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A soul-soothing boutique road trip through the Florida Keys, USA

With dreamy sunsets, protected mangroves, North America’s only coral reef and bohemian enclaves filled with people who reject everyday life on the mainland, the Florida Keys offer an unspoilt, laid back and paradise-esque alternative to the theme parks this state is arguably most famous for. Our guest blogger Ella Buchan – a freelance travel writer with 12 years of experience – discovered this naturally beautiful area on an epic road-trip all the way down US Route 1 from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida….

The islands of the Florida Keys decorate the jade water like emeralds dangling from an intricate necklace. Beginning 15 miles south of Miami, the chain stretches out languidly in the tropical Florida Straits, dividing the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Gulf of Mexico to the north west.

Stretches of road are connected by bridges, curving gently over the water. At certain points, between strips of shops, chic resorts and tangled mangroves, the views open up spectacularly. It feels like driving on water. I arrived after travelling more than 3,500 miles down the east coast, following the historic US Route 1 from Fort Kent in Maine, right at the Canadian border. In the Keys the US1, America’s first interstate highway, becomes the Overseas Highway before ending in Key West. For those who don’t have time to drive quite that distance, picking up a car in Miami to explore this skinny island chain makes for a beautiful, and manageable, road trip.

Many people hop on a flight to Key West, the lively city at the tip of the archipelago. But that means missing out on what is, in my opinion, one of the world’s most gorgeous drives. It also means missing out on the laid-back luxury of the relatively quiet Upper Keys.

This is where you’ll find the chicest hotels and resorts where you can kick off your shoes and wiggle your toes in the sand. Kona Kai, in Key Largo, is one of those places you never want to leave. The 13 rooms are dotted about the botanic garden, with a path meandering down to the sandy beach and pier. My cottage-style suite faced the water, with a freshwater pool and hot tub steps from my terrace. With barely another soul around, aside from swooping pelicans, I paddled out in one of the complimentary kayaks.

Rather than tear myself away for dinner, I grabbed a takeaway from seafood restaurant Ballyhoos, across the road. I had mahi mahi ‘Hemingway style’ – encrusted in parmesan and topped, deliciously, with Key lime butter and lump crab. I’m not sure if that’s how the literary titan, who lived in Key West for 10 years, actually ate it. Soaked in whiskey would have been my guess.

Food is a big deal in the Keys, from the freshest seafood to Southern favourites like grits (a kind of porridge made with maize – it’s all in the seasoning). The next day I drove the short distance to Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, a kitsch spot decorated with battered licence plates. Even the lampshades have been fashioned from old vehicle registrations, many donated by customers. Sliding into a cosy booth, I ordered the conch salad. Pronounced ‘conk’, this large sea snail is ubiquitous in the Keys. Key West declared itself the ‘Conch Republic’ in 1982, seceding from the USA in a gesture that was only partly tongue-in-cheek.

Conch looks a little like squid, with a tougher texture. The slight rubberiness gives way to tender meat, which tastes a little like clams. Key lime pie is another classic, of course, and Mrs. Mac’s do a gorgeously creamy, icy-cold version topped with a swirl of whipped cream.

Half an hour south is Morada Way Arts District, a hub of art galleries, gift shops and the Upper Keys’ first microbrewery, Florida Keys Brewing. Bright, sunny brews like Honey Bottomed Blonde, made with local honey, are produced onsite. This burgeoning area is one more reason to visit Islamorada, although Amara Cay Resort would have drawn me there regardless.

The breezy hotel epitomises the kitsch-boutique style of the islands. The lobby opens up into a bar and restaurant area, with swinging basket chairs and a wall of decorative keys. The oceanfront pool and beach, with hammocks strung between palm trees, is visible just beyond. Private balconies on the huge but cosy rooms are perfect for watching the sunrise, coffee mug in hand. You can see the sky swirling pink from your bed, too…

The sun was blazing by the time I pulled in to Robbie’s Marina, a unique hub offering boat tours, fishing trips, paddle boarding and souvenir shopping. After wolfing down a lobster omelette at the open-air restaurant (the cranes and sparrows were after it), I stepped among the pelicans to feed the tarpon. The enormous fish leapt out of the water to snatch the scrap of bait from my trembling fingers. They don’t have teeth, though their sandpapery mouths can sting a little.

From the pier at Robbie’s, I took a tour through the mangroves with KeyZ Charters. I didn’t spot any manatees, but Captain Sam pointed out purple herons, osprey – and a lazy crocodile sunbathing on someone’s lawn. After returning to the mangroves with a paddle board (with only the birds and that croc for company), I reluctantly dragged myself away. I could easily have stayed all week without getting bored.

Water is the lifeblood of the Keys, and there’s a real commitment to protecting marine wildlife. On my last trip, I met injured and rehabilitating Olive Ridley and Leatherback turtles at the the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. This time I called at the nearby Dolphin Research Center.

Founded as a not-for-profit organisation in 1984, the open-air facility is at the former private home of fisherman Milton Santini. He ‘collected’ dolphins in the 1940s, some of them starring in the original Flipper movies. Now descendants of the screen stars and other rescues unable to survive in the wild are given a permanent home in the large natural pools. Visitors can meet, greet and swim with dolphins, who dance and flip with glee. But only if they feel like it – they are never forced to perform, and know they’ll get their fish suppers either way.

After a night at chic Faro Blanco Resort, a Hyatt Place property with its own red-and-white lighthouse, I started up my Hertz Ford Fiesta (nicknamed Harrison, of course) for the final stretch to Key West. I pulled into Bahia Honda State Park en route. The 500 acres includes wooded trails and a beautiful curl of sandy beach. I walked up a short path to the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, part of the Overseas Railroad that connected the islands before being replaced by the road. Now this section provides a scenic lookout with views of the palm-fringed beach and Overseas Highway, where I returned to complete the final 58 miles of my trip.

The finale was the southernmost point of the continental USA. A red and yellow buoy marks the spot, and the queue of people waiting to take a selfie is another giveaway. After getting my own souvenir snap, I headed around the corner to the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.

I walked the path, which weaves through tropical plants and flowers, at a snail’s pace. Around 60 species of butterfly wafted through the balmy air like bright wisps of crepe paper. A pair of Caribbean flamingoes, Rhett and Scarlett, added extra colour, while a neon-feathered paradise tanager darted elusively between trees.

My next stop was Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe, famous for Key lime pie on a stick, Key lime wine, Key lime chutneys… His original shop, with a pretty courtyard cafe, is on Elizabeth Street, a short walk from Mallory Square. Here, crowds gather every evening for the ‘Sunset Celebration’, with live music and stalls selling snacks and souvenirs. Any excuse for a party.

My home in Key West was Chelsea House, a grand trio of historic properties comprising two Victorian Queen Anne-style buildings. My room had a huge four-poster bed and direct access to a porch with rocking chairs, while a continental buffet is laid out each morning by the pretty pool.

The next day I paused at the sign officially marking the end of US1 (across the road is another sign, marking the beginning). It was a weird feeling, after so long on the road. As I loaded up with souvenirs at the gift shop, I had an urge to tell everyone that I really had travelled all the way from Maine. Instead I celebrated with a ‘Wind & Wine’ sunset sail with Danger Charters.

A crew member poured a selection of wines from fizz to pinot noir, handing out skewers of caprese salad and crackers with brie and apple as the sails billowed overhead. I disembarked feeling relaxed, happy and carefree. It may have been the wine, but I think this laid-back part of the world just has a way of seeping into your soul.

How to book a trip to the Florida Keys…

See www.fla-keys.co.uk and www.visittheusa.com/destination/florida-keys-and-key-west for more inspiration and to plan a trip to the Florida Keys.

A week’s car hire in February, collecting from and returning to Miami International Airport, starts at £177.05 with Hertz. See www.hertz.co.uk to book.

All words and and images by Ella Buchan. Ella is a freelance travel writer with 12 years of experience. Based between London and Paso Robles, California, she can usually be found seeking out local dining spots and/or drinking wine with llamas. Her time in the area was part of a project with Florida Keys and Key West, and came at the end of a road trip she did all the way down US Route 1 from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida.

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