It's been often said that the Florida Keys are not just a place, they're also an attitude. By whom, I don't know. The truth still exists in that statement, no matter who said it.This attitude is relaxation, a feel-the-stress-leaving-your shoulders feeling. It's warm and friendly, quick to make friends, share a story and a drink.
People who live here have the attitude. Visitors adopt it - unconsciously or not - and hopefully take a bit of it home when they leave.
Driving to Key West, keeping the attitude is part of the experience. Don't be in a hurry to get there, and don't miss any opportunities to act like a silly tourist. Take it slow and enjoy the ride. Watch the Mile Markers decrease. Take in the salty air crossing the 42 bridges and 34 islands; get lost in the blues and greens of Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Stop when the spirit moves you (and when I tell you to).
The drive begins at the top of the Florida Keys. Don't start any later than 2 p.m., so you'll have plenty of time to get ready for the sunset in Key West.
Crossing over Card Sound Road to the Overseas Highway, the attitude is in the air. The feeling is new, and you're not sure if you can trust it. You can.
Continue south, driving at or below the speed limit. Let impatient drivers - those who haven't yet adopted the Keys attitude - pass with a friendly wave. The Keys really become the Keys when you're driving narrow roads with mangroves growing on either side. Look to the openings in the mangroves for glimpses of water. Look right. Left. Left.
Around Mile Marker 104, you'll get to a two-story building adorned with a brightly painted mural in the center of the divided Overseas Highway. You can't miss it. The mural depicts an underwater reef scene, complete with a coral, fish, mermaid and other sea life. Pull in and grab your camera. If you have a traveling companion, get him or her to take your picture in front of the mural. For the best photos, pretend you're swimming underwater.
Continue driving south. Along both sides of the roads are small businesses and motels, interspersed with lush vegetation and some wide open spaces. The next stop is the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center (Mile Marker 93.6 Bayside, Tavernier; tel., (305) 852-4486). This center is a bird hospital, education center and wild bird refuge on a five-acre site. Injured birds are nursed back to health and those with permanent injuries find a new home here. The bird pens are within a thickly vegetated area of land, and boardwalks connect the pens. A word of warning: It's very smelly here! What goes in the birds is mostly fish; what comes out smells just as bad. But the experience of seeing these creatures up close is worth it. Breathe from your mouth and it's bearable. Admission is free, but be sure to give a donation at the office.
Don't get too relaxed. This scenic drive isn't even half over. You enter what I call the bridge zone, where there are more bridges than islands. Upper Matecumbe to Lower Matecumbe. Lower Matecumbe to Long Key. Long Key to Conch to Duck Key. Bridges connecting them all, blue water below and on both sides.
Grassy Key is next, home of the Dolphin Research Center. We won't stop today. Perhaps on the way back we'll get an up-close look at these beautiful creatures.
Continue driving to Marathon, Mile Marker 50, the mid-point of the Keys. The only K-Mart in the Keys is here, so if you've forgotten to pack anything, stop here. There's also a grocery store. Grab something and drive a short distance. We're not going over the Seven Mile Bridge yet; we're going to the old Seven Mile Bridge. Pull over just before the new bridge to the unpaved parking lot. The first half mile of the old bridge is called the "Ghost Bridge." It's a haven for anglers and walkers with a Keys attitude. Walk out - carefully - sit down and eat a quiet lunch. Drop crumbs to the fish below; bring the trash with you.
Back on the road, we are approaching the largest segmented bridge in the world, the new Seven Mile Bridge. Make sure the windows are rolled down and get on the bridge. It's a smooth drive, the white guard rails on either side contrasting with the aquamarine waters of the ocean and the bay. It takes about 10 minutes to cross, too short a time to fully absorb the colors.
Now, you're in the Lower Keys, the home stretch. Bahia Honda Key and its state park is just up ahead. The best beach in the Keys is at Bahia Honda State Park: fine, sugary white sand, wild sea grasses and sea oats. If you want to take a quick dip, stop here. If you have snorkeling equipment, there's much to see just a few yards off the beach.
The next big key is Big Pine Key, home of the National Key Deer Refuge. Be sure to drive slowly here. Sometimes, the deer venture out to the Overseas Highway. Car-deer collisions are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of these tiny deer every year. Killing a deer would remove any Keys attitude we've accumulated.
Thirty more miles and less than an hour to go to the end of the road. The closeness of our destination makes me anxious to get there. Drive carefully through Little and Middle Torch Keys, Ramrod Key, Knockemdown Key and Cudjoe Key. Pass the exit for the U.S. Naval Air Station to Stock Island, the last island before Key West.
Cross the bridge and we're here. The first thing you'll see is a K-Mart, but we didn't drive here to shop. Roosevelt Boulevard forms a loop around most of the island. Go left or right - it doesn't matter - you'll still get to Duval Street. Once on Duval, go northwest to the end, toward Mallory Square. If you find a parking space, don't hesitate, TAKE IT. Walk over to the pier, grab a cold drink and get ready for the famous Key West sunset celebration.
We've driven the Overseas Highway, from beginning to end. We've lived a little of the Keys along the way, soaked up the Attitude, that manna that keeps people coming back again and again.
Some might say it's only a drive. Those people haven't done what we've done.