Taking the Overseas Highway to the Florida Keys

During my travels over the years I’ve been to a lot of remote places, stretching from the Australian Outback to the Indian Himalaya’s. Roads where you won’t see anyone else for 8 hours, towns that can only be accessed for 6 months of the year, cities where they get all their fresh vegetables flown in once a week. Despite Key West being only a 3 1/2 hour drive to the heaving, flamboyant, metropolis of Miami- I can’t help but admire the people who choose to live there. ‘But they reside in paradise!’ I hear you cry. ‘They own boats, go fishing after work, have gorgeous weather all year and have endless access to legit key lime pie.’ But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed unappealing. There’s only one road in and out of The Keys, which becomes a nightmare during peak hours and vacation time. Internet deliveries become a problem if even possible, teenagers wanting to broaden their social lives get bored, high living costs and what about the hurricanes that come hurtling through? Even with all those doubts, approx 77,000 people call The Keys home. 

I was lucky enough to visit The Keys on a previous trip with Sahar in 2014. We stayed in a gorgeous cottage in someones back yard right on the waters edge, boats bobbing up and down whilst we sipped on coconuts bought from the side of the road. We ate ridiculous amounts of key lime pie whilst exploring Key West and it’s abundant history, swam in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico and marveled at the impressive feat of the Overseas Highway. To say we had an incredible weekend is an understatement and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to return again.

The reason for returning was to celebrate Sahar’s mums 50th birthday. Sigi’s only wish was to have the whole family together in one place for a weekend. After some collaborating, flight cancelling & hotel research, it was all organised. We caught a horribly early flight down to Florida and then drove down to Marathon Key the next day. Our digs for the weekend would be a waterfront villa at Tranquility Bay Beachfront Hotel & Resort. 3 swimming pools, a putting green and a private beach, needless to say we don’t normally frequent this type of establishment. 

The archipelago is made up of 1,700 islands, 43 of them connected by the Overseas Highway and approx 30 are currently lived on. The Keys were originally inhabited by Calusa and Tequesta Native Americans but were later charted by Juan Ponce de León in 1513.

Key Largo is the gateway and is also the largest key, stretching for 33 m/53 km. The main attraction is the diving, The Keys Marine Sanctuary is host to 55 varieties of coral and over 600 types of fish. Key Largo has been named dive capital of the world and was home to the first underwater preserve in the United States (John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.) 

Islamorada is a third of the way down the keys and in 2008 was voted one of the top 12 places in the world to live by National Geographic. It has also been labelled as the sports fishing capital of the world. More records have been broken here than any place on earth. You can swim with dolphins at the ‘Theatre of the Sea’, visit the History of Diving Museum and then sample a cold beverage from the Florida Keys or the Islamorada Brewing Companies.

Marathon has become a hub for tourists and locals alike thanks to it’s central location & the variety of amenities available. It’s blessed to be close to Bahia Honda State Park which has some of the finest beaches on the peninsula and many popular snorkelling sites. Marathon is linked to the lower keys by the infamous seven mile bridge and is the base of the Turtle Hospital which has been doing great work since 1986. 

Some of the most interesting islands on the archipelago are Big Pine Key/No Name Key. They are the home turf of the Key Deer which is a fascinating species endemic to the area. It’s the smallest deer in North America but is now endangered with a population of around 800. It was originally hunted for food by the Native Americans but now lives in close proximity to humans in the National Key Deer Refuge. Sometimes you can see them on the roadside through the trees. 

Key West is the southern most point of continental America, it’s actually closer to Havana (106 m/170 km) than Miami (127 m/ 207 km.) For such a small place, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock there every year. It’s a major stop for cruise ships and the airport was recently doubled in size to cope with demand. There’s many museums to visit, the historic district to explore and of course the lively mile and a half that is Duval Street.  

On the drive down we stopped at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada. This place is a tourists dream, it has & does everything. Fishing trips, snorkelling, kayaking and there’s even a waterfront bar & restaurant. Don’t forget the tacky souvenir shops with a distinct nautical theme or the art stalls with paintings done on driftwood. We, however were not there to buy a mail box in the shape of a lighthouse but to feed the tarpon. I had been told it was a fish but that was all. I wasn’t quite ready for the size of these things and for the ferocity with which they tried to snatch the sardine like morsel from your fingers. Oh, and they have very sharp teeth. This fact of nature was confirmed to us by a man who walked past with blood running down his arm. He was being pursued by a lady clutching a go pro camera in her pudgy fist, declaring ‘well I hope I got the shot!’ 

By the time we got to Marathon Key is was early afternoon. Our villa wasn’t ready for us to descend upon with our car load of belongings so we headed to the beach, keen for a refreshing swim. However we were troubled to discover that it was the hottest ocean any of us had ever dipped a toe into. My previous experiences of the Gulf of Mexico have been shallow, cloudy affairs but I can’t recall the water ever being that oven-like. In spite of this we redirected ourselves to the bar to enjoy our $50 worth of complimentary birthday cocktails. Our server was very friendly and was expressing how excited she was to go on vacation that very afternoon. To New Jersey no less. Another problem with living in paradise – where on earth do you go on holiday? Back to the land of diners, ugly skylines and turnpikes I suppose. (Actually there’s a lot more to New Jersey than meets the eye but we pretend otherwise so we can keep it to ourselves.)

Our villa was lovely, every room had a balcony and there was a back porch facing out onto one of the swimming pools, surrounded by lush, tropical plants. The decor was as expected, various shades of blue with names I can only imagine and hope for; club navy, deep ocean, aquamarine, surf blue. Normally the resort has the best view of the sunset, but predictably it was cloudy and all we saw was a red sphere briefly hovering above the waves before it disappeared from view.

Our first full day in The Keys was kicked off by having tea & coffee on the waterfront. At such an early hour there wasn’t many people around so we got to enjoy the lapping of the tide in peace. That is until an employee armed with a leaf blower arrived to tackle the futile and frankly ridiculous task of keeping the sand at bay. Keeping the sand at bay..on a beach? By the sea? Right. With our solitude ruined we headed back to make breakfast before driving across the 7 mile bridge to Bahia Honda State Park. 

As you’re travelling over the 7 mile bridge, you get a great vantage point of the remains of the Overseas Railroad, which was of course, the inspiration for the Overseas Highway. The further development of the road came about after the hurricane of 1935 destroyed a large part of the tracks. Due to bankruptcy it wasn’t possible to rebuild and the railway fell into disrepair. Henry Flagler was the mastermind of this project which cost more than $50 million, employed over 4000 men and saw 3 hurricanes during the 7 year construction period. Despite all the problems, the railroad was completed in 1912. It was nicknamed ‘Flagler’s folly’ but also known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. For me personally, this concept really represents America and the ideology of the ‘lets get shit done’ years.  

The Overseas Highway was first suggested in 1895 by George W. Allen (a politician) but work didn’t begin until 1919. The Miami Motor Club wanted to provide winter fishing grounds for their members and the real estate market was looming on the horizon. Slowly the road began to take shape, linking the islands together with a series of drawbridges & ferries. After the destruction of the tracks it was decided to convert the bridges to become suitable for vehicles, it officially opened in July 1938.

Being in the Bahia Honda State Park, you get to see the two projects running along side each other. These days the remaining sections of the railroad are used for fishing or completely closed off to the public. Bahia Honda is probably one of my favourite state parks in Florida. We spent an amazing morning there enjoying the gorgeous beach (where the water of the Atlantic is much more bearable), trying out Sigi’s scary but astonishingly good snorkel and walking up onto the elevated bridge to see the oceans colours from above.

During the heat of the afternoon we visited the Turtle Hospital which was just next door to our accommodation. For anyone who knows me well, they know I have had an obsession with turtles since the age of about 8. It has flourished into a turtle tattoo on my ankle and an incident of near drowning due to over-excitement when we saw them snorkelling in Samoa. So basically, I was thrilled to be there.  In 1986 the hospital was founded in an old motel which provides all the space needed to rehabilitate and release the turtles.

We were given an excellent run down by our very enthusiastic guide of the 7 different species, 5 of which visit Florida. The number of things that can harm sea turtles on a daily basis is astounding. From boat propellers to plastic bags to chemicals to sharks, the ocean is not as safe as it used to be and guess who’s to blame? Some of the turtles can never be released, 5 are permanent residents and will live out their days at the hospital.

We were allowed to walk around and ‘meet’ every turtle, all had their own personal story. The hospital keeps track of them by writing the name on their shells which I thought was adorable. If you rescue a turtle, you get to name it! According to our guide, turtles don’t have individual personalities and they don’t remember people- this I refuse to believe. 

Check out their website & see some of the previous patients here: 
http://www.turtlehospital.org/patients/released/

I have fond memories from our last trip to Key West. People cycling down the leafy avenues, exploring Fort Zachery Taylor in the blazing sun & observing the large population of free running chickens enjoying life on island time. The architecture is splendid, many structures date from 1886 to 1912. Colourful, well kept weatherboard houses with balconies & porches are veiled by exotic foliage making them mysterious and inviting. Not to mention the white washed churches with glass stain windows depicting ocean scenes. The whole place has a very relaxed, easy-going vibe which has attracted many artists and writers in the past. 

This time we visited during the evening and boy was it different. On a Saturday night Key West completely transforms into a whole new creature. Imagine over spilling bars, alcoholic slushies and large rowdy groups. Mix in over fed children, sun burnt parents & tired day trippers, then frankly you have a nightmare. We stayed for dinner, tracked down key lime pie on a stick and then left the zoo to self implode in a pool of vomit. But please, don’t let this put you off- it’s positively charming during the day. 

We departed on the Sunday with a quick stop at Sombrero beach before beginning the slog home. The Overseas Highway was hideously busy so we broke up the journey by grabbing a last seafood lunch at a waterfront restaurant. A compulsory stop at the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory and we were on our way.

Thank you to Sigi & Hanan for the most fabulous weekend, you’re awesome and hilarious and we do things ‘as a family!’
Happy Birthday Sigi! ♥