From Key Largo to Key West, these are the must-stops along U.S. Highway 1 on a drive down this chain of tropical islands.
Whether you drive the 127-mile-long chain in one day or break up your trip with an overnight, take time to get off the highway and experience each island’s flavor, from tropical gardens and huge fish to gorgeous sunsets and miniature deer. A road trip through the Florida Keys turns up some great finds, here are a few we think are worth a stop.
The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, Key Largo, Mile Marker 97.9
With a location facing the Florida Bay and the Everglades National Park, this garden with 250 tropical species is tucked in the Kona Kai Resort. Despite its compact size, the garden is packed with 42 different palm species—and that’s just to start. Stroll past waterfalls and banks of ferns en route to the orchid house. Book a garden tour in advance and learn about Florida’s native plants, varieties of bamboo, tropical fruit trees, bromeliads and cycads.
Bass Pro Shops, Islamorada, Mile Marker 81.5
If you plan to do some fishing—or if you just arrived from northern climes and desperately need some cool, functional clothing that makes you look like a real fisherman—stop at the two-story Bass Pro Shops. It’s got all the reels, rods, lures and anything else you might need for saltwater fishing, fly fishing, and even kayaking and canoeing. Boaters have a showroom with tons of equipment to upgrade their watercraft. The store even stocks electronic fishfinders; however, we doubt you’ll have any problem finding something to reel in down here in the Keys.
Lorelei, Islamorada, Mile Marker 82
Keep an eye out for the funky mermaid sign as you cruise down U.S. Highway 1 and follow it to this iconic Keys bar and restaurant. Grab a table on the patio or beach overlooking the Florida Bay and bobbing sailboats. The Lorelei’s conch fritters and a cold beer make the perfect pair. Come at dusk for live music island-style and sunset celebrations.
Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada, Mile Marker 77.5
A colorful Old Florida landmark, Robbie’s marina is more than just a place to take a fishing, snorkel or kayak trip into the Florida Bay or the Atlantic Ocean. From the weather-worn dock you can feed the huge tarpon that loom below. In the parking lot under coconut palms, vendors sell island art of Keys’ landscapes and wildlife. And at the Hungry Tarpon restaurant, the chef will cook your catch; if you didn’t go angling, then order his fish-of-the-day sandwich, which is always a good choice.
Keys Fisheries, Marathon, Mile Marker 49
Find your perch on the elevated deck facing the Gulf of Mexico and watch the commercial fishing boats return. Keys Fisheries is both a working fishery, known for its hauls of stone crabs during seasons (October to May), and a seafood restaurant/market. Its culinary claim to famous is the lobster Rueben sandwich, made with Florida spiny lobster. The number of sandwiches sold since the staff started keeping track in 2002 is posted on the wall. Last time we checked the count was more than 208,000! How’s that for delicious?
Seven Mile Bridge, Mile Marker 47
Drive into the sunset. An excellent vantage point for viewing memorable Florida Keys sunsets is the Seven Mile Bridge heading southwest. The elevated road provides an unobstructed panorama of the sun, clouds and water, as yellows and blues turn into shades of pink and mauve. Check the sunset hour and time your road trip to catch those last minutes before the fire ball disappears into the Gulf of Mexico.
National Key Deer Refuge, Mile Marker 31
To spot a Key deer, the tiny endangered species that inhabits the Lower Keys, stop at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. Comparable to the size of a Great Dane, the deer measure about 30 inches tall and weighs around 75 pounds. The best viewing time is when they come out to forage at dusk. If no Key deer cross your path, head to neighboring No Name Key for a slice of pizza and cold beer. Tucked in a back street, the No Name Pub has the best pizza in the Keys and more dollar bills hanging from its ceiling than you can count.
Pier House, Key West, Mile Marker 0
When you reach the Pier House Resort & Spa on Key West you know you’re at the end of the line. Check into this tropical property just off Mallory Square, the hub for nightly sunset revelry. You’ll be in the heart of Old Town and can easily navigate the historic area on foot. Four-poster beds, rattan furniture and plantation shutters make the room attractive; just be sure to book one facing the Gulf of Mexico and Sunset Key, so you have your own private viewing area when the orb dips behind the horizon. Or to be part of the action, join the crowd in Mallory Square, where tightrope walkers entertain and vendors sell everything from trinkets to paintings of the famed sunsets.