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Your Florida Keys vacation guide

Cheeca Lodge, a luxury resort in Islamorada, Florida

Cheeca Lodge, a luxury resort in Islamorada, Florida Keys. Photo Credit: Handout

One island is named No Name. A huge tethered balloon named Fat Albert keeps watch over the islands from two miles up. On the ground below, there's a tower built for the sole purpose of attracting bats, as well as a graveyard with such irreverent epitaphs as "I told you I was sick," and a colony of rare Key deer - the adults just thigh-high, antlers and all.

The Florida Keys exude a funky aura, but they're also well loved by visitors, especially in winter, when sun and sea there are warmer than anywhere else in the continental United States.

ABOUT THE KEYS

Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, this 100-mile-long arc is connected by 42 over-water bridges of the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) from Key Largo at the top to Key West at the end of the rainbow. In between are dozens of resorts ranging from mom-and-pop motels in secluded coves to expansive hostelries with every full-service amenity. You can explore America's only coral reef offshore with fishing lines or diving gear, hang out at a pool or beach, watch dolphins perform or even swim with them.

But for most visitors, the overriding appeal of the Keys is that they are a great place to lay back.

BEFORE YOU GO

Accommodations vary widely, and so do prices. In the winter high season, hotel rates are at their peak, with few, if any, deals in place. After Easter, prices drop significantly, running perhaps 35 to 40 percent lower. All rates quoted below are starting high-season prices.

The island chain is divided into three broad regions - the Upper Keys, Middle Keys and Lower Keys - and within those are several distinct districts.

Here's a look at each of them.

UPPER KEYS

KEY LARGO

Widely known because of the iconic movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart, Key Largo is the largest of the Keys and the closest to the mainland. For that reason, it's a popular destination for visitors coming from Miami, about 50 miles away.

To do John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a major attraction, offering glass-bottom boat rides to America's only coral reef as well as scuba and snorkeling ($8 a car, pennekamppark.com). Many shops in the Keys also offer dive trips, and many resorts and marinas rent fishing skiffs and canoes.

Dining Among many possibilities, Fish House Restaurant, noted for its fresh seafood; Sundowners, with a gorgeous view of the setting sun; and Jimmy Johnson's Big Chill Bar and Restaurant, owned by the former pro football coach.

Lodging Kona Kai Resort, a small personal resort of only 11 rooms, has an art gallery and beautiful landscaping ($259, konakairesort.com). Offshore and backcountry fishing guides depart from the docks of Dove Creek Lodge, a boutique hotel with a variety of accommodations ($175, dovecreeklodge.com).

ISLAMORADA

This is where such avid fishermen as President George H.W. Bush and baseball star Ted Williams made their Keys base. Both stayed at the Cheeca Lodge, one of the premier hotels of all the Keys.

To do The Theater of the Sea, the original home of Flipper, is still going strong with dolphin interaction and shows ($25.95 general admission, theaterofthesea.com). An unusual and popular experience awaits visitors to Robbie's Marina - feeding the huge tarpons that swarm around the docks there (robbies.com).

The best beach in this area is Anne's Beach on Lower Matecumbe Key. Divers head for Alligator Reef Light, Davis Reef and Horseshoe Reef. A favored fishing spot is Hens and Chickens Reef.

Dining Lazy Days, on the oceanfront, will cook your fish catch. For a romantic dinner with a gorgeous sunset, visit Morada Bay on the bay.

Lodging Closed for almost a year after a fire, the upscale Cheeca Lodge has reopened with a new Main Lodge with 62 suites that run 840 square feet ($599, cheeca.com). La Siesta Resort and Marina, on 6acres of oceanfront, is a cost-effective family resort with complimentary use of bicycles and fishing rods ($219, lasiestaresort.com).

MIDDLE KEYS

MARATHON

Positioned halfway between the mainland and Key West, the Keys' second-biggest city is no more than an hour-and-a- half from any of the islands. Marathon is the jumping-off point for the famous Seven-Mile Bridge on the Overseas Highway, sometimes known as the "Highway That Goes to Sea." With water on both sides as far as the eye can see, motorists really feel they are driving out to sea. Visitors can walk out on the old Seven-Mile span to enjoy bridge fishing.

To do Golf courses are scarce in the Keys, but the Marathon area has two. Marathon's Key Colony Beach has a nine-hole course with reasonable prices ($11, keycolonybeach.net). Sombrero Country Club's 18-hole course requires a letter of reference from a visitor's home course for admission (sombrerocc.com). Busy Sombrero Beach has a large, protected swimming area. A favorite spot for campers and picnickers is Long Key State Park. Dining At Key Fisheries, a commercial fish processor with a restaurant, you can be assured of really fresh seafood, including, in the winter season, stone crab claws served hot out of the first boil.

Lodging With a variety of accommodations and attractions, Hawks Cay Resort features a dolphin encounter and boating, fishing and diving. It's family-oriented, with programs for kids and teens ($215, hawkscay.com). Less expensive is the Yellowtail Inn on the ocean on Grassy Key ($119, yellowtailinn.com).

LOWER KEYS

BIG PINE KEY

The only island in the Keys with fresh water, Big Pine is home of the endangered Key deer. You can see them at the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center (fws.gov), or simply on the roadside here and there on Big Pine and No Name islands. Big Pine is also home base for Fat Albert, a tethered military balloon that hovers 14,000 feet up to tap communications emanating from Cuba, 100 miles away.

To do Good beaches are scarce in the Keys, but Bahia Honda State Park is rated among the best in the country - and it also has campsites and cabins ($8 a car, bahiahondapark.com).

Dining Some visitors say Mangrove Mama's has the best Key lime pie in the Keys. Walls of the No-Name Pub, founded in 1931, are plastered with dollar bills. Gourmet dining is a feature at South Seas-like Little Palm Island, an acclaimed resort reachable only by boat (littlepalmisland.com).

Lodging Parmer's Resort, on the waterfront, offers motel rooms, efficiencies and one-, two- and three-bedroom suites as well as a pool, lighted boat basins and dockage ($134, parmersresort.com). On the ocean and certified green-lodging, Deer Run Bed and Breakfast provides kayaks and bicycles. Organic food is used when possible for daily breakfasts ($225, deerrunflorida bb.com).

KEY WEST

Situated at the literal end of the road - in this case, the Overseas Highway, U.S. 1 - this quirky city has become one of America's hottest tourist destinations. Its funkiness is best exemplified by its daily sunset celebration, a spontaneous carnival on the Mallory Dock that blends buskers, jugglers, mimes, shills, street vendors and the like with crowds of curious spectators. Nights last long in Key West as visitors gravitate from bar to bar on Duval Street and make their way to restaurants and parties.

To do By day, visitors fan out to area attractions. At the Ernest Hemingway House, they can see where the famous author wrote such novels as "Death in the Afternoon" and "To Have and Have Not" ($12, hemingwayhome.com). Hemingway buffs usually head for Sloppy Joe's Bar, a hangout plastered with photos of the author (sloppyjoes.com).

Other points of interest include President Harry S. Truman's Little White House ($14, trumanlittlewhitehouse.com); the Lighthouse Museum, where you can see a Japanese one-man submarine captured at Pearl Harbor ($10, kwahs.com); Audubon House, where the naturalist's original bird paintings are on view ($10, audubonhouse.com); and Mel Fisher's Maritime Heritage Society Museum, where you can ogle silver and gold recovered from sunken treasure ships ($12, melfisher.org).

Dining For a touch of old Key West ambience, visit the Hogfish Grill on Stock Island. Blue Heaven, housed in a former brothel, offers island cuisine. At Louie's Backyard, you can dine on a patio with a splendid ocean view.

Lodging Pier House Resort occupies a choice location at the foot of Duval Street. Accommodations range from hotel rooms to waterfront suites ($249, pierhouse.com). Cypress House, an 1888 Bahamian-style mansion turned B&B, is listed on the National Register ($169, cypresskw.com).

GETTING THERE

By air Several airlines offer one- or two-stop service from New York City airports to Key West. Round-trip fares start around $400 for late-February departures.

By car Many New Yorkers fly to Miami, rent a car there and drive to the Keys. Key Largo is the closest key, about an hour away; Key West is 31/2 to 4 hours. A car is a necessity in the Keys unless you are staying in Key West, where feet and taxis suffice.

Information 800-FLA-KEYS, fla-keys.com

YOUR PICK

The 100-plus mile ride from the mainland of Florida through the Florida Keys is more than just a road trip to get to your destination of Key West, but is very much a part of the vacation itself. One must-see along the ride:

Theatre of the Sea

Mile 84.5, Islamorada

Why Swim with dolphins or rays, see all kinds of fish, turtles and parrots and enjoy entertaining shows. It is laid out in a very natural setting for a personal, hands-on experience.

- Leon Adler, Sound Beach

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