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Sunshine State of Mind: The Florida Keys

So Florida: Moonrise off Key West at the Southernmost Point

There are many songs about the Florida Keys, with perhaps The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” perhaps being the most well-known. I remember this song being played on a cassette tape while road tripping in the family car when I was a kid. The song describes an idyllic tropical destination where two can ‘get away from it all’ and fall in love on the beach. While there is no Kokomo off the Keys- sorry Beach Boy fans- the Florida Keys are a great place to ‘get there fast and take it slow.’

The sunny last Sunday of September yielded perfect weather to get in that Sunshine State of mind for a drive down to the Keys. The plan was to hit the road from South Miami through Homestead, where we would take Florida Overseas Highway, U.S. Highway 1, south through Key Largo to Islamorada, a village made up of six island keys with plenty to offer in terms of family fun. There are a few places where one can go for almost any type of watersport, from kayaking to jetskiing and sailing. For those who prefer to stay on dry land, the Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park is said to be a great place to learn about the former quarry operations that excavated Key Largo limestone, a type of fossilized coral. There are nature trails for short hikes as well as picnic areas.

Sombrero Beach, Marathon, Florida

Our pursuit however was to go swimming and maybe do a little snorkeling, as the coast off Florida is home to the third largest barrier reef in the world. After a quick stop to grab more water and a few snacks, we headed south of Islamorada to Sombrero Beach on Marathon Key. This family-friendly beach park features a playground and picnic pavilions with grills for fun beachside barbecues. However the best part of Sombrero is the beach itself. The sand is soft and clean, and the Atlantic waters are warm and calm, very different from the cold Pacific waves that crash along the coast of California. It was so easy to get into full vacation mode while relaxing in the gentle blue-green waves. To add a bit of excitement, we saw a school of silvery fish jumping across the water. After a pleasant swim, we headed out and continued south toward Horseshoe Beach, a spot that according to Google is good for swimming and snorkeling.

Driving the Seven Mile Bridge, Overseas Highway

Connecting Marathon to Big Pine Key, on which Horseshoe Beach is located, is the famed Seven Mile Bridge. This iconic bridge has been featured in many films and television shows, and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies,” was even blown up. Driving this bridge is something I had long wanted to do, so I was excited about driving it to get to our next destination. Seven Mile Bridge is actually two bridges. The old bridge was completed by Clarence S. Coe and Henry Flagler, a Florida business tycoon who decided to build a railroad connecting the mainland to Key West. The approximately seven miles of open water between Marathon and Bahia Honda posed a challenge for builders, and new engineering techniques were invented as a result. But as the story goes, he was persistent if not more than a little nutty, and in 1912, at age 82, was able to step off his train from Homestead with his young wife in Key West. Sadly, the old railway was severely damaged in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Over 400 people perished in the disaster; today the Hurricane Memorial in Islamorada pays tribute to those who passed away. But in resilient Florida spirit, the bridge was rebuilt, this time as a motorway, with the old track utilized for guardrails. The new Overseas Highway opened in 1938, and was used until the opening of the modern Seven Mile Bridge in 1982. Folks still fish off the sides of the old bridge, and I read that there is a restoration project to preserve the historic structure. Fun fact, the new bridge is not quite seven miles. I actually drove over a 6.79 mile bridge, and every one of those 6.79 miles was fun. The water was so clear and such a vibrant green-blue. I totally understand why this bridge is featured so much in pop culture.

After crossing that one off my bucket list, we arrived at Horseshoe Beach. This beach, if one can really call it that, was formerly a coral quarry whose materials were used for the building of the Overseas Highway. Today, the horseshoe shaped reef is an easily spot for fishing, snorkeling, or swimming. The center is said to be 30 feet deep, so supervision is a must. After setting our stuff down on the dry surface, we got on our inexpensive drugstore goggles and headed into the water. The snorkeling wasn’t exactly as colorful as Hawaii, but we were able to see a lot of fish, as well as a sting ray. Unfortunately after about 40 minutes, we also found some jellyfish, and while they looked really cool, that spooked us enough to get out of the water. And good thing too. As we were swimming back, I looked up and saw Emily’s sandals floating away and realized that the tide had risen and was coming up to our belongings. I moved our things and she swam after her sandals. Fortunately we didn’t lose or damage anything, but we did get some funny photos of the plastic Birks floating on the water, and we learned a valuable lesson about thinking ahead.

Emily’s Birkenstocks float into the Atlantic Ocean

After chasing Emily’s sandals and getting changed at the car, we checked Google maps and found that we were only about 30 miles away from Key West. We decided since we already came that far we would continue southwest and hit the southernmost point in the United States at sunset. The drive down went smoothly as the sun began to set. By the time we crossed the causeway onto Key West, the sky was turning gold, with brilliant clouds in an orange sky. We followed Google Maps through the cute neighborhoods reminiscent of bygone Americana to the Southernmost Point.

The Southernmost Point is 90 miles from Cuba, and there is a cheesy monument to commemorate it. There was a queue to take photos that was rather long, especially for the offseason, so we skipped that, and took our own photos at the fence separating the point from the U.S. Navy Joint Task Force site next door. Obviously this is a restricted area. So we hung around and took a few more photos, then grabbed some food in Key West before making the trek back to Miami.

There is so much to do in the Florida Keys. We could definitely have spent several days soaking in the warm ocean waters or visiting one of the many state parks. But after a day of fun in the Keys we did have to make our way back up to Miami, and hope that we will soon be able to return. Maybe eventually we’ll find Kokomo… Happy trails!

For more information or to plan your visit, check out:

Seven Mile Bridge source info:

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