Travel: Experiencing the flavour of the Florida Keys

Travel: Experiencing the flavour of the Florida Keys
Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.

step off a plane at Key West International Airport and then out of the heat and into an air-conditioned van.

My mission — a Florida Keys road trip, a drive northward up the coral cay archipelago that arcs gently down in a southwest direction from mainland Florida.

It is a journey I have a vague memory of doing once before, although this time, I’m approaching the whole thing in a much more civilized manner and from a different direction.

It was 1983 when I jumped into a rickety old station wagon with three unsavoury student buddies and drove 35 hours from Ontario to Florida on a spring-break race for the sun.

We purposely avoided the crowds by continuing on as far south as the road would take us and found ourselves here, at Mile 0, in laid back, free-spirited Key West. We delighted in its tropical climate and seemingly continuous happy hour.

I peer out the car window, seeing familiar sights in this, the most eclectic and offbeat little city in America — tourists in floral shirts and Panama hats and locals dressed in whatever strikes their fancy.

From the quirky locals and intriguing history to the turquoise waters and succulent cuisine, every element of Key West is colourful.

I arrive at my downtown accommodation in time to watch an iridescent sun melt into the blue sea.

While artisans peddle handicrafts on the historic docks of Mallory Square, jugglers, acrobats, musicians and performing cats draw applause from sunset revellers celebrating a daily ritual.

The nightlife is a spectacle not to be missed — a mixture of different rhythms, cultures and lifestyles. As it was those many years ago, Duval Street is the hub.

I grab a stool at Sloppy Joes and toast Ernest Hemingway, once a regular patron.

Sloppy Joes Bar.

In the daylight, I hop aboard the Old Town Trolley for a delightful guided tour, jumping off at various sites of interest, including Hemingway’s Spanish-Colonial mansion.

You can soak in literary history at Hemingway’s studio, see shipwreck archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, discover nature at the Butterfly Conservatory or head out on the water with a jetski, boat or diving tour.

 While the worthwhile attractions are many, time is what I lack and so, after two days of fun in Key West, I’m ready to set off up the road.

Drivers can travel the full 181-kilometre length of the Overseas Highway between Key West and the mainland in four hours, but to fully experience the flavour of the Keys’ five regions, plan on three to four days.

 The highway is an engineering marvel — you’ll cross 42 bridges and causeways on route, some stretching over seemingly impossible expanses of water.

The African Queen steam ship.

The scenery is delightful, from tidal flats and aqua-blue waters dotted with tropical islands to the classic Americana roadside — unique attractions and funky restaurants.

Keys’ cuisine specializes in fresh seafood with Caribbean flavours and it’s generally agreed a slice of key lime pie is a heavenly end to any meal.

 At Lone Pine Key, I enjoy a kayaking eco-adventure with Bill Keogh and his dog Scupper across the straight and into the twisted roots of the mangrove swamp, we’re on the lookout for dolphins, sharks, rays or crook-jawed crocodiles.

I find osprey on channel buoys, crabs scurrying over stone outcrops and miniature Key deer grazing along the shoreline.

 The Marathon Turtle Hospital is a fascinating facility that treats injured sea turtles. I meet with the facility celebrity “Bubble-Butt,” the unfortunate victim of a boat collision.

Next up is Islamorada Key, Sport-Fishing Capital of the World and then Key Largo, the longest island of the chain, to visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which features more than 50 varieties of delicate corals and 600 species of fish.

Key Largo is also now home to the African Queen, the same steam ship from the famous 1951 movie. Like Bogart at the tiller, I guide the iconic vessel on a tour of the Port Largo Canal.

 My road-trip at an end, I fly home from Miami thinking that, although the Florida Keys has grown up some since my last visit, as have I, the friendly feel and laid-back simplicity of the place hasn’t changed at all.

The same enchanting details, which rise above the fog of that long-ago trip remain — eccentric characters, key lime pie, ocean fishing, reef diving, buskers, sunsets and Hemingway.

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