Scenic drives abound throughout the U.S., and I’ve traveled many of them — through the Great Smoky Mountains and up the California coast among them. But my hands-down favorite is the Florida Keys’ Overseas Highway.

The amazing Overseas Highway stretches over 42 bridges and offers breathtaking vistas of open water. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

With its 42 bridges connecting key to key, the highway offers breathtaking views of both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hard to keep my eyes on the road with beautiful blue water stretching to the horizon on both sides.

Though I’m an active senior, I like to take it easy on longer drives. And the Overseas Highway provides plenty of chances to meander and explore. From Key Largo and its colorful building painted by marine life artist Wyland, to the end of the road in Key West, you’ll find things to see all along the road.

Husband Joe and I made several trips to the Keys before becoming full-time residents, so we visited many different attractions, eateries, and places we wanted to check out.

For example, I’ve enjoyed many meals at Gus’ Grille at the Marriott in Key Largo. Sitting on the second floor overlooking the water, sampling fresh seafood, is a real treat. But then, I could eat my way down the Keys!

The African Queen is the original vessel from director John Huston's classic film by the same name. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Speaking of Key Largo, I well recall watching the 1950s film, “The African Queen,” with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. The boat that “starred” in the film is home-ported at the Holiday Inn in Key Largo. As well as seeing her, now that she has undergone extensive renovations you can take a 90-minute cruise on her.

Heading on down the Keys, one of our regular stops was the Rain Barrel in Islamorada. This artisans’ village features sculpture, jewelry, paintings on coral, stained glass and more — much of it by local artists. A stroll through the Rain Barrel always showed us something new and made us marvel at the talents of others (since ours certainly didn’t lie in the art world!).

I also love browsing through the fishing and sports gear, clothes and accessories at Islamorada’s World Wide Sportsman. Here’s another place that offers a perfect view of the Gulf — and the shoreside restaurant is a great place to watch the water and savor casual Keys dishes.

Mandy Rodriguez, the guiding spirit behind Dolphin Research Center, enjoys a swim with a couple of good buddies. (Photo courtesy of DRC)

Interested in joining dolphins in the water? Your drive down the Keys will take you past Grassy Key’s Dolphin Research Center at Mile Marker 59 — and you can plan ahead and book time for a swim with these wonderful creatures of the sea. Even if you can’t swim with them, stop at the center for a tour and learn fascinating information about dolphins, sea lions and other marine creatures.

Incidentally, while you’re in the Grassy Key and Marathon area, consider a stop at Marathon’s Keys Fisheries for a world-class Gulf view and Keys seafood.

Leaving Marathon, you’ll travel across the Seven Mile Bridge — by far the longest of the Keys’ 42 bridges, offering panoramic views of endless blue water and tiny uninhabited islands. The bridge is closed for half a day each year so 1,500 runners can compete in the famed Seven Mile Bridge Run.

In the Lower Keys, take a detour out Key Deer Boulevard on Big Pine Key to the Key Deer Refuge. There, if you’re lucky, you’ll glimpse tiny Key deer indigenous to the area, roaming the refuge that provides a safe environment for them.

A Key deer doe licks her chops after grazing on a plant. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Once past Big Pine Key, begin looking up (passengers only, please!). On a clear day you’ll spot a large white blimp, locally known as “Fat Albert.” Albert is tethered to a base on Cudjoe Key and is part of the NORAD surveillance system. Every time we drove down the Keys, if Fat Albert was up there, we knew all was well with the world.

Further along, on Lower Sugarloaf Key at Mile Market 17, is the site of the Bat Tower. This peculiar structure was built in 1929 by Lower Keys landowner Richter Clyde Perky, who thought he could house bats there to eat marauding mosquitoes. His plan was a failure, but his tower still attracts curious visitors.

Now you’re almost at the end of the road — literally. The Overseas Highway goes through Key West until it reaches Mile Marker 0, in front of the courthouse. And hasn’t it been a beautiful drive?

 

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