These islands—numbering more than 800—have long attracted fishermen, divers, and misfits of all shapes and sizes, among them Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Jimmy Buffett, and other members of a mythology that sometimes overshadows an even more diverse reality. Anyone from redneck to urban sophisticate is welcome here. All that's required is an open mind, a taste for fresh grouper, and an affinity for warm water.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
The 113-mile string of islands is divided into three areas. The Upper Keys stretch from Key Largo to around Layton, and encompass dive shops, country clubs, condos for weekend refugees from Miami, and Islamorada, the "sportfishing capital of the world." The Middle Keys, with some of the islands' loveliest stretches, are dominated by Marathon, a small, homely town. The Lower Keys are green and quiet, until you reach the relative metropolis of Key West.
Most of the Keys are connected by one road, which doesn't require a name (though it's officially known as both U.S. 1 and the Overseas Highway). The descendant of Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway, it's essentially the only land route through the Florida Keys. This makes it ideal for the easily disoriented—all you need to know is the nearest mile marker (MM)—but it can be a traffic nightmare. For alleviating the monotony, there are gorgeous views of the water on either side and signs advertising BIG-ASS PRIME RIB and FISH SO FRESH IT SHOULD BE SLAPPED.
WHAT TO DO
The point, really, is to spend as little time on the road as possible and to stay on the water, under the water, or on a barstool with water lapping just beneath.
DIVING The only living coral reef in the continental United States (and the third-longest in the world) lies just off Key Largo. Within John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is an extraordinary underwater universe: canyons and mountains of living rock, schools of fish moving in synchronized Technicolor, shipwrecks, and oddities like the Christ of the Abyss, an 11-foot bronze statue.
A wealth of outfitters are eager to take you diving or snorkeling. The better-respected include Tavernier Dive Center (MM 90.7 Oceanside, Tavernier; 305/852-4007; www.tavernierdivecenter.com); Quiescence Diving Services (MM 103.5 Bayside, Key Largo; 305/451-2440; www.keylargodiving.com); and, despite the bad pun, Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort (MM 104.2 Bayside, Key Largo; 305/451-3595; www.amoray.com).