USA, FL: A Highway That Goes to Sea - Florida Keys RV TripOver the years many famous American’s have made their way south to Key West including the Nobel prize winning author Ernest Hemingway, playwright Tennessee Williams as well as President Harry S Truman. Some people never leave, they call it “the Key’s Disease,” out of towners like us simply know it as living on island-time.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2009
Ask anyone on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ to name the best known island in the Florida Keys and you can bet it will be Key Largo, made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the 1930s movie of the same name.
Not surprisingly, Key Largo is nowadays packed with the rich and not so rich Miami dwellers that flock here on weekends to escape the city and all the trappings that go with it.
On a hot Thursday morning, with the fridge-in-motion waiting to be stocked and a few prime campsites pre-booked we pushed our 30ft (9m) El Monte RV out into Miami traffic and headed south on Highway 1 – known as the Highway That Goes to the Sea. It was Memorial Day weekend in America and that means just one thing – snarled traffic.
I first cruised down this road in the general direction of Cuba 25 years ago with two college friends in a midsized Lincoln stocked with Budweiser in an old cooler, camping gear clogging the trunk and a holdall full of Hawaiian shirts, shorts and suncream.
Over the years many famous American’s have made their way south to Key West including the Nobel prize winning author Ernest Hemingway, playwright Tennessee Williams as well as President Harry S Truman. Some people never leave, they call it “the Key’s Disease,” out of towners like us simply know it as living on island-time. It’s a trait many people who live in the keys adapt.
Passage to the Florida Keys was originally made by steamship or mail boats. The railroad magnate Henry Flagler and his Florida East Coast Railroad changed all that when he linked the mainland to Key West in 1912.
The first Overseas Highway was finally opened in 1928 when vehicles reached the first part of Lower Matecumbe Key. Traffic then had to board a car ferry. However on the 2nd September 1935, a devastating hurricane destroyed most of Matecumbe Key. The winds reached over 322kph with a six metre tidal wave sweeping everything away in its path. The Red Cross estimated 408 dead, many of them WWI veterans sent there to construct a railway bridge.
Flagler’s railway was virtually destroyed overnight – 56km of tracks and embankments were washed away. Ironically many of the bridges and railway trestles survived which they converted into the new roadway when completed in 1938. With the introduction of electricity and fresh water in 1942 new businesses flourished and tourism began to be a realistic proposition for many residents.
The highway slipped between shopping malls, gas stations, supermarkets with names like Piggly Wiggly or Winn Dixie and windowless strip joints named The Booby Trap and The Pink Panther. We then skirted crop fields, billboard advertisements, and swamp signs in water laden saw grass on the very eastern edge of the Everglades. Turkey vultures spiralled high overhead as we passed the Last Chance Saloon where a sign reminded us it was 38km to the next bar! To the north lay Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Key Largo National Maritime Sanctuary that includes the only living coral reef in the continental United States.
Finally we pulled into John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. It’s an ideal campsite for families with a safe beach, boating marina, hiking trails, scuba diving and snorkelling, kayaking and flat, crushed coral campsites. Osprey’s had built a nest atop a telegraph pole, below them egrets waded in the shallow waters.
Key Largo today is a bitumen tourist trap strip flanked either side by marinas and used boat yards, bars, trailer parks, church bazaars, coral gift shops, malls, luxury resorts, discount stores and a myriad array of motel and campsite accommodation. The Holiday Inn hosts the original boat from one Bogart’s other well-known films, the African Queen – go figure.
After a year away from operating an American RV it didn’t take long for us to get into the grove again. We levelled off the beast, hooked up the water and mains electricity and swung the dining area out with the flick of a switch. By this time it was just a case of stocking the fridge with the goods we’d bought from Piggly Wiggly and to settle in for the night.
Lying between the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay, the Keys are a scorpion’s tail shaped set of islands all linked together. It stretches for 113 miles and crosses 42 bridges between Miami and the southernmost point at Key West.
Places and points of interest are all identified by mile-markers – a cultural anchor that residents refer to in everyday conversation. At Mile Marker 101 in Key Largo we headed the RV towards Tavernier, across Plantation Key, over Windley Key and into the town of Islamorada on Upper Matecumbe Key. Out in the Gulf Stream fisherman’s skiffs sparkled like diamonds set in a blasé of translucent blue.
Long Key is another state park that is very popular and rightly so when you witness the sun rise over the Atlantic each morning. One night we shared drinks and stories with a couple called Jerry and Alice parked up in the site next to us. They were on vacation from Akron, Ohio. Jerry’s T-shirt read: Attitude is determined by Latitude! So true!
The RV was proving to be a perfect vehicle to have in this part of the world, a self contained, suite-on-wheels. El Monte provide all the cutlery, utensils and supplies for a family of four and with most campsites in America providing barbeque grills on site we needed little else, except a few bottles of Land Shark beer and a bottle or two of wine.
The beauty of travelling this way is easy to understand. There are no hassles or airport snags, security check points, delays or check-in queues. Just the open road, a few gas stops, the odd hitch hiker and the occasional traffic jam.
After an early morning charter fishing trip at Seven Mile Key we crossed Seven Mile Bridge and pulled into Bahia Honda State Park, possible the most requested and certainly the most beautiful of the campgrounds in the Florida Keys.
Memorial Day had ensured every last campsite was full. In the tropical heat the latest campsite accessory besides large screen TVs was giant indoor fans that families placed in see-through mosquito tents pitched over picnic tables. Only in America!
From Bahia Honda we crossed to Big Pine Key full of mansions on the water’s edge perched like gulls on a bridge rail. Native species here include the diminutive Key Deer. Out among the hardwood hammocks, mangrove and freshwater wetlands, animals and reptiles thrive: marsh rabbits, silver rice rats and the deadly eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
At Boca Chica Key the US Naval Air Station is based. These are the fighter pilots who fly F16s on daily sorties – harassing Castro as Cuba is only 90 miles from the southernmost point in the United States.
Key West, a city of 45,000 registered voters on a piece of land six square miles in size. Its streets were designed in the 1800s for horses and carts not elongated RVs. We parked the El Monte RV up in the parking lot of Fairfield Inn & Suites and made our way to the Half Shell Raw Bar for some fresh seafood and a cold beer.
We had no choice, this was literally the end of the road that goes to sea.
- Buy a Rand McNally Atlas and obtain campground directories and state maps.
- Drive on the right-hand side and watch out for blind-spot on right hand turns.
- Beware of sea breezes on high bridges that turn your vehicle into a giant sail.
- Our RV had no central locking – make sure all doors are locked.
- Petrol averaged US$2.60 (NZ$3.83) a gallon at about 10-miles a gallon.
- For an extended stay buy an America the Beautiful: National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Pass – Annual Cost US$80.00 (NZ$118.00).
- Campground fees: From US$ 10.00 (NZ$14.75) to US$35 (NZ$51.500) in private campgrounds.
- RV rental: 7 nights US$1046.00 (NZ$1542) before discounts. Starter kit US$39.95 (NZ$59) Bedroom Kit US$25 per person (NZ$37), Kitchen kit US$ 125.00 (NZ$184).
Shane Boocock was hosted by Newman PR and the State of Florida Tourism, Fairfield Inn by Marriott, Key West, Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne, Dave Taylor at Cypress House in Key West and Kirby Sandberg at El Monte RV.
Shane Boocock flew to Los Angeles courtesy of Air Tahiti Nui.
El Monte RV: www.elmonterv.com or T: 562 483 4980. El Monte RV is privately owned offering RV rentals from hundreds of different locations across the United States. They feature the largest number of RV models in the motorhome industry.
The Ritz Carlton, 455 Grand Bay Drive, Key Biscayne FL 33149. T: 305 365 4500, W: www.ritzcarlton.com
Cypress House, 601 Caroline Street, Key West 33040, T: 305 294 6969, E: email@example.com
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