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story.lead_photo.caption The Midway Cafe in Islamorada is one of the colorful, quirky spots to be found throughout the Florida Keys. - Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE/The New York Times

Seagulls and squadrons of brown pelicans flew alongside my rented Hyundai as I drove across the astonishing 7-mile stretch of U.S. 1 that runs across Moser Sound, just south of Marathon, in the Florida Keys. The proximity of birds and water blurred the distinctions between sea and sky, drive and flight.

The string of coral islands that arc from the Florida peninsula south toward Havana has a long history of attracting pirates, profiteers and seekers of a Caribbean lifestyle within the United States. Henry Flagler, an early developer of the Florida Keys, inadvertently gave the country one of its most scenic roadways when his Overseas Railway, running from mainland Florida down to Key West, was destroyed in a 1935 hurricane. That land route eventually became the Overseas Highway, or U.S. 1, vaulting across channels, and linking 44 islands, via 42 bridges.

I first drove the route with my sister in the early 1990s with a beer-filled cooler, tanning ambitions and the kind of dropout, sunbaked attitude that still drives the party crowd to the Keys, particularly Key West. The distractions along the way haven't changed much. Local police and sheriff's vehicles are still parked on the sides of the highway, jittery reminders that speed limits are strictly enforced. Cyclists share narrow shoulders over the 113-mile route from Key Largo to Key West. Manatee-shaped mailboxes, fishing marinas and seafood shacks proliferate. But most distracting are the views themselves, with the sparkling Atlantic to the left and the aquamarine Gulf of Mexico to the right as the road skips across scores of breezy, swim-inviting straits.

Over the course of repeated trips, I've come to appreciate the nature and wildlife of the Keys, home to endangered Key deer, mangrove forests and the only living barrier reef off the continental United States.

Below is a guide to this classic coastal road trip. You could drive it in a single afternoon, but you won't want to. Three languid days is more like it.

Tyler Burke (right) and Kelsey Turner fish near a rail bridge while visiting Bahia Honda State Park on Bahia Honda Key, Fla.
Tyler Burke (right) and Kelsey Turner fish near a rail bridge while visiting Bahia Honda State Park on Bahia Honda Key, Fla.

UPPER KEYS

Key Largo

From the rental car center at Miami International Airport, it's just more than an hour's drive on mostly suburban highways to the Everglades bogs that edge Key Largo, the northernmost Key and the first to introduce visitors to the natural attractions of the islands and Keys kitsch. At Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, I stretched my legs in a native hardwood forest alongside bird-watchers who could identify a palm warbler just by its call, before hitting the bustling Fish House restaurant trimmed in strings of tiki- and flamingo-shaped lights.

Its proximity to Miami has made 18-mile-long Key Largo — a place where thick foliage obscures the water from the T-shirt and shell shops — attractive to developers eager to lure those who may not want to drive any farther down the highway.

"South Florida traffic is our bread and butter year-round," said Herbert Spiegel, a consultant for the new Bungalows Key Largo, as he guided a tour of one of the island's newest resorts, with its fleet of electric boats, a Himalayan salt room in the spa, four restaurants and bars, and an adults-only policy.

Like the nearby Playa Largo Resort & Spa, the 135-cottage resort replaces a former RV campground, a trend that is nudging Key Largo upscale.

The porch of a villa at Moorings Village in Islamorada, Fla., offers relaxation and beautiful views.
The porch of a villa at Moorings Village in Islamorada, Fla., offers relaxation and beautiful views.

Islamorada

The everyday — in the form of schools, grocery stores and one very large Starbucks — mingled with signs for bird sanctuaries and state parks over the next 20 tropical miles from Key Largo to Islamorada. Spread across six lush islands, the community has an old-money heritage and a reputation as the sport fishing capital of the Keys. It's no wonder the recent Netflix series Bloodline, a dark story built around a prominent Keys family, was based in affluent Islamorada.

The fictional Rayburn House inn from that series is the actual Blue Charlotte villa at the Moorings Village, where 18 rental cottages, some dating to the mid-1930s, occupy a former coconut plantation. The hurricane denuded the property and killed its signature palm tree that bowed over the water.

"Not a blade of grass was left," said Debbie Pribyl, the general manager of the Moorings, where the cottages have all been reroofed and the landscaping replanted.

Indian Key

To delve deepest into Keys history, Brad Bertelli, the curator of the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, told me, travelers have to leave the road at Islamorada, and become waterborne.

He and I launched rental kayaks from Robbie's marina in Islamorada, a popular stop for feeding tarpon the size of teenagers, and headed for the offshore Indian Key Historic State Park. The 11-acre, mangrove-fringed island, with a shady tamarind grove and spiky sisal plants bordering the paths, holds the remains of a 19th-century wrecking village devoted to salvaging goods from ships that ran aground on the reef.

"Wreckers were thought of as the pirates of the day," said Bertelli, looking the part with a bandanna tied around his head. "Like used car salesmen, there were some bad apples."

Today, the ghost of its town square is a large field surrounded by rock foundations of storehouses, cisterns and houses, eventually abandoned after the Second Seminole War in 1842. A three-story observation tower offers views to distant Alligator Lighthouse, marking the reef where the wreckers plied their trade, and, in the opposite direction, Lower Matacumbe Key, the source of fresh water, which allowed the island to flourish.

MIDDLE KEYS

Marathon

Another 30 miles south, past innumerable cormorants perching on power lines, and you enter another world. Lobster traps line the street to Keys Fisheries in Marathon, a commercial marina harboring fishing boats and pleasure sailboats, and a dockside restaurant where baby nurse sharks school in the shallows, waiting for scraps. The restaurant is an apt introduction to the working heartland of the Keys. Here, locals and those just passing through put in orders for lobster Reubens under superhero pseudonyms and wait to hear, "Captain Marvel, your order is ready."

Commerce mingles with conservation in Marathon, home to two nonprofit marine attractions, the Dolphin Research Center and the Turtle Hospital. Both fund their operations largely through visitor tours.

Nature-based tourism isn't new to the Keys — snorkeling, diving and bird-watching are popular throughout the islands and, as I drove, a radio news broadcast urged listeners to use the "I Spy a Manatee" mobile app to identify the animals' locations and encourage safe boating around the slow-moving creatures. But getting travelers out of motorized fishing boats and into kayaks is relatively new on Marathon, where Miranda Murphy and Steve Tomek run 3-year-old AquaVentures, which offers guided kayak tours in the tangled mangrove channels at Curry Hammock State Park.

As a naturalist, Murphy treats the waterways like living aquariums, pointing out schools of baby snapper and using a net to pull up starfish and jellyfish that illustrate the role of mangroves as nurseries of the sea. "It's like a touch tank in the wild," she said.

LOWER KEYS

Bahia Honda

Seven Mile Bridge is the largest span in the Keys, and so exhilarating to cross that I returned another day to experience the drive in the blush light of dawn. It separates the Middle from the Lower Keys, and more commercial islands from some less developed ones, beginning with Bahia Honda Key, home to Bahia Honda State Park.

Beheaded palm trees and white sand beaches shorn of their shady sea grape trees testify to Bahia Honda's location near the eye of Hurricane Irma in 2017. Still, from the top of the old Bahia Honda Bridge, part of the original railway, there are hypnotic views across a 30-foot-deep channel that represented one of the most challenging to track-builders, sometimes limited by the tides to two 45-minute shifts a day.

Bill Keough navigates through the mangrove creeks with his dog, Scupper, near Big Pine Key, Fla. The Florida Keys, with their rich and varied history and wildlife, make for an entertaining road trip.
Bill Keough navigates through the mangrove creeks with his dog, Scupper, near Big Pine Key, Fla. The Florida Keys, with their rich and varied history and wildlife, make for an entertaining road trip.

Big Pine Key

Six miles west, much of Big Pine Key and neighboring No Name Key comprise the National Key Deer Refuge established in 1957 to protect the dwarf Key deer, an endangered subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer that grows just 3 feet tall. At the refuge visitors' center, in a strip mall where a pair of free-ranging roosters foraged the parking lot, volunteers told tales of deer showing up beside a Winn-Dixie grocery store dumpster, and extolled the resilience of the herd, which is now estimated to have between 500 and 800 deer. Many of the mangrove areas that edge their habitat remain barren after Irma.

Here, I met Bill Keogh, the easygoing owner of Big Pine Kayak Adventures, who guides paddling trips from Big Pine Key to the "backcountry," a largely protected region of undeveloped mangrove islands. He still sees baby stingrays, snappers and sharks and, post-storm, a preponderance of lobsters on mangrove island fragments dispersed by the hurricane. "It's the same biomass out there," he said, "but it's concentrated in new real estate."

Key West

The next day, the Perry's free 15-minute shuttle dropped me in teeming downtown, tourist-thronged Key West, the end of U.S. 1 and home to harbor-front bars and souvenir shops with a prevalence of mermaid ornaments, statues and paintings. In this setting, the Captain's Mermaid boutique owned by Kristiann Mills, a native Conch who identifies as a mermaid, is a tranquil, if glittery, refuge. She explained that many of her mermaid "pod" teach "mermaiding," or swimming in a long tail fin, and that she is launching the first Key West Mermaid Festival, July 5 to 7, to draw attention to conservation.

Home of the Conch Republic, which tried to secede from the union in 1982, Key West has long attracted nonconformists, artists and especially writers, from Ernest Hemingway — whose former house-turned-museum is famously filled with descendants of his six-toed cat Snow White — to Judy Blume, who co-founded Books & Books @ the Studios of Key West, a bookstore within a nonprofit gallery just blocks from the bar-lined Duval Street.

"Duval is a tiny Bourbon Street," said Shannon McRae, the general manager of Key West Food Tours, over a Hemingway daiquiri off Duval on her company's new Craft Cocktail Crawl. The three-hour tour visits dives as well as chic lounges. "We want to surprise you and let you drink like a local."

Travel on 02/17/2019

Print Headline: The Keys to adventure

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