Completed in 1938 along the course of an ill-fated railroad that had been destroyed by a hurricane, the Overseas Highway (Rte. 1) leaps from island to island across 42 bridges as it arcs southwestward through the Florida Keys. The islands were first seen by Europeans in the 16th century, when Spanish flotillas were carting off the riches of the New World. Today visitors come for different kinds of treasure — sunshine, escape, and clear, warm waters that teem with life.
1. North Key Largo
Instead of heading south from Florida City on the first leg of Rte. 1, take Card Sound Road to the northern end of Key Largo for a glimpse of what the islands looked like before this area’s commercial boom. Beyond the toll bridge, this sparsely populated sector boasts a stand of virgin forest in which exposed coral formations dot the landscape, along with palms, marshes, mangrove swamps, and the occasional wild orchid. Among the rare animals found in this wilderness are saltwater crocodiles, scarlet ibis, pelicans, and roseate spoonbills; even the endangered Florida panther has been spotted here.
2. Key Largo
Some 30 miles long but averaging only about 2 miles in width, Key Largo is the largest of the Florida Keys. For a revealing look at its geologic underpinnings, slow down near mile marker 103 on Rte. 1, where an exceptionally fine expanse of coral has been exposed on the bank of a man-made channel.
Though tourist facilities and commercial development are much in evidence along the highway, here as elsewhere in the keys the sea is never very far away. At Key Largo the most notable marine attraction is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, an undersea wildlife preserve. In addition to hordes of brightly colored fish, the reef is home to throngs of sea stars, sand dollars, sea anemones, crabs, and sponges. Tours by glass-bottom boat are available, and the more adventurous can snorkel and scuba dive in the seas of this underwater wonderland.
Stretching from Windley Key to Long Key, the Islamorada area is renowned as a center for sportfishing. Among its other attractions is the Theater of the Sea, a marine park at mile 84.5 that features performing dolphins and seals.
From the docks near mile 78.5, boats depart for excursions to the wilds of nearby Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Site, where the virgin forest includes such exotic species as strangler figs, pigeon plums, and gumbo-limbo trees. Boat tours also are available for visits to Indian Key State Historic Site, a lonely 10-acre islet that served as a bustling county seat until it was devastated during an Indian rebellion in 1840. Self-guiding walks lead through the ruins of the town, where tropical plants now flourish. To the south of Indian Key, visitors can explore San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve. The site of a 1733 Spanish shipwreck, it is now a mecca for skin divers and snorkelers.