US 1

Take a drive along South Florida's quirky stretch of Highway 1.


Photo by: David Kilian

David Kilian

In 1940, "Life" magazine called US Highway 1 the "ugliest road in America."

Indeed, the 2,376-mile stretch of highway between Fort Kent, ME, and Key West, FL, bears even more neon signs and billboards these days than it did back then -- not to mention seedy motels, pawnshops and strip bars.

But for a quirky cruise through South Florida that takes in 1 of the country's loveliest seaside routes (the Overseas Highway, through the Florida Keys), there's no better way to roll around the Sunshine State.

US 1 runs between the beach and Interstate 95 along Florida's east coast, allowing easy access to A1A (the road closest to the coast) while letting you hightail it past cities that don't pique your interest.

Start in Fort Lauderdale, where spring break madness has long since given way to a deck shoe-clad yacht scene with a backdrop of twisting canals and some of the most blinged-out ships this side of Monaco.

Follow US 1 to posh Las Olas Boulevard -- the palm tree, boutique and cafe-lined main drag that dead-ends east at the beach.

Breakfast in the classic diner surrounds of The Floridian is a must. Weekend mornings are particularly bustling, with Fort Lauderdale natives mixing with nose-in-the-New York Times transplants for greasy-spoon feasts.

A good place to stay beachside is the unassuming Ocean Holiday Motel, a low-rise offering oceanfront rooms and kitchenette facilities.

South of Fort Lauderdale, follow A1A through classic seaside communities, before entering the madness of North Miami.

Dania Beach is known for its art and antique district, and Jaxson's Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant, open since 1956 on US 1, is the sundae shop of your childhood fantasies.

Just south, the town of Hollywood is considered Florida a la Quebecois, with local cafés touting the French-Canadian comfort food called poutine -- a pile of French fries ladled with gravy and cheese curd.

Once you hit North Miami Beach, cut inland to US 1 and cross the MacArthur Causeway to beeline it to South Beach.

Miami's iconic art deco quarter delivers, with beautiful people beaucoup (plastic surgery is nothing to be ashamed of in these parts!) and the best nightlife north of Buenos Aires.

Stylish accommodations that won't break the bank await at Catalina Hotel & Beach Club, where the Tempur-Pedic mattresses ensure a good day's sleep after an all-nighter at the clubs. And there's no place like the Delano South Beach Hotel for a royal splurge.

For a classic Cuban meal, head inland to Little Havana, just off US 1 on 8th St. (called Calle Ocho in these parts). At the legendary Versailles Restaurant, the café con leche flows and power meals take place over piled-high plates of ropa vieja and platanos maduros.

Continuing south on US 1, direction Key West, stop off in Florida City, the gateway to the Everglades. Load up on exotic locally grown fruit at 1 of the best produce stands in the land, Robert Is Here, named for the sign the owner used to post roadside as a kid. There's dragon fruit, egg fruit and passion fruit, in addition to the usual Florida citrus, and the key lime milkshakes are to die for. Budget travelers appreciate the friendly
Everglades Hostel. Besides offering a comfortable and economic night's sleep, the hostel also features canoe tours of the Everglades.

Next stop, Key Largo, and the start of the route's 127-mile final stretch through the Florida Keys. US 1 is dubbed the Overseas Highway in these parts, and the stresses of the mainland melt away instantly into island time.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, in Key Largo, offers beautiful campgrounds and snorkeling. Blink and you'll miss the nearby Mrs. Mac's Kitchen, where the decor, dominated by license plates, doesn't distract from the sublime key lime pie, spicy conch chowder and grouper sandwiches.

The Theater of the Sea on Islamorada is an old school Florida attraction. Visitors to the theater can go cheek-to-cheek with dolphins and swim with hand-fed stingrays.

Just a few minutes south is Holiday Isle, a fishing marina home to a famous tiki bar where the Rumrunner cocktail was born. Arrive around 4 to ogle the fishing boats as they unload hauls of mahi-mahi, grouper and amberjack.

Mom and pop motels line US 1 all the way to Key West, in case you can't afford the indulgent surrounds of Little Palm Island Resort & Spa on the private isle of Little Torch Key.

For equally stunning views at a fraction of the cost, pitch a tent oceanfront at one of the country's best campgrounds at Bahia Honda State Park.

On Big Pine Key, pop into the National Key Deer Refuge to spot 1 of the endangered pint-sized cousins of the Virginia white-tailed deer.

The end of the road, literally, is Key West -- a party-hearty bastion that can feel like Bourbon St. South, with the addition of azure seas.

Duval St. is packed with rowdy pubs selling boat drinks from early till late, but venture into the side streets and you'll find 1-room pubs, flowering gardens and other surprises.

Bed-and-breakfasts oozing predictable charm are a dime a dozen in Key West, where an American flag flapping in the breeze and gingerbread-style latticework is standard.

Get inspired staying in the Ernest Hemmingway Cottage at the Authors of Key West Guest House. Or splurge on an oceanfront room at the Pier House, centrally situated in the old city.

Beaches in Key West are mostly shallow and mucky, save for the idyllic crescent of sand where the ocean meets the gulf at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, well worth the modest entrance fee.

And for the best shellfish on the island, nowhere tops the Half Shell Raw Bar. At this popular spot, guests can feed the resident tarpon after feeding themselves.

To escape Duval St.'s binge-drinking scene and mix with the locals, seek out the Green Parrot Bar. The rustic watering hole at Mile Marker 0 has been pulling pints since 1890, and calls itself the first and last bar on US 1.

What better place to toast the end of your road trip than the end of the road itself?

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