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.
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.
Key West Express operates a ferry service to Key West daily from Fort Myers and seasonally from Marco Island. Discounted fares sometimes are available. For reservations or information, visit www.seakeywestexpress.com or call toll-free 1-888-539-2628.
Continental and United fly nonstop to Key West from Tampa International. 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.
Places to stay
The Tavernier Inn Mile Marker 91.8 Oceanside, Tavernier; toll-free 1-800-515-4131. 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.
Rainbow Bend Fishing Resort Mile Marker 58, Grassy Key; toll-free 1-800-929-1505. 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.
Parmer's Resort 565 Barry Ave., Little Torch Key; (305) 872-2157. 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. Continental breakfast included.
Merlin Guesthouse 811 Simonton St., Key West; toll-free 1-800-642-4753. 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.
Deer Run B & B 1997 Long Beach Road, Big Pine Key; (305) 872-2015. 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. Four rooms. Room rates 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.