Here’s my first Key West travel tip: Don’t fly to Key West. Seriously. Flights to Key West are stupidly expensive; and the drive down U.S. 1 onto the island is one of the best parts of the trip. You don’t want to miss it.
Friday afternoon, we left work and got on a plane. By midnight, we were in Miami. This was a great time to arrive because everything – the airport, the car rental shop, the highways – was empty. We avoided Miami traffic by driving about 40 minutes south to Florida City, where we stayed the first night. The motel, a Days Inn, wasn’t in the greatest area. There wasn’t much to do, nor did the neighborhood strike me as the safest. But we were just looking for a bed for the night, so I didn’t care. The motel was old, but clean with a super friendly staff. And, they have free WiFi.
Normally, I don’t care a whole lot about the internet during weekend getaways. It’s handy if I want to look something up, but not necessary. But Saturday morning was an important day in the life of every Parrothead – Jimmy Buffett tickets went on sale at 10:00am! His concerts sell out in 10 minutes; so it was important that I have a good internet connection. After frantically refreshing Ticketmaster.com, I scored 4 tickets to his Noblesville, Indiana show by 10:04am. It was a great start to an island vacation.
After that was taken care of, we hopped into our rented Ford Focus and began our little road trip. I had heard and read about U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys. But it’s one of those things you have to see to believe. The road runs along the eastern side of Florida, and, once you get into the Keys, it’s completely surrounded by water. In many places, it’s simply a two-lane bridge over nothing but water. You can see the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The only things separating you from the water are some small walls and the road underneath your tires. From this highway, the views of the glittering blue waters, vibrant green plants and colorful islands are breathtaking.
Even when it’s not passing over the water, U.S. 1 offers plenty to see. It’s lined with hotels, marinas, stores and random little shops. U.S. 1′s homes and businesses seem to have embraced their tacky tourist reputation and run with it. They’re painted an array of colors and decorated with flamingos, fish, nautical paraphernalia and tiki masks. In Key Largo, one of these businesses caught our eye as a perfect place to stop for lunch.
Marley’s Bayside Grille is officially located at 99530 Overseas Highway in Key Largo. But if you’re not careful, you’ll miss it, since it’s actually below the road and must be accessed via a ramp off U.S. 1. While it has nice indoor seating, it’s true highlight is the outdoor bar and dining area. In addition to traditional tables, the deck railing along the water is lined with barstools. Jared and I took two of these, ordered Diet Cokes, and settled in to watch the boats and the birds while we enjoyed our first meal in the Keys.
The menu at Marley’s is pretty standard for Keys restaurants. It consists of a selection of salads, burgers and seafood with Caribbean, Cuban and Mexican influences. I opted for mahi-mahi tacos. Two large flour tortillas were filled with shredded red cabbage, pico de gallo and mahi that had been seasoned with salt and pepper. They were served with a lemon wedge, which I promptly squeezed over my fish, and sour cream. This was one of those meals that was incredible because it was so simple. It relied on good, fresh ingredients rather than intricate flavors. Jared had a fish Cuban, which was similar to the traditional sandwich with melted cheese and dill pickles. But instead of pork or ham, it had the same grilled mahi that was in my tacos. It was served with rice and black beans, which were good enough, but far from the best we had on the trip. The sandwich was interesting; but I preferred the tacos.
On our way out, we were lucky enough to run into the owners. They were friendly, asking us how we liked the food, talking about Ohio, and introducing us to their two Shelties. They were thrilled that we were so pleased with our experience. It turns out that Marley’s has partnered with its neighboring boat rental company, PonTunes. I could picture myself spending a day out on a boat, then stopping at Marley’s for a cold margarita and some fresh seafood. But that would have to wait for another trip. Key West was calling.
So we got back on the road. During this part of the drive, I saw one of the more interesting parts of U.S. 1. Before U.S. 1 existed, Key West was accessible via the Overseas Railroad. While it was partially destroyed in a 1935 hurricane, portions of the Overseas Railroad bridges can still be seen from U.S. 1 today. The old bridges are a popular spot for fishermen, bikers and pelicans. Watching the birds, the people, and the increasingly watery lands go by kept me occupied for the rest of the beautiful drive into Key West.