Travel Journal- January 2010
January 2010 turned unseasonably cold, even in my corner of northeast Florida. The winter chill in Jacksonville felt like Buffalo, forcing Floridians to dream of warmth. Yes, the Keys were calling: sunsets and sand, flip-flops and shorts, Key Lime pie. “Come, drive down the Road to Paradise,” I heard.
The Florida Keys Overseas Highway, from north of Key Largo to Key West, was recently crowned with the title All-American Road., the only such road in Florida. And that’s the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by the Congress. Only 30 other roadways in the nation have earned the prestigious designation and my husband, Jay, and I were about to find out why.
The Overseas Highway follows a trail originally blazed in 1912. Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler completed the immense logistical task–more nightmare, really–of extending his Florida East Coast Railroad the 150 miles from Miami to Key West. Just imagine Gibson Girl-esque young women in their swan-bill corsets and pompadours boarding the train in New York and–a mere 30 hours later–stepping out at the southernmost point in the United States. What a boom for Florida.
Then, in 1935, catastrophe struck this paradise. A hurricane collapsed the rail line, and the economic conditions of the Depression left the destruction lying in disarray. The Keys were accessible only by water.
The government decided a highway was needed and could incorporate the foundation of some of the original railway spans, as well as 42 bridges over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The road, completed in 1938, included the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, which stretched 6.79 miles across open water and referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world.”
I remember my first road trip to Key West in 1960, a family vacation in our brand new Chevy Corvair. My Dad did all the driving and my two brothers and I sat seatbelt-less in the backseat. We Virginians were thrilled by southern tourist attractions and the changing landscape: Spanish moss, palm trees and alligators. But, when we got to the Keys highway, my Mother nearly succumb from white knuckled fear. Trucks passing in the opposite direction took more than their half of the road.
Fortunately, in 1982, most of the original bridges including the Seven Mile Bridge were replaced with wider spans. Many of the remaining structures can still be seen running alongside the newer ones and are frequently used as fishing piers.
Today, a road trip from Florida City, below Miami and known as the “Gateway to the Keys,” takes approximately four to five hours, depending on traffic. The speed limit is 55 mph most of the way, 45mph in more populous intersections. The pavement is good and its width, or lack of it, is no longer scary.
The first Key you encounter along US 1 is Largo, the largest at 30 miles from end to end. Most people recognize the name from the 1948 movie Key Largo starring Boogie and Bacall or perhaps the song, Sailing Away to Key Largo. You really wouldn’t know you’re driving on an island as you don’t see water– just shops, hotels and flat scrubby ground. This area is now famous for diving including an underwater park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.
Islamorada Key comes next, a fisherman’s dream. Boaters arise early for deep-sea fishing or back water excursions. The wide selection of catch includes Amberjack, Blackfin Tuna, Blue Marlin, Bonefish, Cobia, Dolphin, Grouper, King Mackerel, Redfish, Snook, Tarpon, Wahoo and Yellowtail Snapper. Water sports of all types are available for non-fisher folk. (More about this area on my return trip.)
Marathon Key follows, originally named Vaca (cow) by Spanish settlers for the many manatee or sea cows found offshore. It was renamed Marathon by the men building the railroad which required the lengthy bridge. Marathon boasts lots of development and a small airport, but no regular commercial flights. However, the surrounding water shimmers a beautiful blue-green and the many bridge crossing give the area a tropical feel.
Crossing Big Pine Key called for slowing to 45 mph or 35 mph at night. Key Deer, small endangered white-tailed deer, live here and large fences (erected at a few million dollars of taxpayer’s expense) help protect the animals and cars. I didn’t see any.
Finally, the end of the road arrives at Key West, also known as the Conch Republic. “Conchs” are the natives, many of whom trace their ancestry to the Bahamas. “Freshwater Conchs” are those who migrated from somewhere else years ago. Additionally, many Cuban immigrants help make up the resident population of 25,000.
Jay and I dropped our luggage at our B& B, the historic Cypress House. Built by shipbuilders in in 1888, this Grand Conch mansion has been called one of the purest examples of Bahamian architecture in Key West. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and its exterior (weathered cypress) and interior oozes with island charm. I loved our room on the second floor with an outdoor patio. I felt I was sleeping like a baby, among the palm treetops.
We walked to Conch Republic Seafood for a late lunch and to meet Carol Shaughnessy, a local resident for the past 30 years. Carol tells us about the infamous Conch Republic rebellion, “The US Border Patrol decided to set up a roadblock at Florida City, which caused a seventeen mile back-up on the only road in and out of the Keys. Outraged by being treated as foreigners, we, the residents, formed the Conch Republic and declared war.”
She continued,”We intended to use stale Cuban bread as ammunition. But, a half an hour later we surrendered and demanded a billion dollars in foreign aid. We’re still waiting.”
Soon, the embarrassed Border Patrol dismantled their roadblock and thus the motto of the Conch Republic,”We seceded where others failed.”
Conch “officials” state, “We consider ourselves a fifth world nation with a sovereign state of mind that promotes the mitigation of world tension through the exercise of humor.”Gotta love that attitude and attitude is what Key West does best – laid back and easy going.
Later we strolled the streets finding the official end of the road, mile marker zero. We meandered down to Mallory Square for the nightly Sunset Celebration which included street performers and vendors selling their handmade wares and cocktails. Dogs jumped through hoops, cats performed tricks and one man juggled fire torches while riding a 12- foot high unicycle.
As the sun dropped, boats zigged and zagged across the horizon, giving photographers a lovely photo op. The day’s sunset was not terribly spectacular with color but romantic; how nice to be standing on the dock with your partner, gazing into the sea.
Jay and I dined at a Cuban restaurant on Ropa Vieja which means dirty clothes.The brisket was slowly cooked and then pulled, giving the meat a dingy look but tasting tender and succulent. We strolled back hand in hand to the lovely and conveniently located Cypress House B&B looking forward to exploring Old Town the next day.