Road Trip Through the Florida Keys The most dramatic drive on the East Coast, from party-hearty Key West up to the Everglades. Budget Travel Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006, 12:00 AM Key West Beach in Florida (Typhoonski / Budget Travel LLC, 2016


Road Trip Through the Florida Keys

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

My mother, who loves to see butterflies in her garden, wants to check out The 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.

The National Key Deer Refuge Visitors 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 the No 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, the White Sands Inn is 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.

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 with Marathon Kayak.

After about 20 minutes, our small group turns out of the harbor and heads single file into the mangroves, through an opening I wouldn't have noticed. The gnarled branches reach across the water trail, forming natural bridges that tiny crabs scurry along. The easygoing guide, Calem, points out the marine life we're gracefully gliding over, and egrets and blue herons in the trees. He says that he often spots manatees, but we don't see any.

Later that afternoon in Key Largo, about an hour north, the sky turns overcast, so we read and rest in our rooms at the friendly bungalows that make up the Coconut Bay Resort. Down the road at Snapper's, a buzzing joint with a deck overlooking the ocean, the grilled catch of the day (grouper) proves that the fresher the fish is, the less you have to do to it. From our table, we watch a school of tarpon in the shallow water. Fearing that key lime pie wouldn't live up to the hype, I avoided ordering it for the past three days. This one is so good, however—with a crisp graham-cracker crust, creamy filling with just enough tartness, and fresh whipped cream—that I regret neglecting it until now.

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