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The Overseas Highway. Never heard of it? Believe me, you've seen it--in dozens of automobile commercials (cars zipping over bridges spanning marvelous expanses of green-blue waters), in Arnold Schwarzenegger's terrorist send-up True Lies and other car-chase extravaganzas. Fondly known as the "Highway That Goes to Sea," it's actually the southernmost leg of Highway US 1 and runs from Miami down across the Florida Keys following the route of Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railroad, which operated from its opening in 1912 to 1935. In that year, a hurricane damaged it beyond repair. Instead of rebuilding the tracks, the federal government stepped in to help build a highway on the old rail bed (i.e., not very wide one), completing it in 1938. It's still mostly two lanes, making the trip slower than most would like, Miami to Key West in about three-and-a-half to four hours.

On the 150-mile drive, 113 miles are actually the Overseas Highway, the balance being on the mainland of Florida. There are 42 bridges taking you from key to key in a series of arches, some long, some short. In 1982, 37 of these bridges were replaced with wider spans, including the world-famous Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon. ("World famous" because so many foreign companies film their commercials on that structure).

Hitting the Right Keys

Leaving Miami, the fastest route to the Keys involves cruising the Florida Turnpike for a few miles, then turning onto US 1 at the turnpike's end near Florida City. If you have the time, we suggest you take the leisurely and much more scenic route (it's also US 1 or the Dixie Highway) from downtown Miami, passing through the attractive neighborhoods of Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. Once you reach the first bridge, you then have 125 miles of the Overseas Highway proper.

There are five regions in the Keys, those being (in order from north to south, or northeast to southwest, actually) Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and Key West. Each has its own ambiance, for better or worse. The entire chain, including its shallow water flats, mangrove islets and coral reefs, has been designated the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. If you go out into the water, be sure not to touch the coral, nor to anchor on a reef (they are alive). In any place, don't feed the animals (such as alligators or Key Deer), and don't speed.

Key Largo

This is the largest of the keys and the place where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall filmed their movie of the same name. The highlight here is the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first U.S. underwater preserve, and the adjoining Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. When you take the time to get out on the water, you'll find up to 55 varieties of corals and nearly 500 species of fish here.

You turn off at Mile Marker 102.5, oceanside, to the park. Note that these mile markers (small green signs with white numbers) are very important to finding your way on the Overseas Highway. They indicate how far you are from Key West, which is mile marker (MM) 0. Whether the place you're going to is on the oceanside or bayside also is usually noted. Oceanside means just that, or to the south or southeast; bayside means the opposite of toward the ocean, or to the north or northwest.

At Pennekamp Park (open from 8 to dusk, entrance $2.50 per vehicle and driver, $50 for two persons, then 50 cents each per extra passenger) you can go snorkeling or scuba diving (perhaps to the nine-foot bronze statue of Christ 20 feet down), or you can take a glass-bottom boat to the reef, choosing from three daily tours, at 9:15, 12:15 and 3, ($15 for adults, $8.50 for children under 11). The Scuba Express and Dive Express both depart from the park daily at 9:30 and 1:30, costing $37 per person. Snorkeling boats depart at 9, 12 and 3 and cost $24 for adults, $19 for those under 18.

Nearby, also in Key Largo, are Dolphins Plus (at MM 100, oceanside) and Dolphin Cove (at MM 102, bayside), both dolphin encounter program facilities. Swims are expensive, from $95 up at Dolphins Plus to $125 at Dolphin Cove. Viewing only, however, costs $8 at Dolphins Plus ($5 for children 7 to 17, tel. 305/451-1993). For more Key Largo information, contact the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce (tel. 800/822-1088).

Islamorada

The name means "purple isle" in Spanish, but many observers see red at the over-commercialization of this group of islands, where the legitimate sportsfishing enterprises (more sportsfishing world records than any other fishing destination in the world) have been overshadowed by the shoddy "entertainment" facilities and unhygienic restaurants that line the road. Unless you're going sportsfishing, I recommend passing through the Islamorada area as quickly as you can.

Marathon

This group of islands is home to the Seven Mile Bridge and is the heart of the Florida Keys, being about halfway between Key Largo and Key West. Here be dolphins, especially at the Dolphin Research Center (tel. 305/289-1121), one of five facilities in the Keys that provide visitors a change to swim and interact with these mammals. One of the first Flippers of the TV program is buried here. Walking tours are held four times daily, costing $12.50 ($7.50 ages 4 to 12, under 4 free, seniors $10). A swim with the dolphins costs $110. They are located at MM 59, bayside, on Grassy Key. Another, the Dolphin Connection, is at Hawks Cay Resort (tel. 305/734-7000), an upscale spot between Marathon and Key West at MM 61, oceanside. The encounter program costs $80 and $90 for adults, and $30 to $35 for children.

Another top sight here is the Seven Mile Bridge, the largest segmental bridge in the world. The bridge separates the Middle Keys from the Lower Keys. Before passing over the bridge, take a detour at its eastern end to visit Pigeon Key, a small island below the middle of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, accessible from the visitors center at the western edge of Marathon. The workers who built Flagler's railway in the early 1900s lived on Pigeon Key. It has remained unchanged since then, and is now a national treasure, complete with a museum (tel. 305/743-5999) describing the construction of the original railroad-bridge. If you have time, you might take advantage that the old bridge, closed to cars, is great place for fishing, cycling, rollerblading and just sitting and maybe watching the sun set.

At MM 50, oceanside, is Sombrero Beach, at Sombrero Boulevard. This is a public beach with picnic facilities and a children's playground. Also at MM 50, but bayside, is the Marathon Garden Club (tel. 305/743-4971), which has free admission Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 2. This is a small rain forest with over 125 varieties of ferns, palms and other plants indigenous to the Keys. It's also a great spot for birdwatching. They would like a donation if you feel like it.

Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys

From the Bahia Honda Bridge here, you can see the Straits of Florida on your left (Cuba is just 90 miles away) and the Gulf of Mexico on your right. Bahia Honda State Park (MM 37, oceanside) is the site of one of the best beaches in the USA (as noted by several travel studies, and we agree). So stop here and eat that lunch you bought somewhere on route, preferably after you have gone swimming off the soft white sands here. The park is free, and open from 8 to sunset, though the concessions (convenience store, marina, rental cabins, watersports shop) close at 5, tel. 305/872-3210.

Farther down is Big Pine Key, well known for its Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, a great place for shallow water dive experiences. If you don't want to dive to the wreckage of the Adolphus Busch Senior (a freighter), you can rent a kayak, sail or motorboat to cruise along the shores of the many deserted islands here.

Big Pine is also the center of the National Key Deer Refuge, which reaches from Bahia Honda Key to the eastern shore of Sugarloaf Key. These little deer, related to the Virginia white tailed species, weigh only between 45 and 80 pounds, fully grown. Their refuge encompasses some 8,000 acres along the Overseas Highway and extends out into the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The visitors center for the nature trail here is in the Winn Dixie Shopping Center, 701 Key Deer Boulevard, open weekdays from 8 to 5, tel. 305/872-2239.

NOTE: You must drive slowly through the refuge and you are not to handfeed the deer, which can be seen best at dawn and dusk alongside the road's edges.

The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is also here, from the Seven Mile Bridge all the way to Key West. (I have seen one such heron walking down that city's main drag, Duval Street, looking for a handout, perhaps.) These birds are North America's largest wading bird and are found only in the Florida Keys and the South Florida mainland. You can take a kayak or shallow draft fishing boats out into this part of the refuge, if you have the time. Kayak tours average about $30 for two hours, $50 for half day, $85 for full day; rentals are available from about $10 per hour to $50 per day.

To view a real oddity, you might consider visiting Perky's Bat Tower at MM 17, bayside, on Sugarloaf Key. Late in 1929, a resort owner named Richter Perky erected the tower to house bats which he hoped would eat the mosquitoes that bothered his guests. The plan failed, but the tower is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places!

Key West

This capital of craziness, as some visitors see it, is the final stop on the Overseas Highway--you can't go any farther. It's continental America's southernmost city (only Hawaii is farther down on the map), and is a bewitching melange of 19th-century architecture, 20th-century attractions and timeless charm. The Conch Republic based here (that's pronounced "konk," by the way, and the natives of Key West are called conchs). It's named for the sea mollusk, and boasts more writers per capita than any other city in the country (more than 100 published authors reside, full- or part-time, in Key West, with a population of about 25,000 year-round residents). The best known authors are dead, including Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Robert Frost, while the living (including 11 Pulitzer Prize winners) don't want to be mentioned as they cherish their privacy. If you're in town in January, you might visit the Key West Literary Seminar (tel. 888/293-9291), which attracts top authors from around the country.

Key West is also noted for its artistic community, with plenty of galleries to exhibit the resulting artwork, and its lively gay and lesbian communities, many members of which fly the rainbow flag over their homes or shops. (For more information, gay and lesbian visitors might wish to contact the Key West Business Guild at 888/294-4603 or 305/294-4603.

Everyone goes to Mallory Square each evening to view the sunset, watching musicians, jugglers, mimes and other performers and applauding the sunset. I suggest a sunset cruise on at least one evening you are in town.

Annual Events

Craziness is the keynote on April 23, when the Conch Republic celebrates the Big Day of its mock secession from the USA in 1982. It's a ten-day celebration including a parade, sea battles between tall ships and a drag race featuring (wait for it) drag queens. Call 305/296-0313 for more information.

Then there's a ten-day Hemingway Festival (tel. 305/294-4440) centered on July 21, the author's birthday, featuring a Look-Alike Contest, a Short Story Contest, and writer's workshop and conference. There's even a 5K run (Ernest wouldn't go for the latter, I'm sure). There's a Theatre Festival the first two weeks of October (with works of emerging playwrights), phone 800/741-6945 or 305/292-3725.

Biggest of all events is the Fantasy Fest on the last Saturday in October (with a big parade), preceded by another ten days of masking and costuming, with balls, a march through Old Town, a street fair, a Goombay celebration, a pet masquerade and other activities. Phone 305/296-1817.

The city is known for its excellent dining at all price levels, for its several repertory theaters (open during the winter season), and even a symphony orchestra. For more details, you can look up an article I co-authored with Judith Gaddis in the October issue of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine.

The weather is fine, nearly all the time, with an average daytime low of 73 degrees and average daytime high of 81.9. And there's less rainfall than New York City, Philadelphia or Boston, believe it or not.

Key West Highlights

Just before entering Key West, you reach Stock Island, itself part of the city, and at MM 5 you'll find the Sheriff's Animal Farm bayside, strictly for little children. It's on the grounds of the Monroe County jail (also known as the Detention Center), and features horses, ponies, cows, ducks, geese, pigs and other animals. It's open only on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 4. (The rest of the time, the prisoners are taking care of the animals, which produce part of their food. The jail, by the way, is located on one of the Keys' prettiest sites, though inmates don't get much of a view from their cells.)

From Stock Island, you drive over a short bridge to Key West itself, with a choice of left or right turns onto different branches of Roosevelt Boulevard. I suggest you turn right and go directly into Old Town, where you can park on the streets (if you're very lucky) or at private commercial lots or the city-owned garage at the corner of Caroline and Grinnell streets.

Among the dozens of attractions in the city, I like the following (in alphabetical order):

  • The Key West Aquarium, 1 Whitehead Street, with guided tours, a touch tank and daily fish feedings. Open since 1934, it's the first open-air aquarium in the USA. Admission $8 ($4 under 13, free under 4). Phone 305/296-2051.
  • The Audubon House & Gardens, 205 Whitehead Street, with guided tours, original Audubon engravings from 1832 (when he visited Key West and sketched 18 new species for his 'Birds of America" folio). Admission $8.50 ($2 under 12, free under 6), phone 305/294-2116.
  • Bahama Village, Petronia Street, a gentrifying neighborhood where local inhabitants of Caribbean background have opened up shops, ethnic restaurants and art galleries.
  • East Martello Museum & Gallery, 3501 South Roosevelt Boulevard (oceanside). This historic military fort is filled with historic pieces and the works of local artists. Admission $6 ($2 under 12, free under 6), phone 305/296-3913.
  • Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site, Truman Annex at Southard Street. Built before the Civil War, it remained in Union hands throughout that conflict. Its collection of Civil War cannons is the largest in the country. Sunbathing on the big rocks here is popular, but I don't recommend swimming until Key West is finished fixing up its sewer system, one branch of which exits in the water near here. Pedestrian admission free, $3.75 for car and occupants. Phone 305/292--6713.
  • Harry Truman's Little White House, 111 Front Street. The late president spent much of his winters here, playing poker and starting out here on his famous walks through the community. The family quarters, poker porch, living and dining rooms are open to the public. President Kennedy held a summit meeting here before the Bay of Pigs invasion, too. Admission is $7.50 (half price under 12), phone 305/294-9911.
  • Hemingway House & Museum, 907 Whitehead Street. This was the author's home (the furnishings are not his), with a separate building behind containing his second-story writing studio. While living here, he wrote some of his best works, include To Have and Have Not, which is set in Key West. Admission $7.50 ($4.50 if under 12, free under 6). Phone 305/294-1136.
  • Heritage House & Museum, 410 Caroline Street. This is the most interesting house in all of Key West to visit, as it includes the original furniture and furnishings of its owner, the noted hostess and preservationist Jessie Porter. Many celebrities of the past gathered here, including Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder and Robert Frost. The cottage on the grounds where Frost stayed during his 1945 to 1960 winter sojourns in Key West is now a National Literary Landmark. Admission is $6 (under 12, free), phone 305/296-3573.
  • Historic Seaport at Key West Bight, from Greene to Grinnell Streets at the north end of the island. You take a half-mile harbor walk past a 156-slip marina (home to tall ships and huge cruisers, as well as many more modest craft), taking in about 100 land- and sea-based waterfront businesses.
  • Key West Cemetery. Open dawn to dusk. Look for such great headstones as "I Told You I Was Sick," "Devoted Fan of Julio Iglesias" and "Call Me For Dinner" (the latter on a spot as yet unoccupied by its very much alive intended occupant), as well as a plot paying tribute to the 27 sailors killed in the explosion of the USS Maine, which set off the Spanish-American War of 1898. Free admission, but you can participate in guided tours (suggested donation $5) through the Historic Florida Keys Preservation Board at 305/292-6829. Tours start at the main entrance on Margaret Street.
  • Key West Lighthouse Museum, 938 Whitehead Street, one of Florida's oldest lighthouses (1837). You can climb the 88 steps to the top for a view of the city (and of clothing-optional swimmers in the pool adjacent), if you wish. Admission $6 ($4 under 12, under 6 free), phone 305/294-0012.
  • Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene Street, showcasing the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere, including the treasure of the Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Admission is $6.50 ($2 for children), phone 305/294-2633.
  • Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden, 1 Free School Lane (off Simonton Street, between Fleming and Southard), is a marvelous retreat, a tropical jungle in the middle of town, along with outdoor seating for enjoying picnic lunches. Above all else, though, I like the brilliant display of caged tropical birds, which are lovingly looked after here for their protection and our enjoyment. Donation suggested. Phone 305/294-0015.
  • West Martello Tower, just west of Atlantic Boulevard and White Street intersection, is the home of the Key West Garden Club, which has put plants throughout the ruins of the fort, itself listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Beautiful orchid garden as well as rare palm trees and a butterfly garden. Free admission except on special occasions. Phone 305/294-3210.
  • Wrecker's Museum (Oldest House), 322 Duval Street, said to be the oldest structure in Key West (1829), and furnished with antiques, as well as a wrecker's "Black List." Admission $5 ($1 under 12), phone 305/294-9502.

Among the highly-advertised places and attractions which you can safely ignore, in my opinion, are the Curry Mansion (overpriced and not all that interesting); the Conch Tour Train (overpriced and you can do better on foot/bicycle or in your own car); Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium ('nuff said) and the Southernmost Point (it's not). Getting around on foot is easy, since the entire island is 3.5 miles by one in size, and the historic Old Town area is less than a quarter of that.

Where to Eat and Sleep En Route to Key West

On a trip such as this, I recommend you head straight for Key West, making your headquarters there if you plan to stay overnight anywhere. Of course, you might want to stop and eat along the way. I think the most fun is to be had from taking a picnic lunch or buying the makings on the way, perhaps form a supermarket such as Winn Dixie or Publix, available on at least six islands en route. Take your fixings to a beach such as Bahia Honda or a park such as Looe, described above.

If you can't quite make it to Key West without eating somewhere, try Mangrove Mama's at MM 20 on Sugarloaf Key. A Lower Keys institution, it's a combination shack and patio, shaded by banana and palm trees. Fish of all kinds is good here, as are omelets and sandwiches. Lunch runs about $6 to $10, brunch $5 to $8 and dinner $10 to $20. Phone 305/745-3030.

Even cheaper is Coco's Kitchen in the Winn Dixie Shopping Center on Big Pine Key, with rice and beans and other Cuban cuisine at fire-sale prices. Lunch and dinner about $6 to $12, breakfast $2 to $5. Phone 305/872-4495.

Lodgings in Key West

Here are just three places (there are others) where the high season (winter) prices are less than $100 per room per night, sleeping at least two adults (remember that out of season, from May through November, prices are cheaper, generally):

The Grand, 1116 Grinnell Street, phone 888/947-2630 or 305/294-0590, is in a quiet residential area, and has a small room at $88, larger doubles at $98.

Nancy's Guest House, 329 William Street, phone 800/71-NANCY or 305/292-3334, has third-floor double rooms with shared bath starting at $89.

The Caribbean House is in Bahama Village, heart of Key West's cool (as in "Man, that's cool") zone, at 226 Petronia Street, phone 800/543-4518 or 305/296-1600. Here, there are ten sparsely-furnished rooms, the cheapest being only $69. All have air-conditioning, double bed, TV, phone, a fridge and private bath.

Eating Out in Key West

For local cuisine, look for Florida lobster, stone crabs, conch fritters and chowder, and Key lime pie (if the color is green, avoid it; yellow is the color of real Key limes).

For breakfast, there are three "must" places in which to eat inexpensively. First is Pepe's at 806 Caroline Street, in business since 1909. Eat indoors or out, the choices ranging from omelets to creamed chipped beef, prices from about $2.50 to $8. Phone 305/294-7192.

Second on the list is Blue Heaven in Bahama Village at 305 Petronia Street, phone 305/296-8666. Dine outside with chickens scratching at your feet (they're supposed to be there), and eggs on your plate, as well as homemade bread. Full breakfast from about $4 to $8.

Third place goes to Harpoon Harry's at 832 Caroline Street, phone 305/294-8744. Fishermen like this place and so do savvy locals. Very 1950s in decor, regular stuff including grits, all under $5.

For lunch, try B.O.'s Fish Wagon, which looks like a pile of junk inside and out, at 801 Caroline Street, phone 305/294-9272. A sandwich of local fish is $6.95, a dozen conch fritters runs $8. (Same prices for dinner, by the way.)

At the Deli at 926 Simonton Street, phone 305/294-1464, a sandwich lunch will run from about $2 to $7 (meat loaf sandwich is great).

Dinner is served at Bahama Mama's Kitchen, corner of Whitehead and Petronia, phone 305/294-3355, with most specials under $12, including a grouper seafood platter with two side orders, a salad and fried plantains for dessert at $11.75.

Also good is El Siboney, 900 Catherine Street, phone 305/296-4184, excellent for Cuban dishes such as ropa vieja (a stew) or picadillo.

Finally, try Mangia Mangia at 900 Southard Street, phone 305/294-2469, for fine Italian pasta dishes, ranging from $8.95 and up.

For more details on the Florida Keys and Key West, visit their Web site at www.fla-keys.com. You can also phone their visitors bureau at 800 FLA-KEYS or 305/296-1552 or fax them at 305/296-0788. Their address is PO Box 1147, Key West FL 33041.