“The highway that went to sea” is Florida’s only federally designated All-American Road, the highest possible recognition under the National Scenic Byways Program. It is one of just 42 All-American roads in the entire United States.
Flying over the Florida Keys coral archipelago and into Key West International Airport also is an unforgettable journey.
But whether the trip is by road or air, the journey through the Florida Keys to Key West offers breathtaking scenery framed by wide-open vistas of aquamarine waters and bright blue sky. The Atlantic Ocean laps at the island chain to the east, while Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico are west.
Visitors can fly into Key West International Airport (www.eyw.com), via connecting or direct flights from many domestic or international hubs, on American Airlines/Envoy, Delta Connection, JetBlue/Silver Airways and US Airlines. Direct regional flights originate from locations including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and other Florida cities as well as Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and North Carolina’s Charlotte. On-demand charter service also is available.
United Airlines is scheduled to launch seasonal flights on 70-seat regional jets into Key West from Newark, New Jersey, in October.
In the Middle Keys, visitors can fly into Florida Keys Marathon International Airport (www.monroecounty fl.gov/index.aspx?NID=109) aboard small on-demand charter planes. Two full-service fixed-based operators offer private and charter aircraft accessibility.
Both Key West and Marathon airports have U.S. Customs & Border Protection facilities.
Rental car companies at Key West’s airport include Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National and Thrifty. At Marathon’s airport, Avis, Budget and Enterprise have rental facilities.
Florida Keys ground service includes Greyhound Lines, Keys Shuttle, Lower Keys Shuttle, Dade-Monroe Express and a Miami-to-Key-West bus service.
On the water, the high-speed Key West Express provides fast ferry service to Key West from Southwest Florida’s Fort Myers Beach and Marco Island.
The majority of Florida Keys visitors, however, opt to drive to get the full experience of the famed, scenic Overseas Highway.
Beside the road travelers will see green mile markers or mileposts designated with white numbers. Those numbers descend in order from mile marker 127 in Florida City on the mainland to mile zero in Key West.
The highway follows a trail blazed in 1912, when railroad baron Henry Flagler completed the extension of his Florida East Coast Railroad from Miami to Key West. The railway ceased operation after a 1935 hurricane.
The Overseas Highway, completed in 1938, includes 113 miles of actual roadway and 42 bridges. The highway was built of coral bedrock, some original railway spans and specially designed columns. The renowned Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon and 36 other bridges were replaced with wider spans in 1982.
The Overseas Highway is the foundation of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, a recreational bicycle and pedestrian greenway that will extend 106 miles from Key Largo to Key West when fully completed. Ninety miles are currently in use for biking, hiking and rollerblading, with easy access to fishing, paddling, snorkeling, swimming and diving.
Travelers can drive the full length of the Overseas Highway in about four hours, although additional time should be allowed to explore the Keys. Off-the-beaten-path beaches and parks, shops carrying one-of-a-kind Keys-crafted offerings and funky waterfront dining venues serving succulent fresh seafood are not to be missed.
Once in Key West visitors can hail a taxi, including cabs painted bright pink, for short trips around the 2-by-4-mile island. Renting a pastel-hued bicycle known as a “conch cruiser” also is a popular way to explore. Pedicabs can be found on Duval Street and in Key West’s historic downtown district at virtually all hours.
Other transportation options include city bus service and rental scooters and electric cars. But walking is the recommended way of exploring historic Old Town’s tree-lined streets and narrow lanes.
Key West visitor information: www.fla-keys.com/gay, www.fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
Gay Key West Visitor Center: www.gaykeywestfl.com, 305-294-4603 or 1-800-535-7797
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