THE FLORIDA KEYS ALONG THE OVERSEAS HIGHWAY — Harry Appel and Jen DeMaria live in a secluded beachside retreat in the Lower Florida Keys. On a recent afternoon, an endangered Key deer drops by as they sip iced tea in their backyard. The deer poses for a photo, then scampers away.
For years, New Jersey natives Appel and DeMaria vacationed at the Deer Run Bed and Breakfast in Big Pine Key, just 33 miles north of Key West. They loved it so much that Appel asked the owner to call him if she ever wanted to sell it. About a decade ago, she rang him up, and he and DeMaria, a massage therapist, found themselves in the unlikely role of innkeepers — at a vegan bed and breakfast.
“We found it by accident and just fell in love,” says Appel, a mechanic by trade.
Such serendipitous discoveries happen all the time on the 113-mile stretch between Miami and Key West known as the Overseas Highway. Most visitors to south Florida stick to Miami or Key West, the nation’s southernmost city. But in between is a chain of towns and islands that surprise with their natural beauty, culinary delights and friendly residents.
The Overseas Highway is the route to explore the lesser-known Keys, but it’s a destination in and of itself. As you drive down, you’re sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Bay. The farther south you go, the more you skirt the Gulf of Mexico.
The highway had actually been built for trains, not cars, carrying Henry Flagler’sFlorida East Coast Railroad from 1912 to 1935, when a hurricane destroyed it. Now it’s a mostly two-lane road with 42 bridges that transport motorists from one party capital to another.
“Miami is high heels. The Keys is flip flops,” says Miami resident Aileen Garcia,as we dine on fresh sushi at Nikai, one of three restaurants at Cheeca Lodge and Spa inIslamorada.
The 212-room Cheeca is located at Mile Marker 82. When you ask for directions, prepare to get mile markers instead of addresses.
On a sunset cruise off the Cheeca pier, we traverse black, red and white mangroves. At Mile Marker 85, we pass under the Snake Bridge, which Captain Patrick McCoy of Islamorada Boat Tours says is the last active drawbridge in the Keys.
McCoy points out other natural and man-made wonders along the way. “The next house is gorgeous, plantation-style, so well kept,” he says.
Locals like to call Islamorada the sport-fishing capital of the world. So the next afternoon, I sign up for a party fishing cruise on a 65-foot deep-sea fishing vessel called Capt. Michael off Robbie’s Marina at mile marker 77.5.
“If you can’t catch a fish, at least you can catch a buzz,” quips First Mate Frank De Toro, as a few passengers embark with cans of beer.
DeToro manages expectations well. We are scheduled to be out at sea for about four hours, but that doesn’t guarantee that we’ll disembark with loads of fish.
I much prefer chatting with my fellow passengers, some of whom are fishing for their dinner. But I go through the motions and toss my baited hook into the water. Nothing happens for about an hour. Then I feel something tug at my pole. I try to reel it in on my own but it’s much too heavy. I call DeToro to help. “I think it’s a shark,” he says.
Once they hear the word shark, the children on the boat drop their poles and race to us. It appears to be a baby hammerhead. DeToro carries it in a manner that prevents it from biting anyone. He lets a couple of the kids hold it before throwing it back into the ocean alive. From then on, everyone on the boat refers to me as the Shark Catcher.
The Keys are also home to people striving to save creatures of the sea. So I drive 23 miles south to the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key at Mile Marker 59.
The 90,000-square-foot center has 10 lagoons and a sea lion habitat. Its residents include 27 bottlenose dolphins and four California sea lions. More than half of them were born at the center. Others were rescued, rehabilitated and determined to be un-releasable into the wild because of their condition.
Jax, for instance, had been attacked by a shark and was found swimming alone in theSt. John’s River in Jacksonville. Louie was stranded alive on a beach in Louisiana after an oil spill last year. When he was rescued, he was covered in oil and given a low chance of surviving.
Each animal has a biography printed in baseball card fashion. There’s Karen the sea lion, born May 31, 1987. She’s a retired show-girl who performed at Universal Studios. Now in her “golden years,” she is blind, not uncommon for sea lions her age, I learn from her bio.
“She is a lover and enjoys being kissed and hugged. She usually swims with her head above the surface to hear and feel her way around her habitat,” her bio reads.
Visitors can choose from a number or presentations and educational activities throughout the day, but the dolphins are never forced to participate in anything unless they want to. “It’s all on the animals’ time,” says Mary Stella, director of media and marketing at the center.
Eleven miles south at Mile Marker 48.5, I visit another facility with a similar mission but a different animal to save. There are seven species of sea turtles, and six are listed as threatened or endangered. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, right next door to my hotel, Tranquility Bay Resort, has four of the species at the moment. The hospital has 51 patients and 12 non-releasable sea turtles.
Many of the turtles who land at the hospital are rescued. They get injured by trash or boat strikes or come down with diseases, our guide, Megan Mertsock, tells us during one of the regularly scheduled tours.
Our group visits the sick turtles in their tanks, including Timmy, a green turtle who accidentally ingested a fish hook and was admitted to the hospital in July. Lil’ Susie, and many of the other turtles, have fibropapilloma, a disease that produces tumors. The turtles are named after the people who called in to get them rescued. And many residents of the Keys do.
I’m reminded of what Appel, the innkeeper, said about visitors to the Keys. “They’re really looking for this natural experience,” he says.