The CE and I love to take road trips together. I organize the travel and dining. He arranges the flights. He drives. I program the GPS. We talk non-stop or we don’t talk at all – companionable silence is one of the great gifts of a long marriage! We have a travel rhythm that works well, although I have been admonished that it would work a lot better if I would please pack a lighter suitcase. Next time, dear, I promise…
But this had felt like a long day. The CE was road-weary after airboats and alligators and then driving mile after tedious mile across Rte 41 through the Everglades. We were slogging down State Road 997 to Homestead when we blessedly spotted a Starbucks, where we caffeine-ed up and I finally stopped whining about my fire ant bites.
Fueled by a mid-afternoon latte, we pressed forward on Rte 1 past Florida City and onward to Key Largo where Rte 1 turns south and the ugly duckling road turns into a swan – the scenic Overseas Highway.
The swamp grasses of the Everglades and the humdrum Florida interior had given way to shimmering turquoise-green water on either side of the highway. Our spirits lifted along with the highway bridges that sleekly connect the string of pearls that are the Florida Keys. The Keys were a revelation to me. Yes, I had looked at them on a map, where they seemed like an insignificant addendum to Florida – you have to squint or you’ll miss them. But looking at a map is nothing like meandering along the Overseas Highway. There is a great deal of interesting history here, much of it with the name Henry Flagler attached.
Suddenly I began to understand the whole mile-marker thing. Beginning (or ending, depending upon your perspective) at Key Largo with Mile Marker 106, the mile markers count down to Marker 0 at Key West. Our destination for this day was at Mile Marker 82 in Islamorada in the area referred to as the “Upper Keys”. To me, “Upper Keys” means you are close enough to Florida proper that maybe, just maybe, you can get off the Keys ahead of a hurricane. So much water, so little road!
My first (and incorrect) impression of Islamorada and the Keys in general was that I was on a highway strip mall with water on either side. Lots of signs and billboards and glimpses of the Atlantic to our left and the Gulf of Mexico to our right. I started wondering nervously about just what kind of place we were going to be staying that night. The Upper Keys are reported to be just 150 feet wide in some places! But then, just as advertised, after Mile Marker 82 we saw a a turn-off to our destination. We wound along a driveway lushly bordered by palms and ferns to the gracious entry of Cheeca Lodge.
We LOVED Cheeca Lodge! Everything about it! It is refined and yet completely low-key and we would go back tomorrow if we could. It is set on a generous twenty-seven acres, and even boasts a nine-hole golf course.
A towering Bahamian gentleman with a James Earl Jones voice and the manner of a potentate greeted us at the valet desk, relieved us of our car keys and luggage and sent us down the walk to the reception lobby, where we were offered champagne at the check-in desk under a gigantic mounted tarpon which may or may not have been caught by George H.W. Bush. Bush was a frequent visitor to Cheeca Lodge where he co-founded the annual George Bush Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament in 1994.
We stayed in the main lodge, which I recommend. We had a look at the seaside “bungalows”, which are, indeed, right next to the ocean but are quite rustic and dark. Next time I would spring for an ocean view room, although our “resort-view” room was spacious and up to date.
After settling in, we went downstairs for dinner at Atlantic’s Edge, which instantly entered my top ten list of favorite scenic view restaurants. If you go, request outside seating, where you can look out upon the Lodge’s 525-ft fishing pier. The food is fine and the view is nothing short of magnificent. The warm air and a soft breeze off the Atlantic caused us to exclaim more than once that it felt like we were in Hawaii.
Next day we lazed by the pool (mojitos!), read (Hemingway, of course, since we were in the Keys) and walked out on the fishing pier for “exercise”. We found Cheeca Lodge much to our liking, although I learned from thumbing through a recent issue of Vogue magazine that actress Charlize Theron favors The Moorings next door. Each to her own!
I learned during our two-day stay that there is much more to the narrow strips of land on either side of the highway than initially meets the eye. An entire community thrives along the ocean and the Gulf here. As we walked to dinner that evening, we got a peek at homes and businesses and we stopped to pay our respects at the Hurricane Monument, which memorializes the hundreds of Army veterans and Keys residents who lost their lives in the 1935 hurricane that leveled the area.
Since we had gazed at the Atlantic Ocean all day over at Cheeca, we walked across the highway to the Gulf or “backcountry” side of Islamorada and had a lovely dinner at Pierre’s, where if you are lucky enough to be on the night of a full moon, you can join them for a beach party.=
Next day, we reluctantly said goodbye to Islamorada, but not before we stopped by the legendary Robbie’s to feed the tarpon. More than a hundred tarpon lounge by the docks at Robbie’s Marina waiting for handouts. For $5 you can buy a bucket of bait fish, make some tarpon happy and leave with a great memory of the Florida Keys. There’s also an on-site bazaar and a ramshackle seaside restaurant. It’s a must-see!
We didn’t stay in Islamorada long enough for me to learn the origin of its name, which means “purple island” in Spanish. Various accounts attribute it to early Spanish explorers commemorating the violet sea snail or a purple tinge that forms around the islands at sunset. Others say it recalls the color of local flowers or even the name of a long-forgotten yacht. Whatever the provenance of the name, Islamorada is a very special place. Can’t wait to go back!