The keys to my heart are not made of silver or gold. The Keys to my heart are a 125-mile chain of laid-back islands in Florida that extends from Mile Marker 0 in Key West, to Mile Marker 126 in Key Largo. The 42 bridges that connect The Keys span the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.
The most well known bridge on this Overseas Highway is the 1980’s Seven Mile Bridge, one of the longest segmental bridges in the world. It replaced Henry Flagler’s1912 Over-Sea Railroad Bridge, a turn-of-the-century technological marvel that was badly damaged by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
Come along with me as I visit the nooks and crannies of three of Florida’s well-known Keys: Marathon, Islamorada, and Key Largo.
MARATHON KEY: Settlements on the islands of Marathon can be traced back to the early 1800s, when Bahamians established tropical fruit farms and New England fishermen inhabited the region.
Marathon Key got its name from workers constructing the monumental Over-Sea Railroad from mainland Florida throughout the Keys in the early 1900s. Working night and day to meet the grueling construction schedule, crews reputedly said, "This is getting to be a real Marathon."
I recently developed a fondness for turtles. Not the small chocolate covered ones with caramel bellies covered in pecans, but the humongous ones with flippers and hard shells.
My new-found fascination with turtles began after I visited Marathon Key’s Turtle Hospital, the only state-licensed veterinary hospital in the world that is dedicated solely to treating sea turtles. Rescue…rehab…release. That is the motto of this volunteer-staffed hospital.
The Turtle Hospital has two ambulances that transport sea turtles during rescues and releases. The rehab center is built around a large saltwater pool with many individual tanks and a pumping and filtration system to isolate diseased sea turtles.
|TURTLE HOSPITAL AMBULANCE|
The hospital treats a variety of ailments such as flipper amputations caused by entanglements; shell damage caused by boat collisions; and intestinal impactions caused from ingestion of foreign objects. In an average year, the hospital receives as many as 70 injured sea turtles. To date, it has released more than 1000 sea turtles back to their natural environment.
RANDY RUDY, AN AMPUTEE HAWKSBILL TURTLE
From a visitor center at the west end of Marathon, you can take a ferry to Pigeon Key, a tiny island that once housed the workers who built Henry Flagler's historic Over-Sea Railroad in the early 1900s. While the rest of the Keys have evolved with the years, Pigeon Key has remained essentially unchanged and is now a national historic treasure complete with a museum chronicling the railroad’s construction.
For fresh-off-the-boat seafood, you can’t beat the thatched roofed Keys Fisheries located directly on Florida Bay. It was there that I was introduced to a tasty spear-caught fish named Hogfish. Evenings offer a special Marathon Key dessert,,,a sun-sational sunset.
ISLAMORADA: Welcome to Fin Land, the Florida Key known as the Sport-Fishing Capital of the World. Islamorada is heralded for its angling diversity and features the Keys' largest fleet of offshore charter and shallow-water "backcountry" boats. It is where backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly-fishing were pioneered.
However, if you don’t care to fish, how about feeding a bucket of raw fish to the giant tarpons at Robbie’s of Islamorada? Schools of 50 to 100 tarpon swim to Robbie’s daily to catch the baitfish thrown to them by giddy tourists with blue plastic, fish-filled bucket. Resident pelicans compete with the "Silver Kings" for the small baitfish.
This fisherman’s paradise was incorporated as a municipality in January 1998. Now called Islamorada, Village of Islands, the village that measures 20 miles long and, in some places, barely 150 feet wide encompasses Plantation, Windley, Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys.
Legend has it the area was named by Spanish explorers who, seeing the purple sky at sunset and the purple bougainvillea, used the words “isla”, the word for island, and “morado” the Spanish word for purple. Thus, purple island.
Numerous high-profile figures, including past U.S. presidents and British royalty, have visited Islamorada to take part in the world’s best sport fishing and to compete in acclaimed fund-raising fishing tournaments.
A trip to Islamorada would not be complete without sampling some of the local island cuisine headlined by succulent fresh seafood served everywhere from island tiki bars and dockside fish houses to gourmet beachfront cafes and secluded island bistros.
|TIKI BAR AT POSTCARD INN AT HOLIDAY ISLE|
Chef Michael’s is one of Islamorada’s best restaurants in which to eat fresh fish. Their fish deliveries go through a rigorous testing protocol before being served at the restaurant. Chef Michael’s knows just where, and by what method, the fish was caught. They usually even know the name of the fishing boat captain.
Sunday brunch is a culinary happening at Chef Michael’s. “Sake to me Mary” is a unique eye-opener, and Challah Brulee is a creamy, caramelized French toast made with challah bread. Then go a few shorts steps from Chef Michael’s to Ma’s Fish Camp, “the new local joint”, for the best homemade Key Lime Pie you ever tasted.
Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina at Holiday Isle is an oceanfront resort that offers the retro, throwback feel of a nostalgic American beach vacation. Each room, with its waterfront style of white woods and sand–colored stripes, has been personalized with hand-stenciled sayings on the wall. My wall read: “Life’s an ocean, sail it!”
KEY LARGO: The Keys’ longest island gained fame when the 1947 movie classic "Key Largo," featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, hit the silver screen. The Caribbean Club, a local waterfront saloon, is the only Florida Keys location where filming of the movie "Key Largo" took place; all other scenes were filmed on a Hollywood sound stage. Walls within the bar are decorated with memorabilia from the movie.
|THE ICONIC BOGIE AS CAPTAIN CHARLIE ALLNUTT|
However, Bogie's presence is still apparent in Key Largo. The steam-powered African Queen, the actual boat he skippered in his epic 1951 film "The African Queen," is on view at the Holiday Inn Key Largo resort and marina.
THE RESTORED AFRICAN QUEEN
As Charlie Allnutt, the gin swilling captain of The African Queen, Bogie and Director John Huston were the only ones that escaped dysentery while filming the movie in the Belgian Congo. Bogie’s explanation was as follows: “All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.”
|TAKE A RIDE ON THE AFRICAN QUEEN|
Key Largo, about a 60-minute drive from Miami International Airport, is often called the Dive Capital of the World. A leading site for experienced divers is Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy ship that is one of the largest vessels in the world ever purposely scuttled to create an artificial reef.
Be it diving, fishing, or imbibing you seek, I guarantee you’ll fall for the Florida Keys …hook, line, and drinker.
JANET STEINBERG is the winner of 38 national Travel Writer Awards and an International Travel Consultant with The Travel Authority in Mariemont, Ohio.