Road Trip down the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas National Park (Videos #96 & #97)

categories: USA Travel

Florida Keys map

The road trip from the Florida mainland to Key West along U.S. Highway 1 down the Florida Keys is one of the classic U.S. road trips. Here are some ideas on what to see in Key West, but also along the way (by mile marker).

The Florida Keys

The African Queen - Key Largo, Florida

Mile 100 – The African Queen

My first stop was at the Holiday Inn in Key Largo where you can find the original African Queen made famous in the movie with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. This boat is not a movie prop, it was made in a British shipyard in 1912 and shipped to Africa for use there for over 40 years before it was used in the movie. (It also sunk twice while being used in the film).

The African Queen is a steam driven boat. It no longer uses a coal fed fire as the residence of Key Largo were not too keen on the coal smoke, but has been converted to diesel. It also no longer has the original engine, but that has been replace with a similar engine that was built in 1896 for a Scottish tractor.

You can take a sightseeing cruise or a dinner cruise on the boat. The dinner cruise cruises to a local restaurant and back.  If you are a nerd like me, ask your captain how the engine and boiler work, or just enjoy the chug chug chug sounds of this historic boat as you cruise around the canals of Key Largo. 

Key Largo was another well known Bogart movie and the city holds a Bogart movie festival annually.

Mile 92.7 – Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

“The Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary provides a humane, natural and protected refuge to hindered birds”. It is open everyday from sunrise to sunset.

I tried to stop at this wildlife center on my way down but my timing was off. I arrived in the middle of a downpour. I tried to wait it out but eventually gave up. I want to go here on my next trip.

Mile 86.6 – Rain Barrel Artisan’s Village

You can’t miss this tiny art colony. Just look for the giant lobster outside. You should stop and take a photo with the giant lobster for sure, but also explore the shops. It is deeper than it looks from the road, so don’t miss some of the shops in the back. The village is filled with colorful works by local artists.

Mile 85.1 Windley Key State Fossil Reef

Ocean levels in the Florida Keys have risen and fallen over millions of years. During one of these uplifts, the Keys rose from the sea as islands and the coral that had been below the surface of the water was now exposed. It died and over time a layer of fossilized coral covered this area. 

During the early 1900’s when Flagler’s Overseas Railroad was being built to connect Key West to the mainland for the first time, large blocks of coral were quarried here for use in the construction. 

I recommend taking at least one of the 5 walks through the park. I took the Flagler Trail and the Windley Trail. The rangers can loan you a laminated trail guide so you can identify local plans like West Indian Mahogany, Poisonwood (don’t touch this plant which can produce a rash like that of poison oak or poison ivy), Black ironwood, and pigeon plum. This is a tropical hardwood forest. 

 

Make sure to get right up to the wall of the quarry to see how many different variety of coral you can identify in the fossils.

Mile 82.9 – History of Diving Museum

I read about the History of Diving Museum but pictured one of those small one room local museums and planed to pass it by. The museum was larger than I expected so I did stop to take a look and was glad I did. 

What I did not expect was a world class collection of diving equipment like diving helmets from around the world, re-creations of old and even ancient diving bells and diving gear, and even a number of one person hard shell diving suits that make the diver look a bit like the original robot in Lost and Space. 

 

I am not a diver but as a nerd I enjoyed learning things like:

  1. Edmond Halley who discovered Halley’s comet also invented a diving bell in 1691
  2. One of the diving helmets from Canada on display has a reinforced top so that you can use it to break through ice that may have formed since you descended.
  3. The history of both scuba and free diving.

82 – Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar

I did not eat at this popular sunset destination but I did stop long enough to take a picture of the colorful mermaid sign.

Mile 81.5 – Hurricane Memorial

This monument was built in memory of the 400 people who perished in a 1935 hurricane that ravaged the Keys. Note that it is constructed with petrified coral quarried at the Windley Key State Fossil Reef. Again look closely at the stone, including the steps up to it, to see all the different types of coral.

Mile 77.0 – Robbie’s Marina

I did not pay the $2 to see their captive tarpon, nor did I pay a few bucks more to feed the fish. It was raining off and on when I visited or I might have taken advantage of this popular spot to rent a sea kayak.

Mile 65.0 – Long Key Bridge

This was one of the longest bridges in the railroad built by Flagler around 1905. It was 3 miles long. The bridge is now without trains, but you can find cyclists, walkers and fishermen.

Mile 48.5 – Turtle Hospital

You can tour this working turtle rescue center. 

Mile 47.0 – 7 Mile Bridge

This is the longest bridge in the Keys although it is only 6.8 miles long. 

Mile 30.2 – National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge

Turn right at the Big Pine Key traffic light to reach the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge. I made a stop to walk the short Blue Hole Nature trail. I was told to keep an eye out for the tiny endangered Key deer but was more distracted by the signs which told me not to bother the alligators… with what? Indigestion?

I wonder now if I should have continued on Key Dear Blvd a bit further to the Fred C. Manillo Wildlife Trail.

Mile 0.0 – Key West

Key West

Key West is the end of the road. It also is the southern most point in the United States. 

It seems at times like a permanent party settled in Key West because it was the end of the road. There are a great variety of clubs and bars, including at least one clothing optional bar. 

There is a historic connection with Cuba which is only about 100 miles away. Key West used to be a city with factories where cigars were rolled in the Cuban style. Pan Am made its first flight from Key West, which went to Havana. 

Conch Train

In the Amateur Traveler episode on Key West my guest Casey recommended that the first thing you do in Key West is to ride the Conch Train. I admit that I am biased against these tourist trains as just seeming too touristy, but I do have to second the recommendation. It is a 90 minute ride through the streets of Key West with a knowledgeable driver and tour guide who points out all the important and obvious sites but also many of the smaller back streets and lesser known stories.

The train will take you past

  • the Southernmost point of the United States
  • mile marker 0 on US 1
  • Hemingway’s house
  • the smaller of the two forts in the city
  • the Little White House

The driver will int out where the heroic doctor lived who tried to fight the devastating yellow fever outbreak. He will point out where Pan Am airlines’ first headquarters was and where the various cigar baron’s had houses. He will explain how Key West “rebelled” from the U.S. in 1982 to form the Conch Republic. To this day, if you were born in Key West you are a “Conch” (if you have been there 7 years you become a “fresh water conch”). He will explain how the island got rich by salvaging wrecks on the offshore reef.

The Little White House

Back when Truman was president he needed a vacation and Admiral Nimitz suggested the privacy of the naval base at Key West. Truman had such a good working vacation that he came back again and again, spending 175 days in Key West while he was president. 

In the Little White House Truman could wear tropical shirts, swim at the near by enlisted men’s beach and play poker with aids and guests. The house is still decorated much in the same way it was after a remodel when Truman was reelected in 1948.

The house is visited by guided tour and the ticket for the Little White House is included in the VIP package which covers many of the Key West destinations.

 

Sunset Celebration

Each night around sunset, Mallory Square is filled not just with tourists waiting to take pictures of the sunset but also with about a dozen different street performers including, the night I was there, musicians, jugglers, a fire breather, a tight rope walker and a psychic. 

It also has a wide collection of tourists and locals. One man carried a large rainbow flag. Two ladies were dressed in the fashion of Mennonites. Some were dressed up but many were still wearing beach attire.

Dry Tortugas National Park

If you don’t want to stop your journey at Key West you can take a ferry out to Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park. Fort Jefferson was the 3rd largest fortification built by the United States. It was built to help control the trade between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. 

It saw the most use during the Civil War, which is also when it came the closest to being attacked. A confederate ship demanded the fort’s surrender in the early days of the war but the Union commander told the confederates to clear out before he opened fire. What the confederate commander did not know was that while there were artillerymen at the fort, their cannons had yet to arrive.

The fort is constructed of brick and concrete. The concrete was created using local coral, which you can see if you examine it where it is exposed like on the top of the walls.

You can explore the fort on your own, take a short 15 minute or a longer hour long tour. There are also two beaches on the small island and a reef where you can snorkel. Unfortunately my visit came after a week of storms and the water was murky. Some locals told me it is usually more clear.

The island is popular with bird watchers. Expect at least one group of bird watchers on your boat with their long lens and binoculars.

The ferry takes a bit over 2 hours each way to sail to Dry Tortugas. The ship leaves at 8am and returns at 4:30pm with 4.5 hours on the island. The cost includes breakfast, lunch, the use of snorkel gear, the park entrance fee and a tour of the fort. Your an also get a permit to remain on the island and camp.

If you have more money than time you can take a sea plane to the island instead. 

Places to Eat

Sundowner – Key Largo

I had a sunset dinner at the Sundowner in Key Largo. They are known for their seafood, but a non-seafood eater like me still had lots of options. I had a steak sandwich. 

They have seating inside, but on the kind of day that I was there, almost everyone choose to eat outside to watch the passing boats and the sunset. 

 

Many many restaurants in the Florida Keys have their own recipe for Key Lime Pie. The pie at the Sundowner has a meringue., which is unusual but enjoyable.

Mile 47.7 – La Niña

I had actually pulled off the highway into a nearby restaurant but a quick check on Yelp found that La Niña, which was a across the street, had 4.5 stars. This is a hole in the wall Cuban restaurant. It is not fancy… but it is good. I ordered rice, beans and pork. The tables have hot sauce on them of course.

As I stood in line to order the guy next to me, a local, had to turn around and tell me how much he loved the place. That doesn’t normally happen. 

Turtle Kraals – Key West

Turtle Kraals is right on the water’s edge, about a block from where the ferry leaves for Dry Tortugas National Park. Again, while it features seafood, I ordered a great plate with a mixture of 3 tacos: chicken, steak and Al Pastor. Yum. They were served with rice and black beans. 

For dessert I had a banana bread with chocolate chips and vanilla ice cream. I chose this over their key lime pie, but got a taste of the key lime pie as well. The Key Lime Pie is a bit more cheesecake like than most. Either choice is a good choice.

 

Turtle Kraals has a rooftop bar and dining area in addition to the downstairs dining room. A tropical squall was blowing through while I was having dinner so I did move from one of the tables with a sunshade to one with an actual roof. This would be a great place to eat and watch the sunset.

Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant

I would love Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant for the name alone. This is a colorful and friendly restaurant with some great food. Again they were disappointed that I was not interested in their seafood selections, but I was certainly not disappointed in the carnitas tacos that I had there. They had not only their own homemade hot sauce but two different kinds. Respect.

 

For dessert I tried to finish an order of their rich chocolate bread pudding. Getting the ice-cream on the side was a wise decision but trying to finish this without the help of 3 hungry friends was utter folly.

Where to Stay

Curry Mansion Inn – Key West

The Curry Mansion (see reviews | check price) is a historic mansion that has expanded into a 28 room bed and breakfast. You can’t beat the location as the main drag with its bars and restaurants basically starts next door. Curry Mansion Inn has its own parking which is important because parking in the downtown area is expensive and a hassle. One block in either direction from the Inn there is a free shuttle bus that will take you around the downtown and out to the southern most point in the U.S.

The Inn has an inviting wraparound front  porch as well as a sitting area in the back by the pool where there is a cocktail hour each evening with live music. Breakfast is also served daily back in the pool area. The Curry Mansion Inn is even more inviting when you meet the owner Phil Amsterdam whose family has owned the property for 50 years.

 

The main house is a historic structure so the rooms will have that old home quirks. For instance, my room (211) had a bathroom with a door to the hall that is no longer in use.

 

The rooms in the back building were built in the 1970s, but the building was built in the historic style. All construction and remodeling in the historic center of Key West has to meet strict rules to preserve the historic nature of the neighborhood.

I also spent one night in Key Largo, but cannot recommend where I stayed.

Road Trip down the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas National Park (Videos #96 & #97)

Conclusion

I spent two nights in Key West, which was too rushed when you add in the trip to Dry Tortugas. I would add an extra night or two. You could also do the road trip in a couple of days and make more stops.

I did not get to Fort Zachery Taylor which is supposed to have the nicest beach in town. There are also a number of other attractions in town as well as lots of other interesting looking restaurants. Key West has a very different feel from the rest of the Keys to me. I see what presidents, pop stars, writers and tourists continue to be drawn to this beautiful and delicious location.

My thanks to the Florida Keys Tourism board which sponsored my stay at the Curry Mansion, my rental car, some of my meals and my VIP pass.

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by Chris Christensen

I am the host of the Amateur Traveler. The Amateur Traveler is an online travel show that focuses primarily on travel destinations and what are the best places to travel to. It includes both a weekly audio podcast, a video podcast, and a blog.

2 Responses to “Road Trip down the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas National Park (Videos #96 & #97)”

Jim McDonough

Says:

Went to Key West when I was serving in the Coast Guard. We had a harrowing voyage down from Boston in February, and when we got to Key West it was like a religious experience. We docked just before sunset, and it was warm and beautiful. I had heard about Florida in the winter but could not understand it until I went there myself. Back then (1971) Key West’s biggest industry was the US Navy. After the Navy left, the biggest industry became drug smuggling.

MikesRoadTrip

Says:

Great post! This looks/sounds like an amazing road trip. Gotta do it one of these days.

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