Out on the Town in Key West

Don’t overlook one of the first pleasures of a trip to the Lower Keys—the drive along U.S. 1 to get to Key West. It’s one of America’s greatest scenic drives.

At 154 miles from Miami to Key West, U.S. 1 follows the Florida Keys archipelago and spans the sea between islands. It’s kind of a geological lesson on the go, since that archipelago is nothing but the remains of a reef that died a hundred thousand years ago when water levels dropped and exposed it. The pieces of shell and coral at the shoulders aren’t just decoration; they’re bits of prehistory lying around.

Not until 1938 did one continuous road make the trip possible without the use care ferries between some Keys, and U.S. 1 tells the story, with visible remaining artifacts, of the slow, and sometimes doomed incursions into the Keys over land.

In 1905, Key West had the highest population of any South Florida city, and Henry Flagler, former partner of Rockefeller and a major developer of Palm Beach, had the idea of a railroad to get there from Miami. To build, Flagler’s Railroad took seven years, 17 miles of bridges, hundred of lives lost to storms and accidents, and 4,000 workers at any one time. By 1915, the line’s “Havana Special” took passengers to Cuba by a combination of rail and ferries. To destroy it took only one hurricane—on Labor Day Weekend in 1935, which killed 500 workers and caused enough damage to shut down the railroad.

Its bridges were used in the construction of the two earlier versions of U.S. 1. Today three of those bridges, designated National Historic Sites, still stand at Long Key, the Seven Mile Bridge and Bahia Honda. As you drive the current and third version of U.S. 1, which was completed in 1982, you can see the old bridges right alongside. The old Seven Mile Bridge is a good place to take in the views and get a break from the drive.

To some, U.S. 1 might look seedy, nothing but bait shops, beer stores and boat yards, the ragged edges of a maritime culture clinging to its mainland artery, a more or less accurate perception. The true allure of the road, to me at least, lies in the way it cuts between oceans and the land, where so many people live perched there, exposed to the mercy of the elements, but nonetheless very much at home.

Given its mix of driving thrills, design and construction ingenuity, the country that it passes and the stories that it tells, U.S. 1 is right up there with the best roads in the States, along with California’s Pacific Highway, U.S. 10 through the Atchafalaya Swamp and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The drive takes about 4 hours from Miami, and don’t bother to go faster than posted speed limits—you will be ticketed if you do.

The new bridge and road along the 18-mile stretch south of Homestead was completed just this year, in 2011, and gives drivers another lift as they enter the Keys.

Of course, to save time, you could fly straight into Key West International Airport. The flight from Miami only takes 30 minutes and flights are also available from Atlanta. Everyone who goes to Key West for the first time visits the Southermost marker and many folks take pictures of the moment.

—David Conway

There’s everything to be said for spending all of your time fishing while in Key West, but if you’re with family or friends who want to spend a little time on the island—you’re in luck. There’s a great deal of worthwhile history and sightseeing to check out while you’re there.

At the top of the list of places to visit for folks with marine interests would be Hemingway’s House and the Mel Fisher Museum—both museums tell their great stories of the two Key West residents well. There’s also the Shipwrecking Museum, a great part of Key West History, the Customs House Museum and many others. Other Things to Do: The Key West Customs House in downtown Old Town is a landmark and now often displays art shows for visitors.

Hit the beach. Public beaches in Key West aren’t extensive, but two good ones are Ft. Zachary Taylor and Smathers Beach, especially known for gatherings at spring break. Just up the road a bit, about 30 miles, is Bahia Honda State Park, with camping along a beautiful beach (with a few lobsters out there, too.)

As in any good touristy town, there are plenty of good restaurants to celebrate your vacation, or just that you made it to Key West. Plenty are located around the harbor in the Key West Bight in Old Town.

Though there are also terrific restaurants off the beaten track, just beyond Old Town, including popular favorites like Blue Heaven and Café Sole.

Key West Aquarium: Featuring sealife found in the waters around the Florida Keys. Daily tours and “feeding of the sharks” at 11 a.m., 1, 3, & 4:30 p.m.

Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum: Across the street from the aquarium, explore two floors of shipwreck artifacts and learn the history of how Key West became such a prominent hub for early mariners.

Conch Train Tour: For over 50 years, expert Conch Train engineers have tantalized more than 10 million guests (they say, at any rate) with the legends and history of the Conch Republic.

Mel Fisher Treasure Museum: Adjacent to Mallory Square is the Fort Knox of recovered Spanish gold, silver, cannons and artifacts that came from nearby waters.

Captain Tony’s Bar and Sloppy Joe’s: Two of the most recognized drinking establishments. You can’t miss Captain Tony’s: it’s the one with the goliath grouper sticking out of the building; inside, business cards and ladies’ brassieres adorn every inch of the wall and ceiling. Down at Sloppy Joe’s, every day of the week you’ll find live music on stage, and once a year the Hemingway Days “look alike” festival.

Lobsterfest: Three-day annual event in second week of August pretty much takes over the old town portion of Duval Street, and features fresh lobsters prepared in a multitude of ways. Five blocks of street musicians and artisans selling nautical and sea life creations are an additional draw for this festival.

Mallory Square sunset: Every sort of entertainment, 365 days a year. Lots of boats for hire to watch the sun go down over the water, if you don’t have your own.

Source : floridasportsman.com