We both have our ultimate favorite places. No matter how far afield we roam, there remain those few certain spots that resonate with us. And we both have our own distinct choices—places that have a personal appeal. Mine are defined by mountains. If the scenery includes peaks then I am hooked. Snow-capped or emerald-cloaked, the mountains will never fail to pull at my strings. Chris is okay with that landscape, but I suspect in his heart-of-hearts there’s another place for him. A much different place . . . far removed from where the mountains are. Sunny Florida is a special place for my husband, and when it comes to our winter travel planning, no matter how many times have come before—Florida seems always listed in his top choice of destinations. Without a doubt I’d have to say herein lies his favorite place . . .
But let me take this one step further, to narrow down his heart’s desire more concisely. From our very first Florida visit some four winters past, I saw a glimmer of what might grow into a serious attraction. By our second season in this southern state I had my proof. There were no illusions now—he had been hooked. Now comes our third winter migration to this state for which he did the planning. Within a mere week since our arrival, we were laying tracks to Florida’s southernmost reaches. With only a couple of short delays he had us making the proverbial bee-line—to that place that would not be denied. It was his siren’s call . . . his Shangri-La . . . literally, his end of the road.
The mainland of Florida fades away in your rearview mirror . . . a narrow, often busy road stretches out before you, cutting straight through marshlands and over a watery expanse aptly named Surprise Lake. As we take the final leg to our destination, we can’t help but feel something extraordinary is about to be revealed. The short miles creep by while anticipation increases. Then we make a turn and the scenery changes, the flat land begins to bloom. The road is cutting through the heart of an tropical landscape. Green becomes the dominant color, lushness is a word that comes to mind.
The Florida Keys sparkle like gems that have been sprinkled in a sea that shimmers in myriad shades of blues and greens . . . every nuance of teals and azures and turquoise and sapphire. Strung along a 106-mile ribbon of concrete and steel, the Overseas Highway, this archipelago spans a distance of some 180 miles from Biscayne Bay to the Dry Tortugas. The last 70 miles of leftover jewels were named the Tortugas (Spanish for “turtles”) by Ponce de Leon back in the 16th century.
The Keys are warm and bright, full of light and air. They are relaxed, but a little bit reckless and often quirky. The Keys are water and sky, colorful and subtle, vibrant and calm. They are soothing dawns and fiery sunsets. They are a land apart.
And it is no wonder that we would stay within their borders many more days than ever before.
The first settlement in the Keys began in Key West, in 1822, more than 20 years before Florida became a state. The other keys remained pretty much deserted until 1874 when the state surveyed them and plotted land for homesteading. Intrepid individuals brought their families here to attempt a living off the unforgiving chunk of coral rock. Few remained. Mosquitoes being the primary filtering factor. Farming and fishing was the way to make a living, their produce and products put on schooners moored offshore, to be taken to Key West or ports up north.
Pirates established their base in Key West, bringing a short-lived prosperity to the town. Then the military moved in, subduing the pirates but causing more grief to the town than the pirates when they appropriated the settlers’ livestock, buildings and supplies for “military purposes.” After the soldiers departed, the wrecking business began to flourish, as ships carrying precious and valuable cargoes often went aground on the Keys’ treacherous reefs. By the 1880s Key West became the richest city per capita in America.
It was Key West’s prosperity that had an influence on Henry Flagler’s idea to extend his famous Florida East Coast Railway (the FEC) across a hundred miles of water and twenty-nine islands. As one of the founders of Standard Oil, Flagler had plenty of wealth to devote to this grand project which soon became known as Flagler’s Folly. Nevertheless, Key West, with its deepwater port, was the perfect terminus for his railway. At a time when the Panama Canal was under construction, Flagler saw his railway connecting up with ships taking commerce to South America. Begun in 1905 when he was 75 years old, It took 7 years to construct the rail line, and Henry died only a few months after the project was completed in 1912. But he did make its inaugural trip into Key West, greeted by a boisterous, jubilant crowd.
Unfortunately, the railroad turned out not to be the financial success that Flagler had imagined. To make matters worse, a devastating hurricane tore through the Keys in 1935, with an 18-foot tidal wave and 200 mph winds. It destroyed embankments and even swept a train loaded with evacuating workers into the sea.
Approximately 500 souls lost their lives and hundreds more were homeless and stranded throughout the islands. What little prosperity had developed in the Keys was lost in that ferocious storm.
After the succeeding 25 years of relative isolation, the impoverished people living in the Keys were ecstatic to learn that the State of Florida would finish building an Overseas Highway connecting the islands, much of it laid on the remaining foundations of Flagler’s rail line. On July 4, 1938, the 128-mile Highway 1 through the Keys was officially opened, and shortly thereafter the Greyhound Bus Line began service to Key West.
Once again tourists began to travel through the Keys. The long-time residents were to experience a rebirth of sorts, their livelihoods about to take a turn for the better.
The highway wasn’t all that good. Barely wide enough for two cars to pass.
With a naval base in Key West, the military had a vested interest in maintaining the road and improvements on various segments were ongoing throughout the years. But by 1944 some of Flagler’s bridges were seriously deteriorating, often chunks of concrete falling into the water. The road had become insufficient to handle the increased traffic. Plans to build a completely new highway complete with better bridges began to formulate. In 1989 it became a reality. Highway 1 that exists today is wider and stronger, but from a design perspective, the bridges leave much to be desired.
The Upper Keys, those nearest the mainland, begin at Key Largo. That is where you’ll find our country’s first underwater park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. It was also our first Keys’ destination. Their campground, although small, is ideally located and provides a dive shop and glass-bottom boat tours, which are both perfect ways to discover the attractions within this park. Its area on the water spans 21 miles in length and is 4 miles wide, protecting 40 species of coral and 650 species of fish on the only living reef along the Atlantic Coast. An excellent Visitor Center will provide a background of the life within a coral reef environment, showcasing many living species that make there home there. We took it all in on our past visit two years ago. This time around we took the less active approach . . . settling in, laying back and adapting to “Island Time”.
We rousted ourselves up one early morning in order to make use of the bike trail that passes directly in front of Pennecamp. What a convenience! The last time we were here, the trail had been totally dug up during a renovation process. That was a letdown for sure. We made up for it this time around—not only for practical purposes (the local grocery store as well as the library was slightly over two miles away), but also for a pleasurable activity.
The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail (FKOHT) has more than 70 miles of existing trail paved in segments along a planned, 106-mile corridor from Key Largo to Key West. The remainder of the trail is now either in design or under construction by the FDOT. With parts being built over the FEC rail bed, while other parts parallel Highway 1, this recreational pathway takes in 23 of the historic Flagler railroad bridges. It is, coincidentally, part of the East Coast Greenway which we had already encountered on the bike trail in Amelia Island. The longest, continuous section of the FKOHT is located between the towns of Key Largo and Islamorado. During our stay here in the Keys we would be accessing this trail on many occasions.
What makes for a good bike outing are the stops for good food along the route. I make sure those stops are factored in!
Pleasantly spent days always speed by, it seems. Much sooner than we would have liked, we were moving on down the road. With other reservations locked in—don’t try to spend the winter in Florida without them!—we were compelled to head further south.
Next morning had us traveling that Overseas Highway—to the destination that could be at the top of Chris’ list.
While referring to Key West, Wallace Stevens once wrote “her mind had bound me round”. No better words could have been more applicable to Chris’ sentiments. This peculiar town does seem to have a mind of its own. While charming to some, it can repel others. It can seduce or disappoint. It is eclectic and eccentric. It can at once be appealing and zany while appearing slightly worn in the cuff. The Navy remains a presence here, owning a quarter of the town as well as two thirds of the waterfront, which is in the process of being sold off. Homosexuals probably garner another quarter of Key West, both in current ownership as well as in influence. The town is closer to Cuba than it is to the nearest Walmart. It is a glittering, balmy, lighthearted concoction of a town built on coral rock under a tropical sun. It is, simply, a very unique place.
It was our third time to visit Key West, and it was a charm from the start to the end. Chris splurged with our 5-day stay—only one campground in all of Key West and their prices substantiate that fact! We fed the chickens and pelicans found around town; then we toured and ate scrumptious meals out.
All good things must have an ending, we know, but sometimes the ending is worth it! Our last night spent in this memorable town found us taking a sailing ship around the coastline of Key West.
And what an experience it was!!!
–The sights we saw from that wonderful perspective were as special as the trip was itself.
. . . and watching the colors of a sunset sky reflected in the clearest of ocean water.
We departed Key West soon after that sail, but it wasn’t the end of our Florida Keys adventure. Pulling up anchor, we took our little Land Yacht just a short distance back to the Middle Keys, bound for another Florida state park.
Comprised of a group of islands in the Middle Keys on the northern edge of Marathon, Curry Hammock State Park encompasses over 1,000 acres—one of the largest parcels of uninhabited land in the Keys. Established in 1991, we found it to be a serene and scenic spot where the usual bustle and busy traffic of prime season in the Keys ends at their gate. We basked in the beautiful land set apart and wished we could take back the full week we had reserved. Instead, we’d only have three blissful days to make the most of.
And just a short walk away a pathway led down to the beach. Each morning was greeted with our early sunrise walk.
But a predawn visit to that nearby beach would reap even bigger dividends. Sunrise in a tropical land on a winter’s day doesn’t get any better than this!
With two miles of the Overseas Heritage Bike Trail cutting through Curry Hammock, we did occasionally venture out from the park’s premises.
Finding Leigh Ann’s Bakery and Coffeehouse just a handful of easy miles away that happened to serve pastries to make your heart sing and lattes you’ll dream about got us up and out on our bikes early.
It took a little searching (actually more than just a little) to find a spot where I could capture one of those famous Florida Key’s sunsets. But before our time at Curry Hammock was over, I found exactly the spot I hoped for. Everything came together on that final night—it’s no wonder Chris holds the Keys in such high esteem.
Forty-two bridges link the Keys, but it is in the Middle Keys where the three longest and most impressive ones stand. Flanking them are the newer bridges—built in the 1980s—which might be more substantial and sized for today’s requirements, but something has been lost in the conversion. These new bridges lack style and grace and character. They are sterile and just plain ugly. Long Key Bridge was Henry Flagler’s favorite and the one he used in photographs advertising his railroad. One hundred and eighty arches span two and a half miles of water, making it the second largest span in the Keys. Bahia Honda Bridge was the most difficult of all the bridges to build and kept the engineers and workmen in a constant state of perplexity. The waters of its channel are so deep that when trying to locate bedrock, all the workmen found was more water, so much so that it seemed to be a bottomless channel. Nevertheless, once constructed, the old bridge still remains today, despite storms and that horrific hurricane.
But it is the Seven-Mile Bridge that seems to receive all the glory. Even today it is held with deep respect. The Friends of the Seven Mile Bridge are dedicated to keeping it intact. No longer used by vehicles, it is a roadway for walkers, joggers and bikers each day. It is a pleasure to experience, taking one out over the clear and sparkling waters of Florida Bay, and a treasure from a past not soon to be replicated. After the rail tracks were removed (being incorporated as guardrails), it was widened to 22 feet and stayed in use as part of the Overseas Highway until the new bridge, which runs alongside, was finished in 1982.
We didn’t leave the Keys once departing Curry Hammock. Chris had us lingering a few days longer. Another favorite campground, Knights Key RV Resort, was ideally located at the southern edge of Marathon—within a stone’s throw of the Seven-Mile Bridge. And that, in our views, was its biggest selling point.
We were able to visit the bridges and see them in varied conditions . . .
. . . on stormy days with wind-tossed waves pounding at its foundations,
while a setting sun puts even the newer bridge in a better light.
Lest you think these Keys are all about chasing sunsets and kicking back in Tiki huts, there are beneficial institutions too. There’s the Wild Bird Sanctuary, Dolphin Research Center, Butterfly Conservatory, a Key Deer Refuge and the Sea Turtle Hospital, which was just a short bike ride away.
It serves a very worthy cause, supporting a program of rescuing and rehabilitating injured and sick sea turtles, already an endangered species. Located in a 1950s-era motel, the owner repurposed the old swimming pool into a big tank to house the permanent resident turtles and others that are recuperating.
The cost of admission seems to fulfill a good purpose– paying for operating costs, the turtles’ health care and a well-equipped facility for diagnosing, rendering medical services and in many instances, performing surgery on the less-fortunate little guys.
While some have very serious injuries,
. . . there are many that have happy endings.
You can learn a lot about these turtles through the tour and oral presentation.
And then, just like that, our Florida Keys experience was ending. While Chris packed up and prepared to depart, I slipped away for one last walk down that Seven-Mile Bridge. The day was just beginning, the light still soft, and the water as calm as it could ever be. It was just me and the pelicans flying overhead—a day couldn’t start any better.
Perhaps there’s more than a few good reasons for Chris’ choice of a prime destination.
and outdoor cafes.
Melinda and Chris
–sailing on to new horizons.