On The Road To Key West
It's a million-dollar feeling, crossing the Seven Mile Bridge with your compact, travel-friendly dive gear and a change of clothes in the trunk. Marathon and Key Largo are at your back, Key West not yet even a glimmer in the windscreen, and to your left the Atlantic sparkles bluely while the keys of Florida Bay dot the horizon to your right. The road peels out in front of you and you're in cruisin' mode so you're apt to see tiny Key deer, only found in this magical sprinkle of islands. If you really want to live it up on this ultimate road trip you could even rent a convertible or exotic car and drive in high style because the Florida Keys and Key West comprise a world-class dive destination where airfare is entirely optional. It's enough to make you want to whoop, throw your hands in the air and pretend you're Buffett - Jimmy or Warren, either will do.
Coming into the Keys via highway has its advantages. Drive in on Card Sound Road, and you'll get a glimpse of the Keys of yesteryear - there's no development from the edge of Key Largo north, just green mangroves, trees and the occasional sign telling you to be ready to brake for saltwater crocodiles.
And Key Largo is an excellent spot for a first dive. Head for the docks, find a boat going to Key Largo Dry Rocks (the reef lies an average of eight miles offshore from anywhere in the Keys, so this tends to be a boat-diving destination), and get greeted by the nine-foot-tall "Christ of the Abyss" statue by Guido Galletti, now decorated with sponges and sea urchins, and without a doubt the most photo-strobed subject in Florida waters. Then, after dinner at Coconuts (on the water in Key Largo Marina) and a good night's sleep, you can head to the Key's most famous mega-attractions: the Spiegel Grove and the Duane - two gigantic artificial-reef wrecks that are constantly current-swept, bringing in nutrients and feeding a resident population that includes greater Atlantic barracudas and amberjacks.
Jumping back in your ride, mosey past the first of two Wyland whaling walls as you drive through Key Largo (the second is in Marathon). A favorite stop-off of the Sport Diver staff is the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum in Islamorada; and after a visit there, you can be one of the first dinner guests to show up at Lazy Days (also in Islamorada and a leading contender for the best seafood in the Keys). After conch chowder, an entree and a Key lime pie, you can happily waddle off to bed. But don't oversleep, because the morning brings another boat ride, this time back east to one of the best-kept secrets in Keys wreck diving the Benwood. This Norwegian freighter, which sank after a collision in 1942, has largely collapsed, but it has turned into a magnet for anything that swims in the Keys. Nurse sharks have taken up residence, and at times you might have trouble seeing the hull for all the fish.
Seven Mile Bridge should probably be called "Twenty-One Mile Bridge" because every visitor's first instinct upon crossing it is to turn around and do it again (after which you'll have to do it a third time to continue on). This is especially true when the only thing between you and the heavens is the hair on your head and the tang of tropical salt air that insinuates itself into your pores. You'll find yourself driving slower and slower the farther down the Keys you go. So by the time you get to Parrotdise on Little Torch Key - the only waterfront dining experience between Marathon and Key West, you'll be ready to sample more of that famous chowder and Key lime pie.
But don't dry your dive gear just yet. This year, a new star attraction is scheduled to appear in Lower Keys waters. The Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a zoomie (Air Force ship), is scheduled for sinking in the first half of the year and might even be underwater by the time you read this. Studded with satellite dishes and extensively prepared with large entry and egress openings on all major deck levels, it's going to be one of those sites that you can dive 10 times and still not see it all. And what's more, it'll probably be the only Air Force ship you'll ever dive.
Now here's the hard part of any drive and dive in the Keys - more than one diver has hopped in the car for a week in the Keys and found themselves living there 10 years later. This is a place that has that sort of effect on people.
So slow down and enjoy the ride.
Must Do: Bambi Florida Style Venture off Us 1 in the Lower Keys and drive slowly in the early morning and look for Key deer - they look just like whitetail deer, only miniaturized, and because they're protected (and seem to know it), they are not all that hard to spot.
Must Dive: Key Largo dry rocks ("Christ of the Abyss"), Spiegel Grove, Duane, Benwood, Hoyt S. Vandenberg (scheduled for sinking this year)