The only thing less appealing to me than a road trip is setting off bright and early. But as I moodily sipped my third cup of coffee in the car, I had to admit there was something captivating about the early morning lavender-tinged light dancing on the water.
Spectacular scenery aside, I was on a mission to get my picture taken at that giant buoy anchored in Key West that marks the southernmost point in the continental United States. Thousands of others do the same every year, and the lines can be longer than that iconic Conch Tour Train in Old Town.
But I had a plan. I would check into the newly renovated Southernmost Resort, just steps away from the buoy, and head over early before the tourist throngs.
First, though, I had an appointment with Jesus.
Our first stop was Key Largo, the northernmost key located 69 miles south of Miami and site of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary adjoining Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
More than 500 species of fish and other marine life make their home in North America’s only living coral barrier reef — a diver’s dream. This technicolor, complex ecosystem has one of the largest seagrass beds in the world and provides a critical habitat for fish, manatees and foraging sea turtles.
But the highlight for me was diving into the clear, refreshing water and swimming into the outstretched arms of Christ of the Deep, a submerged 9-foot-tall bronze statue that has been blessing snorkelers and divers at Key Largo Dry Rocks coral reef since 1965.
Later that day, at Playa Largo Resort & Spa, a 14.5-acre luxury property on a secluded beach, we took a self-guided hike of the surrounding tropical hardwood hammocks and mangroves using a kid-friendly Nature Passport that lets guests check off the flora and fauna they see.
The region is a bird watcher’s Paradise. Brown pelicans, with their long bills and short legs, are commonly spotted diving for tasty fish. Butterflies alight on tropical flowers, and green tree frogs nestle among the hammocks.
But the most startling animal encounter came as I got comfy in a pool chair. Just as I reached for my mojito, I spotted a 4-foot-long green iguana happily sunning himself on the pool deck with the rest of the crowd.
Turtle rescue and release
The next day we hit the road again; our destination was Marathon, Florida. The island community located in the Middle Keys is an hour from Key Largo.
We were there to cheer up some sea turtles that were feeling a bit under the weather. The Turtle Hospital, housed in a former motel, is a veterinary facility that rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured sea turtles and releases them when they are healed.
Papa was a new patient. An angler had accidentally hooked the 185-pound loggerhead, the largest of all hard-shelled turtles, and the U.S. Coast Guard was called in to help rescue the stunned creature. The good news is Papa was released last month.
A 70-minute guided tour includes an educational presentation on the sea turtles and a behind-the-scenes peek at the medical facilities. Sea turtles often end up here because of boat strikes, ingesting ocean trash or becoming tangled in fishing equipment. I left with a resolve to be a better steward of the planet.
On the road again
Back on the road, Wesley and I tuned into some hot Latin rhythms and zipped across the Seven Mile Bridge, one of the most scenic sections of the Overseas Highway.
If we could time travel back 100 years, we would have been rattling along on the Overseas Railroad, a marvel of engineering spearheaded by visionary railroad tycoon Henry Flagler. Before the completion of the railway in 1912, the only way to travel from the mainland to Key West was by boat.
The Old Seven Mile Bridge that runs parallel to the “new” modern bridge I was traveling upon reopened in January following a $44 million, five-year renovation. A 2.2 mile stretch between Marathon and Pigeon Key is closed to traffic, creating an ideal playground for those who want to cycle or rollerblade 65 feet above the emerald-green waves.
At last, we spotted U.S. Mile Marker 1, literally the end of the road.
We were in the heart of the Conch Republic.
Early the next morning, I put my picture-taking plan into action. Wesley and I pried ourselves from our cushy bed at the Southernmost Resort and walked over to the Southernmost Point Buoy, a black-and-red monument that rises against the sea, boasting in yellow letters its location 90 miles from Cuba.
“Say conch fritters!”
My cheesy grin says it all. I am a road trip convert. I am not, however, a budget rental car convert. Life is a highway, but if I’m going to drive it all night (or day) long, I want a sexy red convertible.
If you go
The Overseas Highway stretches 113 miles along U.S. Hwy. 1 from Miami to Key West, Florida.
Silent World Dive Center. Snorkeling $55-$68. 51 Garden Cove Drive, Key Largo, Florida. 305-451-3252, www.silentworld.com
The Turtle Hospital. $15-$30. 2396 Overseas Highway, Marathon, Florida. 305-743-2552, www.turtlehospital.org
Where to Eat
Gala. Tucked inside the Hilton Aventura Miami hotel, the restaurant serves pineapple upside down pancakes and other breakfast delicacies. Breakfast entrees $13-$18. 2885 N.E. 191st St., Aventura, Florida. 305-466-7775, www.HiltonAventuraMiami.com
Key Largo Conch House. Seafood restaurant specializing in fresh fish. Entrees $12-$45. 100211 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, Florida. 305-453-4844, www.keylargoconchhouse.com
Blue Heaven. Quirky outdoor eatery with live music. Entrees $22-$42. 729 Thomas St., Key West, Florida. 305-296-8666, www.blueheavenky.com
Where to Stay
Playa Largo Resort and Spa. A luxury oceanfront resort. $352 and up. 97450 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, Florida. 305-853-1001, www.playalargoresort.com
Isla Bella Beach Resort & Spa. Tranquil, upscale 24-acre property. $233 and up. 1 Knights Key Blvd., MM 47, Marathon, Florida. 305-481-9451, www.islabellabeachresort.com
Southernmost Beach Resort. Newly renovated property within walking distance of many attractions. $250-$550. 1319 Duval St., Key West, Florida. 800-354-4455, www.southernmostbeachresort.com