Watch dolphins dance! See grown deer the size of golden retrievers! Be amazed by fire swallowers and escape artists! Come one, come all to one of America’s most scenic drives: the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) threading through 106 miles of the Florida Keys, weaving together a series of classic, natural, and funky wonders that make the Keys its own state …of mind, anyway.
The highway’s attractions often have formal addresses but are better known - and found - by their mile marker (MM) numbers that sometimes offer additional designations for the Ocean Side (OS) and Bay Side (BS) of the highway.
5… Dive, channel Bogey in Key Largo (Mile Marker 106)
As classic as Bogey and Bacall, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (102601 Overseas Hwy. [MM 102.5 OS], 305/451–1202, $4.50, www.pennekamppark.com) epitomizes one of the Keys’ finest assets: the best and most extensive living coral reef in the country. Besides the Christ of the Deep statue - a submerged, two-ton statue of Jesus Christ - underwater sightseers can explore 40 species of coral and a rainbow of sea creatures in more than 500 varieties. The park runs scuba diving, snorkeling, and glass-bottom boat tours to the reef. Or you can snorkel off the main beach, where you can also peer into its visitors’ center’s aquariums. Rangers at the center explain how they are re-growing damaged coral.
In Key Largo, any number of outfitters can take you snorkeling, diving, fishing, or simply joy-riding. Grab a glimpse of the African Queen, the original boat used in the eponymous film, on display at Holiday Inn Docks (MM 100), then grab a cold one at the Caribbean Club (MM 104 BS, 305/451–4466), where scenes from Bogey and Bacall's “Key Largo” were shot. Get a true taste of Keys seafood and spirit at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (99336 Overseas Hwy. [MM 99.4 BS], 305/451–3722). Ask about the hogfish special du jour.
4… Meet the dolphins, eat the snapper in Islamorada (Mile Marker 90)
The second oldest marine mammal facility of its kind, Theater of the Sea (84721 Overseas Hwy. [MM 84.5 OS], 305/664–2431, $25.95 for animal shows, www.theaterofthesea.com) has been using dolphins to draw tourists to Islamorada since 1946. The dolphin, sea lion, and parrot shows, along with a bottomless boat ride, continue to delight visitors. For various fees the theater also lets you touch or swim with dolphins, sea lions, and sting rays.
Not to be crass, but while watching sea creatures is fun in Islamorada, catching and eating fish are what put Islamorada on the map - it’s the sport fishing capital of the world. At Robbie’s Marina (77522 Overseas Hwy[MM 77.5 BS], 305/664–9814 or 877/664–8498) you can feed giant tarpon or catch a fishing charter. And naturally, fish figure big time on local menus. Morada Bay Beach Café (81600 Overseas Hwy. [MM 81 BS], 305/664–0604) cooks 'em up fresh and serves them right on the beach. The chef does a worthy coconut crust for the yellowtail snapper, the local delicacy. And if memories of your fish encounters won’t suffice, art galleries such as Redbone Gallery (200 Industrial Dr. [MM 81.5 OS], 305/664–2002) specialize in sport fishing art.
3… Compete in a seven-mile Marathon (Mile Marker 53)
When real estate and railroad magnate Henry Flagler decided to extend his railroad from Miami to bustling little Key West at the turn of the 20th century, people scoffed. Heck, they ridiculed! Nevertheless, “Flagler’s Folly” rolled through from 1912 until a 1935 hurricane blew it apart.
Three years later, the Overseas Highway was built on the railroad bed, and the Seven Mile Bridge (actually 6.79 miles long) between Vaca Key and Bahia Honda Key came to be known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Today the town of Marathon, named for the railroad-building’s break-neck pace, occupies Vaca Cay and adjacent five-acre Pigeon Key (1 Knights Key Blvd.[MM 45 OS],305/289–0025, $11) holds the historic remains of the town of 400 islanders, mostly Bahamian immigrants, who gave their sweat and often their lives to complete the project. You can walk or bike the original bridge the two miles to Pigeon Key or do a ferry tour.
After working up an appetite, find funky Keys Fisheries Market & Marina (3390 Gulfview Ave.[MM 49 BS], 305/743–4353 or 866/743–4353) for just-off-the-boat seafood, including the famous lobster Reuben ($15).
2… Watch for tiny deer crossing at Big Pine Key (Mile Marker 32)
In the 1950s, the population of key deer, the smallest subspecies of white-tailed deer, had dwindled to about 25 due to hunting and automobile accidents. In 1957, the federal government created the National Key Deer Refuge (28950 Watson Blvd, 305/872–2239) on Big Pine Key to protect the beguiling creatures. Today, their numbers have returned to an estimated 750. Sharp eyes can spot the deer on a slow drive or bike ride down Key Deer Boulevard. Chances are also good on No Name Key.
On the way, stop at No Name Pub (N. Watson Blvd, 305/872–9115) for some pizza in a honky-tonk atmosphere. For turtles, a lone gator, and a variety of birds, stop at the Blue Hole, once a quarry for railroad materials. The largest and least developed of the major keys, Big Pine Key is also headquarters for boat-accessible Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, a hot spot for kayakers.
1… Party at the end of the road: Key West (Mile Marker 0)
Ernest Hemingway played and worked hard in Key West, churning out many of his books at his home turned museum (907 Whitehead St, 305/294-1136, tours $12, www.hemingwayhome.com). His legacy remains in this town that almost defies description, but wild, artsy, broadminded, and liberated begin to sum it up.
Key West’s Old Town quarter, surrounded on three sides by water, is packed with character and characters. The Historic Seaport district tastes salty no matter if you’re chartering a sunset cruise, drinking a margarita at Schooner Wharf (202 William St, 305/292–3302), slurping oysters at Half Shell Raw Bar (231 Margaret St.,305/294–7496), or lunching on grouper sandwiches at don’t-sneeze-it-might-fall-down B.O.’s Fish Wagon (801 Caroline St., 305/294--9272).
Museums, restaurants, and guesthouses occupy historic digs that tell Key West’s swashbuckling and cigar-making histories. The shops, memorial garden, and Cuban restaurant at Cayo Hueso y Habana (410 Wall St, Mallory Square., 305/293–7260) relate to the latter. It’s a popular spot every night when the famous Mallory Square party begins, complete with daredevil and musical entertainment, artisans, pirates, cross-dressers, dogs, cats, iguanas, and the most anticipated performance of them all: the sun’s disappearing act.