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The Florida Keys.

Sip margaritas! Eat key lime pie! Snooze under a coconut palm and savor a tropical sunset!

JANIS FRAWLEY HOLLER takes you to paradise in the world's best guide to the Keys.

THE UPPER KEYS

KEY LARGO. The largest of the keys, Key Largo has more of a mainland feel than some of its southerly sisters. North Key Largo (take Card Sound Road) is a bit desolate, except at the northerly tip, where the exclusive Ocean Reef Club hosts movie stars, political giants and jetsetting CEOs.

The club borders the 6,800 acres of mangrove swamp set aside as Crocodile Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, home of the world's largest concentration of rare North American crocodiles. Best viewing: Simply park and stay on the shoulder of Card Sound Road, binoculars in hand. Don't wander -- this is rattlesnake country. In winter, crocs sun themselves on the banks opposite the road.

Head south on 905 for the 10-mile drive through Key Largo Hammock, the largest remaining forest of the West Indian tropical hardwood that used to cover the Upper Keys. Rumor has it that it's one of the most dangerous spots in the United States today, with the jungle hiding drug smugglers and practitioners of voodoo and other cult rituals.

Just offshore is the longest living reef in the Western hemisphere, with ultra-clear Atlantic waters offering visibility up to 120 feet. Dive shops and glass-bottom boats galore ensure that visitors who flock here from all over the world can experience the undersea extravaganza. It's here that you start to feel you're in the Keys, with restaurants advertising cracked conch and thatched-roofed waterside bars swirling up rum runners. Here are our favorite stops, starting where 905 meets U.S. 1, using the bright-green roadside mile markers, as the locals do, instead of addresses.

MM105. The Cracked Conch. A great little place for conch fritters, alligator, honey biscuits and 90 kinds of beer. Daily, noon to 10 p.m. Good prices. (305) 451-0732.

MM103.2. Key Largo Undersea Park. Home to Jules' Undersea Lodge, the world's only underwater hotel. Book one of the two private bedrooms, complete with 42-inch round windows for aquarium-like views of the lagoon, with shared kitchen/living area. You must be a diver (or get certified here) to dive down to your room. In the lagoon, you'll see fantastic marine invertebrates such as sea anemones and feather dusters, an archaeological exhibit and a recreation of a Spanish galleon wreck. Package example: Check in for the Luxury Aquanaut package at 1 p.m. (checkout 11 a.m. the next day), which includes unlimited diving, an aquanaut certification, a gourmet breakfast and, the piece de resistance, a gourmet dinner of lobster or filet mignon prepared in your undersea kitchen by a mer-chef. $295 per person/per night. Less luxurious packages available. Reserve well in advance. Non-guest lagoon dives: $50; snorkeling: $10. (305) 451-2353.

MM104. Caribbean Club. It's a bit of a rowdy bar, but a must for movie buffs, since scenes for the 1940s classic flick, Key Largo, were shot here. In fact, the story has it that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall visited Key Largo back then to get the "feel" of it for the movie. (At that time, the Caribbean Club was a private lodge for Miami businessmen, who, reportedly, came down to gamble.) 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. (305) 451-9970.

MM102.5. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Pure heaven for divers, snorkelers and plain nature lovers. Combined with the adjacent Key Largo Coral Reef National Marine Sanctuary, it offers 178 nautical square miles of protected coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps, just teeming with birds and marine life. It's the world's first underwater state park, named for John D. Pennekamp, the late editor of the Miami Herald and father of reef preservation. We can thank him for the reef, among the world's most beautiful, with 650 varieties of tropical fish and 40 species of coral.

The glass-bottom boat tours are a fabulous way to see the world of the reef without getting wet. $14/adults; $7.50/under 12. Departures: 9:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m. As snorkelers, we found the snorkeling boat easy to get on and off, and, as many times as we've experienced Pennekamp, we always find the snorkel spots full of first-time delights. $22/adult; $18/under 16, includes snorkel gear. 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Scuba trips are limited to 14 people for two tank dives. $32.50/pp, departing 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The sailing/snorkeling is a grand way to spend a half day for $29/pp (includes snorkel gear), 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Arrive an hour ahead for all trips.

The park offers camping, glorious birdwatching, canoeing, picnicking and nature trails. 8 a.m.-sunset. $3.25/car and 50 cents/pp. (305) 451-1202.

The only out-of-park dive/snorkel trip we've experienced was with Sea Dwellers and it was tip-top. There are oodles of others, some even offering instruction in treasure hunting. But no matter which boat you choose, reef destinations depend on weather, visibility, currents and the captain. We've never once been disappointed, and the diversity of the reefs always keeps us coming back for more.

Our favorite reefs (we're not alone): Christ of the Abyss, an undersea nine-foot bronze statue of Christ, sculpted by Guido Galletti for the Mediterranean Sea. In 1961, industrialist Egidi Cressi gave the work of art to the Underwater Society of America, which placed it in 20 feet of water within the park. The statue of Christ, with outstretched arms, is surrounded by fantasy-like formations of elkhorn and huge brain corals and encircled by colorful tropical fish. A must-see.

Molasses Reef, named for a molasses-carrying ship that ran aground in the southeast corner of the park. Lure: coral ridges, overhangs, ledges and a swim-through tunnel. Huge tarpon, snappers, walls of grunt and an old Spanish anchor make their home here. Visibility can be 100 feet. Tip: Check currents; sometimes it's not diveable.

French Reef, northeast of Molasses, has swim-through tunnels, caves, purple sea fans, sea anemones and sponges. To its north is Benwood, the wreck of a WWII freighter hit by a German sub. Favored for night dives and day photography. Lobsters and morays hide beneath the wreck.

The long cruise to Carysfort (northeast section), makes it an uncrowded spot. We love it for its fish, fish, fish! Thrill: watching the largest stingray of any we've seen glide like an angel through the water. Staghorn, elkhorn and star coral line the reef walls.

Southward: The Elbow with its remains of a wooden Civil War wreck and two steamers, 1930s cutters Bibb and Duane that were sunk in 125-130 feet of water and now attract huge grouper, eels, rays and occasional hammerheads; the boulder corals of Pickles Reef and the 100-plus-foot dive wall at nearby Conch Reef.

MM102.6. Across the street is the Maritime Museum of the Florida Keys, displaying shipwreck artifacts from the 1400s to present. Somewhat interesting. $5/adults; $3/6-12. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. (305) 451-6444.

MM100. The African Queen. Turn left into the Holiday Inn Key Largo, home port of the original steam-powered workboat commandeered by Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in the film classic of the same name. Images of "Charlie" and "Rosie" return, as the charcoal-fed boiler sounds the familiar cha-ka-ta, cha-ka-ta and we hear the shrill whistle just as when Bogie pulled its chain.

It's owned by a proud, eccentric adventurer, who captains each half-hour cruise to the Atlantic, spinning glorious tales of his wood-worn boat with its silver-taped boiler. Amazingly, he's cruised around the world in his pride and joy and plans to steam over to the Cannes Film Festival in it this year. A scrapbook filled with correspondence with Hepburn adds to the nostalgia. Tip: Sit in the back under the canopy for more interaction with the owner. In fact, grab Bogie's seat at the tiller, and chances are you'll get to steer! By appointment, Mon., Tues., and Wed., 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. $15. (305) 451-4655.

MM102.4. Fish House. A restaurant highly recommended, but we were disappointed in the fare. (305) 451-4665.

MM103.9. Sundowners on the Bay with great jumbo shrimp and cracked conch, all-you-can-eat Friday fish fry and great sunsets over Florida Bay. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (305) 451-4502. Just steps away is Senor Frijoles, a Mexican restaurant with a water view and enchiladas del mar (enchiladas filled with shrimp, crab and fish). 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. (305) 451-1592.

MM103.5 Key Largo Bay Beach Resort. This brand-new, upscale resort is a gem and has long been needed on the island. It's beautiful, with an island-style lobby of keystone and marble. Tiki huts dot the shoreline of Florida Bay, and the pool bar has a wood-burning oven for pizza. The rooms are furnished in a grand Caribbean style. When we were there, the resort wasn't finished yet, but Gus's Grille looked especially promising, as did Flipper's Pool Bar. There's to be a marina for boats and dive/snorkel tours. Our #203 room was definitely a room with a view! Off-season: $99-$425/single or double occupancy. 1 (800) 932-9332.

MM99.4. Mrs. Mac's Kitchen. A local favorite. Definite Keys' decor: license plates and old beer bottles. Award-winning, spicy chili made fresh daily. Try the Blue Ribbon Peanut Butter Pie. 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Mon.-Sat. (305) 451-3722.

MM95.6. Harriettes. A Key Largo institution with absolutely fantastic breakfast. The omelets look like six-eggers; the home-made biscuits are huge. We breakfasted on one of their specials: scrambled eggs, bacon and three silver dollar pancakes (which were larger than regular size at other restaurants). Best ever for $2.09! A great find. Down-home atmosphere. (305) 852-8689.

MM93.6. The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center. One of the best-kept secrets of the Keys. Look for two outlines of wooden white herons for the right turn into the center. Within 10 steps on the boardwalk, we came upon two dozen great white herons and numerous snowy egrets...all within feet of us. Large rehab cages, built right in the midst of the mangroves, are filled with mending birds of all types and sizes. Our biggest thrill was coming face to face with two majestic frigate birds, who sadly were having difficulty flying. We saw ospreys with dislocated elbows, a red-shouldered hawk who dislocated his shoulder falling from his nest, a merlin falcon with only one wing, a Coopers hawk who had been shot by a BB gun and pelicans who would never fly again sitting on nests of soon-to-hatch eggs. The most exotic was an amputee Galapagos gull, who strayed off course from England.

We were lucky enough to meet devoted caretaker Laura Quinn. Her refuge doesn't qualify for government assistance, as she refuses to put to death birds who can't be released successfully into the wild. Admission free. Donations accepted. Open daily, dawn to dusk. (305) 852-4486.

MM88.7. The Rain Barrel. A nice spot to browse around a little "village" of galleries, showcasing handmade furniture, leather goods, pottery, wind chimes and fountains. A gourmet tea room is planned. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. (305) 852-3084.

ISLAMORADA. After crossing the Snake Creek onto Windley Key, you're in the "purple isles" of Islamorada, billed as the "Sport Fishing Capital of the World." Frequent tournaments (mostly catch-and-release) attract anglers from over the globe. Then there's back-country fishing, where tarpon, bonefish, snook and permit give flycasters a run for their money. The sailfish tournament is in February; April hosts bonefishing, and shark tournaments challenge in July.

MM84. Whale Harbor Inn. Anyone really hungry has got to feast on this famous seafood buffet of more than 80 items. A diver's favorite. Crowded, but worth it. $17.95 (Early Bird $15.95 'til 5:30 p.m.) Mon.-Thurs: 4-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat.: 4-10 p.m., Sun: noon to 9 p.m. (305) 664-4959.

MM84.5. Theater of the Sea. Dating back 48 years, it's one of Florida's oldest attractions. This marine park, built around a natural seawater lagoon, doesn't offer the glitz and sophistication of Sea World, but it's worth the time, especially if you have kids. Join the group, led by a guide through the park, who tells about the park's creatures, indigenous to the Keys...tarpon, stingrays, barracuda and, the most interesting, a North American crocodile, who had wandered off the preserve only to be shot and blinded. There's a touch tank with sea urchins, Bahama sea stars and a baby nurse shark, which everyone gets to pet. Dolphin and sea lion shows. It's one of the four licensed swim-with-dolphin programs. (Reserve ahead, $65.) Admission: $11.75. 9:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. (305) 664-2431.

MM84. Holiday Isle Resort & Marina. If you've been to Theater of the Sea, walk the couple of blocks to Holiday Isles, as the parking problem is major. The place is alive with action, and attracts a young crowd with continuous music and activities such as waverunners, parasailing, sailboarding and a ride on -- are you ready for this? -- the big banana.

The Tiki Bar is famous, but "Bimini Town" was a disappointing row of T-shirt shops. Rip's Hot Rock cafe had us cooking barbecued chicken on a preheated granite rock right at the table, while the oceanside Jaws Raw Bar is a neat place for a mahi-mahi sandwich and a Shucker's Special: one oyster, sauce and a shot of vodka. It's a great place to launch a fishing trip, as the marina houses a large fleet of sportfishing boats, from 34 to 55-footers. (800) 327-7070.

MM82. Cheeca Lodge. A most beautiful, world-renowned resort, with a grand South Seas ambience and two award-winning restaurants. The 525-foot fishing pier hints at the wonderful fishing. There's even a palm-lined beach within its 27 acres. The Cousteaus hold frequent seminars here. 1 (800) 327-2888. Rates: Summer, rooms $125-325; suites $200-500; special packages start at $99, Sun.-Thurs., based on availability.

MM79.7. Papa Joe's Landmark Restaurant. Dine in or out on an upstairs deck, where theater-style seating gives a magnificent view of the Atlantic, as well as the waters of Teatable Channel at the south end of Islamorada. We gave the fried shrimp a perfect 10 for taste and freshness. The key lime pie was a bit too sweet for us; however, the key lime cake was dynamite! Made daily by one of the waitresses, it's found only at this restaurant. Other tasty morsels: red or white conch chowder and seafood lasagna. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. (305) 664-8109.

MM78.5. Indian Key Fill. The biggest disappointment of our travels happened here. The state-operated tour boat that was to take us across the bay to Ligumvitae State Botanical Site (the 1919 coral rock home and gardens of Miami pioneer William Matheson on an isle of virgin hardwood forest) never showed up, even though the sign at the boat ramp said it departed at 1:30 p.m. After waiting a half hour, we called only to find out the boat doesn't run anymore because of budget cuts. That meant we also missed Indian Key State Botanical Site (on the ocean side) where settlers used to make their living by preying on boats that had gone aground on the reefs. Excavation of artifacts is ongoing here. Just a mile south is a shallow dive site with marked trail, the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Park, with a 1733 Spanish shipwreck. To visit these parks, try renting a small boat at Papa Joe's and go for it yourself.

LONG KEY. Long Key gained its fame in 1906 when Henry Flagler converted his railroad camp into the Long Key Fishing Camp, upon the urgings of renowned Western novelist Zane Grey. Unfortunately, the lodge, guest cottages and storehouses were destroyed in the '35 hurricane.

MM87.5. Long Key State Recreation Area. The first thing to meet our eyes as we walked on the boardwalk was a brilliant roseate spoonbill feeding in the mangrove swamp. Anyone into natural beauty will find the sandy Golden Orb Trail off the boardwalk worth the time. It's an unspoiled, peaceful 40-minute seaside walk. There's also a canoe trail covering a shallow water lagoon. Great campsites on a beautiful stretch of beach. Reserve well ahead. They're in demand. $3.25/car plus 50 cents/pp. 8 a.m. to sunset.

THE MIDDLE KEYS

After crossing the Long Key Channel, you're in the Middle Keys, starting with a 2.5-mile stretch of bridge that offers breath-taking Atlantic and bay views. The middle keys stretch from the little fishing village of Conch Key to Marathon, the thriving community on Vaca Key, site of Henry Flagler's famous railroad terminal in the early 1900s. The Key West ferry that operated in those days exchanged passengers and produce with the train. Today Marathon is booming, with its own airport, golf courses, lots of shops and funky little waterside bars.

MM59. Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key. Formerly Flipper's Sea School, where the movie originated. For some reason, they're wary of journalists, demanding we sign a waiver giving them the right to approve our story before we published it. So we didn't tour this attraction, which has provoked some controversy in recent years. However, we do know people who have had good experiences with its Dolphin Encounter (swims with dolphins). $80/pp. Reserve the first day of the month for the following month. (305) 289-0002. Visitors Center open Wed.-Sun., 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Marathon. MM50.5. The Wooden Spoon. A good spot to rub elbows with the locals and enjoy a delicious breakfast or lunch. The tropical pancakes (pineapple, coconut and bananas in the batter) were heavenly. Everything is homemade, from zucchini bread to Southern sausage omelettes. They'll fix up box lunches for fishermen or picnickers: two sandwiches, hard-boiled egg, apple or banana and a homemade brownie for $6.50. Mon.-Fri. 5 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. (305) 743-7469.

MM 50.5. The Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys at Crane Point Hammock. A wonderful museum designed for children, it includes a replica of Los Ninos de Los Caja, with a treasure chest full of 16th-century costumes for the kids to dress up in. The science activity center is filled with egg cases, shells, horseshoe crabs and sponges for them to examine, as well as a touch tank of sea anemones, urchins, starfish and the like. There's also an impressive exhibit that re-creates an underwater cave without an ounce of water.

Walking the quarter-mile trail into the hammock, we felt as if we were following in the footsteps of ancient Indians, amidst a melange of West Indian and Keys foliage, including pigeon plums, poisonwood trees and gumbo limbos. We explored the remnants of a Bahamian village with the oldest surviving example of Conch-style architecture outside of Key West. $5/adults; $4/children. Weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. (305) 743-9100.

MM48.5 Faro Blanco Marine Resort. Confirmed boaters, we loved our accommodations on the second floor of a floating houseboat, with a spectacular view of Boot Harbor. All of the excitement of marina life was there, from power yachts to the ABC Sailing School, where bareboaters can charter a vessel to cruise the Keys. (305) 743-9018. Houseboat rates: weekday off-season, $75-$135; Fri. and Sat., $95-$175 through Sept. 8. Reservations a must. 1 (800) 759-3276. On-premise dining: Kelsey's offers gourmet fare that has been honored with the Silver Spoon Award, but we'd have to give Crocodiles a disappointing mediocre rating.

Have the dockmaster hail Ch. 68 for the brand-new Marathon Water Taxi, a fun way to get the feel of Marathon. We opted for a sightseeing tour, but Capt. Bingo can shuttle you to any of the waterfront restaurants in Boot Harbor ($2/one way) or you can buy a $5 ticket for safe barhopping all day and night long. What a bargain!

Capt. Bingo has been in the Keys a long time, so he's filled with fabulous tales about the Bridge to Nowhere, old-time rumrunners, and drug-running during the '60s and '70s. Be sure to have him take you out the pass toward the Seven Mile Bridge. Incredible view!

MM 46 Shuckers. Possibly the best waterfront view of any restaurant in the Keys. It's unobstructed, panoramic and just downright beautiful in daylight. A super spot for sunset. Yummy she-crab soup and Florida lobster Francaise. Open 'til 10 p.m. (305) 743-8686.

LOWER KEYS

The beginning of the Seven Mile Bridge marks the Lower Keys, which extend all the way down to MMO, Key West. When you cross the bridge, you'll see how the waters are taking on Caribbean hues of turquoise. You'll also soon note an increase in local characters, from professional vagabonds to Cuban fishermen to genuine Conchs (white Key Westers who trace their ancestry to the Bahamas.)

MM47. Seven Mile Bridge. It's the world's longest segmental bridge, with 39 expansion joints separating its cement sections. The Annual Seven Mile Bridge Run is a happening each April, with runners galore.

MM45. Pigeon Key. A two-mile stretch of the old bridge brought us to a quaint, old railroad camp from Flagler's days. The Conch houses which have survived are popular subjects of artists and photographers. Tip: There's great fishing off this old bridge.

MM 38.5. Bahia Honda State Recreation Area. Just a grand state park. The incredible stretch of white sandy beach with its shallow waters is thought by many to be the best beach in the Keys. Walk the Silver Palm Trail to view not only silver palms, but also West Indies satinwood, catesbaea and Jamaica morning glories, in addition to exotics such as ginger trees, spider lilies and bay cedars.

The concession shop offers dive/snorkel trips to Looe Key Marine Sanctuary aboard the Island Queen. Kayaking is extremely popular here at $10/hr. or $25/half day. Several kayak tours are available, but we opted for Tour #1, where we paddled, snorkel gear on board, over to an islet just offshore. As we snorkeled the edge of the isle, pulling the lightweight kayak with us, we saw a school of squid fluttering through the water, as well as a baby sea turtle. On a calm day, visibility is 60-80 feet. The camp-grounds are terrific. Reserve well in advance. Tip: If you're pitching a tent, you need a metal rod to hammer holes into the hard coral to hold your stakes. Open daily, 8 a.m. to sunset. $3.25/car plus 50 cents/pp. (305) 872-2353.

MM30.5. National Key Deer Refuge. Mind the speed limit on Big Pine Key. It's posted to protect the dwindling herd of endangered Key deer and taken very seriously.

Turning right onto Key Deer Boulevard (bear left at the fork), we came upon the Blue Hole, an old rock quarry filled with freshwater teeming with fish and turtles. We also came within hand-shaking distance of an 11-foot resident alligator sunning itself on the banks. As advised, we headed down to the dead end of the boulevard for a quiet look into the brush. Soon an adorable, two-foot-tall Key deer poked his tiny head out between the branches. Feeding these endangered deer is strictly prohibited, as it lures them to the roads, where many have been hit by cars. (As of March, five had already been killed this year.) Groups of Key deer are spotted frequently at dusk on No Name Key. Just follow the signs and take your camera. Info: (305) 872-2239.

MM28.5. Little Torch Key. Here's the check-in station for those lucky enough to be sailing off for ultra-posh Little Palm Island, a South Seas-style getaway where you luxuriate under mosquito nets in lavish palm-thatched villas. Sunday brunch is a real islandy treat and open to the public by reservation. Featured on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." (305) 872-2524. Summer rates: $330/night.

MM27.5. Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. This favored dive spot is named for the HMS Looe, a British frigate that went aground here in the 1700s. In coral formation, it may not be as majestic as others, but it's a treasure trove of beautiful tropical fish, including the biggest barracuda we saw anywhere.

MM20. Mangrove Mama's. One of the best restaurants in the Keys, with the most Key-sy of all atmospheres. It's a must. Watch carefully though, as its pale-green paint blends in with the lush tropical foliage. The sign which says "Sunday Reggae" is what caught our eye. The hostess led us to an intimate little patio, shaded by lots of towering banana trees, where we blissfully lunched on broiled dolphin served with potato salad, a welcome break from the ubiquitous french fries. A great value at $5.50. After tasting key lime pie at almost every possible place along the way, we needed only took one bite to know we had found "the best." When we commented to the waitress she wasn't surprised. The Miami Herald had also found it Number 1 in the Keys. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Live reggae: Sundays starting at 10 p.m. (305) 745-3030.

MM5. Key West Seaplane Service. One of the best day trips around. Hop aboard a seaplane for the short flight and water landing at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, the most inaccessible National Monument in the Western hemisphere. It's neat to view from high above the shipwrecked Spanish galleons Atocha and Margarita that lie in the shallow turquoise waters. Fort Jefferson is rich in history and in beauty. Bring a picnic and snorkel gear, binoculars for birding and a camera for great photo ops. Half or full days or overnight camping trips. $120/pp. Reserve: (305) 294-6978.

KEY WEST

Situated 150 miles south of Miami and just 90 miles from Havana, Key West is a haven for people who are ostentatious in their disregard of the conventional. The result: the most laid-back place on earth, where bicycles are more chic than cars, where live music lingers in the air 24 hours a day and where every sunset draws a joyous, eclectic crowd.

This southernmost city of the United States has been inhabited by Calusa Indians, pirates, Bahamian colonists, Cuban dissidents (who brought along the cigar trade), rumrunners and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. This lively mix of settlers no doubt accounts for the independent, iconoclastic attitude of the place. Example: Angry with an '82 search for illegal aliens by the Border Patrol, which backed up traffic for hours on the Overseas Highway, Key Westers staged a mock-secession from the U.S., forming their own nation, the Conch Republic, with its own flag, Conch currency and border passes!

That's Key West for you. And nowhere will you get the distinctive feel of its unusual character, past and present, better than in Old Town. (Go right on North Roosevelt Boulevard and onto Truman Avenue into Old Town.)

GETTING AROUND. Walking is best, as parking is a problem. Or rent a bicycle, a motorscooter, rollerblades, a bicycle-rickshaw or hail a pink taxi.

Tours and walks are the quickest way to get acquainted. We recommend...

Conch Tour Train: The quickest way to familiarize yourself with what's around is this 90-minute narrated tour. $12/adults; $6/kids, 4-12. Departs Mallory Square Market (Front Street) every 20 minutes, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (305) 294-5161. The Pelican Path: Pelican signs mark the route of this walking tour of the historic district. Get your map and begin at the Old Island Restoration Foundation in Mallory Square. Wear walking shoes: There are 51 places of architectural interest to see. Free. Writer's Walk: Our favorite. A one-hour guided walking tour past the homes of Key West writers, from Hemingway to Philip Burton, (Richard Burton's father). The $10 charge includes admission to both the Hemingway House and Casa Antigua (Ernest's first local address). 10:30 a.m. Sunday departures from the Hemingway House. Tip: Because of stipulations in his will, Tennessee Williams' cottage is not on the tour. (Don't tell anyone, but the address is 1431 Duncan St.)

ATTRACTIONS. Mallory Square: An absolute must for nightly Sunset Celebrations. Great lemonade; the Cookie Lady's brownies are legendary; and the street entertainers are fabulous! Particularly awesome is the escape artist, who lets volunteers entangle him, not only in a straight jacket, but also heavy padlocked chains; the rasta who folds himself up into a tiny box; and the tightrope walker who keeps the crowds in stitches with his offbeat humor. Arrive at least a half-hour before the sun sets. Free.

Visit The Mallory Square Market by day. Photo ops with Conch Republic statues; fun shopping for sponges and coconut heads, as well as great artwork and gifts. The Key West Aquarium was the first tourist attraction in the Keys (1932) and is neat to walk through, with displays of marine life...huge jewfish, a six-foot moray eel, stingrays, sharks and turtles. The little aquariums of tropical fish offer rare views of the incredibly beautiful flying gurnards, spotted scorpionfish and peachy-colored sea anemones. Forty-minute guided tours (11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 4:30 p.m.) include shark feeding. Adults: $6; children 8-15: $3. 1 Whitehead St. (305) 296-2051.

Mel Fisher's Maritime Heritage Society Treasure Museum. The treasures of the two Spanish galleons, Nuestra Senora de Atocha and Santa Margarita (who met their fate in the 1622 hurricane) are dazzling, especially the 77.76 carat natural emerald crystal and the gleaming gold bar (which you can lift) weighing 6.3 Troy pounds. $5/adults; $1.50/6-12. Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 200 Greene St., (305) 294-2633.

Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum. We loved the narrated half-hour tour (and short film) which highlights the life of this legendary man and the charming little white house where he spent 173 days while President. $6/adult admission. ($3/under 12). Tip: There are wonderful, comfy chairs under shade trees here for those looking for a cool resting spot. In the Truman Annex (just down from the Treasure Museum). Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (305) 294-9911.

Audubon House and Gardens. No, John James Audubon never lived here, but he did visit Key West in 1832. A great collection of Audubon's engravings is displayed, as well as beautiful porcelain birds. Self-guided tour. $5/adults; $1/6-12. Daily, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. 205 Whitehead St. (across from Treasure Museum). (305) 294-2116.

Hemingway House. Built in 1851, it was the first on the island to have running water and a fireplace. Papa received it as a gift from his then-wife Pauline's uncle in 1931 and wrote such masterpieces as "A Farewell to Arms" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" here. The 30-minute guided tours are rich in Hemingway lore, and start every 10 minutes. The six-toed cats that abound are said to be descendants of Ernest's own cats. There's a five-year waiting list for cat adoptions! $6/adults; $1.50/6-12. Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 907 Whitehead St. (305) 294-1575.

Lighthouse Museum. We climbed the 98 winding steps to the top of this 92-foot lighthouse and lived to tell about it. The keeper's quarters offer look-sees at vintage photos, ship models, nautical charts and the like. $3/adults; $1/6-12. Daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. 938 Whitehead St. (305) 294-0012.

Strand Theater. A grand facade of color and ornamentation built in 1918 by Cuban craftsmen. Soon to be a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum. 527 Duval St.

Southernmost Point. At the end of Whitehead Street there are bunches of tourists posing for pictures in front of the colorful marker proclaiming it the U.S.'s southernmost tip. The real southernmost tip, however, is to the right, beyond the fence on an off-limits part of the Naval Base. But it's fun here, anyway, with vendors peddling conch shells and straw hats. Trek on, turning left on South Street, to view the two homes that each claim to be the southernmost house. One's a 1940s Spanish style built by Thelma Stabel, who penned "Reap the Wild Wind"; the other is a light-brick Queen Anne mansion.

Curry Mansion. Antique lovers only. Home of Florida's first millionaire, Milton Curry, this 1899 Victorian mansion has the only widow's walk in town that's open to the public. $5/adults; $1/under 12. Daily 10-5. 511 Carolina St.

City Cemetery. Don't laugh; it's interesting to read tombstones with messages like, "I told you I was sick" and "Now I know where you're at tonight." Admission free. Sunrise-sunset. Margaret Street. Guided tours ($5) are offered weekends by appointment. (305)-296-3913.

WATERING HOLES. Duval Street and its side streets are famous for bars, which seem eternally open and eternally hopping. A must: Sloppy Joe's, Hemingway's favorite bar, owned by his favorite friend, immortalized as Freddy in "To Have and to Have Not." Stroll around and study the Hemingway memorabilia all over the walls. Live bands ever-present. Beware: Heavy metal starts around 10 p.m.

Other favorites: Michael McCloud has long been singing in the bars around here and can usually be found during the day at the Bull (one of our favorites), singing his original Conch Republic Anthem. Captain Tony's Saloon is a kick. Owned and named after a former mayor and local character, it's on the site of the original Sloppy Joe's. The Hog's Breath Saloon is a popular outdoor watering hole with T-shirts reading, "Hog's breath is better than no breath at all." Margaritaville is a bit too yuppified for our taste, but we have listened to some good bands here. The younger set flocks to Rick's.

WATERSPORTS. Sailboats abound, with catamaran Fury getting our vote for sail/snorkeling trips because of super-easy access in and out of the water. Sunset sails are OK on any of them, but we prefer the liveliness of sunset at Mallory Square. History buffs may opt for snorkeling or cruises on the 74-foot schooner Wolf (305-296-WOLF) at the foot of William Street, where there's also a charming little waterfront bar.

We were especially impressed with the glass-bottom boat, Discovery, which offers fantastic views of the reefs off Key West without getting wet. A bargain at $18/adult; $12/under 11. Tip: Children free with paying adult on morning trips. Call for departure times: (305) 293-0099. And the Key West Water Taxi is great for stargazing, bar-hopping and even island picnics. All-day pass: $10. (305) 294-5687. The Atlantic X offers casino cruises for $42.50, which includes dinner. (305) 292-1777.

These are the waters where Hemingway went after the big fighters, and you'll find plenty of fishing boats ready to cast off. Check out the fleet at Land's End Marina or at Garrison Bight Yacht Basin.

DINING OUT. Wonderful restaurants are everywhere. One of our favorites is Gold Spoon winner, Louie's Backyard, with al fresco dining or tiered patios leading to the Atlantic. Cuisine is inventive -- grilled pork chop Cubano with rum-baked black beans, sauteed Key West shrimp in Conch-Creole sauce. Try a Louie's Passion: rum, pineapple, cranberry and orange juices topped with a champagne floater. Expensive, but worth every penny. Lunch: 11:30-3; dinner: 6-10. 700 Waddell Ave. Reservations: (305) 294-1061.

Cafe Marquesa is probably the best-kept secret as far as restaurants go. With only 15 tables, the chef is imaginative, with the menu changing daily. The warm potato-and-goat-cheese tart with chiffonade of greens was to die for, as was the homemade African flatbread. Moderate to expensive. Dinner only: 6-11 p.m. 600 Fleming St. (305) 292-1244.

Pier House Restaurant. (Four-Star). Definitely elegant, with delights like grouper Phillipe, stuffed with almond chutney, encased in spinach, plantains and pancetta. People's Choice for Best Sunday Brunch ($18.95). Key lime pie has mile-high meringue. Brunch, Sun.-Fri.: 11:30-3; dinner daily: 6-10:30 p.m. Very expensive. 1 Duval St., (305) 296-4600.

Savannah. Wonderful tastes served within the charm of an old Key West home, with wraparound veranda and beads hanging in the doorways. The Southern-flavored menu changes every night. Known for best-ever fried chicken, catfish and hush puppies, but other seafood and beef specialties are grilled. Vegetarian dishes, too. A hot skillet of cornbread presented to every table. Its key lime pie rivals Mangrove Mama's; the Washington Post called it best in the Keys. Moderate prices. Dinner starts at 6:30. 915 Duval St., (305) 296-6700.

Half Shell Raw Bar. Motto: Eat it raw! Ultra-casual and open-air, right on the water overlooking the fishing fleet and Discovery Glass-Bottom Boat. Ask any local where to eat and chances are he'll steer you here. Great broiled dolphin and grilled tuna; oysters are shucked from morning to night. Very affordable. Just across the parking lot is the Turtle Kraals Restaurant and Bar, another waterside eatery with yummy daiquiris and seafood at value prices. Tip: Ailing sea creatures are tended to here by the Florida Marine Conservancy and there's a touch tank for the kids. Don't miss Hawkeye and Gonzo, two 32-year-old hawkbill turtles, each weighing 150 pounds. 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Land's End Marina at the end of Margaret Street. (305) 294-2640.

Pepe's Cafe and Steak House. The best breakfasts in Key West since 1909. Rub elbows with local characters. Our omelette du jour was a delicious chicken stir-fry, with the homemade bread of the morn coconut-orange. Great! Dinners are down home, with a full Thanksgiving dinner every Thursday. Good value. 806 Caroline St. (305) 294-7192.

Other favorites: Two Friends, the Quay, Bagatelles and the Pier House Market Bistro (a gourmet breakfast and snack shop).

SHOPPING. Glorious, with a lot more than T-shirt shops about midway down Duval, heading south. Fast Buck Freddie's is a wildly imaginative department store. (Daily 10-6. 500 Duval St. 305-294-2007.) The wonderfully fragrant Key West Aloe is an institution here (9-8, 524 Front St. and other locations). Key West Hand Print Fabrics is world-famous. Witness workers handprinting. (Daily 10-6, 201 Simonton.) There are oodles more, including Greenpeace and Margaritaville.

Galleries abound. The oldest, the Gingerbread Square Gallery, displays John Kiraly originals. 11-6. 1200 Duval St.

DATES TO REMEMBER. July 19-25, Hemingway Days Festival; September, Key West Marlin Tournament; Oct. 23-31, Fantasy Fest (a fun-filled, bizarre way to celebrate Halloween -- not for kids!); November, Key West Sailfish Tournament; December, Christmas by the Sea; March, House & Garden Tours; April, Conch Republic Independence Celebration.

ACCOMMODATIONS. We suggest choosing a hotel or guest house right in the heart of Old Town so you can walk anywhere you want. Here are three we've experienced first-hand and absolutely love.

The Pier House. It doesn't get any better-located than this. Overlooking the water at the end of bustling Duval Street, the Pier House is just steps away from most of the best experiences, including Mallory Square. The gorgeous landscaping provides a peaceful West Indies aura; steel drums fill the air as evening approaches; and dinner comes with a glorious water view. The new Caribbean Spa is ultra-posh, with two-poster plantation beds and whirlpool tubs. Any guest can take advantage of loofah salt glows, aromatherapy massages, etc. Just a grand place. Package example: Weekend Escapade, with two nights, two welcome pina coladas, glass-bottom boat ride for two and two half-hour massages: $595. 1 Duval St., 800-327-8340.

Marquesa Hotel. This turquoise four-story 1884 home has been renovated into an elegant guest house (just one block off Duval Street) with a Victorian-style great room, antique furnishings and plenty of fresh flowers. The pool area is beautiful, with breakfast served poolside on white linen tablecloths and china ($6 extra). Only 15 rooms, so reserve ahead. Rates through Oct. 27: $110-160/night. 600 Fleming St. 800-UNWIND-1.

Simonton Court. An 1880 Cuban cigar factory and workers' cottages have been splendidly transformed into this adults-only resort. The unique compound ranges from loft suites with full kitchens to pretty, individual cottages with old-fashioned hanging swings on the front porch. Three pools and plenty of deck space. A serve-yourself poolside breakfast is included. Gas grills for barbecuing; bike rentals. One block off Duval. Off-season: Rooms from $75/night; cottages, $145-180/night. 320 Simonton St. 800-944-2687.

GETTING THERE. By car, take I-75 south onto Alligator Alley. Turn right on 29, left on 41 and pick up 1 out of Homestead, then head south to Key Largo. By plane: Fly American Eagle to either Marathon or Key West.

Believe it or not, there's more to the Florida Keys than that delightfully decadent Conch Republic (alias Key West) that lies in wait at the southern end of Rt. 1 and the good ol' USA. But all too often, we're in such a hurry to escape into that seductive spirit of freedom synonymous with Key West that we forget to stop and smell the frangipani along the way. In all, 34 islands (linked to the mainland by 42 bridges) make up the Keys, creating a vast playground of incredible natural beauty accented by every imaginable shade of blue and green.

Join us on a journey of discovery, as we travel from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas, searching, snorkeling, eating, drinking, dancing, sailing, hiking, walking, kayaking, picnicking, camping, boating and celebrating sunsets and sensual pleasures every inch of the way.
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Title Annotation:tourist attractions
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:6939
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