The Overseas Highway, the portion of U.S. Route 1 between mainland Florida and Key West, is one of the country’s most iconic drives. The 113-mile series of roads and causeways threading the Keys (“Key” comes from the Spanish word for small island, cayo) passes by mangroves, tropical forests, yacht-filled marinas, fishing-boat-lined piers, plush resorts, faded motels, modern strip malls and charming old seafood shacks. The highway’s view routinely opens onto the shallow islet-dotted sea surrounding the Keys, its bottom of white sand, coral reef and turtle grass flats creating a spectacular patchwork of blues ranging from deep lapis to almost iridescent turquoise. Causeways sometimes extend for miles between islands, and driving along them can be exhilarating — especially in a convertible.
The region offers myriad watery diversions, including excellent snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, sailing and kayaking. Sunset cruises (with drinks included) are understandably popular, although sundowners on the beach are also delightful. There are a handful of formal restaurants, but for the most part, the Keys are a casual place to relax. Shorts and T-shirts constitute the local uniform. Paper napkins are at least as common as linen, and cocktails are more likely to appear in plastic cups than coupes. It won’t suit everyone, but it can be great fun. I loved discovering unpromising-looking weather-beaten restaurants that served superlatively fresh seafood, often procured from ships moored in an adjacent marina.
Perhaps most important to travelers in these uncertain times, the Keys have a reliably warm and dry climate in the winter, allowing one to enjoy a subtropical vacation without leaving the United States. Much of life is conducted outdoors, including dining and leisure activities. The Key West airport’s compact arrivals hall felt uncomfortably crowded — we were not the only ones intent on escaping to the warmest place in the continental U.S. — but for the most part, it was easy to avoid being indoors with substantial numbers of people. Reassuringly, most of the hotels at which we stayed took COVID-19 precautions quite seriously.