Florida Keys: the eco way to do a great American road trip
When Jack Kerouac went On the Road he chose a gas-guzzling 5-litre Hudson. Hunter S Thompson’s ‘Red Shark’ Chevrolet in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ sported a thirsty 6-litre V8, just like Thelma and Louise’s emission-belching Ford Thunderbird.
Today however, the great American road trip needn’t be that way. For while transatlantic air travel inevitably makes a dent in the atmosphere, it’s perfectly possible to tread more lightly than ever on arrival.
Take the Florida Keys and Key West, for example, boasting protected coral reefs, exotic marine life, ancient mangrove swamps and miles of clean, sandy beaches. Floridians want to keep it that way so they are offering a new tourism, aimed not just at those seeking sun, sparkling blue seas, luxury resorts, water sports and a party atmosphere but fun, fascinating eco activities too.
Which means a V8-powered hire car just won’t cut it. Our own road trip from Miami International Airport to Key West and back - through a sensational archipelago of islands linked by a dramatic ribbon of bridges and roads almost kissing the water - started at Hertz, where we collected a clean, green, all-electric Tesla.
Showing a range of around 270 miles, we reckoned it would need just one or two charges to cover the 350-mile round trip, as we discovered what new, environment-friendly delights this tropical-maritime region - with temperatures typically ranging from 19 - 32 degrees year-round - has to offer.
The first and longest island - 60 minutes from the airport, giving us time to adjust to the Tesla’s impressive, silent acceleration, as we swooshed, fume-free, along the one and only main road - is Key Largo, bordered on the west by the Florida Bay and the Everglades National Park and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean.
Coral reef restoration
Thirteen-acre Baker’s Cay Resort, surrounded by a lush jungle-like nature trail with ‘secret’, shady, sandy beaches, felt totally tropical with palm trees, sun-basking lizards, two swimming pools a sizzling Creole-Caribbean restaurant, ‘Calusa’ - and a sleepy, low-wattage car charger. Long views from our bedroom stretched enticingly over azure seas dancing above perfect coral reefs. Or so we thought.
It was to the Molasses Barrier Reef that we turned for our first eco adventure, a two-hour trip in the glass-bottomed ‘Key Largo Princess’, yielding a close-up of the sea bed with expert commentary. Strictly protected - you can’t touch it, feed the fish or take a shell as a souvenir - the rules came late and the reef has, sadly, seen better days. We enjoyed the ride but - expecting a riot of marine life and colourful undersea formations - returned to shore disappointed.
Our next stop - after dining at the characterful Fish House specialising in local seafood including mahi mahi and Florida lobster - explained why. Key Largo’s hugely inspirational Coral Restoration Foundation was formed in 2007 when conservationists realised that without positive human intervention, Florida’s stunning reefs faced extinction - often at the hands of the very tourists drawn here by this bewitching but fragile ecosystem.
Use of the ‘wrong’ sunscreens, global warming, along with damage from pleasure and cruise boats and polluted run-off from agriculture have exacted a devastating toll, reducing parts of the reef to rubble.
Fortunately, help is at hand at the Foundation, which is open to visitors. Led by marine biologists - including the highly committed Roxanne Boonstra - volunteers create futuristic-looking offshore nurseries for ‘baby’ corals, grown on giant frames tethered beneath the surface of the sea. They are then painstakingly hand-planted in protected areas; visitors can book in advance to assist in this adventure, snorkellers observing, qualified divers even taking part.
“We plant 45,000 a year” says Roxanne, Recreational Dive & Volunteer Coordinator. “We’re an Ark for species under threat.” She’s passionate about conservation - and persuading tourists to use ‘reef-safe’ sunscreens; traditional ones save your skin but kill coral formations, which are living organisms.
An eco good time
There’s more hands-on experience at bohemian ‘Robbie’s Of Islamorada’ after a 35-minute glide along the glittering Overseas Highway, US 1. Here - think Camden-Market-on-sea - visitors hand-feed eight-feet long tarpon fish from the pier while keeping an eye out for sharks, manatees and pelicans. Then watch the spectacle while choosing from an extensive menu at the ‘Hungry Tarpon’ restaurant.
Robbie’s is the launchpad for KeyZ Charters which - helmed by Captain Samantha Zeher on her deck boat with back-up electric motor permitting access to protected habitats - offers eco tours of mangrove islands. The marine environmentalist pointed out nesting egrets, cormorants and herons, although the saltwater crocs eluded us.
Key West, nearly two hours farther along this enchanting string of islands, is the beating heart of the Keys and a city of two halves.
Old Town’s quiet back streets are packed with architectural gems; elegant, antique timber homes with wrap-around verandas and creeper and flower-decked cottages, sitting comfortably alongside grander mansions. Brilliant red poinsettias and otherworldly Kapok trees adorn this leafy pedestrian’s paradise.
Duval Street is Key West’s ‘Bourbon Street’ where good-time-seeking tourists - sucked in by live music, flashy cars and motorcycles, outlandish costumes, heaving bars and general showing off - party until they drop. Keep on walking north and you arrive in Key West Seaport with its restaurants and - definitely not to be missed - Mallory Square, where everyone goes to celebrate sundown.
Beset with range anxiety and with just 70 miles left in the Tesla’s battery, we discovered one of the flaws of green travel. Our hotel - the otherwise charming Winslow’s Bungalows - had no charger. We embarked on a frustrating, time and volt-burning hunt, the Tesla’s in-built ‘finder’ delivering us only to private, off-limit chargers. The one ‘authorised’ unit we found refused to cooperate.
Finally we cheated and called a tourism official who bagged us another hotel’s charger. Note to self: only book hotels with chargers.
We missed the festivities on-shore but compensated with stunning dishes at the celebrated Hot Tin Roof restaurant overlooking the harbour and then, the following evening, a more intimate sundowner; champagne on the elegant wind-powered Appledore Schooner, skimming the Gulf of Mexico. Sensational - as was dinner at the ‘Half Shell Raw Bar’, a Key West institution sourcing everything locally.
We enjoyed more sea-life as — on board Honest Eco’s ‘Squid’, America’s first coastguard-approved all-electric passenger vessel — we observed playful dolphins, then snorkelled Lone Tree Reef where we spotted barracuda, mangrove snapper and the invasive (but tasty) lionfish. Guides Jaclyn and Jesse were inspiring, their dedication to protecting the ecosystem infectious.
Leaving (almost) no trace
Leaving elegant, brash, fun, pulsating Key West — after breakfast in the colourful outdoor yard at Blue Heaven and touring Ernest Hemingway’s atmospheric, former home - was a wrench, even if we did have three more treats in store. First we joined naturalist Bill Keogh for a ‘Big Pine Kayak Eco Adventure’, a thrilling foray deep into mangrove swamp, ‘parking’ our paddles and swinging - monkey like - from branch to branch, ‘limbo-dancing’ - as Bill described it - beneath boughs brushing the sea.
Sweaty, smelly and sunburned we felt like imposters as we checked into luxurious ‘Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort’, which — like its excellent Butterfly Cafe patio restaurant — lives right up to its name, before cooling off in the pool.
There were just two stops left, along US 1, including our crossing of dramatic Seven Mile Bridge. We toured The Turtle Hospital at Marathon, seeing how they rescue creatures struck by boats, disease and fishing tackle. Then we cruised silently - one eye on the battery, another on a dark, Biblical storm blowing in over Miami - before handing back our ‘Green Shark’. With about 30 miles to spare...
As we cleared check-in, giant, noisy advertising screens bade us an appropriate farewell. “Florida Keys - there’s no place as magical, as unforgettable, as colourful. We believe you should leave the world better than you found it”. We reckoned we’d tried our best.
6 ways to tread lightly in the Florida Keys
1. Stock up on reef-safe sunscreen before flying, available from Amazon or Green People.
2. Make informed seafood choices.
3. Avoid using plastic bags, one of the most common items of synthetic waste in the marine environment, and deadly for turtles.
4. Use only designated mooring buoys over reefs - anchors cause massive damage.
5. Leave obstacles, such as chairs, off beaches when not in use; they make the turtle’s nesting job harder.
6. Look out for the ‘Blue Star’ which recognises operators committed to promoting responsible and sustainable diving, snorkelling or fishing trips, in all five Keys districts..
For more information, visit: fla-keys.co.uk
Purely Travel (0844 80 444 80 / PurelyTravel.co.uk) offers a seven-night fly-drive holiday to the Florida Keys & Key West from £1,949 per person. Departing on 9 October 2022, the package includes two nights in Key Largo at Baker’s Cay Resort in a Junior Suite, three nights in Key West at Kimpton’s Winslow’s Bungalows in a King Room; and two nights room only in Marathon at Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort in a Superior Room. The price includes compact car hire with all taxes and insurance and return economy flights from LHR to Miami with British Airways. The price is based on two adults travelling, sharing room only accommodation. ATOL protected.
If you want to follow in our wheel tracks and go electric, contact Hertz (https://bit.ly/3Nx06LS) - but be warned going green isn’t cheap. You will save by dropping the petrol car from the package, but Teslas come in at around £680. Plan ahead, however, and you can mitigate this by avoiding petrol costs, and booking hotels with free charging points.