Freewheeling along Florida’s Overseas Highway from Key Largo to Key West
Onboard the glass-bottom catamaran Spirit of Pennekamp, we’re hovering above a dazzling subaquatic garden of coral forming the last remaining live coral reef in the continental United States. Brightly colored tropical fish — wrasses, parrotfish and damselfish — swim in synchronized schools among waving sea fans and vibrant colonies of star and elkhorn coral just a few feet below us. It is a mesmerizing scene, interrupted briefly by the appearance of a very large and toothy barracuda, whose presence scatters the smaller fish.
“He’s fierce looking,” notes our young guide and narrator, Heather, “but harmless to all except the small fish that make up his diet.” Regardless, my friend Melinda and
I are happy to be on the dry side of the glass.
This is morning one of a five-day RV trip through the Florida Keys made last January, and our first stop is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at mile marker (MM) 102.5 in Key Largo on U.S. Route 1. The country’s first undersea park, Pennekamp and the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protect 178 nautical square miles of reef, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps.
Most visitors come to snorkel, scuba dive or visit the reef, as we did on the park’s glass-bottom boat, but you can also rent a variety of powerboats, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, or bring your own, to explore the park’s 50 miles of mangrove wilderness. Boardwalks and short hiking trails lead into the mangroves and tropical hammocks, and you can swim and sunbathe on picturesque Canon Beach. The park also features a recently refurbished campground with 47 full-service spaces for RVers and tent campers.
Motoring south along Route 1 —also known as the Overseas Highway, a marvelous but slow-moving mostly two-lane roadway that links the chain of keys — we arrived in Marathon, the largest community between Key Largo and Key West, home to one of my all-time favorite dining spots, Keys Fisheries.
Waiting our turn in line at the walk-up counter of this rustic dockside eatery, I was already drooling at the thought of tying into one of KF’s succulent lobster Rueben sandwiches. This is a sandwich so popular that the restaurant maintains a signboard counting the number sold — 238,000 at the time of our visit. Mel had conch fritters, and we both finished off this sumptuous repast with a slice of — what else? — key lime pie.
Marathon is made up of about a dozen small islets strung out between MM 63 and 47. Centered on Vaca Key, the community got its name from workers constructing the monumental Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad from mainland Florida to Key West in the early 1900s. Working night and day to meet construction schedules, crews reportedly complained, “This is getting to be a real marathon.” Nowadays, this mid-Keys region has a lot to offer visitors, families in particular, with such attractions as the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, the Dolphin Research Center, the Turtle Hospital, Old Seven Mile Bridge and historic Pigeon Key.
We had time on this trip for stops at Crane Point and the Turtle Hospital, and I’ll describe what we experienced there in a moment. Based on previous visits, however, I can tell you that both the Dolphin Research Center and Pigeon Key are well worth a look-see.
A nonprofit education and research facility, the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key (MM 59) is dedicated to the study and training of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. For a nominal admission fee, you can observe cavorting dolphins taking part in training sessions and attend educational presentations at the Dolphin Theater. For an additional charge, you can enjoy one of the Center’s Dolphin Encounters, allowing up-close, hands-on interaction with these wonderful and intelligent creatures.
At Pigeon Key (MM 47), you’ll find one of the Keys’ most evocative historical attractions, a well-preserved work camp built by Florida East Coast Railway in the early 1900s to house hundreds of men (and materials) engaged in constructing the original Seven Mile Bridge.
Crane Point Museum and Nature Center (MM 50) is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the Florida Keys. It occupies a sandy, hammock-covered 63-acre bayside tract that contains evidence of prehistoric Indian artifacts and was once the site of a Bahamian village.
Visitors enter through the Museum of Natural History with its interpretive displays of local wildlife, marine life and exhibits featuring artifacts and objects of cultural interest. Next, you can hike the center’s 1.5-mile nature trail that threads through a leafy hardwood hammock or join a trolley tour narrated by a knowledgeable volunteer. Of particular interest along the trail is the Adderley House, the oldest house in Monroe County outside Key West, built in 1903 by Bahamian immigrant George Adderley, and the Marathon Wild Bird Center, where sick and injured birds are brought to be rehabilitated and released whenever possible.
At the Turtle Hospital (MM 48.5), directors and founders Richie Moretti and Sue Schaf have rescued, rehabilitated and in most cases released more than 1,500 sea turtles — including loggerhead, green, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley — victimized by fishing lines, nets, shark attacks or disease. It is the only state-certified vet hospital in the country dedicated to sea turtles. You can join an informative 90-minute guided tour through the bayside facility for a behind-the-scenes look at the hospital’s operating room and rehabilitation area.
Following this busy day, we were relieved to hook up the RV at Curry Hammock State Park (MM 56.2), a small but wonderfully scenic waterfront park boasting a lovely 1,600-foot-long beach and 28 water-and-electric sites capable of accommodating RVs up to 70 feet. Park visitors can hike or bicycle on the Overseas Heritage Trail, swim the shallow waters off the beach or rent a kayak for a cruise along the shoreline or through a mangrove creek.
Continuing on our slow-paced journey to Key West, we crossed the shimmering waters south of Vaca Key atop Seven Mile Bridge (MM 40 to 47), one of the longest segmental bridges in the world, built in 1982 to replace Flagler’s original span. Much of the old rail bridge still stands beside the new one and remains open to the public for fishing and strolling. It is easily reached from Pigeon Key, site of the old railway work camp mentioned earlier.
Shortly down the road, we pulled into Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key (MM 37). This popular 500-acre park features the largest and finest natural sand beach in the Florida Keys, and we were ready to spread out on it for a couple of hours. Florida’s network of 123 state parks consistently ranks among the best in the nation, and this park is a good example why. Among its many features are a snack bar, gift shop, several hiking and biking trails, and a marina offering kayak rentals and daily snorkeling trips to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. The park’s three campgrounds offer duplex cabins and 80 water-and-electric sites that can accommodate RVs up to 40 feet.
Five miles from the end of the highway, we took up residence at Boyd’s Key West Campground (MM 5). The closest RV park to Key West, Boyd’s is the largest and, I submit, the finest and best-managed campground in the Florida Keys. Family-owned and -operated since 1963, this sprawling park is situated on a lush tropical peninsula. Reserve a waterfront site, as we did, and you’ll find yourself as close to paradise as you’re ever likely to get. Among the amenities here are a marina, a heated pool, a private beach, a convenience store, a game room, laundry facilities, four immaculate bathhouses, free Wi-Fi and 24-hour security.
Another great thing about Boyd’s is that it sits right next to a stop on the Lower Keys Shuttle route, making it a breeze getting to and from downtown Key West. This is vital to many RVers because a city ordinance prohibits vehicles more than 20 feet long from parking on city streets. Violators are quickly slapped with a $75 fine.
Our first order of business — which at this latitude translates to pure pleasure — was a visit to Dry Tortugas National Park. We’d never made the day trip to this cluster of seven tiny keys, one of which is home to Fort Jefferson, a massive Civil War fortress situated 70 miles west of Key West.
Although there’s a seaplane excursion to the Tortugas, it was too pricey for our pocketbooks. So, as most visitors do, we made the trip aboard Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed catamaran that ferries as many as 150 passengers on daily runs to the park. We boarded the stylish twin-deck 110-foot vessel at Key West Bight Marina at 7:30 a.m. for a two-hour voyage that got under way with a complimentary breakfast. En route to the Tortugas, an onboard guide presented an orientation session, filling us in on what to see and do at one of America’s most remote, and most unique, national parks.
After docking at Garden Key, right beside Fort Jefferson, we explored the rambling redbrick complex on a 45-minute ranger-guided tour. We learned that it is the largest all-masonry structure in the Americas, comprised of more than 16 million bricks. Constructed in the mid-19th century to defend vital shipping lanes linking the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, it bristled with heavy guns including lethal 15-inch Rodman smoothbore cannons weighing in at 25 tons apiece. A number of these huge guns remains in place at the fort.
Manned by Union forces during the Civil War, Fort Jefferson never saw action in battle, serving instead as a prison, mostly for incarceration of Union army deserters. It also held four men convicted of complicity in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. We had plenty of time during the four-hour visit to snorkel among the coral reefs fringing the island (gear provided at no charge), hike along the boardwalk surrounding the old fortress and enjoy a sumptuous buffet lunch served aboard Yankee Freedom III.
During the remaining two days of our stay, we shuttled into Key West, aiming to see some attractions we’d missed on previous visits, including the old Key West Aquarium, the Shipwreck Treasure Museum and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium. Key West Aquarium, built in 1933 as a Works Progress Administration project during the depth of the Great Depression, was one of the city’s first tourist attractions and has endured through the years displaying an intriguing assortment of sharks, stingrays, turtles and tropical fish.
The Shipwreck Treasure Museum relives a fascinating era of local history from the mid-1800s when Key West became the richest city in America with fortunes made by “wreckers” who salvaged ships that routinely sank or went aground on the treacherous reefs. There’s plenty of authentic booty on display, including a 64-pound silver bar mounted to a barbell that you’re invited to try hoisting.
Ripley’s seems to have a presence in tourist towns everywhere, but we’d never visited one of their Odditoriums, considering them a bit hokey. After being greeted by a man-eating shark and an 8-foot statue of pirate Captain Jack Sparrow made from recycled car parts on the way to view hundreds more exhibits of the bizarre and unusual, the Key West rendition did little to change our perception, but if you have kids in tow, I promise you, they’ll love every minute of it.
We made the rounds of some of our favorite haunts — cultural and otherwise — such as the lovely old Custom House Museum with its rotating exhibits of the works of local artists, and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum with its alluring display of treasures retrieved by Fisher and his sons from the Spanish galleon Atocha that sank in 1622. And, of course, we did the Duval Crawl, as every visitor must do, wandering up and down the city’s bustling main drag, shopping, people-watching and bending elbows at legendary Sloppy Joe’s, a raffish saloon that gained its fame as one of Ernest Hemingway’s hangouts during his residency on the island in the 1930s.
Our final evening was spent taking in Key West’s most enduring ritual, the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square. Joining in with an eclectic mix of visitors and resident Conchs (an endearing reference to locals derived from the large and tasty sea snail), we mingled among a throng of torch jugglers, tightrope walkers, psychics, mimes, musicians and artists, along with vendors hawking everything from feather earrings to fritters.
However crazy and quirky the scene, this is a happy human spectacle that conveys a real sense of harmony and joie de vivre. It’s an experience that keeps us coming back to Key West time and again.
Camping in the Keys
We’ve stayed at or visited the Marathon and Key West RV parks listed below and can recommend them. Although we haven’t camped in the upper Florida Keys, the following Key Largo campgrounds are all highly rated Good Sam Parks and worth checking out.
Calusa Campground Resort and Marina (Good Sam Park)
305-451-0232 | www.calusacampground.com
Point of View Key Largo RV Resort (Good Sam Park)
305-451-5578 | www.pointofviewrvresort.com
Riptide RV Resort (Good Sam Park)
305-852-8481 | www.carefreervresorts.com
Boyd’s Key West Campground
305-294-1465 | www.boydscampground.com
Grassy Key RV Park and Resort (Good Sam Park)
305-289-1606 | www.grassykeyrvpark.com
Jolly Roger Travel Park (Good Sam Park)
800-995-1525 | www.jrtp.com
Pelican Carefree RV Resort (Good Sam Park)
305-289-0011 | www.carefreervresorts.com/rv-parks/florida/pelican
State park campgrounds offer the most affordable accommodations in the Florida Keys with peak-season rates of less than $40 a night. Campsite reservations, especially during the winter months, should be made well in advance by calling 800-326-3521 or going online to www.reserveamerica.com.
BIG PINE KEY
Bahia Honda State Park
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Curry Hammock State Park