Vern Hobbs www.flying-fish-creative.com
The summer road trip. Is there a tradition more uniquely American? The desire to strike out down the endless highway is rooted in our DNA. Well, summer is almost over. Maybe Route 66 will have to wait another year. But despair not; Florida offers a most exceptional road trip: the Overseas Highway.
Officially, the Overseas Highway is the segment of US 1 between Florida City and Key West, a distance of 127.5 miles, with 42 bridges. The route is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated an “All American Road,” one of 30 nationwide, and the only one in Florida. The journey can be made in four hours, but most road-trippers recommend at least 48. It will take that long to stop at all the photo-worthy vistas, hit some funky roadside cafes, and overnight at a couple of one-of-a-kind roadside lodgings.
Arriving in Key West by air, we visited a few of the city’s venerated sights before beginning our northbound road trip the next morning. We hung our hats at the Hotel LaConcha, itself a Key West institution. Built in 1926, LaConcha, now a Crowne Plaza franchise, blends art deco style with relaxed hospitality. It’s a short walk to the Hemingway house, a Spanish manor set amid tropical gardens where the great writer penned his most immortal manuscripts. Directly across the street, the Key West Lighthouse provides both a panoramic view and a glimpse into the island’s past. We posed for photos at the southernmost point in the continental United States, downed cold beers at the Green Parrot, the last bar on US 1, then headed to Mallory Pier for Key West’s daily sunset celebration.
Right after breakfast we picked up our rental car. The helpful agent provided an explanation of mile markers. Taken for granted elsewhere, mile markers are the principle means of establishing location along the Overseas Highway and are often the only addresses offered. Mile marker 0 is in Key West; mile marker 127 in Florida City. Finally, she announced our car was ready, pointing to a Chrysler Sebring. While not quite as sexy as the vintage Corvette George Maharis and Martin Milner used to inspire a generation of road trippers, the Sebring did have one feature vital to this adventure: a convertible top.
Scarcely out of Key West, we made our first stop, an historical marker commemorating the arrival of the first train to Key West. The votive sign reminds us that the Overseas Highway was preceded by the Miami-Key West extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, considered one of the greatest engineering feats accomplished when it was completed in 1912. Today’s Overseas Highway uses many of the original railway bridge spans, a testament to their resilient construction.
Apart from the bustle of Key West, nature is the theme of the Lower Keys. At the Key Deer Refuge (mile marker 29) we learned about this miniature subspecies of the common white-tail deer and their struggle for survival. Bahia Honda State Park (37), is dedicated to the protection of the region’s delicate estuary.
At mile marker 40 we rolled onto the vaunted Seven-Mile Bridge, longest on the Overseas Highway. This span, marking the boundary between the Lower and Middle Keys, most challenged the construction crews building the Overseas Railway. Strong tidal currents demanded that new structural anchoring techniques be developed. Then, a major hurricane destroyed much of the bridge prior to completion, threatening the entire project. The delay resulted in a rush to finish the bridge, and gave the town at the north end its name: Marathon. Representing to many the perfect tropical paradise, Marathon is a vibrant town known for fishing and diving. Dining and entertainment venues abound, plus, Marathon boasts a unique lodging experience: overnight accommodation aboard a boat at Sea Cove Resort and Marina.
Craig Key (72), marks passage from the Middle to the Upper Keys. A few miles further, at mile marker 81.5, we discover a sober reminder of past tragedy. The Islamorada Hurricane Memorial pays tribute to the estimated 400 lives lost to the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, still among the most powerful on record. Happier memories are made at the nearby Theatre of the Sea (84), the second oldest marine mammal attraction in the world. The daily dolphin show is an Islamorada favorite.
The indelible link between Key West and Ernest Hemingway is rivaled by the connection of Humphrey Bogart to Key Largo (95). Originally called Rock Harbor, the town was renamed for Bogart’s hit movie. Bogartmania is in further evidence at mile marker 100, where the African Queen, the actual boat used in the 1951 film, is permanently enshrined. The less Hollywood inspired side of Key Largo, and by far its greatest attraction, is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (102). The first undersea park in the U.S., Pennekamp showcases the pristine marine environment of the Keys.
All too soon, mile marker 127 slides into view, and our top-down, summer road trip is over. A wise person once said, “It’s the journey that matters.” I’ll wager that person has driven the Overseas Highway.
• Issue 9, Volume 9, September 2013