Driving thru Homestead, Florida I pass on the last chance for gas in the continental US and smooth the pedal heading south on US 1, The Overseas Highway. The All-American Road transports vehicles along the Lawton Chiles Trail, it’s a tongue of asphalt that will take me through the largest of the 1,700 islands that are the Florida Keys. In a few days I’ll finish 130 miles later having threaded the third largest barrier reef in the world and ending in their best known spot, Key West.
I watch for the roadside distance markers that count down my progress, the first stop is in Key Largo, yes, that Key Largo, as in Bogey and Bacall. I drive about 45 minutes through the last bit of Everglades marshland, checking the timeless natural beauty of Florida’s unique ecosystem and head for Mile Marker 101 where Dolphin Point Villas will be the home base for a couple of days and nights of Upper Keys exploration.
Villas’ philosophy, “Get Lost in Paradise, not in a Crowd” is the Siren Song that pulls me to that luxury getaway. Designed for those who want a vacation where family and close friends can get together in tropical bliss while in Key Largo, the heart of the Upper Keys, THE Borguss family’s plan is to operate a resort hotel with the feel of an estate property, surprisingly, with no hidden or extra “resort fees” and that means the kayaks and paddleboards are free for guests. Let’s go!
Upon check in, I ask a few questions to finish off what I’d learned on the villas’ website and decide whether I want a house or a hotel suite. Dolphin Point is the place for me as my options are among six standalone structures, four of which can be divided via a lockable pass-through door, making one side a suite and the other side more of a villa with full kitchen and laundry.
I went for the full villa experience by opening the door and combining the suite and villa sides.
Each set of accommodations is decorated with work by local artists because the owners believe in reinvesting in the community. With a full kitchen at my disposal, I’m told whether I cook or take a restaurant recommendation from the welcome packet, to any of a host of local restaurants, I’m all set.
Guests have their choice, beginning with the waterfront accommodation, Nautilus House, a 4,200 square foot 5-bedroom seaside getaway, where each room of the villa has a private bath and a private swimming pool. Along Nautilus’ perimeter is a 3,000 square foot wraparound porch whose view of the beachfront wedding area, makes this unit a popular wedding venue and newlyweds’ residence. In the event of “liquid sunshine” on your wedding day or other event, the 10 feet of elevation beneath Nautilus is room enough to host a sit down celebration for 100 guests.
Arrive by either car and/or boat as Point’s 6-slip marina includes a boat ramp, a fairly unique advantage in the area, so trailer your boat.
The property’s grand opening was Dec. 2017. But their local experience goes back to 1979 when the family began with a dolphin research facility nearby and has used their knowledge of the area to bring a personal touch to the resort. Mine has felt like a one-on-one guest experience.
That’s enough of the landside information for now, it’s off on a two-minute walk to check out some locals who’ve been here even longer than humans and have a water-based perspective, dolphins!
In 1979 Dolphin Point’s owner Richard Borguss created the first dolphin swim in Key Largo and today there are 11 Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins only a two-minute walk away, which draw visitors who want to take either the shallow water encounter or the structured swim. One doesn’t have to be a guest at the villas to swim with their dolphins. I met a family from Germany at my appointment. The great part about being a guest is that there’s a discounted rate.
Back in the villa I dress for dinner, sandals, shorts and a linen shirt, because I’m in The Keys. Tonight’s meal is a few miles south at one of the three Playa Largo Resort and Hotel’s restaurants, Sol. The place is almost full because the hotel is fully booked, they have bounced back from the minor damage caused by Irma, the most recent hurricane to hit The Keys. Now I am ready to hit the road and get a taste for this Key. I drive through a typically brief rain shower, park and am seated by Jessica. Sol is set against the Gulf side of the key, the restaurant is comprised of thatched roof and heavy wood construction, giving diners the tropical island feel as the breeze cools us all. Jacq is my server and I kick things off with a Largo Punch, rum, dark rum, coconut rum, coconut cream, OJ, citrus and bitters…while I peruse the menu.
Hmmm, or is it Mmmmmm: Watermelon salad w homestead heirloom tomatoes. Blackened grouper in coconut curry, jerk shrimp kabobs, blackened or fried snapper, atop scallops with guacamole remoulade. On the land side portion of my menu, my choices are churrasco steak, 12 oz. bone in ribeye, and from the air, roasted half chicken. The water’s offerings include Playa seafood pasta, clams, shrimp, mussels, or calamari. On his return, Jacq tells me their best seller is the sunset burger and tonight’s special is ahi tuna poke with a ginger chili dressing and yucca chips. I go with the blackened grouper and it’s absolutely perfect.
Sol’s is an upscale take on the host of roadside Key lime bakeries that populate the drive between Keys Largo and West. There’ll be lots of chances to check out swimsuits, shell stores, visitor centers T-Shirts, sandals plus and scuba dive stores and sites, not to mention wedding information for a more permanent association.
I try to finish off with a dessert I am unable to finish, two large slices of frozen key lime bar, Key Lime Chantilly in a graham cracker sandwich.
Now it’s time to sleep it off in the king-sized bed back at Dolphin Point. If you can sleep off a hangover why not sleep of a great dinner and huge dessert, right?
It worked! The next morning, drive away from Dolphin Point, turn right onto US 1 and head off. In a few miles, I slow at the giant lobster statue and turn into the Rain Barrel Artisan Village where the tires and then my feet crunch the gleaming white gravel as I head into an authentic kitschy working artists enclave. I’m welcomed by wooden wind chimes. In keeping with working with local material, they’re heavy on shells and starfish and conch. Mermaids feature heavily in their portraits, sculptures and tiles, perfect subjects for a fun Tropical motif.
Shops like Art on a Whim for necklaces, plates and cups and Artamorada for paintings are a fun finds on a road trip headed south. The sign outside Bella Sol Fragrance Bar and Gifts advertises “Sandy toes and salty kisses.” Inside lotions, potions and sparkly treasures await, based on the sign. As my feet crunch more gravel on the walk back to my car, I think about how cool their mermaid ballerina outfit outside their front door is. The use of shells and starfish for a belt is perfect!
Another ten-minute drive down the road and I arrive just in time for my tour and tasting at Florida Keys Brewing Co. in Islamorada, a perfectly typical Keys business where they’ve been brewing beers in Morada Way’s Arts and Cultural District since 2015. Like the artisan village, they take what they have and make what they need, infusing their local brews with Key limes, citrus, and local honey, all this craftsmanship takes place beneath the watchful gaze of the disco ball hanging from the rafters in the brew room behind the bar.
Out front, Steve, Chris, and Brad are the on scene beertenders and Brad has a circular tray filled with oversized shot glasses presented to me a couple minutes after my arrival. Each of the ten glasses is numbered and there’s a legend in the center of the tray matching names like Honey Bottomed Blonde, Pirate Tale Pale Ale, Spearfish Amber and Smugglers Moon Oatmeal Stout with their glass number. I toss off samples from each glass, and just as I realize I prefer the lighter colored brews, Brad asks if I’m ready for the tour. As we walk around the corner he says we can do this for as few as one or as many as you can fit on a tour bus. I understand things are going so well they’re on the verge of opening a new taproom a block away which will have 20 varieties, up from the ten they have here.
Boiling, cooling, fermentation, the addition of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, then given two weeks and a lot of careful monitoring, you have liquor ready for distribution throughout the Keys and as far up the southeast Florida Coast as Jupiter. My personal favorite though, is a one-off batch brewed from 50 gallons of Hurricane Irma rainwater, which hit The Keys in September 2017, and sold out in 4 days!
As I turn left onto US 1 by Brewing Company’s soon to be new location, heading for dinner at Morada Bay Beach Café, I am glad I called far enough ahead to get a dinner reservation a half hour before sunset because their outdoor location on the west side of the island is a perfect viewing spot of their evening ritual that draws capacity crowds.
I pull into Thee Morada Bay Beach Café & Bar and am shown to my table on the sand. Their menu is a blend of local and Caribbean styles highlighting local seafood and produce. The scene here is so picturesque I understand why location scouts for the Netflix drama series, Bloodline shot here.
I await my cashew crusted salmon salad that will precede my whole fried snapper with crispy fried tostones, cilantro rice topped with sofrito criollo and play a little game of which will happen first: Does the sun touch the horizon before the entrée arrives or vice versa? Either way it’s a win-win as no one here is in any hurry to do anything except view the sunset and shoot selfies in front of a coconut tree that grew partially horizontal to the water’s edge.
A wonderful dinner and beautiful sunset under my belt and it’s a short drive north back up the road for my last night at Dolphin Point Villas.
Next morning I’m ever so slightly sad to leave my home away from home in the Upper Keys, but the allure of Key West is unmistakable, even with a scheduled stop late this morning for a snorkel excursion at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters down at Mile Marker 53, where they offer an outdoor swimming and wildlife encounter that is basically indoors.
In about an hour I’ll be interacting with sea life including sharks and stingrays. Their range of marine life both displayed and in the tank I’ll swim in includes coral and fish native to the local waters.
After checking in I watch a ten-minute familiarization video telling me there’ll be a hole in the solid Plexiglass barrier when I feed sharks, but the only barrier between me and the friendly Angelfish and Cownose rays will be my glove.
Video viewing completed, I slip into the wetsuit then the 200,000-gallon salt water tank containing 50 fish species to begin my in-water encounter!
Joe is a relative newcomer to the Aquarium but has years of experience as a scuba instructor. His is yet another wonderful Keys story. He lives on a sailboat with his wife, child, cat and dog, and takes a 10-minute motorized dinghy here for work each day.
I am given detailed instruction of where to be in the coral reef tank, reassured he’ll be right beside me as I feed and pet the rays, squeeze fish food from the bottle and attract hundreds of colorful fish who know exactly what is happening every time two people get in the water: Free food for the fishes. With the little guys fed it’s time to gaze at the sharks, Moray eels and 300 lb. grouper through the glass in the predator tank, before pushing some fish through the feeding tube to have a calm encounter with some wild life.
After about 15 minutes in the tank I get out, peel off the suit, shower up and check out the landside of the aquarium. Their displays showcase gators, and in the Tide Pool Touch Tank I see a little boy touching a selection of shallow water marine life while getting a tailored explanation from an aquarium employee. As I follow the path that meanders along the mangroves at the water’s edge, I feel as though this is how the turtles and other animals seen on display here lived in Florida for millennia.
Heading back to the car with purpose, I drive the final 50 odd miles that will bring me to the Marquesa Hotel, a conversion of a number of 19th Century “conch houses” perfectly located in the center of Old Town Key West’s historic district–with two pools, spacious rooms, wonderful suites and picturesque gardens all accompanied by staff service so great it almost qualifies as mind reading.
Brian the concierge makes certain before I leave the front desk I have reservations at their renown restaurant Café Marquesa, a bicycle rental with delivery service scheduled to arrive in ten minutes, a map of Key West with a dozen attractions outlined and a truly warm, honest welcome to the southernmost city in the United States. I am not at all surprised this kind of service garnered The Marquesa spots on coveted hospitality lists over the years, and a clientele that supports the hotel enough to warrant a recently opened addition just down the street. Free iced tea poolside and maid service which includes all the things you expect from a luxury hotel, but with the additional touch of a filled ice bucket. I find this a perfect example of how detail oriented The Marquesa is and although it’s expected, they pleasantly surprise me in their service and approach.
The bicycle delivery man calls from the hotel garage just as I’m leaving the suite, so I pop down and meet him, then it’s off on my afternoon’s adventure.
The 10-minute bike trip to the beach and structure at Fort Zachary Taylor, our president whose nickname was “Ol Rough and Ready” had this fort named for him in 1850, to honor his distinguished military career, which spanned four wars was refreshing, and made the list of great quiet beaches to frequent when way down south. The pine trees secret the shoreline from the parking area and some of the walking trails, and although Smathers Beach is nearby and far more popular, Fort Taylor is something truly special.
I finish up a lap of the park, done mostly on foot but also on bike after walking the fort and biking one of their short trails, and head a few blocks to Ernest Hemingway’s House.
I arrive just in time for Mary, the tour guide, whose commitment to cats is obvious from her flaming ball and cat tattoo as she drops knowledge and trivia on the celebrated author, his four wives and the dozens of cats who are direct descendants of ones Hemingway nurtured: Cat Harry Trumam and Cat Gertrude Stein are the parents of Cat Humphrey Bogart, who makes his way to Mary’s feet as she walks through the garden between the main house and Hemingway’s swimming pool.
With images of Ernest in my head and what a ride his four marriages must have been, for all the spouses involved, I head over to Mallory Square to pick up a 90 minute hop on hop off “Conch Train” tour of the town, whose charm comes in large part from the train visage laid atop a standard road vehicle.
I sit in the row behind a group of Minnesotans who are no doubt loving the temperature for all 90 of the minutes we spend hitting island highlights pointed out by our driver, conductor, engineer and tour guide, John.
We get explanations on the Bahamian and Conch Architectural styles so popular here, the metal roofs, wooden structures and verandas that stand behind picket fences rightfully associated with Key West. We hear of a time when Key West was the sole supplier of sponges to the US, until they invented synthetic sponges and the town went bust. Pirates and the civil war made the navy, at times, the life blood of this island, and then the war stopped, Cuba ceased being a military threat and pirates went elsewhere.
Beginning and ending at Mallory Square, the visitors’ heart of Key West, the “Train” drops me off just in time to catch tonight’s sunset.
I double time it past performers on Mallory Square, they’re typically fantastic, selfies are shot by guests as slackline walkers and a unicyclist do their things, one man balances a tennis racket on his nose while a nearby sword swallower preps to perform his self explanatory thing.
I’ll be about a mile closer to the sunset tonight than these landlubbers because I’ve a sunset wine and cheese sail on Danger Charters Wind and Wine Sunset Sail where the other guests and I’ll have
54 ft. of pleasure beneath us as we’re spoiled with wine, cheese and cocktail-sized meats as we sail to and fro to get a water-based view of the sunset: Champagne welcomed us aboard but was followed by three whites and four reds of progressive weight and complexity. Contributed by New Mexico, Spain, Greece, Napa, France, Chile, and Argentina. The veggie skewers with ranch dip and Caprece salad with balsamic red-glaze bridged the dill, Havarti and Pepper Jack.
The red wines, blue water, and yellow cheeses are a tapestry for the eyes and taste buds as the orange ball slips beneath the horizon, painting the sky red, as proof of what has gone and a promise of what will return in about 12 hours.
I unfortunately will have to leave the Key in the morning as I look forward to The Marquesa’s room service breaking its own record for coffee, continental breakfast and OJ, which stood at less than five minutes after the phone was hung up the meal arrived. So perfectly fortified for the day I’ll head off for the Mainland, a simple left turn loops me along US 1, the country’s southernmost highway, and from Mile Marker 0 I’ll count the digits back up about 130 miles until it drops me onto the FL Turnpike.
A drive down the Florida Keys is a road trip worth taking.