By GERRY BARKER
North Palm Beach Life
FLORIDA KEYS_ For people like us, who love to travel, the last six months have -- what's the word? -- sucked. Of course, throwing caution to the wind and potentially getting COVID-19 would suck even worse. So we have stayed put and spent lots of time looking at our photos from previous trips. Until now.
With Pam's birthday approaching, we decided it was time to cautiously venture out of lockdown and dip our toes back in the travel waters. Rather than a grand adventure, we chose to stay closer to home. Fortunately, where we live is a vacation destination in itself, so we had lots of options from which to choose. Ultimately, we picked a week in the Florida Keys.
This isn't our first trip to the Keys, known worldwide for its spectacular scenery and fishing. We made a car trip to Key West several years ago, and also visited there as a stop on one of our cruises. But this is the first time we have really devoted a week to see what it has to offer.
Geographically, the Keys are as far south as you can go in the continental United States. Key West boasts the famous "90 Miles from Cuba" marker -- the Southern-most point in the country. This chain of islands is bordered by the Atlantic on one side and the Gulf on the other, extending some 165 miles from Miami. To get there, you must take the mostly two-lane Overseas Highway, featuring the famous Seven-Mile Bridge. Driving over the multi-hued blue waters provides a lasting memory.
Alongside the highway you'll see the remnants of Henry Flagler's railroad, which carried eager vacationers to the Keys over 100 years ago. Built at a cost of $50 million -- who knows how much in today's dollars -- by 4,000 laborers over a seven-year period, it was officially opened in 1912 after weathering three successive hurricanes. It was hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Alas, the mega-storm Category 5 Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 washed a major portion of the tracks away, never to be rebuilt. Instead, the state of Florida constructed the Overseas Highway in its place.
For us, the Keys are one of those unique travel destinations, like Venice or New Orleans. The self-proclaimed "Conch Republic" has a vibe, a flair, a personality that sets its apart, the home of Hemingway where wild chickens roam the streets as a protected species.
Of course, top of mind for us on this trip was the virus and how hotels and restaurants are handling it. Overall, we were pleased to see everybody masking up indoors, using hand sanitizer and socially distancing,, for the most part. There seemed to be some confusion about the rules in Monroe County, where Key West sits. Some indicated masks were only required indoors, while there was signage that said masks were required in and outdoors. At any rate, we felt as safe as you could expect in a high-traffic, tourist area.
If you are ready for a getaway, virtual or not, join us as we explore the fabled Florida Keys.