The Overseas Highway runs 113 miles through some of Florida's loveliest scenery, and the drive from Miami to Key West is on many a road-tripper's bucket list. It was on my traveling companion's must do list, so when we had a chance for a vacation, we chose to drive. I'm an avid Jeep enthusiast and know well the feeling of the wind in my hair, so we opted to rent a convertible to make the trip a little more exciting.
Car Rental Betrayal
Renting a convertible is not for the budget-conscious. It cost nearly $200 with taxes and fees for our convertible for one day, and although we dreamed of riding in a Mustang convertible those 120+ miles, we didn't get the Mustang. We got a 2015 Camaro. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice-looking car - but the rental version didn't seem to have much get up and go. I guess the rental car companies don't want you to drive TOO fast.
Getting out of Miami traffic is the first challenge. From the airport, we stopped for lunch upon recommendations from friends, in Coconut Grove, a beautiful part of the city. Our first hint as to how bad Miami traffic is should have been when it took us 30 minutes to go 4 miles from the airport to Coconut Grove. We had an enjoyable lunch, walked around this party of the city, gawked at some fancy cars, including a Bentley, a Rolls Royce, a Ferrari, and a Lamborghini.
It took more than an hour to release us from the stranglehold of Miami traffic and find some open road on Route 1 as it follows Southern Florida's curve. FINALLY, after passing strip malls, fast food joints and dive shops, we found ourselves on the bridge to Key Largo. Key Largo is actually somewhat modern and developed (I expected Florida kitch immediately). You'll find grocery stores Publix and Winn Dixie, and larger hotel resorts, like the Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort. There are your typical roadside waterfront restaurants, and you can swim with the dolphins at DolphinsPlus Key Largo. Two of the biggest attractions in Key Largo are diving and snorkeling along the two state parks or one National Marine Sanctuary. The other thing that brings people to Key Largo is the movie of the same name, starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, and as tribute, they offer a Humphrey Bogart Film Festival every year.
If Key Largo is the diving capital of the country, Islamorada is known as the sport-fishing capital. Boat charters abound, and in the waters around the six keys that make up the Islamorada region, you'll find tarpon, bonefish, sailfish, snook and redfish. Indeed, you'll see marinas everywhere you look. As I expected in the Northern Keys, there are more kitschy restaurants and hotels in the Middle Keys. We drove by the giant mermaid signs atop Lorelei's Cabana Bar, a popular watering hole in the area.
At some point while crossing Islamorada, the keys become smaller, the water the majority, and the views even better. Long Key and Duck Key featured some amazing views as we drove into the sunset. Hawks Cay Resort is right on the water in Duck Key and features sailing, watersports, dolphin encounters (meet the locals!), and even fishing charters.
You'll cross the famous "Seven Mile Bridge" while you depart Marathon, and the views are incredible. You'll see bits and pieces of the old railroad that Henry Flagler built, to first connect the mainland with the keys in the 1920s. Parts of it are now the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, a walking, biking and running path which will eventually stretch the entire 113 mile route from Miami to Key West. Nature is the focus of the lower keys. You'll see The Turtle Hospital, which cares for injured or sick sea turtles, a Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, and the award-winning beaches of Bahia Honda State Park.
Eventually, Route 1 will lead you to the "Southernmost Point" - Mile O, and Key West. Honestly, I expected Key West to be immediately
"weird" as we crossed onto the island, but it wasn't, in fact, Key West had all the modern amenities of mainland Florida - strip malls, chain restaurants - ones you may not have seen much in the last 80 miles of the drive. What it was, though, was exceptionally charming. Once we drove into Key West proper, I was awestruck by the well-preserved historical houses (or at least historical-looking houses) that are all over the island.
Our biggest surprise? Convertible Mustangs are everywhere. Orange ones, red ones, yellow ones, white ones - it seems that every other car is a Mustang in Key West. That made us a teeny bit envious...until we realized that you can walk just about anywhere you need to go in Key West. There isn't really a need for a rental car unless you're coming or going!
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Southernmost town in the US. Whether you prefer your vacations mild or wild, Key West has something for everyone. We spent a day at beautiful Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, a lovely beach with rentable chairs and umbrellas, and a snack bar that even stocked smoothies (alcoholic or not). I've been on many a beach in Florida with sugar-fine sand, but as Key West is a giant coral reef, I should have expected rocky, coral-y beaches. Wear water shoes or water-safe sandals and spare your feet!
A long walk to the beach and back (about 3 miles) was broken up by a pit stop for some barbecue at Charlie Mac's. An ice-cold Corona was the perfect foil to 90 degrees and humid, and it was also the perfect partner to my Shrimp basket with seasoned fries. Oh.My.Word. My dining companion had the Brisket sandwich, which was full of flavor.
We were also fortunate enough to be next door to a wonderful-smelling Caribbean/Latino place for lunch, Bien. We waited in line for a few minutes, our mouths watering, as we decided what to order, and left thrilled with our choices, a Palomilla Steak Sandwich and the Rice/Bean trio.
Although we envied all the Mustangs, and saw quite a few Jeep Wranglers, Camaros and other topless vehicles, we were grateful for the chance to walk off the wonderful food and drink, like the Rum punch that was widely found at the many watering holes on Duval Street. A walkway along the harbor took us directly to all the action (much like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Duval Street has a multitude of places to grab a drink, people watch and party).
Before we left the island, we grabbed sandwiches and eyed the pastry at the Old Town Bakery, then hopped in our Mazda 5 hatchback rental (it was more affordable) for the trip back to the mainland. The trip back, oddly, seemed shorter, but was equally as scenic as the sun rose over the road to light our way North and East.
Planning a trip to Key West? Start here, where you'll find great information about traveling from Miami and stops along the way, in addition to happenings and lodging in the Southernmost city.
We're already starting to discuss our next road trip - the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Stay tuned!