TRAVEL: On the road to Key West… and back again

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Just saying the words ‘I’m going down to the Keys’ conjures up romance, adventure and a touch of something a little different says Ruth Brindle on an action-packed trip to Florida.

That’s just what I found on a recent trip to the varied and fascinating place that is the Florida Keys.

While it’s a fairly long road, three and a half hours and 159 miles from Miami on the state’s east coast, you’d be missing out on some rare treats if you didn’t take the time to stop along the way to discover some interesting experiences.

After all, the beauty of a road trip is not to be hurried and be open to explore places and talk to people along the way. You also have no excuse to get lost – there’s only one main road.

Here are my Top 10 experiences on the road to Key West….and back again.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo

For Key, read islet and Key Largo is the first you’ll encounter as you drive over the first of 42 bridges linking the Keys going south.

While the Florida Keys does not have big, wide beaches the area does have the third largest barrier reef in the world and at this park, the first underwater state park in the US, you can wonder at the 50 types of coral and 500 species of fish that make it so special.

The park covers 70 nautical miles. You can take a glass-bottomed boat ride and after just 30 minutes peer down onto the magical reef. You can also scuba dive or snorkel, hire a kayak or canoe or just chill on either of the small beaches.

The visitor centre has a 30,000 gallon saltwater aquarium and all the fascinating facts you can soak up about the area.

www.pennekamppark.com

A taste of Islamorada

There are six keys that make up the ‘village’ of Islamorada, known as the sport fishing capital of the world. It is here that you start to get the very Caribbean vibe of island life.

I was lucky enough to stop here during the finale of the annual 10-day Uncorked: Key Largo and Islamorada Food and Wine Festival at the Postcard Inn Holiday Isle.

For a fixed ticket price you can wander around and sample the best food and wine on offer in the area.

Wine glass at the ready you can take your pick of treats at outdoor stalls offering everything from killer cocktails, ravishing ribs, cracking crab cakes, even deep-fried key lime pie and, of course, 50 ways to cook up your conch (pronounced conk) a shellfish dear to the hearts of the Keys’ population.

It really is all about the fish here and for a breakfast with a difference visit the laid-back Hungry Tarpon restaurant right on the water at Robbie’s Marina, a colourful hub of huts where you have the chance to buy a few souvenirs and taste the local delicacies.

Here you can also buy a bucket of fish and feed the er… hungry tarpon, what else? They are huge and grow to 10 feet long! It’s scary but exciting as the fish jump up for their treat. Watch out for the equally hungry pelicans, though.

From Robbie’s I joined a group of non-seasoned kayakers on a paddle around and through the mangroves. It is so peaceful, and easier than you might think for beginners. You can spot so much wildlife, but the best bit is just being in such a tranquil spot.

If you do want to stay a day or two along the way, book in to The Islander Resort www.guyharveyoutpostislamorada.com Also watch out for the opening of a new luxury resort at www.amaracayresort.com

Enjoy a fun lunch or dinner as Sam the DJ spins some tunes at Lazy Days www.lazydaysrestaurant.com

For more information on the wine and food festival, visit www.fkrm.com/uncorked

History of Diving Museum

Still in Islamorada, this unassuming, privately-owned museum is testament to one couple’s dedication to this subject. And thank you Drs Joe and Sally Bauer, it is truly fascinating and well worth a stop.

Visitors are led through exhibits of pre-scuba diving artefacts and it makes you truly wonder at the bravery of those early divers and the tenacity of inventors in lowering the risks for us humans.

Of course, you have to have a hands-on experience and I couldn’t resist having my picture taken wearing one of those heavy metal helmets www.divingmuseum.org

Pigeon Key

Now for the history part. In the early 1900s a very rich man by the name of Henry Flagler, known as the founder of Florida, thought it would be a good idea to build a railway from Miami to Key West and also a few luxury hotels along the way.

He had made his fortune in Standard Oil, and spent a lot of the money on the ambitious 12-year project involving the monumental task of building the 42 bridges. The longest is the seven-mile bridge from Marathon to Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys.

The old railway bridge, however, was only used from 1912 until 1935 when it was badly damaged by a hurricane. The effects of the great Depression also meant that there was no money for repair. Perhaps it was a blessing that Henry Flagler, a revered figure in the Keys, died just 16 months after the railway was completed.

The government eventually bought the railway and converted it to a highway in the 1930s. The old seven-mile bridge now runs alongside the new road bridge. A visit to Pigeon Key, where hundreds of the railway workers were once housed is a must to learn more of that fascinating history.

You can reach this fascinating spot by boat or by cycling or walking the two mile stretch of the old bridge still open to visitors. There is a museum and you can even rent a gorgeous four-bedroom house to enjoy your own private island paradise. For more information, visit www.pigeonkey.net

Enjoy lunch before or after your visit at the nearby Sunset Grille in Marathon www.sunsetgrille7milebridge.com

Florida Keys Aquarium

Now I do love underwater creatures – looking at them, catching them and eating them. But getting up close and personal with a shark? It was not on my to-do list.

However my close encounter with one of the sea’s top predators was an experience not to be missed and truly memorable. The aquarium in Marathon is a beautiful place to spend some time.

There are several encounter opportunities, the most exciting of which is to don a (very tight) wet suit and put on your mask and snorkel to swim with the multi-coloured fishes around the life-like artificial reef.

My companions and I were able to hand-feed the rays, but lurking behind the plexiglass window were some less friendly creatures. Bravely I extended the fish of friendship through a handy feeding hole to a shark coming at me with teeth bared and a glint in his eye.

Weirdly I was not afraid. Instead it felt really thrilling and was over all-too quickly, but gladly the encounter was caught on film by the clever underwater cameras at the aquarium.

I can prove I was within inches of this amazing creature. Next time can someone tell me how to discourage an angry looking eel from snatching all the treats!

www.floridakeysaquariumencounters.com

Bahia Honda State Park

On Big Pine Key, this is a truly picturesque spot to have a break from driving and take in the natural beauty of the area.

I was impressed to see you can camp right by the sea and the narrow beach here has been named within the Top 10 in the US by Dr Beach. It’s a natural oasis and a place well worth discovering. www.bahiahondapark.com

Key West trolley tour

Of course, this unique town requires a whole travel book in itself, but on my short stay I nevertheless had time to enjoy some very varied, and unexpected experiences.

A great way to gain an overview of the town is on an Old Town Trolley Tour. You pass most of the landmarks you’d like to visit later, and the guide has all the background knowledge you’ll need.

The perfectly-formed old Key West houses painted in pretty pastel shades give the town a really friendly feel, although it is a very busy tourist destination with visitors from all around the world keen to soak up the eccentric atmosphere.

One resident I later chatted to at the superb El Meson de Pep Cuban restaurant just off the famous Mallory Square – THE place to watch the sunset, said that Key West residents are ‘drawn’ to the place. I can understand why.

You feel as if you can just relax and let your hair down, whether it’s watching the nightly carnival in the square or dancing to the Cuban beats in the street outside El Meson de Pep. More information from: www.trolleytours.com/key-west, www.sunsetcelebration.org and www.elmesondepepe.com

Hemingway, butterflies and ghosts

No trip to Key West is complete without discovering the beautiful Hemingway Home and Museum. Set back from the road within pretty grounds you can see why the Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway chose to stay here for 10 years.

When he wasn’t writing in his office, taking a dip in his swimming pool – the only one in town at the time in the 1930s – or drinking at Sloppy Joe’s bar, he loved to go sport fishing.

His action-packed life and work is chronicled here in an easy-to-absorb way. It’s relaxed, it’s fascinating and once outside you can try and spot some of the 40 or more six-toed cats that make this their home too.

Some are directly descended from Hemingway’s own six-toed cat Snow White given to him by a sea captain. www.hemingwayhome.com

Next families especially will enjoy a stroll around the nearby Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. Hundreds of butterflies and birds of every colour imaginable fly around you in the tropical heat. It’s one of the most popular places to visit in town. www.keywestbutterfly.com

Not one for younger visitors, but good for a giggle is a Ghost Hunt around the town with David L. Sloan. Even if you don’t believe in things that go bump in the night David will convince you that something is afoot.

Members of our group were all handed props to draw out the spirits – a doll that lights up and divining rods. We walked the streets and heard stories of ghoulish goings on and looked inside a ‘haunted’ and abandoned old theatre.

I was glad David gave us all a charm to put under our pillow to ward off spirits once we were back at the hotel. Eek, what was that? Find out more at www.keywestghosthunt.com

Turtle Hospital

On the way back to Miami, and fortified with some gourmet coffee and breakfast from locals’ favourite takeaway Baby’s Coffee www.babyscoffee.com you can make your way to Marathon, and a stop to find out about the excellent work being carried out to rescue and return injured turtles to the sea.

Sick Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley turtles are brought in to be treated with complaints caused from swallowing rubbish and fishermen’s hooks and other injuries, including serious cases of ‘bubble butt’.

When air gets under the turtle shell it cannot be removed. This means they cannot feed properly, so a metal weight is fitted to correct their buoyancy and they can dive. www.turtlehospital.org

Coral Castle

Ed Leedskalnin was a very little Latvian immigrant, weighing just 100 Ibs and standing 5 feet tall, so how did he manage to carve out and erect his ‘castle’ from the coral bedrock with just primitive tools over 28 years from 1923 to 1951?

That’s the fascinating mystery behind this quirky attraction that you can find south of Miami in Homestead, as you drive back on the Florida mainland.

Poor Ed was rejected by the 16-year-old girl he had set his heart on and much of the castle’s theme is based on that lifelong heartbreak. It’s an amazing story and one that inspired our own Billy Idol to write the song ‘Sweet Sixteen’.

Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek’s Spock) has also made a documentary on the tale (find it on YouTube). www.coralcastle.com www.MiamiandBeaches.com

Fact box

Stay for seven nights room-only at the Parrot Key Resort, Key West in June from £1,325 per person. This package is based on two adults sharing accommodation and includes return flights, accommodation and car hire. For more information or to book, visit www.americaasyoulikeit.com or call 0208 742 8299.

For more information about the Florida Keys, visit www.fla-keys.com

For more information on the Coral Castle and other attractions in and around Miami, visit www.miamiandbeaches.com

And to discover more of the delights of visiting Florida, visit www.visitflorida.com