Road Trip Through the Florida Keys

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

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 theCoconut Bay Resort. Down the road atSnapper'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.

Lodging

Food

  • Snapper's139 Seaside Ave., Key Largo, 305/852-5956, catch of the day $19

Activities

  • Marathon Kayak6363 Overseas Hwy., Marathon, 305/395-0355, marathonkayak.com, mangrove tour $45

Day 4: Key Largo to Naples

The coral reef that extends all along the Keys is the third largest in the world, andJohn Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, established in 1963, is the first undersea park in the U.S. It covers 70 square miles of coral reefs, sea grass beds, and mangrove swamps. We catch the 9:15 A.M. glass-bottom-boat tour. I have visions of a rickety wooden boat with a hole in the center, but theSpirit of Pennekampis a catamaran with two large openings in the hull that resemble upside-down greenhouses. The view 30 feet down is spectacular. The reef teems with life: A guide identifies so many colorful species passing by the window that we can't keep up.

Our path home, Route 41 (a.k.a. the old Tamiami Trail) takes us through the Everglades, a haunting, brackish backwater. Gullies along each side of the two-lane road teem with alligators and waterfowl, especially lots of great blue herons, spoonbills, and snowy egrets. At the Oasis Visitor Center, a boardwalk allows for an up close look at fierce-looking gators sunning themselves.

The landscape becomes more modernized the closer we get to Naples. "The flat plainness of Florida doesn't impose itself on you," wrote Susan Orlean inThe Orchid Thief, "so you can impose upon it your own kind of dream." What else have we been doing but visiting sites wrestled from nature by people with dreams both big (Flagler's Over-Sea Railroad) and modest?

Over the last few days I've spotted a book,Quit Your Job and Move to Key West, in shops, gas stations, and even at a Walgreens' checkout. There are a lot of people still eager to buy into the Florida dream.

Activities

  • John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, mile marker 102.5, Key Largo, 305/451-1202, pennekamppark.com, glass-bottom-boat tour $22

Finding your way

Street addresses along Route 1 can help you know where you're headed. With a few exceptions in Key West and Marathon, addresses that end in even numbers are ocean-side; odd indicates bay-side. To figure out the corresponding mile marker, drop the last two digits and move the decimal one place to the left. For example, 57622 Overseas Highway would be located ocean-side at mile marker 57.6. (This applies to five- and six-digit addresses only.) Also, to find other guesthouses in Key West, try historickeywestinns.com.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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