Key West – Most people think of Key West as a hammock-swinging, piña colada-drinking destination and The Keys as the 120-mile set-your-jaw-and-grimace road to Key West.
I took the drive from Bonita Springs again last month. This time, more than ever before, I learned that both visions are wrong, wrong, wrong. Key West, with the arrival of the cruise ships, has become a southern version of Las Vegas. The Keys themselves, though, are still what they’ve always been. Each individual Key is an utter delight if you only know what you’re looking for.
Do you think “the Keys” and “Key West” are synonymous? If so, you are merely rushing from this world to that world, never pausing along the way to view the scenery that most will rush on by. The destination may be Key West, but the journey is truly the Keys. Here is a sample of what you’ve been missing:
The Keys don’t really begin until you reach Islamorada. Key Largo and Tavernier are the first two Keys, but honestly, the scenery is simply mundane. That doesn’t mean those two Keys don’t have some good spots. But the Overseas Highway down through this area is landlocked. You need to keep driving. Suddenly you will be able to see the blue-green water that makes The Keys famous. Now the real fun begins.
On the outskirts of Islamorada, at Mile Marker (MM) 84, is a delightful bar called Rumrunners. Rumrunners is a speakeasy raised approximately 20 feet high. It’s set on concrete pillars with a thatched roof and located in the back near corner of Holiday Isle. Bartender Norm serves up the suds with an affable, if somewhat eccentric, sense of humor. When you grow weary of laughing, you can retreat further upstairs to one of the six sky-pods that overlook the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an excellent way to start the decompression process that you undoubtedly will feel as you go deeper and deeper into the Keys.
Continue traveling into Marathon, another 35 miles. As you come to MM 49 you will find 35th Street. Two blocks to the right, on Florida Bay, is Keys Fisheries. It’s a quirky place where ordering is done at a window, and the bar is again high atop pillars overlooking a marina. Fishermen peddle their wares at the adjoining market, meaning you can’t get anything fresher than that day’s catch.
The Seven-Mile Bridge is actually 6.79 miles in length, but by now you’re in no mood to quibble over a foot or two. Five movies have been filmed on the bridge, including the thriller True Lies that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. Did they ever make it to an out-of-the-way tavern called No-Name Bar & Grill? Not likely, but had they been able to find this place, undoubtedly they would have loved it.
No Name is at MM 30 in Big Pine Key, but you have to leave U.S. Route 1 to travel the mile-and-a-half to try to find it. Forget searching for it yourself – stop in at the visitor’s center and get directions. Suffice it to say that it’s on No Name Key, the walls are covered in dollar bills five or six bills thick, and the official slogan is, “A Nice Place If You Can Find It.”
Have a pizza and a No Name Ale. Local secret: sit at the bar where you can chat leisurely with bartenders Linda and Kristi. As the world outside whizzes by at 100 miles per hour, you’re bantering at the speed of a horse and buggy. And, as an added bonus, you may see a key deer on your way to the pub.
Geiger Key Marina and Smokehouse is 20 miles down the road, ocean side, behind Big Coppitt Key. “On the Backside of Paradise,” Geiger Key proudly proclaims. Turn on Boca Chica Road near MM 9.5 and follow it to near the end, watching for a sign to the location.
Geiger Key is reminiscent of a time 60 years ago when the beer was ice cold, the food was nothing but scrumptious, and the ladies who are employed there just know how to make it all come together. This little joint is built waterside, also, and is a wonderful place to while away an hour or two as the world passes by.
The last place before you cross the bridge going into Key West is the Hurricane Hole. It’s also built on the water beside a marina, and the fish dishes are otherworldly. This place has a split personality. Eat upstairs on the inside and you’re in Hurricane Joe’s. Remain downstairs, and it’s the Hurricane Hole. Regardless, you’re going to be eating and drinking some of the best fare the Keys has to offer.
Drive across the bridge into Key West and suddenly the prices double and the crowds are absolutely insufferable. But the Keys are, quite simply, the Keys. Slow down, explore a little, and find out for yourself.