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FEELING KEYSY - ROAD TRIPPING THROUGH THE FLORIDA KEYS
 
(2012 - Winter/Spring Issue)

Writer: KRISTEN MANIERI



Five-star dining in flip-flops; nightly sunset celebrations; turquoise waters as far as the eyes can see. It’s time to explore the Florida Keys.

There’s something oh-so authentic about the Florida Keys. A palm-studded paradise with a dash of kitschy Americana, this 200-kilometre island chain south of Miami, Florida, is exactly what you might expect and then so much more. Yep, that Margaritaville mojo with its “every hour is happy hour” vibe is unapologetically pandemic. Folks come here to have a good time and no one leaves disappointed. However, peel back the layers and you’ll also find adventure, sophistication and a beauty that is uniquely its own.

The Ultimate Road Trip

Fly directly into Key West, on one of about a half-dozen airlines, and you’ll miss out on much of the magic. Driving along the Overseas Highway, mile marker by mile marker, is the best way to experience the Keys. The drive itself, with its roadways flanked by emerald-green harbours and turquoise seas, will surely be one of your favourite memories.

About an hour from Miami International Airport, keep your eyes peeled for the first sign you’ve officially arrived in the Keys: mile marker 126, the first of many small white-numbered green signs that will become your main navigating method through the islands. From there you’ll soon enter Key Largo, the first of the five main areas, each with its own character and must-see pit stops.

Besides its claim to fame as the diving capital of the world, Key Largo is also home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, an underwater preserve that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010. Set sail for the reef on an early-morning snorkelling voyage while the sea is still reasonably placid and you’ll enjoy sightings of more than 50 varieties of coral and 600 species of fish, including a few that might end up on your dinner plate.

Islamorada, the next major island, is packed with fabulous restaurants all serving a stellar selection of native delicacies such as spiny lobster, seasonal stone crab and conch. For dinner, sink your toes into the sand at one of the beachfront tables at the Morada Bay Beach Café. Here, legendary sunset vistas are the perfect accompaniment to gourmet treats such as grouper ceviche or a perfectly-sautéed fresh catch. Nearby Pines & Palms Resort with its charming and well-kept oceanfront cottages is an ideal stopping point for the night before heading southward toward Key West.

Wild Encounters

Along the way, be sure to make a few stops to meet some of the natives. Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada might not look like much from the roadside, but inside, a couple of bucks will buy you an unforgettable animal encounter. Snag a bucket of herring from the counter and head out to the docks where schools of giant tarpon await their snack. Toss a fish in or be one of the daring few who lie belly down on the dock, arm extended out over the water, dead fish dangling. Hold steady until a gutsy tarpon dives out of the water and grabs the fish right from your hand. It just might be one of the most terrifying and hilarious things you ever do.

Farther along, on Grassy Key, The Dolphin Research Center invites visitors to participate in slightly tamer interactive programs that include swimming or painting with the affable inhabitants. Besides narrated sessions taking place every half hour at various lagoons, this not-for-profit teaching and research facility now features an ocean-themed splash park perfect for cooling the kiddies on hot days. 

At mile marker 48.5, check out the Turtle Hospital, a clinic and rehabilitation centre for sea turtles. The facility, which even has its own turtle ambulance, offers guided tours that educate visitors about turtle care and preservation followed by the opportunity to feed resident turtles, shrimp and squid.

Hello, Key West

Folks who chalk Key West up to being merely a giant floating bar seriously underestimate this kooky town. Sure, a stroll down Duval Street (the main drag), with its endless array of bars and pubs (including the original Margaritaville) might give that impression. However if you explore this 3.2-by-6.4-kilometre island, you’ll discover one-of-a-kind boutiques and eateries, museums and galleries that reveal Key West’s knack for being much more than just a party town.

One of the best ways to drink it all in is on board an Old Town Trolley tour, a hop-on-hop-off narrated transportation system with stops at or near the most popular attractions. Snap a Kodak moment at the Southernmost Point of the continental USA; stroll amidst hundreds of exotic butterflies at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory; wander through Hemingway’s house; or be transported back in time at the Key West Shipwreck Museum.

At day’s end, celebrate the sunset one of two ways. Join the crowds at Mallory Square where buskers provide nightly entertainment with music, juggling and acrobatics. Or sail out to sea on board a schooner or catamaran and toast the setting sun with a glass of champagne.

While the drive from Miami to Key West actually takes less than four hours, plan on four days. The Florida Keys is one place in this busy world where, thank goodness, efficiency and speed are not rewarded.

Travel Planner

Air Canada flies direct to Miami International Airport (MIA) from various Canadian cities. A new $330-million road connecting the South Florida mainland with the Florida Keys has been completed. The new “stretch” features numerous safety, environmental and aesthetic enhancements. The project’s iconic element, the two-kilometre-long, 20-metre-high Jewfish Creek Bridge offers a panoramic vista that takes your breath away.

For more information, visit:

The Monroe County Tourist Development Council: fla-keys.com

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: pennekamppark.com

Morada Bay Beach Café: moradabay-restaurant.com

Pines & Palms Resort of Islamorada: pinesandpalms.com

Robbie’s of Islamorada: robbies.com

Dolphin Research Center: dolphins.org

The Turtle Hospital: turtlehospital.org

Old Town Trolley Tours: trolleytours.com

The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory: keywestbutterfly.com

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum: hemingwayhome.com

Key West Shipwreck Museum: shipwreckhistoreum.com

Mallory Square: mallorysquare.com

 
 
 
 
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