Follow Janice Horton’s adventures as she ‘snap gaps’ around the world in this unique and informative travel feature based on Janice’s own personal travel experiences.
Planning to be in Florida USA this summer?
Don’t miss a snap gap to The Florida Keys – take a road trip down to Key Largo and Key West !
The one hundred and sixty- five mile road trip from Miami to Key West on Overseas Highway, also known as US Highway One, is one of the great all-American road trips. As we were planning to visit Miami as part of our Florida vacation this year, it made sense to take a few days out to head down to the Keys over the famous bridges that link them and to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps all the way to Key West, the southernmost tip of the USA.
The weather in Florida is tropical and the Keys are often thought of as the ‘American Caribbean’, making them the perfect snap gap destination to get away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist hotspots of Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Daytona Beach, and the Space Coast.
The Florida Keys are connected by bridges and causeways. Each Key, or island, offers unique features. The first one you encounter is Key Largo, which offers some of the best diving, snorkelling and boating experiences in the Keys, while Islamorada offers some of the best sport fishing. Marathon and Big Pine Key are in the heart of the Keys and offer relaxation, fishing and birdwatching. Key West is the most southern point of the US, closer to Cuba (at ninety miles away) than it is to the mainland of the USA some one hundred and ten miles away.
The Bridges: There are forty-two bridges connecting these islands. The longest is the famous Seven-Mile Bridge. The shortest is Harris Gap, which is only thirty-seven feet long.
Located just a few miles offshore of the Florida Keys is North America’s only living coral reef ecosystem making the Keys a mecca for scuba diving, snorkelling, boating, and fishing. The Keys are also a seafood-lovers delight, as here you will find some of the best seafood restaurants you could ever wish to encounter. The islands are known for the conch, the shell of which used to be a method of communication and whose meat is a mainstay source of local food. Nowadays the Queen Conch is protected and all the conch you’ll eat here comes from the Bahamas instead.
Interestingly, the Florida Keys are also known as ‘The Conch Republic’. This is all because on April 23rd, 1982, a United States border patrol blockade set up on US Highway One just to the north of the Florida Keys, effectively isolated Keys citizens from the US mainland. Since this blockade was on the only land artery to and from the mainland, it meant that Keys residents had to prove their citizenship in order to drive onto the Florida mainland. This lead to protest. The Key West mayor along with a few other ‘key’ conchs, went to federal court in Miami to seek an injunction to stop the federal blockade, but to no avail. So upon the court house steps, they announced to the world that the Conch Republic was an independent nation separate from the US and then symbolically began a civil rebellion. After just one minute of rebellion, the now prime minister surrendered to Union Forces and demanded one billion dollars in foreign aid and war relief. Thus began the Conch Republic – a tongue-in-cheek nation – which still continues today as a tourist booster. The people of the Florida Keys still celebrate their independence every year with a week-long celebration!
How Did We Get There? The obvious vehicle for a classic road trip is a car and you can hire a basic model or you can go right through the range to top notch and fancy. We initially planned to rent a red Mustang convertible for our road trip. I imagined us driving over the famous bridges in style and with the wind in our hair – but when we saw the amount of traffic coming out of Miami after Memorial Day weekend I’m afraid we were put off the prospect of driving ourselves and so looked at other options. We realised we could fly from Miami directly to Key West but then we wouldn’t get to experience the bridges or stop off at any islands on the way – and we wanted to stay a couple of nights at Key Largo. So we opted for taking the bus and what is more iconic than to take a Greyhound while in the USA? Travel Tip: The Greyhound bus service is available to book online. It’s easy – you just choose your starting point and your destination, see your ticket price, pay for and download your tickets. However, do note that you have to print those tickets out onto paper as the service does not yet allow for digital tickets. The buses are comfortable, clean, and equipped with a toilet. They have planned rest stops so you can stretch your legs and get some refreshments along the way. I wouldn’t hesitate to ride the Greyhound again!
Where To Stay: There are many places to stay in the Florida Keys – from big name resort hotels, smaller motels and hotels, to private B&Bs. Search hotel websites on the internet and check online booking agents like Booking.com or Hotels.com or Airbnb.com for the best deals.
Travel Tip: We used an online booking agent to book our stay at the Holiday Inn Key Largo but we called the hotel reservation desk directly to book our stay at the Lighthouse Court in Key West as all the online agents reported no rooms available and clearly that was not the case.
Top Things To Do in The Florida Keys
Scuba Diving and Snorkelling: The Florida Keys chain of islands are home to the USA’s only coral barrier reef. The reef is teeming with marine life and coral formations. The government has established the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary to preserve and protect the reef. There are dozens of dive centers offering dive experiences and courses. Most sites are a short boat ride away and there are both shallow reefs for snorkelers and deeper reefs for experienced divers. We dived with Horizon Divers, Key Largo.
Sightseeing: Boat trips are popular in Key Largo and one of the most interesting is aboard the renovated original steamboat ‘The African Queen’ which starred in the movie with Bogart and Hepburn in 1951.
Shopping: The shopping in Key West centers around Duval Street, where you can find everything from a bargain souvenir to a world class piece of art. The entire island features the clapboard homes and architecture it has become famous for and taking the Conch Tour Train is probably the best way of seeing it all. Also in Key West we enjoyed the Shipwreck Museum and the view of Key West from the top of the old wreck spotting tower. A must, as far as I was concerned, was a tour of Ernest Hemingway House. Did you know that as well as writing, he loved boxing, fishing, and his six-toed cat – of which there are now fifty living in his house – all with six toes and named after Hemingway’s famous friends?
Entertainment and Dining: The food and entertainment in the Keys is spectacular. From fine dining to bar food you won’t find better. I personally love a steak and lobster meal but whether you prefer ‘surf’ or ‘turf’ you will be certain to find a place and a plate and price to suit your taste.
Travel Tip: Don’t forget to check out Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street – it’s the original one and exactly where you will find the Perfect Margarita!
The Essence of the Florida Keys: The first section of US Highway One is essentially a narrow two-lane road through the Everglades National Park. I’d advise you to keep your eyes on the road if you are driving and to avoid glancing dangerously left or right into the mangrove swamps looking out for alligators. There is a feeling of awe as you cross the seven-mile bridge on your way from Key Largo to Key West – azure blue waters on either side – and a scene you might recognise from the movie ‘True Lies’. Key West lived up to my high expectations. It is so clean and so pretty, like a Disney town in its perfection. Historic (by American standards) buildings and wooden clapboard houses with wrap-around porches and white picket fences all give the place a surreal look and Hemingway’s house is a prime example. Duval Street is eye-popping in that there is so much to see and this is where I would urge you to look both left and right in case you miss something. Art galleries. Museums. Fabulous restaurants. Bars. Souvenir shops. A Walgreens shop housed in a disused but iconic theatre frontage. The original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Key West is almost a theme park in all that it offers!
My Conclusions: The Florida Keys are perfect for a snap gap vacation. If you plan to stay, as we did, in both Key Largo and Key West – then five nights in total should do it all. Two nights in Key Largo (we stayed at the Holiday Inn, which is right on the canal overlooking the African Queen steamboat) and three nights in Key West (we stayed in the Lighthouse Court right opposite Hemingway’s House – but it was our wedding anniversary). Certainly in Key West I’d recommend staying somewhere within easy walking distance of Duval Street, and it’s worth noting that most of the big name hotels are a taxi ride away from Duval Street, which is where I’m sure you’ll want to spend most of your time.