Over Seas Travel
The Florida Keys Scenic Highway may be the closest you’ll ever come to driving on water.
By Stacy Tillilie
It’s been called “the Highway That Goes to Sea,” “the most spectacular highway in the U.S.” and even “the Road to Paradise.” It’s the kind of road that not only gets you some place but takes you somewhere. And it’s 1 of only 31 roads in the country that’s deemed an All-American Road by the National Scenic Byways Program, sealing its reputation as a destination in itself.
It is the Florida Keys Scenic Highway, a 106.5-mile ribbon of road wrapping across 42 bridges over the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay and unfolding through some of Mother Nature’s most generous gifts: seamless stretches of calm turquoise waters and vast blue skies; patches of mangroves and palm trees bowing in the breeze; and a string of lazy little islands, or keys—some seemingly so fragile that if you blink, they might disappear with the tide. But you don’t merely look at the scenery here; you’re engulfed in it.
You could drive the scenic highway from Key Largo to Key West, which follows in the tracks of oil tycoon Henry Flagler’s ill-fated Florida East Coast Railway (defunct spans of which still stand parallel to today’s modern highway), in just a few hours. But linger for an entire day to fully experience these islands where nature remains untouched and life is laid-back. And along the way, take time to drop a line off an old fishing pier, enjoy Conch cuisine, explore little-known museums, or relax on a beach and keep watch for birds and dolphins in the distance.
Your journey begins in the Dive Capital of the World: Key Largo, home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Mile Marker 102.5), the first undersea park in the U.S. Snorkel or take a glass-bottom boat to explore the living reef, teeming with a menagerie of coral and hundreds of species of fish. Or dive to see the nine-foot-tall bronze Christ of the Deep statue, or scuba to the Spiegel Grove artificial reef.
Continuing south from Key Largo, you’ll come upon Islamorada, the Sportfishing Capital of the World. Here, you can take a charter boat to fish for everything from mahi-mahi to tarpon to bonefish. Or stay on land to visit the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum (Mile Marker 83), showcasing the world’s largest collection of diving helmets and artifacts.
At the heart of the highway is Marathon, home to the Crane Point Museums (Mile Marker 50.5)—composed of the Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys and the Florida Keys Children’s Museum, as well as a preserved tropical hardwood hammock. Kids will especially enjoy touring the nearby Turtle Hospital (Mile Marker 48.5) and getting up close with its resident sea turtles.
Back on the highway, you’ll reach the famous Seven Mile Bridge (Mile Marker 47), one of the world’s longest bridges stretching 6.79 miles over open water. When the original bridge was completed in the early 1900s, it was called “the eighth wonder of the world.” The new bridge, completed in 1982, runs alongside its predecessor, which now serves as a fishing pier and walking trail.
Next come Bahia Honda Bridge (Mile Marker 36)—get your camera ready for the boundless vistas—and Bahia Honda State Park (Mile Marker 37), renowned as one of the top 10 beaches in the U.S. Here, you can camp, swim, fish, snorkel, hike and kayak.
Traveling the last leg of your journey is the gateway to Key West, where the highway ends at Mile Marker 0, the southernmost point in the continental U.S., just 90 miles from Cuba. Key West is where you’ll want to spend days—if not a lifetime—retracing the steps of authors, U.S. presidents and pirates; snorkeling, diving and fishing; popping in and out of shops, art galleries, and open-air restaurants and bars; and celebrating the sunset, as locals and visitors alike do at the end of every day.
You’ve come a long way. You’ve virtually driven on water. Bring a towel, and as they say, leave only bubbles.
Top 5 Little-Known Finds
While you’re exploring those places in the Keys you’ve always heard about, take time to discover these lesser-known locations you’ve likely never heard of: Long Key State Park (Mile Marker 67.5), once a luxury fishing resort, where you can still enjoy some of the area’s best bonefishing.
Grassy Key, where kids can learn about and interact with Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins and California sea lions at the Dolphin Research Center (Mile Marker 59).
Big Pine Key, home to the National Key Deer Refuge (near Mile Marker 31), the habitat of the endangered Key deer.
Looe Key (off of Big Pine Key), a reef that’s also a national marine sanctuary and regarded by those in-the-know as one of the world’s best snorkeling and scuba locations—along with being the site of the annual Underwater Music Festival.
Pigeon Key, featuring a museum exploring the history of Henry Flagler’s railroad and the lives of the workers who resided on the island (Mile Marker 45).
Photos courtesy of Floridakeys.com.