Florida City to the Keys
By Paul Rubio
Mile Marker 127.5, Florida City. Shadows of the Wal-Mart Supercenter fade in the distance; suburban sprawl gives way to mangroves and ocean. The massive eight-lane turnpike condenses into two-lane bridges, rising as vehicular islands bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The landscape change commences an invigorating journey over 42 bridges and through countless barrier islands, ending three hours later in the crown jewel of Florida—Key West.
During this time, intrepid travelers find themselves wanting to turn onto side roads, longing to discover hidden coves off the beaten path. Contemplative travelers yearn to pull over on sandy patches and marvel at the 360 degrees of blue and green rainbows. Typical stress maniacs impatiently tailgate the slow truck in front. In any case, the approximate three-hour journey from Florida City to Key West provides ample time to embrace Florida’s serenity and enter a Keys state of mind. Below are some of my favorite Mile Markers for short detours.
MM 127.0 - If you have not already visited the wetlands wonderland known as the Everglades, Everglades National Park (40001 State Road 9336, Homestead, (305) 242- 7700, www.nps.gov/ever) is a quick 10-minute drive after exiting the turnpike. The short Anhinga Trail is fantastically gratifying, teeming with the glades’ most famous wildlife. A stop at Robert is Here (19200 Southwest 344 Street, Homestead, (305) 246-1592, www,robertishere.com) is an essential if choosing this option. Robert whips up the best smoothies I have ever had in my life using over 40 different types of locally grown exotic fruits (my favorite is still key lime, however).
MM 102.8 - If you are an avid snorkeler and/or fancy a bit of diving, John Pennekamp State Park (102601 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, (305) 451- 1202, www.pennekamppark.com) showcases living, shallow-water coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, vibrant with color and activity. The PADI 5-Star Gold Palm facility at the park offers two-location, two-tank dives twice daily, at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
MM 81.2 – Save your appetite and camera batteries for lunch at the original Islamorada Fish Company (81532 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, (305) 664-9271, www.fishcompany.com). Albeit mildly touristy, the resident groups of sharks, tarpons, and pelicans are guaranteed crowd pleasers and make for fantastic photo opportunities.
MM 73.4 - The oceanside views of Anne's Beach and the gulfside view of Veteran's Island provide some of the greatest scenic shots of the Overseas Highway and the Keys’ crystalline waters.
MM 58.9 - Dolphin lovers and couples with kids may want to stop on Grassy Key at the Dolphin Research Center (58901 Overseas Highway, Grassy Key, (305) 289-0002, www.dolphins.org), a not-for-profit organization with goals to promote peaceful coexistence, cooperation, and communication between marine mammals, humans, and the environment. The main draw at the Dolphin Research Center entails personal encounters with rehabilitated dolphins in a safe, welcoming, and healthy environment for swimming with these magical creatures. Due to high demand, reservations are a must. Note this is a much better alternative than swimming with captive dolphins at other facilitates and in other countries.
MM 36.8 - Beach lovers and water sports enthusiasts will want to spend the afternoon at Bahia Honda State Park (36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, (305) 872-3210, www.bahiahondastatepark. com). The powdery sand of Bahia Honda at mile marker 37 once earned the title of the “Best Beach in America.” The island boasts both secluded and more trafficked spots for sunbathing, as well as rustic cabins for overnight visitors. They also offer fishing, kayaking, and snorkeling at very reasonable prices. The waters are spectacular, and the largest intact section of Henry Flagler’s historic overseas railroad is an eye-catcher.
MM 22.5 – Save an appetite to dine at the rustic Square Grouper Bar & Grill (22518 La Fitte Drive, Cudjoe Key, (305) 745-8880) the “best-kept secret in the entire Keys” according to many locals and home of my favorite conch fritters in the Keys.
Portions of this column were originally published in The Out Traveler: South Florida, 2009, copyright Alyson Books and Paul Rubio.