Looking for a laid-back atmosphere in a frost-free climate with 1,700 islands of coral reef no more than 20 feet above sea level? Oh, and you want to drive there from the continental U.S.? Then head to the archipelago just a few hours south of Miami commonly known as the Florida Keys.
There is only one major road running the length of the Keys, and it is U.S. Route 1. The popular areas from northeast to southwest are Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and Key West. About 80,000 people call the Keys home, with a third from Key West alone. All landmarks are referenced by mile markers; Mile Marker 0 is at Key West and Key Largo is around Mile Marker 106.
There wasn’t always a highway running right through the middle of the Keys. In the early 1900s, Henry Flagler of Standard Oil fame extended his Florida East Coast Railway all the way to Key West. Spend any time in Florida, and you soon realize the influence of Flagler. Considered the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Overseas Railway was heavily damaged by a hurricane in 1935. The railway was abandoned, but the existing infrastructure was used to build today’s Overseas Highway. Some of the old railway can still be seen today, especially near the famous Seven Mile Bridge that connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys.
Bridges are everywhere in the Keys, and it can make for some slow going traffic. It can take three to four hours to drive from Key Largo to Key West. Some portions are wide enough to feel like a regular part of the mainland, but some portions are narrow enough to have views of the Straits of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Florida Bay in the Gulf of Mexico on the other side. In fact, at my campsite at Long Key State Park, my back window looked out to the Atlantic and my front window looked out to the Gulf.
For all but two nights of my monthlong stay, I found availability at state parks. I started at Curry Hammock State Park, a newly developed campground just outside of Marathon. Some of the campsites are right on the ocean, and all are within a 30-second walk to the ocean. The best part of Curry Hammock is a sandbar in the bright blue waters just off the shoreline. I paddled my kayak over there several times to see rays, seastars, crabs, fish, sand dollars, birds, and all kinds of ocean life. The quiet nights, awesome scenery, and friendly vibe at Curry Hammock makes it an easy choice for a return visit.
From there, I moved over to Long Key State Park. Every single campsite is right on the ocean, but the kayaking didn’t seem to be as exciting from my campsite. And, for some reason, it just didn’t seem quite as friendly as Curry Hammock. I enjoyed Long Key mostly because of its close proximity to Islamorada. The tarpon feeding at Robbies and the complex at Islamorada Fish Company are not to be missed. I have never seen such massive fish just hanging around for a quick meal. Robbies was also a great place to launch the kayak and paddle over to Lignumvitae State Park. If you’re looking for a good place to stay near Islamorada, then I recommend Long Key State Park, but if you want to be closer to Key West, I say keep driving down the road to Bahia Honda.
Of the three state parks I visited with the Airstream, I think my favorite was Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key. If I had been able to grab one of the secluded waterfront sites, it would have been my favorite, hands down. I just had a regular campsite with no view to speak of, but it didn’t diminish the overall appeal of the place. Bahia Honda (pronounced BAY-ah HON-da by the locals) is sprawling. Some of the campsites are on the Atlantic and some are on the Gulf side. There is a day use area which is packed full of visitors each day. Food, drinks, and supplies are available at the concession store. Boats for snorkel trips to Looe Key depart from the marina if the weather is calm. (The snorkeling out at Looe Key is pretty impressive, too!) There is also a smaller marina just for the campers. The beach is a sandy beach (actually unusual for the Keys) with great sunset views. And the rangers accepted all my mail deliveries! I now see why it is next to impossible to find a campsite at Bahia Honda State Park. They are completely booked 11 months in advance, and almost no one cancels it seems. (I relied upon one last-minute cancellation to get my spot.) The campground itself is about ten minutes into town, and about 40 minutes down to Key West.
Any visit to the Keys wouldn’t be complete without a few days in Key West. I had absolutely no desire to pay the ridiculous, outrageous, and idiotic $135 nightly rates for some of the campgrounds right in and around Key West, so I left the Airstream behind and made day trips instead. Parts of it (especially Mallory Square) are a little “touristy”, and parts of it (Old Town) have old, narrow streets lined with beautifully restored homes. The center of town, Duval Street, is packed with bars, restaurants, and shopping of all kinds. I was shocked at just how urban Key West felt. I had pictured a sleepy little village on the beach, but it is really a thriving metropolis on the beach. To me, it is a small (but less refined) version of Charleston, South Carolina. It even has an international airport. And I took advantage of that airport for the absolute highlight of my entire stay in the Keys.
At the far end of the airport is a charter company with several daily flights to Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the least accessible national parks in the U.S. The flight isn’t just any ol’ flight. It is in a 1956 de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter seaplane that takes off from a paved runway in Key West, and lands right on the waters surrounding Dry Tortugas. Normally a three-hour ferry ride, the seaplane cuts the 70-mile trip down to 35 minutes. Other than a few minutes up at 2,500 feet because of a wildlife refuge, the flight is just 500 feet above the water. It is close enough to see sharks, porpoises, birds, and hundreds of sea turtles. Our flight happened to be on the day of a full moon and it was just the start of sea turtle nesting season. The crystal clear water also makes it easy to see various shipwrecks along the way. Flying above the calm waters definitely gives a unique perspective to what lies below. And, of course, it was pretty impressive to land right next to some sailboats–basically in the middle of the ocean–and then taxi up to the beach.
Before it was classified as a national park, Dry Tortugas (and its Fort Jefferson) was a military outpost built in the mid-1800s to defend the United States from attack. Today, it makes a great place to snorkel. I did the obligatory guided tour, but I really just wanted to get in the water and explore. There is a tent campground that would be an absolute blast to try someday. There is no internet, no cell phone service, no nearby coffee shop. As far as I know, there isn’t even a place to grab a snack. It is truly out in the middle of nowhere, with water in every direction as far as the eye can see. It was such an awesome experience! Next on my list: take seaplane lessons.
As you may have noticed, I really enjoyed my time in the Keys. I didn’t even mention Sparky’s Landing in Key Colony Beach, or Blue Hole on Big Pine Key, or No Name Pub near No Name Key, or Knight’s Key Campground, or Key deer, or key lime pie. To be perfectly honest, at a quick glance it can look a little rundown and dingy in places, but that is just the feel of the Keys–laid-back and casual. Once you realize it isn’t anything like nearby Miami, you start to get it. The locals have it–that desire to never leave and the longing to return someday: The Keys Disease.