Life has gotten too hectic. You’re flirting with burnout. You need a weekend retreat. But the insanity of regular Florida destinations like South Beach or Key West will only make it worse. Where to go, you say?
Captain Florida has just the spot.
It’s a place you’ve probably been to many a time, and probably kept on driving straight through. It’s the Lower Florida Keys, roughly from Bahia Honda to the naval station on Boca Chica, and it’s probably the best-kept secret in the island chain.
Other sections of the archipelago all have their draws. In Key Largo, you’ll see countless red-and-white dive flags and tropical fish murals indicating the coral reef at nearby John Pennekamp State Park. Islamorada is the sports fishing mecca, with scores of charter boats at roadside docks displaying giant stuffed marlin and hammerheads hanging from hooks. In the middle of the Keys, Marathon has burgeoned into a mini-metropolis with an airport that handles corporate jets.
Then you come to the Seven-Mile Bridge. That’s at Mile Marker 47 (everything in the Keys is identified by mile markers along U.S. 1, from 107 at the Key Largo bridge to 0 at the end of Key West). By this point, most people are heading for Key West, which is now so close after the long drive that little else matters. Anticipation builds, the foot gets heavy on the gas pedal-hence all the speeding tickets when they come off the bridge to Big Pine Key and the speed limit drops to 45 (35 at night) to protect the endangered miniature Key deer roaming the island.
Drivers who aren’t stopped usually keep going until they’re atop a barstool on Duval Street. Lucky for the Lower Keys. They’re like a small rural town that evolved according to its own curious geography, narrow and long, water all around. In the sub-tropics.
Unlike the rest of the islands, the Lower Keys aren’t a procession of screaming tourist commerce. Not yet. They’re a necklace of lush little neighborhoods across the Overseas Highway where the bad parts of town have boats up on blocks. Sometimes I’ll be driving behind a school bus making its linear, 20-mile route over the bridges, and I’ll fantasize what kind of great Huck Finn childhood it must be growing up down here: seashell shops, churches, dog catchers, art-guild galleries specializing in watercolors and handbags made from coconuts, streets like Cutthroat Lane and Mad Bob Road.
The islands have equally intriguing names: Ramrod, Summerland, Cudjoe, Sugarloaf, the Saddlebunches. The first task is to designate your staging area. My two favorites are the Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp on Big Pine (and Parmer’s Place on neighboring Little Torch Key. Both are secluded with great views of the water, the perfect places to sit on the porch, watch the sun go down and grill up the fish you’ve caught (or bought at the Winn-Dixie). Then it’s a night of stars so brilliant it looks artificial, and the sounds of frogs, insects and the guy with the guitar six units down playing campfire songs. Old Wooden Bridge was built in 1943 and is the more rustic. A row of separate tiny cottages, it has survived as one of the last remaining fish camps from the era when Zane Grey lounged on the verandas of such compounds, polishing dispatches on pompano for Northern vacationers. If you want history, this is the one. If you prefer more modern accommodations, try Parmer’s. Either way, it’s a win-win.
If you’re into scuba diving or snorkeling, you might stay at the Looe Key Reef Resort (1-800-942-5397). That’s on Ramrod Key. It can’t be on Looe Key because that’s five miles offshore and submerged. It was named for the HMS Looe, which sank in 1744. There’s almost nothing left of the wreck, but the coral reef is famous for its spectacular pattern of finger channels supporting teeming quantities of angelfish, parrotfish, tarpon, snapper and eels-the best diving this side of Pennekamp. For two decades, it’s also been the sire of the annual Looe Key Underwater Music Festival. The music is broadcast by WCNK-"Conch FM"-and pumped down to the reef with special underwater speakers from Lubell Laboratory. Some of the divers arrive in wacky costumes and jump into the ocean with guitars and trombones. They form string quartets and little marching bands. Some dress like pop stars-Tina Tuna, Britney Spearfish.
The back door of your room at the Looe Key Reef Resort conveniently opens directly onto the dock, a few feet from the dive boats that head out at dawn. But don’t be fooled by the "resort" label. It’s more of a rag-tag old Florida roadside motel, which in my opinion, is better. A genuine diver’s joint.
There’s comparatively little nightlife in these parts, but quality makes up for quantity. We’ll start at the Looe Key resort, where a legendary tiki hut sits on the shoulder of U.S. 1. The Keys are littered with tiki huts claiming to be the world-famous this-or-that. The one at the reef resort doesn’t claim anything, because it’s the real deal. Every seasoned diver has done time there. The bar always seems to be cranking, night, day, rain, shine, hurricane evacuation.
A short walk up from the Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp is the No Name Pub. Owner Joel Faber recently opened the upstairs of the pub, which used to be a brothel in the early days of the 1930s. He’s also packed the room with Keys memorabilia, like the 50-caliber deck gun used by Captain Tony (former Key West mayor and proprietor of the original Sloppy Joe’s site) when he made midnight runs to Havana for the CIA more than 40 years ago.
Another short walk, this one down the road from Parmer’s Place, is the Sandbar, a pub up on stilts with a great view of the Overseas Highway and Big Pine Channel. For some of the best in island cuisine, get in your car and head west. You’re getting close when you see Fat Albert, the government radar blimp tethered above Cudjoe, still looking for smugglers. Just over the bridge to Sugarloaf Key, at Mile 20, is Mangrove Mama’s. Tucked into a grove of banana trees, it’s that funky little yellow-and-green Jamaican-looking place that you’ve probably wondered about as you drove past. This time, stop. Sit out back in the garden and try anything: blackened fish, stuffed shrimp, calamari, and of course real key lime pie.
All that’s left now is to touch the Bat Tower. Can’t leave the Lower Keys without doing that. In 1929, a real estate developer figured he could make a killing if he drove out the oppressive local population of mosquitoes. So he built the hollow tower and filled it with bats, which were supposed to eat the insects but instead promptly flew away. At mile 17, drive around the west side of the Sugarloaf Lodge and down an unmarked, pot-holed back road until you come upon an old wooden structure covered with shingles that you can’t identify. That’s the Bat Tower. Go ahead, walk up and touch it. It’s supposed to bring good luck. Okay, I made that part up, but touch it anyway.
The Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp on Big Pine, (305) 872-2241. Parmer’s Place on Little Torch Key, (305) 872-2158. Looe Key Reef Resort, (800) 942-5397.