Florida Keys: The End of the Road

Pick up car rental at one of south Florida's metropolitan hubs and head due south for the end point of the U.S. mainland: Key West. Once out of the Sunshine State's hedonistic heartland, you'll hit Highway One, destined for mile marker zero some 150 miles south in Ernest Hemingway's favorite watering hole this side of the Serengeti. Skimming the fringe of Everglades National Park to the west, you'll quickly hit the sliver-like Florida Keys and mile upon mile of impossibly clear water, near-deserted beaches, and lengthy one-lane bridges. Take your time: the scenery is outstanding and the paucity of passing places means you'll most likely be stuck driving under 40 mph anyway. However, as you drift away from the mainland proper into the chain of low-lying barrier islands, speed will no longer be the prime objective of your journey.

Florida is blessed with temperate weather year round. It is also beset by hurricanes, which tend to flog the southern peninsula between August and November. Despite Florida's reputation as the destination for migrating "snowbirds" from northerly climes, the majority of this tourist species don't make it as far south as the Keys. The winter months can be remarkably uncrowded, and are best enjoyed from the simple canopy of a beachside tent. The Keys, broken up into three major portions—Upper, Middle, and Lower—boast three state-operated campgrounds in which you can pitch your tent and indulge in a plethora of outdoor activities: swimming, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, and wildlife viewing to name but a few. Let the ruler-straight road dictate the pace and nature of your day's activities. The Upper Keys bring you to America's first underwater park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a 21-mile-long protected swath of reef that is home to 650 species of reef fish. Join a fishing charter at Marathon in the Middle Keys to pursue yellowtail, snapper, and grouper in the Atlantic waters offshore. Finally, mile marker 38 on the Lower Keys will deposit you in Bahia Honda State Park, blessed with gentle, windblown trails and one of the Keys' few sandy beaches.

Some may be disappointed to finally arrive at Key West, mile marker zero and dumping point for cruise ship-bound day trippers, Hemingway devotees, and the expected tourist tack. However, after having spent a few days saving pennies under canvas, why not indulge yourself in one of Key West's more decadent hostelries? The Mermaid & Alligator is one such place, a six-room B&B that will give you a slice of true Key West living. Take a shower, pour yourself a glass of wine, and chill by the pool. If this gets old, book yourself onto a day charter sailing to outlying mangrove islands. Half- and full-day cruises offer sea kayaking and snorkeling, where you'll wind through twisted mangrove roots, paddle by camouflaged stingrays, and float above foraging nurse sharks. Return to shore as the setting sun dips below the western horizon, and make tracks for dinner at Seven Fish, the place where true conchs go to eat. The above remedies are to be repeated in reverse order for your trip home.

Published: 17 Sep 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Florida Keys

$280-$419
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Southernmost on the Beach
$379-$409
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Santa Maria Suites Resort
$322
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La Mer Hotel and Dewey House

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