“The highway that went to sea” has been designated an All-American Road, the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by the United States Congress.
Flying over the Florida Keys coral archipelago and into Key West International Airport also is an unforgettable experience.
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 to the west.
Visitors can fly into Key West International Airport (eyw.com) from domestic and international hubs including Atlanta; Boston; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Dallas–Fort Worth; Houston; greater Cincinnati, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; Newark, New Jersey; New York City; Philadelphia and greater Washington, D.C. In Florida, flights connect Key West with Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa. On-demand charter service also is available.
Key West International Airport’s coronavirus-flighting sanitizing robot, dubbed “R2Key2,” is among the first to be utilized in U.S. airports. It emits high-intensity ultraviolet UV-C wavelength light that kills 99.9% of pathogens in the air and on surfaces. The robot’s acquisition was motivated by a desire to augment the airport’s other cleanliness and passenger-protection practices to safeguard against coronavirus.
In the Middle Keys, visitors can fly into Florida Keys Marathon International Airport (monroecounty-fl.gov/109/Florida-Keys-Marathon-International-Airp) on small on-demand charter planes. Two full-service fixed-based operators offer private and charter aircraft accessibility.
Both Key West and Marathon airports are served by major rental car companies and have U.S. Customs & Border Protection facilities.
Florida Keys ground service includes Greyhound Lines, Keys Shuttle, Lower Keys Shuttle, Dade-Monroe Express and Flixbus, 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.
However, many Florida Keys visitors opt to drive to get the full experience of the famed, scenic Overseas Highway.
Beside the Overseas Highway, travelers will see green mile markers or mileposts featuring white numbers. Those numbers descend in order, from mile marker 127 at Florida City on the mainland, to mile zero at 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 operations after a 1935 hurricane.
The Overseas Highway, completed in 1938, includes 113 miles of 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 is to extend 106 miles from Key Largo to Key West when fully completed. About 90 miles are in use for biking and hiking with easy access to fishing, paddling, snorkeling, swimming and diving. The longest continuous section of paved trail stretches 34 miles, from the Upper Keys at mile marker 106 down to Islamorada through mile marker 72.
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.
After arriving in Key West, visitors can call a taxi for short trips around the 2-by-4-mile island. Ride-share services Uber and Lyft operate as well.
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.
The complimentary hop-on, hop-off Duval Loop city bus service provides a convenient car-free way to travel around Key West’s downtown Duval Street and Historic Seaport areas. Buses operate daily (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day), and the route includes 18 stops near popular attractions, hotels, museums, boutiques and eateries.
Other transportation options include a hop-on, hop-off trolley, rental scooters including mobility and power-chair scooters, and electric cars or golf carts. But walking is the recommended — and most interesting — way to explore historic Old Town’s tree-lined streets and narrow lanes.
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/gay, fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
Gay Key West Visitor Center: gaykeywestfl.com, 305-294-4603 or 1-800-535-7797
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