have been one of Papa's drinking buddies down at Sloppy Joe's, points out Pauline's pretentious chandeliers (the one-timeVoguewriter insisted on replacing the more practical ceiling fans) and the town's first inground swimming pool. It's said that Hemingway was given a six-toed cat--often called "mitten cats"--by a friend who was a ship captain; 46 cats, most of which are its descendants, live on the grounds today. As the writer quipped, "One cat just leads to another."

My mother, who loves to see butterflies in her garden, wants to check outThe Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. I've never experienced a live butterfly exhibit before, and I can totally identify with the screaming child across the room. My mom makes us sit on a bench, where a trio of iridescent blues flirts with her pink blouse. Her calm demeanor helps me relax. Soon, I'm equally amazed at the sight of so many elusive, fluttering beauties.

Route 1, the Overseas Highway, is a sight in itself. In the 1880s, Henry Flagler, an original partner in Standard Oil, began developing resorts along Florida's east coast. He also started buying up and connecting the state's railroad lines. St. Augustine, Palm Beach, and Miami all owe their development to Flagler's efforts. Between 1905 and 1912, Flagler constructed the Over-Sea Railroad, 156 miles of track--much of it on trestles over open water--that linked Miami and Key West. When the first train rolled into town in 1912, it was greeted by 15,000 townspeople.

Unfortunately, a fierce hurricane ripped through the Keys in 1935; an 18-foot tidal wave and 200-mile-per-hour winds washed out the embankment and mangled tracks, but the bridges and trestles stood. In 1938, the federal government took over the route and built the Overseas Highway. Route 1 is the main (and often only) road on the narrow strips of land that are the various keys. Mile-marker signs, which start counting from zero in Key West, are used as locators for addresses along the highway.

TheNational Key Deer Refugevisitors center, inside the Big Pine Key Plaza, is just north of mile marker 30.2. The endangered Key deer, a small-statured subspecies of white-tailed deer, live primarily on Big Pine Key and the adjacent No Name Key. Because the herd is so small--only about 700--we assume the taxidermic specimens in the visitors center might be our best chance of actually seeing one. But a volunteer directs us to drive a few miles past the shopping center. About three miles along on Key Deer Boulevard, a couple of deer stroll out of the trees. Visitors aren't supposed to feed them, but these two appear to expect a snack. (We don't give in.)

Rounding a bend on Big Pine Key, we happen upon theNo Name Pub, celebrated for being out of the way since 1936. The main appeal is the thousands of dollar bills on every wall. They even hang from the ceiling and rustle in the breeze. It strikes me as potentially unsanitary, but the grouper sandwiches, even at $10.50, are delicious, particularly with a cold Corona.

The marvelous Seven Mile Bridge runs between mile markers 40 and 47. Until 1982, the bridge ran on the piers originally built for Flagler; those remains stand alongside the new bridge.

In Marathon, theWhite Sands Innis basic, but the rooms are decor-ated with sunny primary colors and Caribbean-inspired fabrics. Like most places in this part of the Keys, it caters to folks on fishing trips. As I set down my bags, I see a card bearing the rule: DO NOT CLEAN FISH OR LOBSTER IN THE ROOMS. I make a note to tell my parents.

Lodging

Food

  • Banana Cafe1211 Duval St., Key West, 305/294-7227
  • No Name PubN. Watson Blvd. off mile marker 30.2, Big Pine Key, 305/872-9115

Activities

Day 3: Marathon to Key Largo

The waitresses at theSeven Mile Grilllook like they could have been extras on Alice, and the walls are covered with sassy signs (such as UNATTENDED CHILDREN WILL BE SOLD AS SLAVES). Eggs come with biscuits and a side of grits--suitably hearty fare for our mangrove tour withMarathon Kayak.

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