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Driving to Key West

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Kitesurfers in Islamorada

You can fly to Key West, but it's so much better to drive from Miami, Sarasota or wherever else you begin. The ride through the keys is incredibly scenic, as there's crystal blue water dotted with uninhabited isles on both sides of the highway, US 1. And once you hit the first key, Key Largo, you don't have to worry about getting lost — as there's basically only one main road for the next 118 miles, a road that at times is only one lane. It's a long drive and can take anywhere from two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half hours, but it's worth it.

The only way to enter the keys is through Florida City, a rustic town (well, city) in Miami/Dade County. Florida City contains MM (mile marker) 126, while Key West boasts MM zero, which has been proudly advertised on many a t-shirt/mug/poster. There are tons of mile markers through the keys on US 1, and it's very helpful as there are few cross streets. While we drove, I had out my guide book, National Geographic Traveler's Maimi and the Keys, and I found that it was very easy to locate landmarks by using the mile markers.

There are plenty of places to stop along the way to Key West, but time and patience quickly become factors. Because we left from Sarasota, we had already been driving for over four hours before we hit MM 126. The only time we really got out of the car was in Islamorada. Although it's known for its world-class fishing, it was kitesurfers who caught our eye around MM 84, just past Whale Harbor Channel. It was nice to stretch our legs and watch the surfers whiz by. But if you can make a day of driving through the keys, you'll find plenty to keep you occupied.

We considered stopping in at Bahia Honda State Park at MM 36.9, which is supposed to be the nicest beach in the keys. We went so far as to pull into the entrance at which point we were faced with two realities: an entrance fee and the fact that the park would be closing in 45 minutes. Since we had been to Siesta Key, arguably the best beach in Florida, the day before, we decided to pass,thinking that we would return during one of days in Key West. At that time, we didn't realize that we were still nearly an hour away from Key West. We also didn't realize that the water would be too cold for snorkeling, and off-shore snorkeling is one of Bahia's big perks.

I was more disappointed that we didn't have time to stop in the National Key Deer Refuge, which is around MM 31. Key deer are a lot smaller than regular deer. There are chain link fences lining both sides of the road to keep the deer safe. I was hoping that we might see some deer hanging out, watching the cars go by, but no luck Perhaps on the ride back.

Even though we didn't make many stops, the experience of three hours of driving surrounded by crystalline blue water was good enough for me.

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A pelican in Islamorada

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