Islamorada small, but a treasure to visit.

ISLAMORADA, FLa. — There’s no downtown to speak of here. And as islands go, the beaches are fairly few and far between. And if you didn’t know much about it before you hit the road, you might pass right through Islamorada, Florida, on your 159-mile drive from Miami to Key West.

But that would be a mistake.

Key West is the fun, funky, beautiful destination at the very southernmost tip of the Florida Keys. It gets all the attention. But it’s well worth the drive (preferably with a convertible top down) that’s sometimes slow and congested on the Overseas Highway that links it to the mainland. It’s a laid back, party town with a Naval Air Station, a cruise ship dock and and a nightly Sunset Celebration that draws at least hundreds to its shore, if not thousands.

But Islamorada has plenty to make it a worthy place to escape for some island time, even with a population of almost 6,300 and a median age of 52 (older than the rest of Florida).

It’s the “sports fishing capital of the world,” for example. The proximity to the Florida Bay, Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico attracts a great variety of fish species. Marinas offer charters and boat rentals for experienced or novice anglers. Former President George H.W. Bush, who has stayed and fished in Islamorada several times, made headlines in 2008 when he snagged a 135-pound tarpon while fishing with guide George Wood and Olympic skier Andy Mill, posed for a photo and released the fish. Other famous anglers who have fished these waters include British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, former presidents Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman, actor/philanthropist Paul Newman and former Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams. Cheeca Lodge, one of the places Bush stayed, still hosts an annual presidential fishing tournament.

Robbie’s Marina might be one of the better known spots for tourists with a variety of interests. Our party of five — three anglers, and one grandmother-granddaughter pairing along for the ride — went out on party boat to fish for a few hours.

But Robbie’s isn’t just known for its fishing excursions. While you’re waiting for your boat to go out, you can shop among local artisans selling their wares on tabletops in the yard. (That’s where I found a wooden teal mermaid for my home.) Or buy a cheap bucket of small fish to feed big tarpons that swim up to the dock looking for the treats. If you stumble upon a circle of adults and kids lying on their bellies on the dock, hanging little fish just above the water, you know it’s feeding time. Pelicans know it, too, and they’ll try to grab the bait right out of your bucket.

Paddle boards, jet skis and kayaks can be rented here for exploring the island. And the Hungry Tarpon restaurant will cook whatever you catch right there — any way you want it — for $15 a pound. Our catch for the day was a little small to be worrying about such things.

We tapped the advice of some locals for great restaurants and hit the jackpot at the Lazy Days Oceanfront Restaurant, where we got a table on the upstairs balcony overlooking the clear blue water and pier below. At Morada Bay Beach Cafe, we enjoyed the dining in colorful tables on the sandy beach so much that we went back a second time. And the Islamorada Fish Company was a fun place to stop for drinks and light snacks.

There for a family birthday celebration, we just happened to pick the weekend of the annual Nautical Flea Market put on by the Upper Keys Rotary Club at Founders Park, which has its own little beach by the picnic area. The boat owner among us was in his element, looking at boating and fishing gear while the rest of us did some people watching and checked out the T-shirts, hats and art for sale.

Judging from the crowds we saw on Sunday and the parking jams nearby, it’s a popular event with people who love anything nautical, from beautiful boats to motors, rods and reels and accessories to deck out a boat.

Preparing to leave, I spotted a familiar well-coiffed silver head of hair in front of us.

“Isn’t that the former Cowboys coach,” I asked my husband, trying to recall the name. Yes, Jimmy Johnson, that’s the one, I acknowledged. I later learned by flipping through one of the Florida Keys tourism guides that Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill in Key Largo is quite the hot spot, with live entertainment, tiki bars, a martini bar, raw bar, watersports rentals and waterfront dining. And — get this — Super Bowl trophies and celebrity sightings. Maybe that spot will go on our list for our next visit.

 

Terry Scott Bertling is travel editor of the Express-News. [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @TerryBertling.