Florida Keys Driving Guide
A Mile Marker By Mile Marker Tour Of The Keys
The Holiday Isle Tiki Bar is a place for not just drinks but also recreation.
The key to fully experiencing Key West is not contained in some local bar or in a moment at sunset on Mallory Square.
Instead, it is located some 100 miles to the northeast at the beginning of what is known as the Overseas Highway, a scenic two-lane road with water on both sides, 43 bridges and enough diversions to properly delay any trip to the Conch Republic.
Here's the destination, Mile Marker 0 in Key West. Careful of Keys Disease!
For it is here that "Keys Disease," that infectious virus that temps every visitor to the southernmost city in the United States to stay far longer than originally intended, first takes hold in the system.
Oh, it's possible to fly into Key West and its Caribbean outpost of an airport, but to do so misses so much of what makes this part of the world so special. So, too, is the shame for those who zoom down from South Florida without stopping to enjoy the many treasures along the way.
This area is knows as the Florida Keys, and it's best enjoyed at a leisurely pace in a convertible. It has bars, restaurants, an underwater hotel and more dive shops than Los Angeles has fingernail salons. Sports Illustrated once sent its models here for its annual swimsuit issue, and now that have we validated our point, it's time to make our way – slowly – to Key West.
Numbers such as these serve as landmarks.
Reference points are not the little towns that dot the Florida Keys, but instead the mile markers which line the highway. Without them, finding the proper places to stop would be virtually impossible. Mile markers are designed as MM, such as MM88.
The Beginning – and the Beer Huggies
The route to the Keys begins at the end of the Florida Turnpike in the tiny community of Florida City. It's a good place to stretch the legs after the hour-plus drive from Miami. Jack's fishing store on the right is a bait-and-tackle shop that has the best beer huggies, those rubber devices that fit around cans to keep beverages cold.
Just past Florida City, there's a sign pointing to the left for Card Key Sound Road. Turn there. The road winds through an authentic Florida habitat with mangroves, pelicans, etc.
Longnecks and Fish Sandwiches
Authentic Florida fare is served at MM102 at the Fish House restaurant.
First among the many places to eat along the way is Alabama Jack's. It comes up on the right just before the big old bridge along Card Key Sound Road. It's a long-neck beer kind of place right on the water that serves a tasty fish sandwich. The hard-core biker crowd can be a bit fishy, too, especially on sunny weekend afternoons, so approach with caution.
From there, make a right at the flashing light to get headed back to Key West.
At MM 102, the amicable staff at the Fish House serves true Florida fare, which grilled or fried seafood. The Fish House is one of the few restaurants that gets its fish fresh off the boats (most of the others get theirs from distributors). The broiled yellowtail fish sandwich is so fresh it practically swims to your mouth.
For a room with a view, Jules' Lodge is unbeatable.
Key Largo is straight out of a movie; scenes from the 1948 film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson were shot here. At MM100, the landmark to another Bogart movie is on display, the steamboat from "The African Queen."
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the adjacent Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary make this area a haven for snorkelers and divers. True enthusiasts can spend hours exploring life beneath the land without worrying about running out of air because, in a twist of Keys creativity, they can spend the night underwater.
Jules' Undersea Lodge (305-451-2353) is the world's only underwater hotel. Guests dive 30 feet to their room, located in the Emerald Lagoon. Each room comes with a true ocean view – out of a port window. Dinner of fresh lobster and fish is delivered by a diver. The rooms are fully equipped with a TV, VCR, air conditioning, showers, a stereo and a fully stocked galley. Guests are free to dive in the lagoon with its replica of a wrecked Spanish galleon.
Prices are not cheap – $500-600 per person – and th hotel also offers three-hour visits, which includes unlimited access to the lagoon for certified divers, for $150. If you've got the money, this is the way to relax on the way to Key West!
At MM84 sits at the crown jewel of the Keys drive.
The Mile Marker 88 restaurant serves authentic Florida food (fresh and fried seafood) in an ultra-friendly Keys style.
The Holiday Isle Tiki Bar in the town of Islamorda is a must-stop. It has "tourist trap" written all over it, but is a perfect rest stop. Swimming, jet skiing and other aquatic adventures await on its dock. And who can argue with the house drink specialty, the "Pain in the Ass," a swirled combination of a pina colada and rum rummer. There's a hotel on the property, just in case one has too many pains to continue driving.
Just across from the Tiki Bar is the Whale Harbor. The food is average at best, but the bar is a good change of pace from the Holiday Isle.
Locals flock to Lorelei's for sunsets, food and drink.
Two miles further down the road sits Lorelei's, the best place in the Keys to watch the sunset. It's nearly always crowded, primarily with locals, who enjoy sitting outside having cocktails next to the water.
At MM80, Papa Joe's is another stop for Florida-style cuisine.
Beginning to end: Between these mile markers are many attractions in the upper Keys.
The tastiest conch fritters on are found at the Grassy Key Dairy Bar. Wash them down with a cold beer or rum drink at the tiki bar. It's near the Crocodile Road Kill Cafe, a watering hole worth a visit just because of its name and to grab a unique t-shirt.
At about MM50 is the Seven Mile Bridge, the most scenic part of the trip. This "Keys connector" rises high above the land to expose expansive views of the water on each side – the Gulf of Mexico to the west (right, on the way to Key West) and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It's actually 6.79 miles and 1982, 37 of the original bridges, including the Seven Mile Bridge, were replaced with wider spans. Many of the old bridges still can be seen running alongside the newer ones.
The Seven Mile Grill offers good food and drink and just across the highway at MM32 on a side road is another bar/grill called the No Name Pub. At MM20 is Mangrove Mama's, a cool bar with excellent food served in a tropical setting. Sunday nights, it's got the best reggae band in the Keys. It's only a 20-mile drive from Key West, so much of the Sunday crowd is from the Conch Republic.
Still hungry? Bobalu's Southern Cafe, is a family-operated road house at MM8.
After that, it's a straight shot into Key West.