Florida Keys: A quick drive down U.S. 1 to string of islands

A visitor takes part in Coconut Bowling at the Blue Heaven restaurant in Key West, Fla. The offbeat competition was an event of the Key West Food & Wine Festival.
A visitor takes part in Coconut Bowling at the Blue Heaven restaurant in Key West, Fla. The offbeat competition was an event of the Key West Food & Wine Festival. FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU VIA AP

The thrill of escape never gets old. As a kid, it meant ditching chores for wheelies around the ’hood. In college, it meant skipping statistics class for an early start on the weekend. In midlife career mode (and at considerably greater expense), it means shedding a drab winter for someplace warm, tasty, sexy.

But even with escape as our goal, my companion and I were still inextricably tethered to a tight schedule. So we opted for a destination that required no passports or major plane time: the 1,700 sun-swept islands that make up the Florida Keys – or at least a select few.

The popular legend of the Keys is colored by pirates, Humphrey Bogart tangling with gangster Edward G. Robinson in “Key Largo” and Ernest Hemingway refereeing prizefights when he wasn’t wrestling with deadly self-doubt. In that spirit, I recommend skipping the puddle-jumper that can whisk you directly from Miami International to Key West, and slipping instead into rental wheels Bogie and Papa might approve of – say, a new model Mustang convertible. The Hertz parking lot in Miami gleamed with their aggressive grills.

Instead, minding our budget, we fell into a Dodge Cruz. Muscle car or not, the ride is where the fun begins. From out of manic Miami, the journey settles into a two-lane cruise through domesticated swamps, and then over grander bodies of water until it’s thrillingly clear you’re leaving madding civilization far behind. From here on, your only physical connection to the status quo is this thin ribbon of concrete, the Overseas Highway, the 127.5-mile stretch of U.S. 1 that runs from the tip of mainland Florida to Key West, the end of the line.

Duck Key

The road’s halfway-point takes us to tiny Duck Key and our destination there, Hawks Cay. There are many quaint places to stay in the Keys, including waterside campgrounds, backstreet flophouses and cinder-block motels trumpeted by ’60s-era neon signs. Hawks Cay isn’t like any of that. Hawks Cay is a resort in the escapist Bahamian tradition: ceiling fans, palm trees, attentive staff and a steady supply of poolside cocktails.

The resort’s most famous attraction is the dolphin lagoon, or rather the five chipper Flippers that live and work there. They are the stars of a continuously running show called “Dolphin Connection.” For 60 clams you can feed them from the dock, and for $175 you can swim with these mammals around the lagoon. Reviews range from “a bucket-list must” to mild grousing about the time spent in the water versus in the mandatory dolphin tutorial. We opted to simply enjoy the complimentary view of the magnificent mammals leaping and seemingly laughing at feeding time.

And yet, for all their frolicking, the dolphins didn’t seem nearly as merry as the Homo sapiens visiting from Buffalo, N.Y., Minneapolis and other cities beset by the Ice Age. They herded their broods into the swimming lagoon and heated pools, determined to make the most of the sunny, 75-degree days. Hawks Cay also features biking, tennis and more, but no trip is complete without a jaunt to the most celebrated of the Keys.

Key West, Duck Key

Once home to Harry Truman’s “Little White House,” Key West is now chock full of tchotchkes, a sultry circus of tourists and hustlers. A palatial Johnny Rockets and a Banana Republic now crowd Hemingway’s haunts. Of course, it’s naked hypocrisy for a tourist to complain about tourism. But it’s also undeniably disappointing to find a glut of consumerism cluttering up one’s great escape.

That’s why backstreet attractions like the Haitian Art Company are such a relief. Inside, the pace is slow, the paintings captivating and the curator impeccably gracious. For lunch, we stowed away at the farm-to-table Firefly. The pork sliders pack a punch, but even better is the out of the way address. From the patio, we watched a waify emo kid wisp down this flophouse steps and fire up a Harley 30 times his size.

For dinner, though, we went turbo tourist, grabbing a table at Blue Heaven. There wasn’t a visitor we talked to in the Keys who hadn’t been there. And it’s really no wonder – Blue Heaven is thick with atmosphere, including the pet chickens that wander its outdoor plaza, sometimes marching past a special graveyard for pet chickens past. The place is boisterous in a way that seems quite genuine. Beside us was a table of frisky fisherman. While they waited for the chef to cook up their catch, they made a ruckus that would’ve sunk the Titanic with no assistance required of the iceberg.

The hubbub adds flavor to the food, which without the local color might seem a bit perfunctory. It’s spicy in the Carribbean style, yes, but not much beyond what a moderately ambitious home gourmet could conjure up.

But fear not, foodies! Northeast of Duck Key, Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen is a homey roadside joint that serves a zesty seafood chowder and tangy grilled hogfish. More exotic in taste but equally unpretentious in style is oo-tray. The bacon cotton candy is a popular starter and the culinary fun didn’t let up through a bold burratta salad, lobster tamales and bone-in pork with a side of pineapple chimichurri.

But as transporting as were those meals, the dolphins and the weather, the road remained the most exhilarating part of the Keys, specifically cruising Seven Mile Bridge with the windows down on a breezy and brilliant afternoon. This is the Overseas Highway as it soars up over the sea en route to Key West. Nothing but road and waves, speed and splendid isolation, a sense of both endless possibility and complete detachment. That’s what we came for, and it’s over much too fast. Unless you make a U-turn and do it again. Just like we did.

If you’re going

Hawks Cay Resort, 61 Hawks Cay Blvd., Duck Key, Fla. Details:

Haitian Art Company, 605 Simonton St. Suite A, Key West. Details:

Firefly, 223 Petronia St., Key. Details:

Blue Heaven, 729 Thomas St., Key West. Details:

Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, 99020 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, Fla. Details:

oo-tray, 80900 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, Fla. Details: