When Jack Kerouac hit the road, he chose a gas-guzzling 5-liter Hudson. Hunter S Thompson’s ‘Red Shark’ Chevrolet in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ sported a thirsty 6-liter V8, as did Thelma and Louise’s Ford Thunderbird, which belched emissions.
Today, however, the great American road trip doesn’t have to be this way. While transatlantic air travel inevitably takes its toll on the atmosphere, it’s perfectly possible to ride lighter than ever upon arrival.
Take the Florida Keys and Key West for example, which boast protected coral reefs, exotic marine life, ancient mangroves and miles of clean, sandy beaches. Floridians want to keep it that way, so they’re offering a new kind of tourism, geared not only to those seeking sun, sparkling blue seas, luxury resorts, water sports, and a party atmosphere, but also fun and exciting green activities.
Which means that a rental car with a V8 engine is not enough. Our own road trip from Miami International Airport to Key West and back, through a sensational archipelago of islands linked by a spectacular ribbon of bridges and roads that almost kiss the water, began at Hertz, where we picked up a clean Tesla, ecological and completely electric. .
Showing a range of around 270 miles, we figured it would take just one or two charges to cover the 350-mile round trip, as we discovered what new, eco-friendly delicacies are in this tropical maritime region, with temperatures that they generally range between 19 and 32 degrees all year round – it has to offer.
The first and longest island, 60 minutes from the airport, giving us time to adjust to the impressive and silent acceleration of the Tesla, while we moved without smoke along the only main road, is Cayo Largo, bordered on the west by the Bay from Florida and the Everglades National Park and to the east with the Atlantic Ocean.
coral reef restoration
The thirteen-acre Baker’s Cay Resort, surrounded by a lush, jungle-like nature trail with shaded ‘secret’ sandy beaches, felt totally tropical with palm trees, sunning lizards, two pools, a sizzling Creole-Caribbean restaurant,’ Calusa’ – and a sleepy, low-voltage car charger. Long views from our room stretched seductively over azure seas that danced over picture-perfect coral reefs. Or so we thought.
It was to the Molasses Barrier that we headed for our first eco-adventure, a two-hour trip on the glass-bottomed ‘Key Largo Princess,’ which gave us a close-up of the seabed with expert commentary. Strictly protected, you can’t touch it, feed the fish or take a shell as a souvenir, the rules were late and sadly the reef has seen better days. We enjoyed the trip but, expecting a riot of marine life and colorful underwater formations, we returned to shore disappointed.
Our next stop, after dinner at the distinctive Fish House, which specializes in local seafood including mahi mahi and Florida lobster, explained why. The highly inspiring Key Largo Coral Restoration Foundation was formed in 2007 when conservationists realized that, without positive human intervention, Florida’s stunning reefs were facing extinction, often at the hands of humans. tourists drawn here by this fascinating but fragile ecosystem.
The use of ‘wrong’ sunscreens, global warming, along with damage from pleasure and cruise ships and polluted runoff from agriculture have taken a devastating toll, reducing parts of the reef to rubble.
Fortunately, help is available 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, which grow on giant frames tethered below the surface of the sea. They are then painstakingly planted by hand in protected areas; visitors can book in advance to help out on this adventure, divers watch, qualified divers even participate.
“We plant 45,000 a year,” says Roxanne, Recreational Diving and Volunteer Coordinator. “We are an Ark for endangered species.” She is passionate about conservation and persuading tourists to use ‘reef-safe’ sunscreens; the traditional ones save the skin but kill the coral formations, which are living organisms.
A good ecological moment
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 tarpon fish eight feet long from the pier as you watch for sharks, manatees and pelicans. Then watch the show as you choose from an extensive menu at the ‘Hungry Tarpon’ restaurant.
Robbie’s is the launch pad for KeyZ Charters which, led by Captain Samantha Zeher in her electric powered deck boat that allows access to protected habitats, offers eco tours of mangrove islands. The marine environmentalist pointed out herons, cormorants, and herons nesting, though saltwater crocodiles eluded us.
Key West, almost two hours further along this charming chain of islands, is the beating heart of the Keys and a city divided into two halves.
The quiet back streets of Old Town are full of architectural gems; elegant old wooden houses with wrap-around terraces and vine- and flower-covered cottages, nestled comfortably alongside grander mansions. Bright red poinsettias and otherworldly Kapok trees adorn this leafy pedestrian paradise.
Duval Street is Key West’s ‘Bourbon Street’, where tourists looking to have a good time, drawn by live music, flashy cars and motorcycles, outlandish costumes, crowded bars and general glitz, They party till they drop. Keep walking north and you’ll come to the Key West Seaport with its restaurants and definitely not to be missed, Mallory Square, where all the world going to celebrate sunset.
Beset by range anxiety and with only 70 miles left on the Tesla’s battery, we discovered one of the flaws of green travel. Our hotel, the lovely Winslow’s Bungalows, had no charger. We embarked on a frustrating, time-and-volt-burning search, Tesla’s built-in ‘finder’ delivering us only to private, off-limit chargers. The only ‘authorized’ unit we found refused to cooperate.
We finally cheated and called a tourism official who bagged us the charger from another hotel. Personal note: only book hotels with chargers.
We missed out on the festivities on land, but made up for it with stunning dishes at the celebrated Hot Tin Roof restaurant overlooking the harbor and then a more intimate sunset the next night; champagne on the graceful wind-powered Schooner Appledore, skimming the Gulf of Mexico. Sensational, as is dinner at the ‘Half Shell Raw Bar,’ a Key West institution that sources everything locally.
We got more of the marine life when, aboard Honest Eco’s ‘Squid,’ the first all-electric passenger boat approved by the US Coast Guard, we watched playful dolphins, then snorkeled Lone Tree Reef, where we saw barracuda , mangrove snappers and the invasive (but tasty) lionfish. Guides Jaclyn and Jesse were inspiring, their dedication to protecting the ecosystem is contagious.
Leaving (almost) no trace
Coming out of chic, sassy, fun and pulsating Key West, after breakfast on the colorful outdoor patio at Blue Heaven and touring Ernest Hemingway’s atmospheric former home, was torture, even if we had three more gifts in store. We first joined naturalist Bill Keogh for a ‘Big Pine Kayak Eco Adventure’, a thrilling foray deep into the mangroves, ‘parking’ our paddles and swinging, monkey-like, from branch to branch, ‘dancing in limbo’ ‘ as Bill described it. – under the branches that touch the sea.
Sweaty, smelly and sunburned, we feel like impostors when we check into the luxurious ‘Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort’, which, like its fine courtyard restaurant Butterfly Cafe, lives up to its name, before freshening up in the pool.
There were only two stops left, along US 1, including our crossing of the spectacular Seven Mile Bridge. We toured The Turtle Hospital in Marathon and saw how they rescue creatures struck by boats, disease, and fishing gear. We then cruised in silence, one eye on the battery, one on a dark biblical storm blowing over Miami, before turning our ‘Green Shark’ back. With about 30 miles to spare…
When we checked in, we were given a proper send-off by giant, noisy advertising screens. “The Florida Keys: there is no place so magical, unforgettable and colorful. We believe you should leave the world better than you found it.” We thought we had done our best.
6 Ways to Tread Safely in the Florida Keys
1. Stock up on reef-safe sunscreen before you fly, available from Amazon or Green People.
2. Make informed decisions about seafood.
3. Avoid the use of plastic bags, one of the most common synthetic waste in the marine environment and deadly for turtles.
4. Use only designated mooring buoys on reefs – anchors cause massive damage.
5. Leaving obstacles, such as chairs, off the beaches when not in use; hinder the nesting work of the turtle.
6. Look out for the ‘Blue Star’ that recognizes operators committed to promoting responsible and sustainable diving, snorkeling or fishing trips in the five districts of the Keys.
For more information visit: fla-keys.es
Purely Travel (0844 80 444 80 / PurelyTravel.com) offers a seven-night air holiday to the Florida Keys and Key West from £1,949 per person. Departing October 9, 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 of accommodation only in Marathon at Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort in Superior Room. Price includes compact car rental with all taxes and insurance and cheap round-trip flights from LHR to Miami with British Airways. Price is based on two adults traveling, sharing accommodation only. Protected ATOL.
If you want to follow in our footsteps and go electric, contact Hertz (https://bit.ly/3Nx06LS), but keep in mind that going green doesn’t come cheap. You’ll save by taking the petrol car out of the pack, but Teslas are around £680. However, plan ahead and you can mitigate this by avoiding petrol costs and booking hotels with free charging points.