U.S. Route 1 starts up amid rugged New England coastal scenery, shoots down the east coast, and finishes by leaving land altogether and darting out across the open sea. This final stretch is known as the Overseas Highway, and threads together the Florida Keys, carrying travellers through several sun-drenched island communities and out to Key West, the last American city before Cuba. With spectacular views over the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, a string of sublime beaches, endless fantastic seafood restaurants, and heaps of great attractions along the way, it’s one the most luxurious, indulgent and straight-up pleasurable road trips in the entire United States.
Largo is the first of the Florida Keys that you’ll hit once you leave dry land and drive above the Gulf of Mexico. With beautiful beaches such as Sandspur and Caloosa, it’s perennially popular with watersport lovers, boasting terrific fishing, snorkelling, and kayaking, as well as walking and boating among the mangrove swamps of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This park encompasses an underwater section, which contains a substantial section of the only living coral reef in the United States, and it’s a superb spot for scuba diving, with some dramatic wrecks amid a colorful world of marine life.
Continuing on from Key Largo, travelers on the Overseas Highway will soon reach Marathon, a small island with good food and a friendly, laid-back vibe. Be sure to drop into the turtle hospital, which runs excellent tours vividly describing the lives of turtles in Florida. There’s a broader exploration of the Florida Keys’ human and animal inhabitants at the Crane Point Museum, which has a 600-year-old canoe, remnants of pirate ships and a simulated coral reef cave with a touch-tank of marine creatures. Fresh seafood is abundant at such places as The Hideaway Cafe, or drivers can stop off for a picnic and a stretch on achingly picturesque Sombrero Beach.
Located just off the Overseas Highway on the outskirts of Marathon, the Dolphin Research Center has been introducing travelers to Florida’s larger marine inhabitants for 30 years. It is home to more than ten dolphins as well as three sealions, each of whom has his or her own back story and well-documented character traits. Visitors can swim with the dolphins, watch as trainers impart new tricks, and learn about the lives and habitat of Florida’s marine mammals in the center’s air-conditioned theater. As well as sea life, the center has a smattering of other species, including cats, birds, and iguanas.
Driving on from Marathon, you’ll hit the most stunning stretch of the Overseas Highway: the Seven Mile Bridge, streaking across the wide gulf of water separating Marathon and Little Duck Key. Fantastic ocean views unfold in all directions from this iconic bridge, and there’s plenty of space to pull up and take a stroll through the tropical sea air. The first Seven Mile Bridge carried rail tracks, but much of it was whipped into the water by a ferocious hurricane in the 1930s; patched up, it now forms part of the Overseas Heritage Trail, and is a great spot to get out of the car and stretch your legs.
At the far end of the Overseas Highway, visitors will reach Key West, a lively community with great nightlife and a buzzing gay scene, as well as a number of attractions to keep kids entertained. Drop into Ernest Hemingway House, where the writer worked on novels including For Whom the Bell Tolls, then quaff a dry martini in his favorite drinking hole, Captain Tony’s Saloon. Learn about the lore of the land on a ghostly walking tour of the island’s older areas, or enjoy the island’s beaches, which offer plentiful opportunities for water sports, boating, fishing, diving and simply splashing around in the sea.