Monday, April 9, 2012

Florida Keys

There'a a lot more to the Florida Keys than Key West.   The Keys archipeligo is 200 miles long, no more than wafer thin in parts, and has 823 islands to explore.

Driving the Florida Keys 
Driving the Florida Keys is a bizarre, fantastic and beautiful experience.  For 50% of the drive you are stuck by the awesome beauty of the landscape and seascape.  Its extreme beauty with endless vistas of sea, mangrove and dramatic clouds.

You're on a narrow strip of land and on either side of the road or bridge is ocean - the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
Just a few miles out of Key West on Highway 1.  
Further up the Keys - a typical view.
On much of the drive you get a magnificent view of mangroves and ocean.
Small islands and big ocean.  This the view from the beach at Bahia Honda.
(But this not the story for the whole of the 126 mile drive.  For the other 50% you can't see the ocean because the land/island is wider and you just see trees, or houses.  There is also a fair share of run down houses, apartments and hotels and dreadful, ugly commercialism.  Even in paradise, you need to take the rough with the smooth!)

Here's my account of the drive down to Key West and when the good bits start!

Faded but comforting
I love the rather faded aspect of the Florida Keys.  Some of the buildings and signs are tacky and commercial, some are classics.  Take these as examples of the gems available to make the miles go by on your drive:
Rainbow Bend Resort sign in Marathon at MM 57.  Of all the many fantastic signs on Highway 1 down the Florida Keys this is maybe my favorite.  Not sure if that's because of the face of the guy in the boat, the crazy and slightly comical name or the rainbow in the sign.  Both cool and hilarious at the same time. 
Islamorada welcomes you.


BEST PLACES TO VISIT ON THE DRIVE DOWN THE FLORIDA KEYS

The 2 Best beaches

There's lots of places to stop, but my top two recommendations are:

Bahia Honda State Park - MM36
This is quite a large beach (ok, not that big really, this is the Keys after all).  I suppose the beach at the larger end is a mile long.  It regularly appears in the Top 10 beaches in the USA list.  As a result, it can get busy in peak season.


Curry Hammock State Park - MM56
This is relatively quiet place so it's a hidden gem.  I shouldn't really be telling you about it because I love it and I want it all to myself!    It's a tiny, tiny state park and a small beach and there is nothing to do.  But it's beautiful.


See here for my full article on Curry Hammock, lots more pictures and a video of me in the clear blue water here in the park.

Best non-beach places to stop and break your drive

Theater of the Sea - MM 84
It's got several shows - dolphins, sea lions, plus loads of fish and turtles and a great exotic bird show (for example, do you know which bird is the most intelligent?).  It's a very understated and tiny version of Sea World.  But much older: it's been going since 1946.  The lagoons the animals live and perform in were created when they quarried stone for Flagler's railroad.  Be a part of Key's history and visit!

To make the most of this, and see all the shows, you do need a few hours, and it's not cheap. But I love this place.  If you've got a few hours, then please go and support them.



The other place I would recommend stopping is the Turtle Hospital in Marathon (MM48.5).  It's a charity and the turtles are really cute (it's a rescue facility so all the turtles are ill or have had accidents leaving them disabled).  Beware: you can only visit as part of an organised tour, and especially at peak season they get booked out, so a degree of forward planning is required.  The tours last 2 hours, so this is not a quick visit.  Actually, if you can I recommend doing this as part of a half day trip out of Key West.

Here are some gratuitous pictures of very cute turtles:




For a full review of the Turtle Hospital, my visit, lots more pictures and some video - click here.

WHETHER TO DRIVE OR FLY DOWN THE FLORIDA KEYS
If you are coming from Miami then it's very little difference in time between driving and flying.  I've flown 10% of the time and driven 90%.  That's because the drive is so amazing.

That said, if you have no option but to drive at a peak time in a peak month on a Saturday then driving will take you MUCH longer as the traffic down to the Keys is really bad.

Here's what you'd see from the car:
Here's what you'd see from the plane:

FLYING INTO KEY WEST
Key West International Airport is really small, and 2 miles from Duval Street and the center of town.  There are always taxis outside.  It's a really easy airport to use.  There is a small convenience store, some of rental companies (not all of them, though, some are on the drive into town), and a bar.  Don't plan on spending any time there, there's nothing to do!



OTHER RELEVANT ARTICLES ON MY BLOG:

Driving from Miami to Key West - an awesome drive - lots of pics and description

Click here for more on Key West weather and a month by month view on when to visit Key West.

To see my view on Key West hotels - see here.

Click here for my Key West vacation directory - everything you need to know for a perfect Key West visit.