There is only one road to Margaritaville, and I took it. The drive south down through the Florida Keys is good for the soul, the closer you get to the end of the road at Key West, the more relaxed you become. The Florida Keys is a collection of Islands stretching over 120 miles south from the southern tip of Main Land Florida to Key West. The road is called the Overseas Highway, otherwise known as US Highway 1. A series of bridges connect the chain of islands creating one of the most interesting and unique driving experiences in the world. Originally there were trains running from Island to Island. Henry Flagler started construction of the Overseas Railroad in 1905, battling swamps, insects and three hurricanes to finally finish the project in 1912. The railroad was in service until 1935 when another hurricane destroyed much of the tracks and trains, and damaged the bridges. The railroad line closed, and the land and bridges were sold to the state of Florida who built a road in its place, converting many parts of the railroad bridges for vehicular use. The Overseas Highway was rebuilt in the 1980’s, but most of the old bridge structures remain and are now used for pedestrian walkways and for fishing. The most famous of these bridges is the Seven-Mile Bridge.
Between these bridges are islands that are chalk full of kitschy shops, marinas, funky eateries and tiki bars. Signs advertising Key Lime pie and conch fritters eventually take effect and several stops have to be made to sample them. Large sculptures of sea creatures can be spotted from time to time enticing travelers to stop for a closer look. I was drawn in by 40 foot lobster named Betsey on the side of the road myself. Like I said to my wife, “It’s a giant lobster! We have to stop!” The land areas can look fairly normal until you look close. Many of the homes and businesses along the highway have either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico for a back yard. There is nothing quite like driving over the ocean for miles at a time. With the azure blue and aqua color of the water, the big sky dotted with interesting cloud formations, the smell of salt air and Jimmy Buffett on the radio, all problems disappear. We are on Island Time.
At the end of Highway 1 is Key West. A refuge for society drop-outs, non-conformists, hippies, artists, and some of the most interesting and nicest people I’ve meet in my travels. One local said they have a “don’t give a damn attitude” around here. The main drag in the Old Town is Duval Street, packed with bars, shops and galleries. There was a Drag Queen on the sidewalk encouraging tourists to see the show inside. For me, the real show was on the street at night when it looks like someone dropped Bourbon Street on top of College Avenue in Berkeley and put in the Caribbean. Everyone has a good time, and all the bars will be happy to fix you up with a “Roadie” drink to go so you don’t get thirsty between bars.
Off Duval Street Ernest Hemmingway’s house is here, and the bar that he drank in is still in business. Around corner is a above-ground cemetery (much of the Island is made of coral, making it hard to dig) with humorous headstone inscriptions like “If you’re reading this, you desperately need a hobby” There are many charming old buildings, plus an old lighthouse and a fort. A the end of the island there is a marker indicating that you are at the southernmost spot in the continental United States, and the words “90 miles to Cuba” End of the land, but just the beginning of the fun.