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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Road Trip: Explore the Florida Keys

Traveling “the stretch,” those 18 miles that tie the Keys to the mainland, my shoulders relax gradually, in increments of mile markers, as civilization drops away into plains of seagrass and open swaths of turquoise water. Today, my boyfriend and I have turned the car south on U.S. Route 1 for a romantic adventure.

The first island we hit is Key Largo, where a junglelike path leads us to Kona Kai Resort, Gallery & Botanic Garden. Owner Joe Harris welcomes us with a tour of his botanical garden, plucking a banana from a tree for us to taste. Continuing past orchids, waterfalls and banks of ferns, we find our comfy Breadfruit Cottage facing the Florida Bay and a chilled bottle of champagne inside.

Dinnertime comes quickly, so we head to the twinkling patio at The Encore to feast on fresh hogfish baked with tomatoes, basil and capers. The waiter brings us a piece of Key lime pie to share. No visit is complete without a tasting of the tart pie with fluffy meringue. Night’s end finds us gently rocking in a hammock for two, gazing at stars so close we can almost touch them.

The morning sky is bright and cloudless, and we’re soon marveling at the natural beauty, history and roadside oddities. We pass Betsy, the colossal fiberglass lobster in front of the Rain Barrel artisan village in Islamorada, waving to the tourists posing with her. Traffic stops us at the Snake Creek drawbridge (there are 42 ahead). As a procession of boats pass through, we watch the morning sun glinting off the curving channels to our right and the open ocean to our left.

Ahead, iconic mermaid signage marks the Lorelei, the local breakfast joint by day and sunset attraction by night. We pull in for the Conch Republic breakfast, a heaping portion of fried mahimahi and eggs, enjoyed alongside fishermen.

When we arrive at Robbie’s Marina, our kayak for two is ready and off we go into the mangrove tunnels, the ocean’s version of lovers’ lane. As if sucked into a primeval land with no outside sounds, it’s easy to imagine that we’re the only two people in the world. The tangled mangrove roots host orange sponges, egrets and ibises; the clear water holds crab, lobster, young grouper and barracuda.

Back on dry land, Key West is our final destination. Zipping down the Overseas Highway, the surrounding waters turn turquoise, cerulean, midnight and baby blue, varying according to depth. Stacks of wooden lobster traps and osprey nests perched in telephone poles are part of the scenery.

When we approach the Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon, we explore the old defunct bridge. A remnant of Henry Flagler’s railroad, destroyed by the 1935 hurricane, the structure was once part of the highway, and my boyfriend muses, “I can’t believe we used to drive over this thing when I was a kid!” The new bridge rises in a 65-foot arc. As we drive, it seems we’re shooting right off into the sky.

After we pass Fat Albert, the U.S. Navy blimp hovering over Cudjoe Key, I keep an eye out for Baby’s Coffee. The dark roast, Sexpresso, rivals any Cuban blend.

Finally, we arrive at the Southernmost Hotel on the Beach and settle into our Key West digs, where views of the Atlantic make us smile. We trade the car for a pedicab and chuckle at the driver’s cool pirate hat. He drops us at the Sunset Tiki Bar on Front Street where, over margaritas and conch fritters, we watch schooners in the Historic Seaport. Soon the sky goes golden and we’re treated to the famous Key West sunset.

On Duval Street, the main drag, we dine at Nine One Five, where we share a bottle of wine and blackened-snapper tacos by candlelight. The full moon guides us back to the resort, and I fall asleep with visions of sunrise for two dancing in my head.

Previously published in Florida Travel + Life