1. FLORICA KEYS
The 113-mile (181-kilometer) drive on Highway 1 from mainland Florida to Key West induces sensory overload. Besides the natural beauty along the route—tidal flats, teal waters dotted by distant islands — the so-called Overseas Highway awes you in its own right as an engineering marvel. Its concrete stretches across impossible expanses of water, the Atlantic spreading out to the left, the Gulf to the right.
Beneath the ocean surface lies a separate world of technicolor fish and coral reefs. Below are the five best dive sites you’ll encounter as you proceed from Key Largo, near the top of the island chain, down to Key West, at the end. At each spot, you’ll park at a dive shop and motor out to the reef on a boat. The entire dive experience takes two to four hours, leaving ample time to watch the sunset and enjoy a seafood dinner. Meanwhile, non-divers will find plenty else to do, from snorkeling to exploring state parks to visiting museums. Major attractions are sited by mile marker, from MM 107 in Key Largo to MM 0 in Key West.
Key Largo calls itself the dive capital of the world. It’s home to the 70-square-mile John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park with a visitors center and beach. The best undersea attraction of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is the wreck of the Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot (155-meter) retired Navy ship sunk as an artificial reef in 2002 and now resting 130 feet (39 meters) underwater near Dixie Shoal. Fish you might spot include trumpetfish and angelfish lurking along the hull, which is covered with sponges and soft coral. You can also stop at Molasses Reef, suitable for snorkelers. Local dive operators include Ocean Divers (522 Caribbean Dr) and Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort.
Tavernier, your next stop, accesses the Conch Reef. This is perhaps the Keys’ best drift dive, in which you descend at Point A, drift down current, then resurface at Point B, where the dive boat retrieves you. Conch Republic Divers offers twice-daily reef and wreck dives. Other reefs near the southern end of Pennekamp, many with names as colorful as the fish, include Hens and Chickens, Pickles, and Alligator.
In Islamorada, before you leave the Upper Keys, visit the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum, where you can try on antique diving equipment and see diving machines from the 1700s.
With a starring role in action thrillers 2 Fast 2 Furious, Mission Impossible III and James Bond movie Licence to Kill, the Florida Keys’ Seven Mile Bridge looks as impressive on film as it does in real life. One of the longest bridges in the world when the first section opened in 1912, this oversea highway connects Knight’s Key (part of the city of Marathon) in the Middle Key to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys.
Duck Key and other parts of the middle section of the Keys are often overlooked by divers, but from Tavernier to Big Pine Key is where you find the most pristine diving conditions. It’s quieter, with fewer residents here, and not as many commercial dive operations, so there’s less pressure on our reefs. Lost and Found Reef, for example, has abundant life, such as vast schools of goatfish, giant sea turtles and spotted eagle rays.
Hawks Cay is a major resort with its own restaurants and an enclosure where you can get in the water to interact with the dolphins. South of town, walk, bike, or take a ferry to historic Pigeon Key, where the railroad museum tells the story of the bygone era of industrialist and railroad magnate Henry Flagler, who built the first bridges linking Miami to Key West almost a century ago. In 1935, a hurricane flushed part of the railway into the Florida Bay. The surviving rail bridges were repurposed as roadway, and the Overseas Highway was born.
Looe Key, home of the offbeat Underwater Music Festival, is probably the most popular dive destination in the Lower Keys, the southern third of the island chain. No other site in the area has such dramatic underwater topography. Coral reefs rise from the seafloor into underwater mounds teeming with lobster and moray eels. Looe Key is especially attractive to snorkelers, who can readily view marine life and the tops of the mounds for an up-close look at the coral itself.
Bahia Honda Key beckons the dive-weary or sunbather with the nicest beach experience in the Keys—an abundant sand shoreline set against the backdrop of one of Flagler’s most impressive surviving rail bridges.
Key West, famous for its colorful locals, was also one of the first places in the Keys to be dived with its easy, relatively shallow dives with copious coral and fish. The “Southernmost City” is a launching point to nearby reefs such as the Eastern Dry Rocks and Sand Key; several notable wrecks, including the Cayman Salvager and Joe’s Tug; and more remote sites like the Dry Tortugas. Almost everything on the island is accessible by foot. The Casa Marina Resort (1500 Reynolds St.), used as military housing during WWII, is a trove of history. You’ll find old photos from the days when the only way to reach Key West was by boat or train and from the early years of the highway. Also visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (907 Whitehead St) and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (200 Greene St.), which displays treasures salvaged from the sea.
Traveling in winter avoids the summer and fall hurricane season, although for those interested in diving, summer offers the best water and wind conditions and hence peak visibility. Check current water and wind conditions at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Web site (www.floridakeys.noaa.gov/links/weather.html).
2. FORGOTTEN FLORIDA
Starting in the heart of Florida’s Dixie, the 360-mile (579-kilometer) drive visits the capital of Tallahassee before dropping south to a lovely state park, a 17th-century Spanish fort, and a national wildlife refuge. Then curving southeast, the route explores peaceful wetlands and mangrove-fringed shores. An excursion inland crosses citrus country Ocala offers good museums and one of the area’s many natural-springs theme parks. Heading west again, you enter a land of alligators and manatees, pine hammocks and still more springs. This easygoing cruise down the long underbelly of the Florida peninsula hearkens back to an older, simpler Sunshine State. This quieter coast with a slower pace preserves tourism 1950s style and what Floridians consider the “real Florida.”
Tucked into the gentle hills near the Georgia border, Tallahassee was an 1820s compromise location between the former capitals of Pensacola and St. Augustine. Take a look at the land from the 22nd floor of the Florida State Capitol. Beyond the city, nothing but forests stretch as far as the eye can see. Walk to the adjacent Old Capitol. Two blocks west, the Museum of Florida History houses an overwhelming hodgepodge of stuff.
North of Tallahassee is the Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park (U.S. 319), a highly recommended attraction bursting with camellias, azaleas, and more than 300 other species of flowering shrubs.
Head south on Fla. 61 and stop at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (Fla. 267 and Fla. 61), a 6,000-acre preserve centering around one of several springs in the state touted as Juan Ponce de León’s fountain of youth.
Continue south on Fla. 363 to St. Marks, a tousled little wharf town with a couple of seafood restaurants and a fishing camp. The point of land where the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers meet quietly and flow to the Gulf is the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park to see the remains of Spanish and Confederate forts.
Head northeast and east on U.S. 98 to Newport, then south on County Rd. 59 to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, a 68,000-acre tract on Apalachee Bay with exhibits and interpretive trails around freshwater and brackish ponds. You can also take the seven-mile road down to an 1829 lighthouse and adjacent observation tower.
East on U.S. 98 sends you down a long, lonely piece of highway. Along here fluffy pampas grass waves behind screens of trees. In Perry, you’ll find out more about the forest industry at the Forest Capital Museum State Park with are exhibits on turpentine production, virgin forests, and the life cycle of a pine tree.
Continue south on U.S. 19 through the sparsely populated Big Bend area. Go west on Fla. 320, just outside Chiefland. At Manatee Springs State Park, you can swim in the clear-as-glass headwaters of a first magnitude spring.
From Chiefland, head south on County Rd. 345, then take County Rd. 347 west a few miles to the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge with hiking and biking trails in the 53,000-acre refuge to look at alligators and wading birds.
Now continue south on County Rd. 347 and Fla. 24 across a series of bridges that link gorgeous islands rimmed by marshes and sun-spangled waters. Cedar Key feels like a Key West from the past. Stop in the Cedar Key Historical Society Museum, an 1874 house that offers a vest-pocket overview of local history.
Head inland on Fla. 24 to Bronson, then take U.S. 27A to Williston and County Rd. 318 east to Citra. You’re now in the rural South again, the heart of citrus country, then go north on U.S. 301 and County Rd. 325 to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park.
Take U.S. 301 south to Ocala and make a pilgrimage to Silver Springs, one of the oldest tourist attractions in the state and the first to use glass-bottom tour boats. Since 1878, visitors have been coming to this nature park to see the world’s largest artesian spring, the system is actually composed of about 150 springs that together gush 5,000 gallons of pure water a second.
Backtrack two miles to the Appleton Museum of Art, which presents a diverse collection of Asian art, pre-Columbian ceramics, African masks and textiles, and European paintings and decorative arts. Take County Rd. 475 (Third Avenue) or County Rd. 475A (27th Street) south to see a countryside graced with gloriously ritzy training and breeding facilities for thoroughbreds, Arabians, paso finos, and other breeds.
Go south on I-75 to County Rd. 48, heading east toward Bushnell. Follow signs to Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, scene of a bloody episode on December 28, 1835. As 108 soldiers marched through woods and fields toward Fort King (present-day Ocala), a larger number of Seminole ambushed them, killing all but three sparkng the long and costly Second Seminole War.
Head back west on County Rd. 48 to Floral City, a faded flower from the turn of the century, then take U.S. 41 north to Fla. 44. This will bring you to Crystal River, one of the state’s largest manatee wintering grounds. The chance to spot these rare sea cows—about 200 migrate to Kings Bay between January and March—makes scuba diving and snorkeling two of the area’s most popular sports. To learn about the earliest humans here, follow signs three miles west to Crystal River Archaeological State Park where Native American middens (trash mounds), burial mounds, and temple mounds date from 200 B.C. to A.D. 1400.
About seven miles south on U.S. 19/98 (Suncoast Blvd.), watch for the entrance to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, centered around a 45-foot deep spring. An underwater observatory gives you close-up views of manatees, many injured by boats and awaiting release back to the wild.
Continue down U.S. 19 to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (U.S. 19 and Fla. 50), a haven for earnest kitsch since 1946. The park offers a river cruise and animal demonstrations with tropical birds and native reptiles. But what everyone comes for is the mermaid show.
U.S. 19 and U.S. 27 will take you back to Tallahassee.
3. CREOLE COUNTRY, Louisiana
The route, known as the Cane River Road, is a 70-mile (113-kilometer) loop through north-central Louisiana’s Creole Country, starting and ending in Natchitoches and interlacing several state highways: 494, 119, 484, 493, and 1. The labyrinth of tiny highways is linked by truss bridges and riverfront communities that connect 10 historic plantations—and cradle a unique culture.
Savor the bayou folkways in deep Creole country, with a culture that derives from early inhabitants who were gens de couleur libres (free people of color); their ancestors hailed from French settlers and African slaves. The various landmarks here constitute the Cane River National Heritage Area. More than 18 historic Creole structures mark the winding byways on this small island. Many are raised cottages made with bousillage fill (mud, Spanish moss, straw), some sporting Caribbean and French colonial-style architecture, with wraparound galleries and hipped roofs. The water shimmers through moss-draped evergreens in this forgotten land, reflecting images of antebellum plantations, antiquated cotton gins and country stores, and 150-year-old homes and churches.
Start in Natchitoches, established by the French in 1714 and the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, Natchitoches today encompasses a National Landmark Historic District featuring some 100 historical structures, including three forts, mercantile buildings, and house museums. Attractions here include the Fort Jesup Historic Site, established in the early 1800s; Alligator Park, five acres of habitat for this magnificent American reptile; and the colonial Fort St. Jean Baptiste.
Take Route 1 south from Natchitoches then 494 east toward Natchez. Within a few minutes you should reach the first of three privately owned (not open to the public), scenic plantation homes: Oaklawn, a 19th-century white-columned residence visible at the end of one of the longest oak allées in the state. A little farther along sits Cherokee Plantation, its simple, low-slung profile is typical of early French plantation homes, as are its three barns. Next on the route: Beaufort, owned at one time by Narcisse Prud’homme II, master of more than 100 slaves.
Across Highway 494 from Beaufort sits the 1821 Oakland Plantation, featuring a rare bottle garden (a formal garden outlined with bottles) and 17 outbuildings. Established by Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme, a second-generation native of French descent, it is open daily for tours. It also houses the headquarters of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park.
Continuing south along 494 you’ll reach the intersection with Highway 119 and the site of Melrose Plantation, built by Marie Thérèse Coincoin, a freed slave who received several land grants and created a pioneering operation. Eventually she and her sons, fathered by French merchant Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer and bearing his surname, amassed enough land and slaves to become one of the richest families of color in the country. Folk artist Clementine Hunter’s murals cover the interior of Melrose’s African House, the only surviving colonial Congo-style building in the country.
Believed to be the first Catholic church in the U.S. founded, financed, and built by free people of color, St. Augustine rises just south of Melrose on Highway 119. The original church building dates to 1803; the current church was erected in 1919. Each October, St. Augustine hosts a fair that features Creole heritage and includes local foods, crafts, and tours.
Proceed south on Highway 119 to end at Magnolia Plantation encompassing 18 acres. One of the area’s largest plantation homes—with a baronial 27 rooms—Magnolia boasts a private chapel, in which mass is still held. The main house (closed to the public) and outbuildings, which are administered by the National Park Service, include a plantation store, a onetime slave hospital, and a cotton-gin barn.
This drive is best enjoyed from late September through May; summers are hot and humid