Key West, Florida, lies at the southernmost point in the United States, and over time the area has played home to Native Americans, pirates, smugglers, fishermen, famous writers, and even a U.S. president. In 1912 businessman Henry Flagler completed his Overseas Railroad from Miami to Key West, and the result was an engineering marvel. To reach the city by car was impossible, as no road existed. That changed in 1927, when a highway was completed between Florida City and Lower Matecumbe Key. Another highway was finished at the same time, running from Key West to No Name Key. This left a 41-mile gap between the two locations, one that required a four-hour ferry trip to cover. Tragically, a devastating hurricane hit in 1935, killing more than 600 people and destroying a major section of the Overseas Railroad. The railroad was permanently closed, but the right-of-way was used to finish the road to Key West. It opened in 1938 and was named the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. This scenic route was recently named an All-American Road by the National Scenic Byways program.
Driving a Corvette to Key West is a perfect road trip for the adventure-minded owner. Divided by the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, the 127.5-mile highway offers an incredible panorama of ocean vistas and crosses over many islands worth exploring. If you like water activities, great nightlife, and sunshine, a visit to the Keys is hard to beat.
We decided to grab a Corvette and take it on this scenic adventure-and not just any Corvette, but a 606hp supercharged Callaway Grand Sport coupe (www.callawaycars.com). The car, lent to us by Callaway program manager Chris Chessnoe, was the company's development vehicle, so taking it for an extended highway drive made sense from a durability-testing standpoint. We happily made arrangements to pick up this "Powerfully Engineered" beauty for our drive.
We started our trip from the VETTE editorial offices in Tampa after talking editor Heath out of the key fob. We filled up the tank, loaded our stuff, and headed south to our first stop at Rick Treworgy's Muscle Car City (www.musclecarcity.net) in Punta Gorda. Treworgy has amassed one of the nation's largest collections of GM muscle machines, with more than 200 cars and trucks housed in a 99,000-square-foot former Wal-Mart building. Incredibly, Treworgy has Corvettes on display from model years 1954 through 2010.
Our next stop was Naples, located on the Gulf Coast. On the way we hit a heavy rainstorm, but the Callaway, shod with Michelin PS2 ZP tires, handled it like a pro. Upon arrival at the Bayfront Inn 5th Ave (www.bayfront innnaples.com), we learned that guests are provided covered parking. As a bonus, we parked next to a water hose that allowed us to wash the grime off our ride. Next to our hotel was an exclusive shopping-and-dining area that was perfect for a quick photo shoot.
After breakfast we pointed the Callaway south to Homestead to link up with U.S. 1, also known as the Overseas Highway. After a quick two-hour drive, we merged onto U.S. 1, crossed the Barnes Sound Bridge, entered Key Largo, and headed south toward Key West. We passed the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (www.pennekamppark.com) at mile marker (MM) 102, which was the first of many state parks we saw on this trip. John Pennekamp is a great place to snorkel and check out the coral reefs in beautiful, crystal-clear water.
Next, we stopped in Islamorada (MM 82) to top off the Callaway with fuel. (It's worth noting that fuel prices increased steadily the closer we got to Key West.) Pressing on, we quickly arrived at the island of Marathon, known as the "Heart of the Keys" because it is the midpoint of the island chain. We explored the Grassy Key Dolphin Research Center (www.dolphins.org), where injured dolphins, whales, and turtles are nursed back to health. It was only a short drive to the Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort, where we had a relaxing lunch by the ocean.
Back on the road, we soon arrived at the Pigeon Key Gift shop at MM 46. The shop is housed in a 1912 railroad car similar to the type used by the Flagler railroad, and is located at the entrance of the famed Seven Mile Bridge. Tickets may be purchased at the shop for a two-mile tram ride to the tiny historic island of Pigeon Key. This key is where workers lived during construction of the Flagler line, with trains stopping there periodically to replenish their supplies. The railroad line was converted to a roadway in 1938 and was closed to vehicular traffic in 1982.
We arrived at Key West and checked into the beautiful Parrot Key Resort (www.parrotkeyresort.com). The next morning, we cleaned up the Callaway and drove into the heart of downtown. Our first stop was the southernmost point of the United States, followed by a visit to the red-brick Custom House and to Mallory Square for some photos.
Later, we took a cab downtown to experience the nightlife. Singer Jimmy Buffett has captured the essence of Key West with his popular songs, and every year thousands of his fans-known as Parrot Heads-hold a huge party to honor his contributions here. During the rest of the year, street performers gather at Mallory Square before sunset and put on free performances. It's a huge daily celebration that's not be missed. And when that party is over, nightlife begins in earnest on Duval Street. It's an excellent place to dine and people watch. After a fun night we headed back to our hotel for some much-needed rest.
The next day we pointed the Callaway north to Islamorada for our final overnight stay in the Keys, at the Chesapeake Beach Resort (www.chesapeakebeachresortspa.com). The resort serves as a perfect spot for relaxing and simply enjoying the natural beauty of this unspoiled area.
Writer Thelma Strabel summed up Key West when she noted, "There is nothing for restless people to do. It is quiet, careless, and charming." We couldn't agree more. The combination a breathtaking scenic drive-and an outstanding automobile in which to take it-all added up to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.