Before gleefully gliding south to the Florida Keys, I want to mention a few places of interest (to me!), scattered around the state, which you may miss if not informed (by me!) of their existence.
Slightly west of Lake Okeechobee, on Route 27, the small town of Lake Placid has about 50 extra large-scale murals; walls painted by residents or hired artists, with themes ranging from giant birds to flowers, agricultural to underwater scenery, historical figures to clowns, kitchen scenes to train cars. Sort of an outdoor museum of Norman Rockwell's vibe under the scorching sun.
Several other small towns, such as Sebring, a little north of Lake Placid, still on Route 27 have also decided to paint their buildings and make the bleak road a little more fun to drive on.
You know by now what a fan of botanical gardens and trees I am, so let me tell you about two magnificent gardens I visit each time I drive by. The first one, Bok Tower Gardens is located in Lake Wales, at the level of Tampa when looking at a map. Founded in 1929 by Dutch immigrant Edward Bok, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and respected publisher, the lush gardens became refuge for over 126 species of birds, hundreds of different flowers, and a majestic neo-gothic tower with a carillon made of 23 cast bronze bells ringing at 1 and 3 p.m. every day. Imagine your garden chimes times 100 - lovely.
The second place not to be missed (in my opinion) is the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. Before I even visited Japan, this is where we released tiny paper boats carrying a candle on a lake with my kids. The charming tradition is very meditative and children usually love the poetic gesture. Located in Delray Beach, between Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Museum/gardens/culture/cuisine, it's a melting pot of various traditions within Japan. Several festivals highlight the oriental customs, and the visit of the land is quite a culture shock when coming from Miami.
Now, let's glide down to the Keys. Have you heard of the Keys Disease? I do have it: a state of giddy mood striking specifically when you enter the small chain of islands that will take you down to the extreme point of the continental United States. It feels a little like being drunk or high... not that I would know what either state feels like.
After living over 20 years in Miami, I must have driven that road a hundred times. I had a boyfriend in Key West who was not equipped with any vehicle besides his bicycle, so he could almost never visit me in Miami, hence my numerous trips down the chain of Keys. That boyfriend is long gone, but the trip is still a choice I make every time I am able to.
The Florida Keys are made of 1,700 tiny islands, mostly uninhabited, and offers the only living coral barrier reef in North America. Starting in Key Largo, the largest of the Keys (33 miles long), just south of Miami, the island claims to be the Diving Capital of the World, but many others do too. It's an easy day trip from Miami; and this is the first place besides the west coast of Florida where you can see a sunset on the water. No, the movie was not filmed here, but on a stage sound in Hollywood, California. By the way, Florida also has a Hollywood, a part of Fort Lauderdale. Key Largo is where the famous statue of the Christ is found, submerged in 25-feet of water, where divers can experience a real thrill. With sharks and all.
Islamorada. My favorite Key of them all. This one wants to be the Fishing Capital of the World. Fine. This is where several restaurants offers al-fresco dining and amazing sunsets. Morada Bay Café for example has a beach of white sand imported from the Bahamas. What most people don't know is that the Florida Keys have very few sand beaches, most shores are rocks and reefs, and are difficult to even access without a boat.
Marathon. Has an airport. And a vibrant shopping community. This is also the half way point into the Keys.
Starting in Key Largo, all along the Overseas Highway, you will see by the side of the road small rectangular green metal tags called MM, Mile Markers; this is how the miles are counted and how the islands are recorded. It will also be differentiated by the terms Bayside or Oceanside, to indicate whether you are on the Atlantic side, or the Gulf of Mexico side. You will hear: "I live at MM 84 Bayside, and you?" Better know where you are then! Key West is MM0, as in zero, and is equally straddling both seas.
Grassy Key. Right after Marathon, the Dolphin Research Center is a rescue facility for wounded mammals, in most cases released back to the wild after their rehab. The center offers several programs to help special-needs adults and children. This is where a female dolphin told me I was pregnant before I even knew it. She kept on jumping next to the boardwalk following me, and a trainer told me she only did this when spotting women with child. I told him I was not. Forwarding to nine months later... a girl.
Bahia Honda State Park. At MM37. Now, this is what I call a beach. Nice sand, palm trees, and a fabulous sand bar where you can walk ankle-deep in transparent waters the temperature of a nice warm cup of tea. The best beach I have seen in the South. An old cut-off bridge, originally a part of the Overseas Railway, which was destroyed in 1935 by the hurricane named only Labor Day, offers view of the swimming nurse sharks underneath, yep. The park has very nice camping spots and rental equipment, as well as cabins, which are NEVER available, as people rent them from one year to another, what can you do?
Before you reach Bahia Honda, you will drive on the Seven-Mile Bridge, a feast for the eyes, as you feel like you are soaring above the green waters in a skinny stretch of road.
After a few others islands on the way, we finally reach Key West. Do you fell giddy yet? I do. Besides Ernest Hemingway and his multitude of six-toe cats, oh and a few things he wrote, the island was and still is, a heaven for artists of all kinds. Painters, writers, photographers, sculptors, builders, carvers, you name it, Key West has it. You can visit residences of a few now-defunct celebrity writers, and the bars where some artists spend sometimes too much time. The relaxed mood of the key tends to melt any tightness you might have, not only because of the tepid temperature, but also with the sheer feeling of total abandon emanating from having no deadline to meet, no place to be, no expectation to fulfill. You are at the end of the World, and this is paradise!
In Key West, swimming, snorkeling, eating, biking, walking and absorbing the local culture and various tourists' traps is the norm. Walking among the thousands of Bahamian/Victorian houses of every ice cream colors is a nice trek. Don't miss watching a sunset from a catamaran, checking out the minuscule aquarium, or visiting the leather sandals factory. The aloof Mallory Square festival every night at sundown is a tradition, and Key West would not be Key West without it.
Have a nice trip!
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