Dreaming of the Florida Keys? Let this Wilmington photographer take you there

Travel photographer T.J. Drechsel, a Wilmington resident, just returned from the Florida Keys, where he soaked up the blue waters, danced in front of surreal sunsets and brought his camera along for the ride.

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The sunset from Islamorada. All photos courtesy T.J. Drechsel
The sunset from Islamorada. (All photos courtesy of T.J. Drechsel)

T.J. Drechsel took his first trip down to the Florida Keys during a wild spring break while he was still in college. He and his friends traveled from snowy Hillsdale, Michigan, all the way to the southernmost point in the United States.

“I never realized that that trip would have a lasting impact on my life,” Drechsel, a travel and destination photographer who lives in Wilmington, said. “Looking back, I think it may have been the first place that taught me wanderlust — that strong desire to wander or travel the world.”

Fast forward 15 plus years and Drechsel finds himself a seasoned veteran when it comes to traveling to the keys. Yet he concedes to experiencing and learning new things during each visit.

The Florida Keys are a coral cay archipelago located off the southern coast of Florida, forming the southernmost portion of the continental United States. They begin at the southeastern coast of the Florida peninsula, about 15 miles south of Miami, and extend in a gentle arc south-southwest and then westward to Key West.

The word “key” derives from the Spanish word “cayo,” meaning small island.

For many years, Key West was the largest town in Florida, and it grew prosperous on wrecking revenues. After the destruction of the Keys Railway by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the railroad bridges, including the Seven Mile Bridge, were converted to automobile roadways. This roadway, U.S. Highway 1, became the overseas highway that runs from Key Largo south to Key West.

Wilmington photographer T.J. Drechsel, left, and his girlfriend Katherine Hough watching the sun set in Islamorada. All photos courtesy T.J. Drechsel
Wilmington photographer T.J. Drechsel (left) and his girlfriend Katherine Hough, watching the sun set in Islamorada. (All photos courtesy T.J. Drechsel)

Drechsel says the best route of travel for Wilmington residents is to fly to Miami or Fort Lauderdale. From Wilmington International Airport, round-trip airfare can get as low as $200, he said.

“Do yourself a favor — rent yourself a convertible and head south,” Drechsel said. “Enjoy the southern Florida air. Drive through Homestead and past the palm plant farms that supply the whole country with tropical palms. Then turn down Highway 1.”

In Key Largo, travelers will roll past mile markers that start the descent into tropical vacation, which is 127.5 miles from the start. In Key Largo, people start to see those tropical turquoise waters and then “You’ll be glad you got the convertible,” Drechsel said. “Just sit back and enjoy the view.”

The Florida Keys are not known for their beaches, they are actually islands made up of mangroves.

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Drechsel always spends the majority of his time in the middle Key of Islamorada. Known as the sportfishing capital of the world, it is a great spot to get the vacation started.

“Jimmy Buffett calls it ‘life on 3/4 time’ and that is certainly true when you’re there,” Drechsel said.

Looking for a place to stay? Drechsel says there are plenty of interesting options like a regional favorites, the Cheeca Lodge, to a vast number of quaint and simple accommodations.

He recommends a visit to the Worldwide Fisherman outlet and then stopping in at the Islamorada Fish Company, but you need to get a reservation for sunset.

“Go to the ‘Feeding of the Tarpon’ and watch these massive tarpon and nurse sharks come in for dinner,” Drechsel said.

“It is also an incredible stop to witness your key’s sunset. When in the islands, people hold greater reverence for a sunset and the close to a day. Everyone stops to slow down and appreciate it. Kinda sets things in perspective I think.”

After a couple days in Islamorada, it’s always great to see the southern keys. Bahia Honda Key State Park is a great stop for some history, Drechsel said. A historic portion of the old railroad highway is surrounded by beaches, which is another ‘must-see’ in the area.

Eventually, travelers will get to South of Highway 1. Mile marker 0.

Sunrise from Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada. Photos courtesy T.J. Drechel
Sunrise from Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada. (Photos courtesy T.J. Drechel)

“It’s the tropical bottom of the US and it is something everyone should definitely experience at least once in your life,” Drechsel said. “Yes, it’s eccentric. Yes, it’s a little wild at times. But it’s also part of the history of expats running from the mainland.”

He explained there is a lot of history in the keys. Pirate land. The outlaws. And Drechsel said there are still a lot of their people down here.

“You enter their history a bit when you are here,” he said. “Feel the freedom and get back to the purpose in your life.”

Or you can just head down to Duval Street and find an incredible number of famous and popular watering holes. Starting at the southernmost point, Duval street runs all the way west to the famous and must-see Mallory Square.

At Mallory Square visitors will be exposed to some of the world’s best street performers, who are also seeking your applause … and tips.

“Not only are the shows an incredible thing to witness in person, but once again, everything centers around sunset,” Drechsel said. “During those moments, everyone stops mixing their Mojitos and grabs their iPhone for that classic sunset photo.”

If you are a foodie, Drechsel recommends you visit stone crab season.

“Chilled fat stone crab dipped in chilled mustard sauce is something that will change your pallet in one bite,” he said. “In my humble opinion, there is nothing more delectable in the food of shellfish.”

Drechsel advises visitors to “Take it a step further” and book dinner reservations at Latitudes Restaurant on Sunset Key, which is the island in view from Mallory Square for sunset.

If visitors want to go “All the way,” then Drechsel advises a trip to the very end of the entire key chain, the Dry Tortugas. To get there, you have to take the Key West Seaplane Adventures for a 45-minute, 70-mile flight to Fort Jefferson. It is North America’s most inaccessible National Park.

The park is renowned for its marine life, pirate legends and sheer unspoiled beauty. It is named “Totugas” because of the turtles that nest on these islands and “Dry” because there is no source of fresh water there. It is dominated by its central feature, the majestic Fort Jefferson, the largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere.

“It’s a true traveler’s delight to see this place,” Drechsel said. “I hope these photos from my time in the keys will move you to see more of our great country.”

T.J. Drechsel, owner of Drechsel Photography, is a travel and destination photographer and has called Wilmington home for the past 12 years. He was born in Idaho, raised in Missouri and went to college in Michigan. He can be reached at tdrechsel@gmail.com

Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas.
Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas.
The "Feeding of the Tarpon" at Islamorada Fish Company.
The “Feeding of the Tarpon” at Islamorada Fish Company.
Bahia Honda Key State Park.
Bahia Honda Key State Park.
The festivities at Mallory Square.
The festivities at Mallory Square.
The early morning hours before sunrise in Islamorada. All photos courtesy T.J. Drechsel
The early morning hours before sunrise in Islamorada. (All photos courtesy T.J. Drechsel)

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