Road Trip: The Over­seas High­way from Key Largo to Key West

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

The Over­seas High­way links Florida's main­land with Key West, and some tourists drive straight through the chain with­out ex­plor­ing un­til they get to the end of the road. Those peo­ple are miss­ing a lot to see and do on the 108 miles (173 km) of high­way and is­lands in be­tween. From 33-mile-long (53-km) Key Largo to lit­tle Ram­rod Key, which is less than 2 miles (3.2 km) wide, the Keys are full of op­por­tu­ni­ties for ad­ven­ture for any­one will­ing to slow down and look around. Here are some pos­si­bil­i­ties:

Go snor­kel­ing

Lo­cated only 65 miles (104 km) south of Mi­ami on the is­land of Key Largo, John Pen­nekamp Co­ral Reef State Park is a good first stop on a road trip to Key West. Ex­tend­ing 3 miles (4.8 km) into the At­lantic Ocean, the park en­com­passes about 235 square miles (608 square km) of seafloor that in­cludes the only liv­ing co­ral reef in the con­ti­nen­tal United States and sea­grass. Pri­vately owned boats fer­ry­ing divers and snorkel­ers of­ten hover over the reef, but the park and pri­vate ven­dors of­fer rea­son­ably priced day trips for tourists. Put on a swim­ming mask and stick your head be­neath the wa­ter and a new world ap­pears. Brightly col­ored trop­i­cal species like par­rot­fish and an­gelfish dart past wav­ing fan co­ral, along with the oc­ca­sional bar­racuda and stingrays.

Ex­plore a neigh­bor­hood

US 1, the of­fi­cial name of the Over­seas High­way, makes a long, sweep­ing curve south­ward from the main­land to­ward Key West. There aren't many twists or turns, but there count­less side streets that link the high­way with water­front neigh­bor­hoods. Go ven­tur­ing down a few of those lanes. Res­i­den­tial ar­eas that range from op­u­lent to funky are hid­den on side streets off the high­way. Some houses are ocean­front man­sions; the more in­ter­est­ing ones are a lot smaller.

Mo­bile homes painted all sorts of trop­i­cal shades line nar­row streets in the up­per keys, and res­i­dents go out of their way to give them an is­land feel. You'll see dec­o­ra­tions like metal par­rots, mounted fish, home­made art and Jimmy Buf­fett flags most ev­ery­where.

Kayak a canal

Many of those same neigh­bor­hoods are built around nar­row canals that were dug of the co­ral bedrock decades ago to pro­vide eas­ier ac­cess to the sea. The best way to see the "wet" side of these spots is by kayak. You'll need a kayak rental shops are plen­ti­ful - and a place to put it in the wa­ter, like the boat ramp be­side the Caribbean Club on Key Largo's Black­wa­ter Sound. That done, start pad­dling.

Canals lead­ing into neigh­bor­hoods are easy to spot along the shore. Head down one and you're in­stantly sur­rounded by big boats, many of which hang over­head on davits that keep them sus­pended above the cor­ro­sive salt­wa­ter. Tiki huts and out­door loung­ing ar­eas line the canals. Look down into the wa­ter and you're likely to see a man­a­tee, the en­dan­gered "sea cows" that live in back­wa­ters around the Keys. These mas­sive mam­mals are pro­tected by fed­eral law, so don't try to feed or pet them. But also don't be sur­prised if one pokes its head out of the wa­ter by your boat.

Feed a tar­pon

Thou­sands of an­glers visit the Florida Keys each year hop­ing to catch tar­pon, a mam­moth species of sil­ver-and-green fish that of­ten grows larger than 150 pounds. Tourists also can feed them fish by hand at a few lo­ca­tions. One of the best-known spots for get­ting an up-close look at tar­pon is Rob­bie's Marina of Is­lam­orada, lo­cated at the base of a bridge at Mile Marker 77.

Vis­i­tors at Rob­bie's pay $2 to en­ter a dock where a school of the fish hang out, and it's $3 for a bucket of small fish to feed the tar­pon. Grab a dead fish by the tail, hold it close to the wa­ter and wait a few sec­onds - there will be a tar­pon grab­bing a quick snack in no time. It may sound easy, but just try hold­ing still when a 100-pound fish with a gap­ing mouth jumps out of the wa­ter to­ward you.

Count igua­nas. Or chick­ens. Or co­conuts

Re­mem­ber the old back­seat game of count­ing cows to make the time pass? The Florida Keys of­fers vari­a­tions. Igua­nas are the squir­rels of the Keys. The green, long-tailed rep­tiles are easy to spot soak­ing up the sun on grassy road­sides, in park­ing lots, in trees and bushes.

But, chick­ens? Yep, free-range yard birds are near-con­stant sight also, strut­ting around neigh­bor­hoods and busi­nesses. They don't be­long to any­one and are best known in Key West. But feral chick­ens are all over the Keys, and they have been for gen­er­a­tions. Look up in the palm trees or down at the ground and you might just see a co­conut. If you want to add to the en­ter­tain­ment, find one on the ground in a public area and try to open it. Just re­mem­ber: It's not that easy, re­gard­less of what that video on YouTube might claim.

Pho­tos shows houses and boats on a canal in a neigh­bor­hood at Key Largo, Florida.

Photo taken at Is­lam­orada, Florida, shows tar­pon and pel­i­cans swim­ming at a dock at Rob­bie’s Marina, where tourists can feed the huge fish by hand. — AP pho­tos

Pho­tos shows a col­or­ful sun­set viewed from the Caribbean Club at Key Largo, Florida.

Pho­tos shows va­ca­tion­ers float­ing in Tar­pon Basin at Key Largo, Florida.

Pho­tos shows a man­a­tee peer­ing out of the wa­ter in a bay at Key Largo, Florida.

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