Unlocking the Florida Keys

With its laid-back lifestyle and stunning scenery, this chain of islands is an impressive holiday destination, says David Orkin
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The Independent Travel

KEY WHAT, WHERE?

KEY WHAT, WHERE?

The Florida Keys comprise a narrow chain of islands curving out south and then west for 120 miles from the southern tip of mainland Florida. They are divided into five groups: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Lower Keys and Key West.

The main islands are linked by one amazing road: the Overseas Highway, US 1. This starts in Maine in the extreme north-east of the US, but it saves most spectacular stretch until last. On the journey from Homestead on the Florida mainland to Key West at the south-west, this picturesque drive crosses 43 bridges over the sea. A system of "Mile Markers" is used to denote addresses along the Overseas Highway. The most photogenic stretch is Seven Mile Bridge. Actually measuring 6.79 miles long, and connecting the Middle and Lower Keys, it's the world's longest segmental bridge.

KEY HISTORY

Originally occupied by native American tribes, the Keys were claimed for Spain by Ponce de Leon in 1513. There was no significant European settlement until a businessman from Alabama bought them from the Spanish for $2,000 in 1821.

By 1888, Key West had become Florida's largest, richest city. The next big change came in 1912 when a railway between Miami and Key West was completed. As car ownership increased after the Second World War, the Keys took on a new tourist guise.

KEY CLIMATE

Hurricanes are most likely in August and September, but are a possibility at any time from June to November. The ideal time to visit, weather-wise, is between December and mid-May, but other people know this too; the Keys are particularly busy at Christmas and Easter, and during the US universities' spring break - the whole of March in 2005.

KEY ACTIVITIES

Key Largo claims to be the "diving capital of the world". Head for the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (001 305 451 1202; www.floridastateparks.org/pennekamp) at Mile Marker 102. Here, the reef is dotted with underwater wrecks and deliberately sunk ships. Non-divers can snorkel or ride on glass-bottom boats to view multicoloured fish and other undersea attractions.

Islamorada also claims to be a world capital: for sport fishing. Blue marlin, tarpon, sailfish and the speedy wahoo are among more than 200 species of fish that are found in the waters of the Keys. Anglers are everywhere: in boats out on the ocean, wading in the surf, in the mangrove backwaters and casting their lines from piers and bridges. The pelicans are never far behind, either.

The Lower Keys (including Big Pine, Sugarloaf, and Summerland) offer great opportunities to enjoy the area's natural resources on both land and water. Looe Key provides top-notch diving and snorkelling. On Big Pine Key, turning off the Overseas Highway onto Key Deer Boulevard will take you to the National Key Deer Refuge (001 305 872 0774; nationalkeydeer.fws.gov). Here, apart from rare miniature deer, you are likely to see turtles and perhaps an alligator from the viewing platform.

There are also locations in the Keys where you can swim with dolphins. Advance booking is required - sessions may fill up months in advance. Locations include: Dolphins Plus, Key Largo (dolphinsplus.com; 001 305 451 1993) and Dolphin Research Center (dolphins.org; 001 305 289 1121).

KEY STAYS

Accommodation possibilities encompass camping, basic motels, independent and big chain luxury resorts, and - in Key West's Old Town - atmospheric old guest houses and B&Bs.

In season (and for Fridays or Saturdays) book accommodation well in advance - and be prepared for some high prices, especially in Key West. High season runs from mid-December to just after Easter. You should always inflate the quoted rate by 11.5 per cent, because the tax element is never included.

Resorts to consider include the intimate (just 11 rooms) adult-only Kona Kai Resort, Key Largo (001 305 852 7200; www.konakairesort.com); for family-friendly resorts, try Hawk's Cay, Duck Key (001 305 743 7000; www.hawkscay.com) and Cheeca Lodge, Islamorada (001 305 664 4651; www.cheeca.com).

Key West is full of smaller, characterful properties such as Ambrosia House (001 305 296 9838; www.ambrosiakeywest.com) or Eden House (001 305 296 6868; www.edenhouse.com).

KEY EATS

The Keys have some excellent Cuban restaurants. Try El Siboney, Key West (001 305 296 4184), or long-established Manny & Isa's, Mile Marker 81.6, Islamorada (001 305 664 5019).

Other recommended eateries include out of the way Alabama Jack's, Card Sound Road, Key Largo (001 305 248 8741); Morada Bay, Mile Marker 81 Islamorada (001 305 664 0604); and in Key West, Louie's Backyard (001 305 294 1061; www.louiesbackyard.com) and Michael's Restaurant (001 305 295 1300; www.michaelskeywest.com).

KEY BEACHES

Swimming is good and the water sports are excellent, but we're not talking "premier league" beaches. Public beaches are often backed by mangroves, and where there is sand it's often coarse and strewn with seaweed. However, at the northernmost end of Bahia Honda State Park (Mile Marker 37), Sandspur Beach is a seemingly endless stretch of superb sand.

KEY WEST MUSTS

Though the suburbs are uninspiring, you feel that you're somewhere special when you arrive at Key West's Old Town. Whereas in the Lower Keys the focus tends to be on nature, here it's all about human activity. Key West is a leading resort for party-animals from all over the US, and the world.

If you're searching for T-shirts, jewellery or souvenirs - Duval Street is the main tourist artery. There are excellent restaurants and lively bars and you should join the throngs watching and gasping at the sunset from Mallory Square at least once, if only for some great people-watching. But more rewarding is to wander off through block after block of quiet, beautiful streets. The primary architectural styles are Caribbean- or Bahamian-style clapboard and Victorian gingerbread houses. Many of these villas have been converted into upmarket guesthouses or restaurants.

Everywhere is lush tropical greenery, splashes of brilliant colour and the perfumed aromas of exotic flowers: in the side streets the pace of life is slow and lazy.

KEY CULTURAL CONNECTIONS

The Keys' best-known literary connection is with Ernest Hemingway. Attracted by its isolation and deep-sea fishing opportunities, he moved to Key West in 1931 and produced some of his best work during his time there.

After Hemingway's own bell finally tolled, his house (001 305 294 1575; www.hemingwayhome.com) became - and remains - a top visitor attraction. It opens 10am-5pm daily, admission $10 (£6). If you are allergic to cats, stay away; over 60 live in the museum.

Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Robert Frost were also notable Key West literary residents. Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett is one of the Keys' most prominent current residents. He even opened a restaurant and nightclub named after one of his biggest hits, Margaritaville, at 424a Fleming Street, Key West (001 305 292 1435).

KEY FESTIVALS

The Keys are renowned for their festivals: for listings see www.fla-keys.com/calendarofevents. Here are two that sum up Key life. Each year in July, Hemingway Days, a festival devoted to the writer, culminates in a "Hemingway look-alike contest", said to attract competitors from all over the world.

Florida's answer to New Orleans' Mardi Gras is Key West's zany annual Fantasy Fest ( www.fantasyfest.net); this year's event runs from 22-31 October 2004. Expect outrageous parades, contests and raucous festivities.

KEY NOTES

For more information call the Florida Keys and Key West Development Council (01564 794555; www.fla-keys.com). The most useful guidebooks are Time Out's Miami, Orlando and the Florida Keys or Lonely Planet's Miami and the Florida Keys.

TRAVELLERS' GUIDE

No airport in the Keys could handle direct flights from the UK. Miami is the obvious jumping-off point, with direct flights from Heathrow on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and American Airlines (08457 789 789; www.aa.com). Fares for non-stop flights to Miami in September and October start at £453 return with British Airways: November and early December from £320.

Key Largo is little more than an hour's drive away from Miami airport, and Key West less than four hours.

If you don't want to drive yourself, Greyhound buses (001 214 849 8100; www.greyhound.com) run four times a day between Miami airport and Marathon and Key West. Or fly via Miami to Key West on American Airlines for about £30-£50 more than the BA fare.

You can build your own fly-drive package by combining a competitive air fare and good car-hire rate; try Holiday Autos (0870 400 4447; www.holidayautos.co.uk). But specialist travel agents may be able to beat this with special "package" air fares.

For a more formal inclusive trip, several operators have programmes to the Keys. For example, British Airways Holidays (0870 24 33 406; www.ba.com/holidays) offers seven nights at Hawk's Cay Resort from £799 per person based on September departures, or £200 less if you travel in the first 11 days of December 2004. Prices for the Cheeca Lodge are £829 and £644 for the same date periods. These rates include flights on BA from Heathrow to Miami, car rental and accommodation without breakfast. Or consider a two-centre package combining the Keys with Miami; Virgin Holidays (0871 222 1232; www.virgin.com/holidays) has an impressive three nights at the Winter Haven in South Beach and a week in Key West, departing in late October or November, for £713 including flights from Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic, accommodation and car rental.

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