By Kristy Tolley
The brainstorm of oil tycoon and railroad baron Henry Flagler, the Old Seven Mile Bridge was to serve as the first land route for the railroad from Miami to Key West. Construction began in 1905 and was completed in 1912. One of the longest bridges in the world, it provided a convenient connection to the Florida Keys until a Labor Day hurricane in 1935 washed out miles of the railroad and destroyed many islands. The railroad became the Florida Keys Overseas Highway in 1938 until the new Seven Mile Bridge opened in 1982. The former structure runs parallel to the new bridge and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
My crush on Florida began more than twenty years ago during a road trip from Key Largo to Key West via the iconic Seven Mile Bridge. An expanse of turquoise waters that seem to melt into the impossibly blue sky on either side is enough to inspire awe. Let the low-key vibe of the Keys sink in and enjoy the treasures along the way.
Make time for this northernmost perch in the chain of keys. Key Largo is home to one of my favorite snorkeling spots, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Encompassing about 70 nautical square miles, it’s the country’s first undersea park. Vibrant coral reefs and thriving marine life lure snorkelers and divers, but seeing the Christ of the Abyss statue in person is an unforgettable experience. The nine-foot-tall statue is one of three cast from the original Italian mold. Christ’s hands and head stretch upward. The sunlight from the surface combined with schools of fish circling the statue create a stunning underwater scene.
Achieve more serenity at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Established in 1975, the area includes 13 sanctuaries and two marine national monuments. A number of shipwrecks beg exploration, and 14 of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Situated within the bustling Coconut Grove neighborhood, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is an enchanting place to roam about. Built as the winter home for creative industrialist James Deering in 1914, the Italian Renaissance-style villa teems with fine European furnishings, paintings and antiques — some dating back to the 15th century. Fresco ceilings and carved mantels were imported from France and Tuscany. Soak in views of Biscayne Bay as you stroll through ten acres of formal gardens.
Outdoor adventures abound at Big Cypress National Preserve, the first national preserve in the nation. Visitors can take part in ranger-led activities like swamp tours and ranger chats, canoeing, kayaking and camping, among other diversions.
This six-island village plays host to the world’s largest fishing fleet per square mile. A sunset cruise, paddle boarding, diving, snorkeling, sailing and windsurfing are other ways to play in the water. On land, visit the History of Diving Museum, which showcases one the world’s largest collections of diving memorabilia, books, diving helmets, armored suits and other items. Exhibits include The Treasure Room, which features sunken artifacts recovered by local treasure hunter Art McKee.
Spanning over 13 islands, the city of Marathon teems with varied boating options, hiking opportunities, waterfront dining and other activities. Learn about the rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles at the Turtle Hospital. The hospital treats varied ailments — shell damage from boat collisions, fishing gear entanglement and other injuries. Many are rehabilitated and returned to their natural habitat. Others are permanent residents, and you can feed them during a guided educational tour of the hospital and rehabilitation area.
Dive into the history of the Old Seven Mile Bridge on Pigeon Key. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 5-acre island was home base for the over 400 workmen from 1980 to 1912. A guided tour includes a peek into many of the 11 historic buildings. The island’s museum provides insight into Henry Flagler’s life and legacy. Get there via a ferry boat that departs from the Pigeon Key Gift Shop at mile marker 48.
From an energetic night life to historic sites, this southernmost point in the continental United States offers something for every visitor. Opened the day after Prohibition ended in 1933, Sloppy Joe’s bar was a favorite haunt for one of Key West’s most notable residents, Ernest Hemingway.
The prolific novelist’s home and museum is worth exploring. Built in 1851, it was the first home on the island to have a swimming pool and indoor plumbing. A guided tour includes a glimpse into his former study and lush gardens. You’ll likely spy a few of the 40-50 six-toed cats which reside here — some of which are descendants of his beloved Snowball.
Once the winter home of our 33rd president, The Harry S. Truman Little White House was originally constructed in 1890 to serve as officers’ housing on the island’s naval base. Original furnishings, personal effects and historical items are on display, including Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” desk sign.
Conclude your Florida Keys road trip with a few extra days of beach time. Key West boasts plenty of them. Fort Zachary Taylor Beach offers great snorkeling and fewer crowds. Popular Smathers Beach is the island’s longest with restroom facilities, showers, concession stands and other conveniences. Although small (about 300 yards long), Rest Beach is a good bet for amazing sunrise and sunset views thanks to its view off the Atlantic Ocean.
(Traveler Summer 2020)
Start planning your trip to the Florida Keys by contacting your local travel agent.