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America's Caribbean

The Florida Keys are part of the Sunshine State, but with every mile marker you realize you're far, far away.

By JANET K. KEELER
Published March 11, 2007


The Florida Keys curl away from the mainland, like pop beads threaded on a strand of road that is both liberating and exasperating.

Yes, there can be gnarly traffic on the two-lane Overseas Highway, but there's no doubt you are in a different Florida. As the mile markers tick down toward 0 and Key West, you have to continually remind yourself you're in the U.S.A.

This is your state all right, but it could be Jamaica or the Bahamas or another balmy locale surrounded by azure water and leaping dolphins. Except you can get here by car.

The 130-mile chain link includes easily more than 1,000 islands. Some are so small that their beaches are barely wide enough for a single tent, and one is so densely packed with partyers and history that it may sink from the weight of being a Major Vacation Destination.

Nearly all have names that conjure mental pictures, none of them having to do with work but everything to do with getting away. There is Big Pine, Duck, Grassy, Torch, Pigeon, Boca Chica, Sugarloaf, Saddlebunch and the always-amusing No Name, to name a few.

If you've promised yourself a trip - or a trip back - to the Keys, start planning now. Hotel rates drop next month. Bugs, humidity and hurricanes are a few months away and, for the most part, the good outweighs the bad even then. Take your mask and snorkel; pack the bikes in the back of the van and don't forget a fishing pole. Or simply throw bathing suits and flip-flops in a bag. Everything is for rent in the Keys.

Storms and development continue to change Florida's subtropical archipelago. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 paved the way for more condos and resorts by damaging structures and changing coastline. Travelers need to look harder for funky mom-and-pop accommodations, where shoes are about as necessary as a coat and tie. A favorite place from a decade ago may not be around anymore.

Despite ongoing development there are many organizations protecting the natural world, from bird sanctuaries and coral reef refuges, to dolphin education centers. It is possible to sip a margarita with a good conscience.

For a week last month, St. Petersburg Times photographer Lara Cerri drove the Keys and found plenty of paradise amid the tourist haunts and chain restaurants. She ate fish tacos, breathed underwater and marveled at campgrounds on the edge of blue heaven. The water is as turquoise as legend says, and the key deer are just as tiny.

This is her visual report of the Keys that call to her and to the thousands of others who visit every year.

Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor

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Unlocking the Keys

General information

Visitor centers dot the Florida Keys. Stop at the first one you see and collect brochures. You'll find information on everything from bike and boat rentals to snorkeling and kayaking trips, plus nightlife, dining, accommodations and shopping.

Contact the Monroe County Tourist Development Council for information about accommodations and activities in Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys. Call toll-free 1-800-352-5397 or go to www.fla-keys.com. Another helpful Web site is www.thefloridakeys.com.

The fourth edition of June Keith's Key West & the Florida Keys (Palm Island Press, 2005) is an excellent guide. We found some of the information to be outdated because of the damage wrought by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It's a good idea to call ahead to verify.

Places to stay

The Tavernier Inn

Mile Marker 91.8 Oceanside, Tavernier; toll-free 1-800-515-4131 or www.tavernierhotel.com.

A former movie theater converted into an affordable inn, it's not a flashy place, but you'll have good access to all the upper Keys play spots. Clean rooms, comfy beds.

The highest room rate is $149 in peak season, which drops as low as $59 in the fall. Summer rates are $89 to $129.

Rainbow Bend Fishing Resort

Mile Marker 58, Grassy Key; toll-free 1-800-929-1505 or www.rainbowbend.com.

Kick off your shoes and get into the Keys way of life here. This is a great spot for families, with a variety of accommodations, including suites and efficiencies. Half-day use of a Boston Whaler, kayak, canoe or other watercraft, plus a full breakfast, is included in the nightly rate.

Rates from $150 to $280. Lowest rates of the year go into effect May 1.

Parmer's Resort

565 Barry Ave., Little Torch Key; (305) 872-2157 or www.parmersresort.com/links.html.

Hurricane Wilma knocked down some trees, but there are still plenty of reasons to stay at this channelside hotel, including the many hammocks and lounge chairs. There's a heated pool and lots of quiet; the noisy birds that congregated before the hurricane have been relocated. About 50 rooms.

Rates range from $119 for a single room to $289 for two bedrooms with a kitchen. Continental breakfast included.

Merlin Guesthouse

811 Simonton St., Key West; toll-free 1-800-642-4753 or www.merlinguesthouse.com.

This rustic and historic 20-room hotel used to be a bordello. It's in Key West's Old Town district, just a block off Duval . Great location and charming, but not a lot of amenities. Small, spa-sized pool with jets, but only 80 degrees.

Twenty accommodations include standard rooms, suites and cottages. Standard rooms drop as low as $105 in August; high is $199 a night.

Deer Run B&B

1997 Long Beach Road, Big Pine Key; (305) 872-2015 or www.deerrunfloridabb.com.

Enjoy a fantastic vegetarian breakfast while gazing at the diminutive key deer. This is the kind of place you won't find unless you know to look. Bahia Honda State Park is just minutes way. A hot tub overlooks the water; a perfect spot for romance. One owner is a massage therapist.

Rates for the four rooms range from $175 to $300 and include the use of kayaks, canoes, bikes or golf carts for exploring.

Food not to miss

- The Key Lime Cherry Shake at Robert Is Here Fruit Stand, an international house of tropical produce in Florida City, the beginning of the Keys. Stop here on your way to get into the mood. 19200 Palm Drive, Florida City; (305) 246-1592.

- The fish tacos at Calypso's Seafood Grille & Waterfront Dining in Key Largo. Seared yellowfin tuna, shredded cabbage, fresh salsa and "secret sauce" mingle deliciously in a soft tortilla. Like many Keys restaurants, Calypso's doesn't take debit or credit cards. Mile Marker 99.5, Ocean Bay Marina, Key Largo; (305) 451-0600.

- Spicy Fuji rolls at Num Thai Restaurant & Sushi Bar in Key Largo. You can cross your legs and sit on the floor, but don't be in a hurry. The lines are long. 103200 Overseas Highway, Key Largo; (305) 451-5955.

- Fantastic salads plus chocolate-covered key lime pie on a stick at Garden Cafe at the Rain Barrel in Plantation Key. After you eat, walk among the artists' studios. Mile Marker 86.7, Plantation Key; (305) 852-6499.

- Pork tenderloin with sweet potato, mango chutney and a curry butter sauce at Blue Heaven in Key West. Eat breakfast or brunch with roosters, but watch out for falling fruit if you sit outside. 729 Thomas St., Key West; (305) 296-8666.

How to get there

Unless you limit your trip to Key West, you'll need a car. If you take a ferry or plane to Key West, you can rent a car at the airport there.

By car

It'll take about eight hours to drive from the Tampa Bay area to Key West, if you're lucky. The usual route is Interstate 75 south, which is called Alligator Alley as it shifts east across the state. Hook up with Florida's Turnpike going south, which will dump you onto Highway 1 through the Keys.

Be warned, though: There is a lot of construction work in the Miami area, and the roads are not particularly well-marked. A longer but more scenic route is U.S. 41 (the Tamiami Trail) across the state to the turnpike. Just south of Florida City, take Card Sound Road to Highway 1. This will take you around construction and is a pretty ride, plus it provides plenty of places to stop and stretch your legs. You might even see a gator.

By ferry

Key West Express operates a ferry service to Key West daily from Fort Myers and seasonally from Marco Island.

Round-trip cost is $128 for adults, $118 for seniors, $50 for children ages 6 to 12, and taxes and surcharges only for children 5 and under traveling with a full-fare adult. Discounted fares sometimes are available.

For reservations or information, visit www. seakeywestexpress.com or call toll-free 1-888-539-2628.

By plane

Continental and United fly nonstop to Key West from Tampa International. Tickets for the one-hour flights are about $335 in March.

SeaCoast Airlines flies small planes from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport to Key West several times a week. Tickets are as low as $99 one way. Call toll-free 1-866-302-6278 or go to www. seacoastairlines.com.

Upcoming events

Lower Keys Jazz Fest, March 25, Dolphin Marina on Little Torch Key. Call (305) 872-2411.

Key West House and Garden Tour, March 30-31. Call (305) 294-9501.

25th Conch Republic Independence Celebration, April 20-29, Key West. Call (305) 294-2298.

13th annual Robert Frost Poetry Festival, April 11-15, Key West. Visit www.heritagehouse museum.org or call (305) 296-3573.

Marathon Offshore Grand Prix Festival and Bash at the Bridge, May 18-20. Call (305) 743-5805.

23rd annual Underwater Music Festival, July 14, Big Pine and the Lower Keys. At Looe Key Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Call (305) 872-2411.

Hemingway Days Festival, July 18-23, Key West. Call www.fla-keys.com.

29th annual Fantasy Fest, Oct. 19-28, Key West. Call (305) 296-1817.

Fishing for fun and money

Competitive fishing is big in the Florida Keys; a complete list of events is at www.fla-keys.com. Here is a sampling:

- World Sailfish Championship, April 17-21, Key West

- Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament, June 17-22, Islamorada

- Fifth annual Mercury/IGFA Junior Angler World Championship Tournament, June 17-June 19, Key West

- Conch Republic Ladies Dolphin Tournament, June 30, Key West

- Key West Marlin Tournament, July 18-21

- Islamorada Swordfish Tournament, Aug. 24-26

Compiled by Janet K. Keeler and Lara Cerri