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- After closing its borders in late March, the Florida Keys re-opened for visitors on June 1.
- For those who have been locked down for months, driving through the Upper, Middle, and Lower Keys makes for a terrific road trip as most businesses reopen their doors.
- While the experience might feel different (expect changes in hotel cleaning and restaurant policies), many hotels are offering special pricing, starting at $119 per night.
- If you’re wondering if travel is safe, we also asked various experts to weigh in with the products to pack in the car, as well as the activities that are the safest to undertake.
A drive through Florida’s famous Keys is a picturesque experience that’s unique to this tropical savanna region. There’s simply no other environment like it in the contiguous 48 states. It’s also the ideal route for a road trip.
Indeed, the first road trip I took after moving to South Florida many years ago was through the Keys. Even though we had previously driven cross-country and seen landscape largesse of all kinds, I was transfixed by the stunning scenery.
That’s because once you leave the Florida Turnpike for the Overseas Highway, an approximately 110-mile road that ambles over 42 bridges, you’re frequently only a few feet above or away from lapping waves, lush vegetation, and wildlife. Be on the lookout for turtles, alligators, crocodiles, endangered key deer, and large water birds that enjoy both the coastal wetland habitats and stirring sea breezes. Roll down the window and you can almost touch the sawgrass and mangroves that span the shoulders. There are more than 1,700 islands here, only 32 inhabited.
Since that first trip, we’ve made it a habit every late June to drive down to the Keys. This year, given the pandemic, my spouse’s occupation as a physician, and the extra risk I carry as a traveler with autoimmune disease, road-tripping presents obvious challenges.
However, the Keys are still a good choice. As a result of its local governmental caution, it saw very few cases of the novel coronavirus, and most activities involve the wide-open outdoors. We often stop to explore Everglades National Park, which is open with modified concessions and tours, or the underwater coral reef that is Biscayne National Park, where the kayak launch and restrooms are open on a limited basis. Both are at the junction of the Turnpike and US1 in Florida City, north of Key Largo.
The Keys are divided into Upper (from Biscayne Bay in Miami-Dade County to Lower Matecumbe Key at MM 75), Middle (Craig Key at MM 71.8 to MM47, or north end of 7-Mile Bridge), and Lower Keys (MM 40, or south end of 7-Mile Bridge to MM O, or Key West).
We tend to choose a different destination every time for variation’s sake, sometimes going as far as Key West (find our guide to the best hotels in Key West here), other times staying as near Key Largo, 18 miles south of Miami.
But nothing is without risk. Here’s what experts say you should know before hitting the road.
Steps to take before hitting the road and precautions to consider
We already know experts largely consider rental cars to be safe, so long as the company follows disinfecting procedures, and you don’t ride with individuals who may have been exposed. But there are a few extra points to consider if you’re driving your own car, even with people you know well.
CarRentals.com, an Expedia company, published results from their own surveys, as well as studies from sources such as the National Center for Biotechnology Information, with some pretty unsettling findings. Because so many people eat in their cars, and track in dirt and other substances from gas stations and parking lots, the inside of the average car contains more than 200 infectious bacteria per inch.
Dr. Chris Xu, CEO of ThermoGenesis, a company that has created a rapid COVID test kit for hospitals, and is developing an antibody drug for treatment, recommends you should keep Clorox wipes, Lysol spray, a box of disposable gloves, and masks in the car but also cautions, “Do not use gloves in the car. Gloves should be worn at gas stations when pumping gas or at stores and then immediately disposed of. Forgetting to take off gloves upon entering the car brings the very germs you were safe-guarding yourself against into and onto your vehicle.”
If Clorox wipes are in short supply, try Bioesque Disinfectant Solution. Taylor Smith, founder of CJS Global, a sanitation company for the hospitality industry, recommends bringing this disinfectant spray along because it kills even the notoriously difficult norovirus. (If the disinfectant spray is sold out too, as it sometimes is, buy the gallon size on Amazon and bottle it yourself.)
Additionally, whether you’re stopping on the road at a place like the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key or kayaking once you’ve arrived, think about new ways to approach sun safety. This is, after all, a tropical road trip. “Prior to putting on any sunscreen, always make sure your hands are clean,” Dr. Xu says.
But don’t use hand sanitizer to clean them. Derek Jouppi, a nanotechnology engineer in the sun care space who runs SPOTMYUV, says that it actually removes sunscreen. You don’t want to be fooled into thinking you’re covered when you’re not.
Once you reach your destination, take extra steps beyond ensuring the hotel room is fully sanitized and clean, by wiping down high touch surfaces and making sure that belongings are safely stored. For example, dental surgeon and CEO of the G4byGolpa dental implant centers, Dr. Mike Golpa, cautions against letting your toothbrush drop onto a countertop. “Ideally, keep it in the upright position overnight, so bristles don’t touch anything and can get dry before the next use,” he says. “Transport it in the protective case, separated from other cosmetics. If stored incorrectly, it becomes very susceptible to virus transmission.”
If you’re traveling with younger children, they may add unknown variables. Jeff Bullard, MD, who serves on the executive board of the Academy of Allergy and Asthma in Primary Care (AAAPC), says since they “often explore through touch, contaminated surfaces are of particular concern.”
It’s especially difficult to keep little ones from touching their faces, too, especially their noses. The National Library of Medicine published a study that observed 26 adult medical students touching their faces an average of 23 times per hour; 31 percent of these involved the nose. Extrapolate that to children and you can see why it might be important to bring along products like Swype Shield. Nose sanitizer, which is non-prescription, compact, and kills nearly 100 percent of germs, is especially helpful for kids who refuse to wear or consistently pull off their masks.
What to see and do in Key Largo:
When we only have time for a short break, we opt for Key Largo. As close as it is to our home base in Miami, it really feels a world apart, with its John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park a prominent destination for scuba diving, snorkeling, and glass-bottom boat tours. Here, beaches and trails have re-opened, and the Pennekamp Dive Shop, snorkeling, boat and dive trips, as well as concession services, are slated to open June 15 with 50 percent capacity limits. Make sure you have a mask, though, if you need to go inside.
After you work up an appetite on — or in — the water, be sure to hit the famous Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen for conch chowder and Caribbean-style grilled crab cakes, among other signature dishes.
Book Playa Largo Resort & Spa, Autograph Collection, starting at $195 per night
On Key Largo, we often stay right across the street from John Pennekamp at Playa Largo Resort & Spa, Autograph Collection, an elegant, luxury property with a private marina. With a variety of accommodations — 177 luxury rooms, suites, bungalows, and a beach house — it’s possible to practice social distancing, Caribbean-style. Choose to dine at (or more likely, order room service from) one of four restaurants.
Unusual for the Keys, the resort boasts almost 15 acres of Florida Bay beachfront. So if the pool lounges seem too close to each other, or you simply prefer some sand between your toes after too much carpet on your feet at home, check out the shoreline.
If you want to immerse yourself in the healing waters or float upon them, the resort partners with Caribbean Watersports. Paddle, sail, fish — it’s up to you. The hotel also neighbors the in-development Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, a paved, multi-use, recreational pathway that incorporates part of the historic Florida East Coast Railway.
Book Bungalows Key Largo starting at $785 per all-inclusive night
Also on Key Largo, Bungalows Key Largo is an all-inclusive, adults-only paradise that debuted near the end of 2019. The 21+ crowd makes it ideal for anyone who has been homeschooling, or whose empty nest has been re-entered by the supposedly grown and flown for the past few months, and they need a quiet retreat.
Perched on the waterfront, this 12-acre property features 135 high-end, private bungalows that each feature an exclusive veranda intertwined with bougainvillea, an oversized soaking tub, and an outdoor garden shower. Because there is no elevator or hallway, chances of coming into contact with other people or their germs are quite low. You also must be a guest to be on property at all.
Bungalows Key Largo is also ideal for immune-deficient road-trippers like me. Here, where there are two pools, two jacuzzis, and beach cabanas, I can follow the advice of epidemiologist and public health expert Robert Gomez, MPH, who says, “At this point, going to the pool may be the safest activity you can do at a hotel,” he says, “as long as you are able to maintain proper social distancing and as long as you can ensure the pool has been properly cleaned and maintained.”
Gomez, who works for the Health Services Agency of the Department of Behavioral Health in Northern California, also strongly advises wearing a mask. You never know when you’ll be approached by, or have to brush by someone, who is a carrier, whether symptomatic or not.
And while I personally can’t gamble with a hands-on treatment in the full-service Zen Garden Spa, the Himalayan salt room and eucalyptus steam room sounds beneficial for my husband, as does daily morning yoga, and a plethora of aquatic activities. The price is steep and requires a minimum of two nights, however, the all-inclusive package adds a lot of value.
What to see and do in Islamorada:
As far as road trips go, some of the danger of exposure comes from stopping to use public bathrooms, get gas, or dining. From Miami to Islamorada, another popular destination in the Upper Keys, it’s only one hour and forty minutes (without traffic). Depending on your bladder control, this is perfectly doable without making any pit stops.
Islamorada is where you’ll find the renowned Holiday Isle Tiki Bar, located at the Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina. Originally called The Hapi Hulu Hut, it’s been serving tropical cocktails since 1969. No visit to Islamorada is complete without a mango tango slush or key lime colada brain-freeze, even if you do have to drink it six feet away from the next reveler. Cushion them with conch fritters or zesty whitefish dip. As with all restaurants and hotels, bring masks, make reservations if possible, and most of all, be patient.
Book Cheeca Lodge starting at $143 per night
If we were bringing my college-age kids along, Cheeca Lodge & Spa would be a great choice for a few night’s stay. One of the first luxury resorts in the Upper Keys, it has reinvented itself time and again to welcome the world-weary. This rejuvenation begins immediately in the 361-square-foot standard rooms, overlooking the golf course or lagoon, with screened-in balconies.
I’ve stayed here many times, both with kids and without them, and can attest that the resort embraces guests of all ages. The 525-foot pier is the longest in the Keys and great for those that want to drop a fishing line without much thought. The full-service Cheeca Watersports also arranges fishing charters in addition to snorkeling and diving excursions, parasailing, Hobie Cat sailing, sunset cruises, and more.
Or, separate from other hotel guests on the Jack Nicklaus-designed 9-hole golf course, grab some bicycles, or take a stroll around the 27 acres of gardens. There’s also tennis, sea kayaking, and more, in addition to socially distanced dining, take-out, or room service via the renowned Atlantic’s Edge, Mia Cucina, and Nikai Sushi restaurants.
Book Casa Morada starting at $329 per night
The age 16+, 16-suite Casa Morada is a good choice for me and my family, especially because we could also bring our elderly dogs. I have a particular soft spot for this boutique property that highlights seclusion, solitude, and good ol’ Keys resourcefulness.
Everything is provided — rates include breakfast, use of kayaks, snorkeling gear, and bicycles — and there’s a variety of poolside services, room service, and sunset cocktails. There’s also complimentary yoga and the chance to hop aboard the property’s “Sol Sister,” a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack, for a day of sailing, snorkeling, and swimming, or charter the “Blue Mist” yacht for a private sunset sail.
Service is discreet and casual as opposed to luxe and over-the-top. This is a quiet spot, tucked into lush vegetation, and no one will bother you if you don’t want to be bothered. You will have to venture out for dinner, though, or order in.
Fortunately, Islamorada has plenty of restaurants that are serving to locals and are practiced at social distancing, including Lazy Days, which will cook your fishing catch for you. For inventive local seafood dishes, try the Square Grouper, and for luxury beachside dining (first come first serve), try Morada Bay.
Stop 3: Middle and Lower Keys
What to see and do in the Middle and Lower Keys:
Not everything in the Keys is open yet, which makes driving to the Middle and Lower Keys a trifle more disappointing, especially if you have young kids or grandkids. For instance, the Key Lime Pie Factory on Tavernier was still closed the second week of June. But Marathon’s Sweet Savannah’s is not only offering its tart key lime pie but also stocks creamy key lime ice cream and cupcakes with an excellent crumb. Make sure to do your research before setting a destination.
You can also make pit stops at nature sites as long as you’re in groups of 10 or less. Break up the trip at the National Key Deer Refuge to learn about the endangered key deer and 23 other at-risk plant and animal species in the Lower Keys. Or visit Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key to explore the natural beach and trails.
Where to stay in the Middle and Lower Keys
Book Tranquility Bay Beachfront Resort starting at $119 per night
If we decide to bring along my in-laws, we need look no further than Marathon’s Tranquility Bay Beachfront Resort. Comprising 87 standalone beach houses that lead up to a 2.5-acre beach, the resort seems built for this moment in time. There are no elevators, no hallways, and no staircase railings to avoid. There are also some guest rooms for those who don’t require a whole house to themselves.
Catering to clientele of all ages, the resort boasts three pools, one of which is lagoon-style for littles and one that is adults-only. Dine-in or use the “Order-Out Menu” from the renowned Butterfly Café or TJ’s Tiki Bar. Nearby eateries include plenty of low-key fish restaurants and grab-and-go markets including Fish Tales Market & Eatery, known for fish burritos, clam po’ boys, and Johnny’s Rambler fish sandwich.
The resort partners with Turtle Island Watersports, so you can enjoy fishing charters, snorkeling and SCUBA tours, sailing, kayaking, and more in accordance with restrictions.
Tranquility Bay Resort also neighbors and nurtures the Turtle Hospital, which rehabs injured sea turtles and releases them back into the wild.
Book Hawks Cay Resort starting at $223 per night
If 2020 has made you lose faith in the world’s beauty, then allow Hawks Cay Resort to restore it. Located on Duck Key, the resort is a restorative paradise where even the dolphins go to relax. In fact, the saltwater lagoon houses a pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, and the resort’s Dolphin Connection program allows you to learn more about them as you watch them frolic in the waves.
Hawks Cay Marina is also a full-service set-up with 85 slips and accommodates plenty of fishing charters, tour guides, and other boaters. At the far end, Solé Watersports offers everything from kayaks to cruises.
The 177 Caribbean-style guestrooms provide plenty of space, plus five pools, and a lagoon with dolphins (yes, you’re allowed to swim there). When it comes time for dining, restaurants have been spaced for social distancing, menus have been digitized, and there are plenty of new takeout options.
Patricia Philippe (RN), Director of Education & Infection Prevention and Control at Community Health of South Florida, Inc. (CHI), says “It’s nearly impossible to maintain safe social distancing of six feet from within a car. And, given that it typically takes about four days, sometimes less, sometimes more, after contracting the virus to develop symptoms, it’s hard to be certain that the people traveling in that space aren’t infected.”
In the event someone starts to feel ill, make sure you packed a thermometer. “If the fever is low, not more than 100 degrees, and the accompanying symptoms are mild, you may want to cancel your trip and return home to quarantine the person who has fallen ill,” Philippe says. “Or if you are closer to your destination you may want to continue, then get access to a medical facility and professional help and guidance there. If there is a quarantine option at your destination, take it.”
However, if the symptoms are more severe, especially chest pain or shortness of breath, Philippe advises going to the nearest medical facility. The hospitals in the Florida Keys are Mariners Hospital located in Tavernier, Fishermen’s Community Hospital in Marathon, and Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West. If you’re not near any of them, call 911.
“And certainly, with the onset of any symptoms, if there is another driver available in the car, you want the healthy person driving,” Philippe says. “So, pull over in a safe place, and switch if you have that other available healthy driver.”