Florida’s Lower keys are some of the most beautiful and picturesque island reefs in America, and possibly in the world. I had the opportunity to take a road trip through and around these gorgeous pillars of land that dot the Gulf of Mexico’s turquoise waters.
We reached the Overseas Highway, which is also known as US 1 around nine o’clock in the morning. We decided to stop in Key Largo and grab breakfast. Key Largo is the first of many Lower Keys you come to. The name comes from the Spaniards meaning Cayo Largo or “Long Key”. Key Largo is the longest key in the chain at 33 miles long. Doc’s Diner is a local favorite and I can see why. The breakfast was home cooked and very tasty. The prices were right and the service was pleasant.
Our next stop in Key Largo was to an old Hollywood movie Icon prop from the The African Queen. For you younger readers, The African Queen was a 1951 Hollywood movie that was filmed in the early stages of Technicolor. It gave Humphrey Bogart his only Academy award for Best Actor. It also stared a Hollywood legend by the name of Katharine Hepburn. The African Queen’s boat (known as the S/L Livingston) is docked next to Key Largo’s Holiday Inn. The owners offer casual and sunset cruises. The 1912 riveted sheet iron boat was manufactured in the United Kingdom. It was eventually located in Cairo, Egypty in 1970. It still had coal in its bilges that feed the original steam propelled engine. A US investor bought it and had it restored in 2012. I can’t think of a better place to have an old, but very nostalgic Hollywood prop.
We traveled south and couldn’t miss our next stop if we wanted to. Islamorada (pronounced aisle-a-more-AH-dah) is home to one of the largest lobster statues I have ever seen. Islamorada, translated by early Spanish explores means “Purple Island”. The lobster, must be at least 40 feet long and approximately 30 feet high. This enormous work of art has incredible detail and makes for a great photo-op.
The giant crustacean sets at the entrance of the Rain Barrel Artesian Village. The village has a rustic island motif. The towering trees offer peaceful seclusion to the village’s ambience. The boarded walkways are lined with outdoor work areas and unique gift shops.
The artist themselves invite you in for a personal tour of their arts and crafts. The cottage like structures are nestled amongst the jungle like foliage that provides a subtle setting and gives you a calm and relaxed feeling.
The artwork is created from many different types of materials. There are crafts made from surrounding woods, coconuts, palm tree fronds and shells that are found on nearby beaches. The mermaids pictured right are sculptured from a bronze alloy. There is something here for everyone.
After walking around the Rain Barrel Artesian Village shops, we decide to stop and quench our thirst. We found a place that looked pretty interesting. How can you turn down a Santa that is waving to you? Lorelei’s Cabana Bar & Grill is just off US 1 on Islamorada and sits on the back waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Lorelei’s is a nice and very well kept waterside establishment. They have covered and uncovered seating areas. The umbrella clad wooden deck is surrounded by swaying palm trees. Its broad views of the turquoise waters and neighboring reefs lend a perfect setting for friends and family to enjoy time together. We ordered a beverage and walked around the harbor for a bit.
I have seen a lot of boats in my day, but nothing like the ones in Lorelei’s harbor. They offer sunset cruises and tours on “The Nautilimo” and “El Zorro Pirate Ship”. The Nautilimo would be great for weddings or bachelor parties. The wooden pirate ship would be ideal for larger parties or reunions. Either boat looks like it would be lots of fun to set sail on.
From Islamorada, we headed for Mile Marker “0” in Key West and hoped to be there by late afternoon. When driving along the Overseas Highway (US 1), you follow the old Florida East Coast Railroad. Most of its demise was overseen by Standard Oil’s Principal Henry Flagler. The railed highway was virtually wiped out by the September 2, 1935 hurricane. The photo above right shows some of the remains of the F. E. C. train trestle that follows the Atlantic side of Seven Mile Bridge.
We traveled down the road for another 30 to 45 minutes until we came upon one of the larger towns in the keys. The City of Marathon spreads out over 8 keys. They are; Knight’s Key, Boot Key, Key Vaca, Fat Deer Key, Long Key, Craal Key and Grassy Key Islands. Marathon sits a little more than halfway between Key Largo and Key West on the Overseas Highway.
Just a little after high noon, we needed another pit stop. We found a nice bar & grill and marina called Burdines. The eatery sits on the second story up from the marina. Burdines is more of a local’s hangout and has a very laid back atmosphere. The open air tiki hut style structure has an outdoor balcony that wraps around the covered dining area. There isn’t a seat in the house that doesn’t offer great views of the marina and direct waterway access to the Atlantic.
With refreshment in hand, we walked around and enjoyed the fantastic views. Once we got back into the car, we looked up from our convertible and saw the swaying palms. It reminded us why we take time to tour the Florida Keys. We made our way back onto the highway and pointed our compass south.
Our next stop was maped to an establishment called Mangrove Mama’s. Mangrove Mama’s is a bar & grill that has been developing its historical presents since the 1960’s. It is right off US 1 as you come onto Sugarloaf Key. The original structure was a gasoline and grocery store where people would stop to relax after their long trip through the Keys. The name Mangrove Mama’s was given to this landmark by the locals. It is still a great spot to stop and get a bit to eat and have a cold beverage.
It’s island charm can be seen in its historical décor. The blue walls, wooden floors and traditional artwork speaks loudly alongside its tropical surroundings. The foliage and towering trees that drape over the outdoor patios provide plenty of shade to enjoy your morning, noon or early evening visit.
From here we cross Sugarloaf’s Lower and Upper Sounds and head towards the most southern point of mainland America. Key West is less than a half hour away. To really enjoy what the Florida Keys have to offer, you need to select a place to stay the night before arriving in Key West. In the past I have stayed in Key Largo and Marathon. I would recommend Marathon because it is a little over halfway and is home to the Dolphin Research Center. You need to experience the sights, adventures and the tasty island cuisines along the way. It is also recommended to take a convertible. There’s nothing like traveling down a stretch of highway surround by beautiful water, wind blowing through your hair and a 180 degree view of nothing but gorgeous scenery.
Look for the rest of this journey that will be coming soon to You, Me and The Dock.
Author: Anthony Scopel
Photographer: Anthony & Maureen Scopel
Don’t drink and drive!