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A Toast to the Keys

Andrea Gross | Apr 4, 2012, 11:38 a.m.
Key West Sunset Irv Green

I immediately learn three things on our visit to Key West, Fla.

First, the ambience is seductive. As Jimmy Buffet sang in his hit song “Margaritaville,” all you want to do is sit on a porch swing and strum on a six-string.

Second, the weather is glorious most of the year. The average temperature is 78 degrees, the coldest ever recorded is a balmy 41degrees, and the warmest — reached on only a few occasions more than 30 years ago — is 100 degrees.

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The Overseas Highway appears to float above the water as it links the Florida mainland to Key West.

And third, getting there is half the fun. The 128-mile Overseas Highway, which leads from the Florida mainland to Key West, links the numerous keys (small islands) by means of 42 bridges. In 2009, it was named an “All American Road,” an honor that puts it in the top tier of national scenic byways.

We stop at the Kona Kai Resort, which has one of the few ethnobotanic gardens in the United States. During a 90-minute tour of the small, densely packed plot of land, we learn about the relationship between people and plants and gather enough fascinating facts to amuse our friends for a year. For example, we see a moss that was responsible for the first automobile recall. It seems the moss, which was used as seat stuffing in the early Model Ts, was laden with chiggers, leading to a massive outbreak of itchy rears.

But the first part of the road near Key Largo is mostly lined with shops offering a variety of water-based activities, restaurants featuring fish and key lime pie, and gift stores hawking sandals and seashells.

It’s not until an hour and a half later, when we start across the Seven Mile Bridge, that the road seems to open and … Oh my, we feel like we’re driving on water! To the right is the Gulf of Mexico. To the left is the Atlantic Ocean. In the distance, there are small keys of green, but the overwhelming color is blue — the soft blue of the sky, the teal blue of the water.

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An oversized buoy reminds visitors that Key West is the southernmost city in the United States.

It’s evening when we reach Key West, which is not only the end of the Overseas Highway but also the end of U.S. Highway 1, the approximately 2,500-mile long interstate that begins in Maine at the United States-Canadian border. There are a multitude of signs to commemorate this fact, as well as a big buoy to mark the town’s status as the southernmost city in the United States.

Down on the waterfront the Sunset Celebration is in full swing. Performers are walking on tightropes, telling stories, doing dances, juggling torches. Juried craftspeople are selling everything from handmade scarves to palm-tree paintings. And hundreds of people are watching schooners, catamarans, glass bottom boats and sailboats return to the pier, backed by the fading light. Here, I realize, is what differentiates Key West from the rest of the world. In most places, a carnival like this would be an annual event; in Key West, it happens every night, weather permitting, which it usually is!

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