The number of enigmatic and characterpacked driving roads in North America is surprisingly large and memorable, considering that so many of them are arrow-straight and governed by the almost blanket ‘doublenickel’ (55mph, although many main roads are now 65mph) speed restriction. Route 66 (also known as ‘The Mother Road’), the Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1), The Blue Ridge Parkway (celebrating its 75th anniversary this year), US Highway 375 (‘The Extraterrestrial Highway’, past the infamous Area 51) and US Highway 212 (a.k.a. the ‘Beartooth’) are just a handful.

However, by far, one of the most memorable is US Route 1 that literally crosses the Florida Keys. It flows effortlessly for 127.5 miles, a distance that even a V8 ‘yank tank’, like a 1957 Chevy, will cover using less than ten gallons of gasoline, which, at US rates, is a whole lot less costly than in the UK.

The road starts in Miami, crosses the Florida Keys and ends in Key West, having been based largely on the footprint of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Florida railroad, which was completed in 1912 but partially destroyed in the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 (the threat of high winds, especially during hurricane season, might dissuade you from wishing to drive to The Keys). The roadbed and remaining bridge structures were too expensive to repair and were sold to the State of Florida for a reported $640,000.

An intriguing and slightly lateral, if logical aspect to public roads is that they need mile-markers. OH (Overseas Highway) users know that an even-numbered address is on the Atlantic Ocean side of the roadway, while odd numbers are reserved for the  opposite Gulf of Mexico side. However, the first three or four digits of the number are directly related to the milemarker on the highway. Therefore, 26255 Overseas Highway would be house number 55 on the Key Westbound carriageway, 26.2 miles south of Miami. Simple.

National Parks

Before heading out on Highway 1, bear in mind that Miami has two immense National Parks located on its doorstep. The Everglades, the last remaining sub-tropical wilderness in the USA, has more than 1.5million acres of natural habitat worth exploring, of which over fifty per cent of it is underwater. Open all year, the main entrance is reached at Florida City, just south of Miami.

Biscayne National Park offers an excellent counterpoint, with its gorgeous, unspoiled coastline, its islands and coral reefs and it incorporates the bulk of the southern tip of the Floridian peninsula, around to the northern Keys. As both of these parks are predominantly underwater, it is advisable to bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent with you, along with your snorkel.


The highway

There are no less than 100 islands of various sizes linked by a remarkable 42 bridges on this one stretch of road. When I drove it last, at the wheel of a classic Ford Cougar, I still possessed some hair for the wind to blow through. It took around forty minutes to reach the sea from Miami and the first port of call was Key Largo, which is not the most alluring of places to stay, it needs to be said.

The roadside is lined with an endless array of grey shopping malls, drive-in eateries, banks and shops and more flashing fluorescent lights than is even decent. However, I could not help humming the pop song about ‘Bogey and Bacall’ to while away the trek between junctions, because I knew that the most picturesque sections were coming up.


As the drive gets closer to Tavernier, the quaintness of roadside cafeterias and innumerable fish restaurants is a tremendous draw. At mile-marker 91, in the centre of
Tavernier, is Tasters Grille & Market. It is a brilliant gastropub, being both child-friendly and managing both  business and romantic breaks too, catering for breakfasts through to evening meals, with prices ranging from less than £9 to around £16 per head. The welcome is fantastic.

If you decide to stay for a couple of nights, then a cottage in the Atlantic Bay Resort will cost around £270 for two nights per couple. There is a pool and great beach access, while the Dolphin Cove Research Centre (shades of ‘Flipper’) is around 20 minutes away and the equally famous Theater of the Sea is around 15 minutes distant by car. The fishing off the jetty is amazing.

Just three miles further along the road is Islamorada, where the excellently-rated Lookout Lodge can offer two-night deals for couples from around £190. The small hotel has its own marina and grocery/convenience store and each of its ten rooms is air-conditioned. Its close proximity to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center and the History of Diving Museum add local interest. That the island is also regarded as the sport fishing capital of the
world is a good reason to stop for longer. There is no charge for parking.

Crossing yet another of the bridges, this time from  Upper Matecumbe to Lower Matecumbe Keys, at around mile 79, the sheer beauty of the region never ceases to amaze. There was plenty of other traffic on the roadway, some of which is dual-carriageway, while a lot of it is just single two-way road and you do have to watch for the lane-wanderers and take care that looking out to the water does not lead you into similar territory.

From Fiesta to Long Key and Duck Key, you can see the properties at the water’s edge, where there are no facilities like electricity and occupants have to share their spreads with the salt-water crocodiles. However, just south of mile 60, you are into Marathon. You can think about this ten-miles stretch as a family haven. Slap-bang in the heart of Keys, it is epitomised by the wondrously clean Sombrero Beach, from where a turtle or dolphin encounter is all but guaranteed.


Once again, some brilliant restaurants exist on the island and some of the hotels are pretty special too. Hang around here for a couple of days and you can soon be talked into making a shipwreck dive out at Tennessee or Alligator Reefs. Cocoplum Beach Resort is a perfect example of how different is the Keys welcome, even compared with mainland Miami. The per night rate in a beach front suite starts from $214, but equally comfortable and well-equipped rooms in other wings of the hotel are available from $128 per night.

At Captain Pip’s Marina and Hideaway, a tremendous range of suites and apartments start at around $215 per night and all of them feature individual but local themes. Once settled into your room, you can pop down to the Marina for a meal at Porky’s Bayside Restaurant, to enjoy a typical American barbecue and freshly caught seafood. Watching a romantic sunset with a bottle of chilled Michelob to hand takes some beating.

 

Seven Mile Bridge

After enjoying the delights of Marathon, the road continues to mile 45 and the start of Seven Mile Bridge, an apt description for the longest of the bridges on this highway. If you wish, you can slip off the main road onto a small island known as Pigeon Key, where a work camp for Flagler’s original railroad is located. It is open to visitors. Interestingly, the highest point in the Florida Keys is halfway along the bridge, where it rises to 65 feet to provide clearance for boats.

Of course, with only thirty miles or so to Key West, apart from stopping for refreshments, or to admire the view, if you have not made a stopover by this time, there is little point. However, a plethora of down-home guest houses and a continuing range of good eateries means that you are still spoilt for choice. Big Pine Key is commonly regarded as the ‘shopping centre’ of the ‘southern’ (actually, western) Keys, so, if you want to stock up, or just spend money, it is not a bad place to linger for a while.

Finally, drawing into Key West, you do realise that, at either end of this briny string lies middle America in all its industrial and commercial glory. Key West is not dissimilar to Key Largo in almost every respect. Yet, it has some saving virtues, in that Hemingway lived here and his party legacy lives on in Monroe County, because the night-life here is vibrant.


Impeccably restored and maintained over the years, Lighthouse Court is a delightful and historic guest inn, just across the street from Hemingway’s house and museum, which hosts many special offers, such as its Sunset Sail package (from $300 per night) that includes a late-evening catamaran cruise all in for two people. Alternatively, you could enjoy the luxury of Key West’s newest Parrot Key Hotel & Resort, with a waterside suite, choice of pools and hospitality to have you reeling.

All you have to do now is summon up the energy to start the OH return drive and pick up on several of those places you might have missed on the journey south and west. Regardless, The Florida Keys provides ample reason to fall in love with island life and bring a whole new meaning to island-hopping. You will not want to leave.

Highway facts


Eating:

If you enjoy good food, you are spoilt for choice along the OH. Tasters Grille & Market (www.tastersgrille.com) is worth the stop at any time of the day. Porky’s Bayside Restaurant is part of the Captain Pip’s Marina resort and is great for a taste of Florida.

Accommodation:

The choice is immense and finding rooms on-spec the full length of the highway is very easy, although you should book for longer stays, to obtain even better rates. A number of hotels offer two-night, Miami-Key West deals at advantageous rates.
www.atlanticbayresort.com , www.lookoutlodge.com , www.limetreebayresort.com (Islamorada, from £67 per night), www.cocoplum.com , www.captainpips.com , www.istorickeywestinns.com , www.parrotkeyresort.com

Useful driving tips

  • You must use seatbelts
  • Do not overtake a school bus with its hazard lights onl Do not drink alcohol and drive
  • Watch your speed, especially in restricted zones
  • Children must ride in child safety seats (rental companies
    can supply)
  • You do not require an International Driver’s Permit to
    rent a car as your British licence will suffice
  • Miami has some of the cheapest car rental deals in the
    USA
  • Check that your credit card will provide insurance for
    your rental car and, if not, either make the
    arrangement with your personal insurer in the UK, or
    negotiate for a better CDW rate at the rental desk
  • Exercise commonsense and do not leave valuables on
    show.

All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you visit Florida.