If you are sitting around reading this piece, and wondering about a neat place to go during a upcoming cold winter stretch, there is a location “jewel” out there. Yes, it is still in the continental U.S., but it is a LONG way from Our Town. However, it is well-worth the time/expense of going there for several days or a week ... or two, maybe?
The sparkling Florida Keys, my dear readers.
My bride, Debbie, and I specifically have been to Key West several times, but in this print space today, I will concentrate on one specific trip we made a few years ago. We flew to Miami, rented a car, and began the 166-mile drive over the historic Overseas Highway 1 to Key West. Actually, we only drove this historic highway about 70 miles our first day, Miami International Airport to Key Largo, one of the northern points in the famous Keys.
We stayed in Key Largo, population 10,500, for a week, with multiple day trips to all short distant areas, south on Highway 1. In the Key Largo area itself, we thoroughly enjoyed famous John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
This memorable place encompasses a land area and 178 nautical square miles of protected ocean waters. It is the ultimate water playground for swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, canoing, boating, kayaking, and commercial glass bottom boat rides. Their featured underwater “Christ of the Deep” bronze statue is located in an area accessible for interested snorkelers, in relatively shallow water.
Driving 17 miles further southwest is the fishing town of Islamorada, population 6,200, actually spread over four separate islands (i.e., keys).
The main tourist attraction here is the Theater of the Sea. This is a wildlife park with parrots, alligators, sea lions, sharks, sea turtles, southern rays, and dolphins, along with a visit to a natural saltwater lagoon.
Down the scenic Overseas Highway, 31 more miles to Marathon, the largest town in the Keys, with 8,300 folks. It marks the halfway point between Key Largo and Key West. The incredible Seven Mile Bridge, built on the foundation of Henry Flagler's East Coast Railroad, begins here. It joins the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys. Attractions include the Dolphin Research Center, home to Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions, and the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters. The latter is a learning and conservation center offering hands-on exhibits, displays of marine life, and educational programs.
Finally, 50 more miles down the beautiful, always ocean-viewing highway drive, is the end of the road, and the quaint city of Key West, population 25,000.
In addition to once driving there, Ms. Debbie and I have visited this unique American destination a couple of times off cruise ships, during one-day port stops. There is so much to see and do there, visitors could easily stay a week or more. I will mention a few of our favorite attractions we have enjoyed during our visits. Probably the most popular item tourists choose is the classic Conch Train Tour, a 90-minute, 14-mile moving guided tour through old and new Key West. The drivers/conductors of this canary yellow car train are knowledgeable and humorous, and it's possible to hop on/hop off the train at various stops throughout its extended route.
Another “must do” is the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum, a Spanish Colonial-style mansion built in 1851. It is a two-story home, and has a lush, tropical garden planted by the writer, next to his writing studio. The structure today is still home for 50 of the unusual six-toed cats Hemingway began keeping as pets when he lived there from 1931-40.
The next attraction we enjoyed is the Little White House Museum. Inside the Truman Annex is a vacation retreat three U.S. presidents used as vacation retreat; Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. An educational video, and a 45-minute guided tour compliment a one-acre botanical garden on the grounds of the facility.
Of course, the Southernmost Point structure, the Key West Lighthouse Museum, and, for sure, all the daily activities around the Mallory Square Dock in Old Town off historic Duval Street, certainly should not be missed. Especially timely is watching a nightly sunset in that location, complete with seeing the many street performers, and enjoying the great area music and adult drinks.
I hope this peek at the historic Florida Keys has possibly caused you to want to explore this exciting location. If you do, totally enjoy it folks!