We entered Florida on our final leg of The Great American Road Trip to witness an almost immediate landscape change. Here was our final state and our mammoth journey was almost complete. So we would spend our final few days living it up in the Sunshine State. Our drive down to Marco Island was certainly a long one – 7 hours. Our longest single continuous drive yet. Florida is of course predominantly a swamp and as a result the vegetation is amazingly lush. Bright green contrasts against a deep blue sky creating a unique combination that we had not yet seen on our southern states drive, we were far more used to scorched deserts and cacti.
Arriving in Marco Island you straight away get a small town feel to it. Albeit most of these properties are most likely holiday homes for the rich and famous. Interestingly we started to see signs warning us of the Florida panthers that were potentially in the area, although we’re told that they are remarkably rare and we were very unlikely to see one of these incredibly solitary and shy creatures.
The waterfront front properties, if not impressive dwellings are hotels. There’s countless numbers of them, leaving us now in no doubt – Marco Island is a getaway paradise. Where people travel to enjoy the white sand beaches and clear blue seas of the Mexican Gulf. We were staying at the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and our room had a perfect ocean view of the Gulf. From our high perspective overlooking these waters it’s hard to fathom how large a body of water spans between here and Mexico. For most of our trip we had been in busy cities and so we wanted to spend some downtime here in Marco Island, for the brief period that we were staying – only one night. Lounging by the pool and walking the beach that is covered in shells was definitely on the agenda. There are so many shells here that there’s even a welcome pack of shells in our room. Fortunately we had left Georgia before sunrise so we still had all afternoon to explore once we had arrived and we walked up the beach and explored the beautiful coastline. For dinner we sat on the hotel’s terrace watching the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. The view was truly stunning as the sun lowered itself below the horizon. The mosquito net guarding us from the marshes between us and miles and miles of beautiful ocean.
Arising early once more, we hit the road and begun our trip across the Everglades to Key West. The Everglades National Park is the US third largest park outside of Alaska and is predominantly swamp lands. Famed for its alligators and mosquitos, it’s not somewhere that you want to venture out into alone, unless you know what you’re doing. However, it is a spectacular landscape, made all the more impressive by its sheer size. Yet it is truly abundant with wildlife and if you’re sensible one can see some truly impressive creatures without having to look very far at all. The alligators even venture on to the roadsides sometime, so keep your eyes peeled. We took the southern most route, which was the old main drive to Miami before they built I-75. Visitors to the park can enter at a number of gatestops where you pay an entrance fee. From here you can begin your journey in to the swamp via a number of trails or boat trips with a guide. It’s a landscape that is about as wild as you can get so make sure you explore it with a local guide that know the area well and understands the dangers. The everglades is a wildlife lovers paradise and there is much to see.
Leaving the Florida mainland you begin your journey on I-1. This road in parts will be like one that you have never driven before. It is a slow journey for sure, with speed limits of 40mph for many of 100 mile sections. However, highlights such as the seven mile bridge are truly Wow moments. Alongside the highway you can still see the old railroad that used to serve these islands many decades ago. It’s a fascinating place and one that you can’t help but think would be impossible to be as urban as it is. Yet modern engineering methods have made all of these Keys accessible.
On route to Key West we stopped off at the Turtle Hospital on Marathon Key which is both a saddening and rewarding visit. The keys are full of turtles and unfortunately they feel man’s destructive force all too well. From pollution to boat collisions, this gorgeous animals are at constant risk. Fortunately many of the fisherman and residents know only too well the troubles they go through and the Hospital has a call in service. They welcome injured turtles to their sanctuary and nurse them back to health. Fantastically this means that sometimes rehabilitation means release back in to the wild. Sometimes it’s not that easy though and many of the turtles at least live out the rest of their life in safety, being well looked after. The visitors entrance fees and donations help give the hospital the funds that it needs to continue its conservation efforts.
Our stop for the next few days was Casa Marina, Key West. One of the island’s original resorts it continues to this day to be a landmark at Key West and a must if you’re looking for a luxurious place to stay. We spent our first evening dining under a palm tree on the beach, a simply magical experience with the sea waves only a hop away from your table. This has to surely be one of the best ways to spend dinner with your loved one? Our room whilst we were staying at Casa Marina overlooked the magical blue ocean and the hotel’s pool and behind that the beach complete with palm trees. We could have stayed on our terrace looking at this paradise for days, however with Key West on the doorstep, we had to get out and explore the town. It’s famous for it’s getaway culture and Ernest Hemingway used to travel here to escape and write. Eventually he bought a house here which you can still visit. Amongst the relaxation and the culture is mixed hedonism and partying with the towns annual festival Fantasy Fest.
After a buffet breakfast an experience in over indulgence as one is completely spoilt for choice, why not lie in a hammock on the beach? This is the epitome of a lazy day. Key West is the United States southern most point, and is closer to Havana than it is to Miami. The crisp blue skies and deep blue ocean make this more caribbean than what you’d expect in the US and it really is an island paradise. Standing in the jetty looking out towards Cuba, a huge pelican flies directly in front of us. You certainly don’t get a view like that back at home. If you’re one for the water this really is the place for you as you can take advantage of jet skis, power boats, water skiing, diving or even slower experiences such as a sunset boat trip. Enjoying a bottle of wine floating on the ocean whilst the sun casts a golden hue over the Caribbean-esque waters? Perfect. Case Marina offers guests fantastic spa experiences that can be taken as an individual or a couple at Spa Al Mare. Try out the yoga on the gazebo that stretches out in to the Atlantic. Surely there are few better places to experience yoga than here?
Our stay was disappointingly short and we would happily return to Key West as it is a small island with a lot to offer. However we were due in Miami and that meant getting back on I-1. Arriving in Miami a few hours later we cruised down through the Art Deco district that was absolutely buzzing with people and cars. Here we were, in party town and our hotel for the next few days was The Raleigh, the classic art deco resort in South Beach. The hotel backs on to South Beach, where the branded umbrellas line the white sands for miles. In fact umbrella spotting is a great way not to get lost when wandering the beach promenade. Miami is all about the glitz and the glamour made very evident when walking from bar to bar in the evening or the main shopping street. People, their cars and even their dogs all look exquisite. If you’re one for the glamour, then Miami will surely be for you. The city is also huge and as a result it’s not all about South Beach. We spent our days simply relaxing in the beach, by the pool and in cafes, people watching – for surely this has to be one of the most interesting places in the world to do so. The Raleigh’s pool is frequently voted Miami’s best pool and it’s easy to see why. The shape is truly iconic and makes for some great photos, especially if you have an ocean view room where you can see the panoramic from above. There are many features throughout the hotel that make it feel as though you have stepped back in time – an actual room key for one not a piece of plastic. How many hotels have those any more? We should say however, that with this unique retro feel there are also parts of the hotel that feel a little tired, although there are apparent plans afoot to renovate. Once that occurs, this will surely be a remarkable hotel provided they maintain the retro feel.
It was leaving day so we had to make our way to Miami Airport. We drove the last few miles in our trusty car that had taken us so many miles without fault. We were of course grateful for the unlimited mileage policy on the rental. In the airport we picked up a few bottles of Havana rum and boarded our Virgin Atlantic flight returning to London.
So that was it, The Great American Road Trip, complete. A mega journey through a fantastic country with culture as diverse as you would have hoped and people so friendly that you don’t want to ever leave. A total of 7,000 km (4,000 miles) through 9 states and 16 cites. I fulfilled a dream of driving from coast to coast and in return the country has given me even more dreams to be fulfilled. Thank you America and all that we met on our trip.
If you missed the earlier parts of The Great American Road Trip catch them here;