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|Driving the All-American Road to Key West, Part 1|
|Written by Debi Lander|
|Friday, 05 February 2010 11:42|
Our writer casts her winter coat aside and heeds the call of the Conch Republic
January 2010 turned unseasonably cold, even in my corner of northeast Florida. The winter chill in Jacksonville felt like Buffalo, forcing Floridians to dream of warmth. Yes, the Keys were calling: sunsets and sand, flip-flops and shorts, Key Lime pie. "Come, drive down the Road to Paradise," I heard the islands call.
The Florida Keys Overseas Highway, from north of Key Largo to Key West, was recently crowned with the title All-American Road, the only road in Florida so honored. And that's the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by Congress. Only 30 other roadways in the nation have earned the prestigious designation.
The Overseas Highway follows a trail originally blazed in 1912. Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler completed the immense logistical task--more nightmare, really--of extending his Florida East Coast Railroad the 150 miles from Miami to Key West. Just imagine Gibson Girl-esque young women in their swan-bill corsets and pompadours boarding the train in New York and--a mere 30 hours later--stepping out at the southernmost point in the United States. What a boom for Florida.
Then, in 1935, catastrophe struck this paradise. A hurricane collapsed the rail line, and the economic conditions of the Depression left the destruction lying in disarray. The Keys were accessible only by water.
Government officials stepped in, deciding a highway was needed and that it could incorporate the foundation of some of the original railway spans, as well as 42 bridges over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. Completed in 1938, the new road included the famous Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, which stretched 6.79 miles across open water and was soon referred to as "the eighth wonder of the world."
I remember my first road trip to Key West in 1960, a family vacation in our brand-new Chevy Corvair. My Dad did all the driving, and my two older brothers and I crowded seatbelt-less in the backseat. Being Virginians, we were thrilled by the southern tourist attractions and changing landscape: Spanish moss, palm trees, and alligators. But, when we got to the Keys highway, my Mother nearly succumbed from white-knuckled fear. Trucks passing in the opposite direction took much more than their half of the road!
Fortunately for family vacationers and others not used to the road, most of the original bridges, including the Seven Mile Bridge, were replaced with wider spans in 1982. Many of the remaining structures can still be seen running alongside the newer ones and are frequently used as fishing piers.
Today, it takes four to five hours to make the trip from Florida City, south of Miami and known as the "Gateway to the Keys," to Key West, depending on traffic. The speed limit is 55 mph most of the way, 45 mph in more populous sections. The pavement is good and its width, or lack of it, is no longer scary.
The first Key you encounter along U.S. 1 is Largo, the longest key at 30 miles from end to end. Most people recognize the name from the 1948 movie Key Largo starring Bogie and Bacall, or perhaps the song Sailing Away to Key Largo. Yet you really wouldn't know you're driving on an island, since you don't see water--just shops, hotels, and flat, scrubby ground. This area is now famous for diving. The underwater park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary lie offshore. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and glass-bottom boat trips are the thing to do. But the January water was too cool for me.
Islamorada Key comes next, a fisherman's dream. Boaters arise early for deep-sea fishing or backwater excursions. The wide selection of catch includes amberjack, black fin tuna, blue marlin, bonefish, cobia, dolphin, grouper, king mackerel, redfish, snook, tarpon, wahoo, and yellowtail snapper. Water sports of all types are available for non-fisher folk. (On my return trip, I tried kayaking through the thick mangroves, which was quite fun, but I never saw the crocodile I'd been promised. He apparently likes to hang out and sunbathe on a ramp. Perhaps that was a good thing after all.)
Marathon Key follows, originally named Vaca (cow) by Spanish settlers for the many manatee or sea cows found offshore. It was renamed Marathon by the men building the railroad that required the lengthy bridge. Marathon boasts plenty of development and a small airport, but no regular commercial flights. Yet the water shimmering a beautiful blue-green around you and the many bridge crossings give the area a tropical feel.
Crossing Big Pine Key calls for slowing to 45 mph, or 35 mph at night. Key deer, small endangered white-tailed creatures, live here, where large fences (erected at a few million dollars of taxpayer expense) help protect the animals and cars. I didn't see any.
U.S. 1 finally ends in Key West, also known as the Conch Republic. "Conchs" are natives, many of whom trace their ancestry to the Bahamas. "Freshwater Conchs" are those who migrated from somewhere else years ago. Many Cuban immigrants help make up the resident population of 25,000.
Jay and I dropped our luggage at our B&B, the historic Cypress House. Built by shipbuilders in 1888, this Grand Conch mansion has been called one of the purest examples of Bahamian architecture in Key West. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and its weathered-cypress exterior and airy interior oozes with island charm. I loved our room with its outdoor patio in the treetops.
We walked to the Conch Republic Seafood Restaurant for a late lunch, where we met Carol Shaughnessy, a local resident for the last 30 years. As we ate, she told us about the infamous Conch Republic rebellion.
Back in the 1970s, pot smuggling had apparently become a source of income for some islanders. So the U.S. Border Patrol decided to set up a roadblock at Florida City, causing a 17-mile back up on the only road in and out of The Keys.
"Outraged by being treated as foreigners, we, the residents, formed the Conch Republic and declared war," Carol says. "We intended to use stale Cuban bread as ammunition. But, a half an hour later we surrendered, and demanded a billion dollars in foreign aid. We're still waiting." An embarrassed Border Patrol dismantled the roadblock. "We seceded where others failed" became the fledgling Republic's motto.
Later, we strolled the streets before meandering down to Mallory Square for the nightly Sunset Celebration. Street performers intermingled with vendors selling handmade wares and cocktails. Dogs jumped through hoops, cats performed tricks. A man juggled fire torches while riding a 12-foot-high unicycle.
As the sun dropped, boats zigged and zagged across the horizon, giving photographers a lovely photo op. The day's sunset was not terribly spectacular with color but very romantic. How nice to be standing on the dock with your partner, gazing into the sea.
Jay and I dined at a Cuban restaurant on ropa vieja (literally, "dirty clothes"), a traditional Cuban dish of slow-cooked brisket, which is then pulled, giving the meat a dingy look but tasting tender and succulent. Hand in hand, we strolled back to the lovely Cypress House looking forward to exploring Old Town tomorrow.
Conch "officials" describe the Republic thus: "We consider ourselves a fifth world nation with a sovereign state of mind that promotes the mitigation of world tension through the exercise of humor." Gotta love that attitude. And attitude is what Key West does best. Laid-back, easy-going "island time" prevails. In Part Two of this story next week, I'll describe the colorful sights, sounds, and oddities I found in Key West.