The Overseas Highway (US-1) officially starts in Florida City, near the Everglades some 50 miles south of Miami, but doesn’t really come alive until it leaves the mainland and lands at Key Largo, the first and largest of the dozens of “keys” (from the Spanish word cayos, meaning small islands) that the highway links together. The Overseas Highway reaches Key Largo at the popular John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (MM 102.5, 305/451-6300, daily, $8 per car). The first place where you can really get a feel for life on the keys, the park is the starting point for a variety of guided tours (scuba diving, snorkeling, or in glass-bottomed boats) that offer up-close looks at the only tropical coral reef in the continental United States and all but guarantee that you’ll see enough sealife to fill a photo album or two. Along with the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the park gives access to more than 175 square miles of diving spots, including reefs, shipwrecks, and a nine-foot-high bronze statue called Christ of the Deep. The visitors center has a replica reef in a 30,000-gallon aquarium full of colorful fish, allowing a quick look at the fascinating underwater world without getting your feet wet; the park also has a pleasant campground.
Film fans will know that Key Largo was the title and setting of a great 1948 film noir movie starring Bogie, Bacall, and Edward G. Robinson; these days, it’s also home to the co-star of another classic, the boat from the African Queen, which is moored next to the Holiday Inn at mile marker 100 and provides daily canal cruises. Most of Key Largo today, however, is a rather tawdry four-mile stretch of seashell stands, dive shops, boat shops, and margarita bars; there are many good restaurants, including Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (MM 99.4, 305/451-3722, Mon.-Sat.), a small and friendly place with inexpensive food and more beers to drink than seats to sit on.
Key Largo also has many good places to stay, from the funky Sunset Cove Beach Resort (MM 99.3, 305/451-0705, $135 and up) to the boutique Azul del Mar (between MM 103 and MM 104, 305/451-0337, $179 and up), a relaxing small resort. Also here is the truly unique Jules’ Undersea Lodge (305/451-2353, packages from $150 per person for a three-hour visit only), a two-room motel that is 21 feet beneath the sea—a quick scuba dive down from 51 Shoreland Drive, off mile marker 103.2.
Continuing south on US-1, Key Largo blends into Islamorada (pronounced “EYE-la-mo-RA-da”), the self-proclaimed “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” where anglers from all over the world come to try their hand at catching the elusive, hard-fighting bonefish that dwell in the shallow saltwater “flats” and the deep-sea tarpon, marlin, and sailfish. Though now famous for its fishing and fun-in-the-sun, Islamorada (Purple Island) used to be synonymous with death and destruction: On September 2, 1935, a huge tidal wave, whipped up by 200-mile-per-hour hurricane winds, drowned over 400 people trying to escape on what turned out to be the last train ever to travel along the old Florida East Coast Railway. Most of the dead were World War I veterans, members of the “Bonus Army” who had marched on Washington DC, in 1934 and had been given jobs working to build the Overseas Highway. A stone pillar at the south end of Islamorada, along US-1 at mile marker 82, was erected by the WPA to remember the event.
At the center of Islamorada sits one of the older tourist traps in south Florida: the Theater of the Sea (MM 84.5, 305/664-2431, daily, $34 adults), a funky friendly place where you can watch performing sea animals or even swim with dolphins ($199).
Islamorada is also home to what may be the most pleasant and plushest lodging option in the Florida Keys: The Moorings Village (123 Beach Rd., 305/664-4708, $409 and up), on the ocean side of mile marker 81.5. The Moorings is an idyllic and much-loved retreat, with 18 self-sufficient wooden cottages on 18 acres, alongside a beautiful 1,100-foot white-sand beach.
The Moorings also have a nice restaurant and café, both at Morada Bay: Pierre’s (81600 Overseas Hwy., 305/664-3225) which serves urbane renditions of traditional key favorites; and The Beach Café & Bar, both on US-1 at mile marker 81.6. For a more down-to-earth taste of the keys, try the nearby Green Turtle Inn (305/664-2006, Tues.-Sun.), where specialties include shrimp-and-grits and local fish.