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Keying-in the Conch Republic.

KEYING-IN THE CONCH REPUBLIC

In the land of cutoff jeans, wide smiles, and deep tans better known as the Florida Keys, fishermen with lazy eyes belly up to thatchroofed bars with their conch fritters and ice-cold beers. They talk as if this necklace of islands linked by 42 bridges is a magical kingdom where socks haven't been invented and fish fly into your boat.

They're not all native "Conchs,' but they say they wouldn't live anywhere else. It's that sunshine--and that freedom, they say, as they gesture hugely to include an impossibly blue sky and even bluer water.

The freedom they talk about birthed the Conch Republic in 1982, when the U.S. Border Patrol--to search for illegal aliens and narcotics --blocked U.S. Highway 1 traffic and, consequently, tourism. The entire 45-island chain responded by seceding from the Union. By the time the new government got around to applying for foreign aid, the border patrol had removed the road block, but not the excuse for a zany annual celebration (April 16-24).

Because the Florida Keys are strung almost to Cuba, this independent spirit seems somehow justified. Add the fact that their history is top-heavy with rascals, pirates, and dreamers, not to mention hardy survivors of nature's excesses, and you begin to understand why these islands are called "a world apart.'

Although a drive down the Overseas Highway (U.S. Highway 1) to the "0' mile marker at Key West takes a mere three hours, travelers opting for a more leisurely ramble will find a variety of pleasures along the way, from conch cuisine to creature encounters. It's like vacationing sans passport on some faraway, slightly cockeyed tropical island where natives and tourists all look similar and speak the same language.

Over the years, the free-spirited islands have attracted a goodly share of celebrity nonconformists, among them Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Edison, John James Audubon, Harry Truman, and John Dos Passos. Humphrey Bogart is immortalized on Key Largo T-shirts after having starred in a classic film of the same name. The original African Queen used to film that 1951 Bogart-Hepburn movie is based at the local Holiday Inn.

Key Largo is also known for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where glass-bottom boats or snorkelscuba excursions go out five miles to the continental U.S.A.'s only living tropical coral reef, teeming with undersea life. The new Jules Undersea Lodge, the world's first and only underwater hotel, submerged 30 feet at the bottom of Bora Bora Lagoon, welcomes certified divers to deluxe digs with the ultimate ocean view.

Dolphin encounters are the hot ticket at the 60-acre Hawk's Cay Resort on Duck Key, near Marathon. A half-hour dunk with lovable 500-pound Zoovet-trained dolphins is offered for resort guests three times daily. So far the oldest swimmer has been a 97-year-old man, and the youngest a 2-year-old girl. The frolic is so popular that guests are advised to reserve dolphin encounters and rooms at the same time.

Unique to the Keys, other dolphin romps are offered at Dolphins Plus in Key Largo, Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, and the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key near Marathon.

Fish stories come thick and fast around Marathon and Islamorada, where tarpon and bonefish in the Gulf, and amberjack, blue marlin, and sailfish in the Atlantic, are said to run so close and clear you can see them before you throw out your line. Marinas and charter boats are everywhere, along with the requisite local pubs and restaurants beloved of boat people.

Farther south, amid Big Pine Key's thatch palms, sea grapes, and mangroves, 7,000 acres of National Key Deer Refuge are home to tiny Key deer, gators, and several hundred varieties of birds, including herons, brown pelicans, and double-crested cormorants. The osprey particularly likes to build its nest atop utility poles alone the highway.

Domesticated animals star in Key West, where taking a tour of Ernest Hemingway's home is like going on an Easter-egg hunt for cats. Numerous descendants of Hemingway's feline menagerie, most with six toes instead of five, snooze under bushes, behind doors, and across the paths of thousands of visitors who come to see where the quixotic author lived and worked for 12 years.

Nearby, Mel Fisher displays his fabulous Atocha and Santa Margarita treasures, found after 17 years of searching these waters. Key West's main drag, Duval Street, is a stroller's treasure of gingerbread cottages renovated into shops, cafes, and such saloons as Sloppy Joe's, Hemingway's reputed favorite. Old Town's postcard-perfect vistas include a daily sunset extravaganza on the dock at Mallory Square, complete with musicians, mimes, fortune tellers, bagpipers, and hawkers.

Chic restaurants, such as Louie's Backyard, The Buttery, and the charming La Terraza De Marti (known locally as La-Te-Da), are tucked into scenic by-ways. Among the best of several fine resort hotels is Marriott's Casa Marina, a historic beauty built by Henry Flagler, the magnate who in 1912 opened up the Keys with a railroad, destroyed by the great hurricane of 1935.

At the end of the road a beat-up old monument informs people they have come to the southermost settlement in the continental U.S.--an offbeat journey that has lured travelers since the Spaniards came looking for gold in the 16th century. Next came pirates, followed by the first Conchs --Bahamian fishermen who "salvaged,' a euphemism for deliberately wrecking vessels on dangerous, unmarked reefs.

Today's Conchs are as resourceful and colorful as those early inhabitants. They still look for Spanish gold off the coasts and frequently find it, along with the occasional bale of marijuana that washes ashore. The same blazing hot sun sets spectacularly, and the ubiquitous mollusk Conchs got their name from is still cooked in every conceivable way. Above all, life remains a luxury to be savored at a snail's pace--which all goes to prove that in the Conch Republic nothing important ever really changes.

Photo: The Florida Keys, possessing the only living tropical coral reef in the continental U.S., are a haven for divers (above), snorkelers, and glass-bottom boaters.

Photo: Key West's Duval Street mixes the islands' various influences--Southern, Cuban, Bahamian, and Yankee.

Photo: (Above) Hawk's Cay's dolphins get a rise out of their snacks. (Right) Islamorada, the fishing capital of the Keys.

Photo: Ft. Jefferson's location was perfect to guard the Gulf--except that it wasn't firm terra!
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Florida Keys; includes sidebar on camping
Author:O'Keefe, M. Timothy; Burton, Marda
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1988
Words:1062
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