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Best of the Florida Keys

FISHING There's no place you can't fish in the Keys, but Islamorada, Marathon, and Key West are where the charter boats conglomerate. There's a boat for you, whether you want to tackle tuna in the Gulf Stream, troll the reefs for grouper, or stalk the flats of Florida Bay (the "backcountry") for tarpon. For information on charters, boat rentals, and licensing, contact one of the temples of this regional religion: Holiday Isle Beach Resort & Marina (MM 84 Oceanside, Islamorada; 305/664-2321; www.holidayisle.com); Bud n' Mary's Fishing Marina (MM 79.8 Oceanside, Islamorada; 305/664-2461; www.budnmarys.com); or the World Class Angler (5050 Overseas Hwy., Marathon; 305/743-6139; www.worldclassangler.com). A half-day of offshore fishing will run about $600 for up to six people; a half-day backcountry trip is $300 or so for two; and reef fishing in a 50-person "party boat" costs about $30 a head.

KAYAKING Bill Keogh, owner of Big Pine Kayak Adventures (Big Pine Key; 305/872-7474; www.keyskayaktours.com), is a soft-spoken nature photographer and amateur marine biologist who will guide you through the flats and islets of the backcountry around Big Pine and No Name keys. As you glide over the pondlike water, you'll see nurse sharks, turtles, stingrays, sponges, and barracudas. Paddling up a creek through a mangrove forest, using moist, gnarled roots to pull yourself past tree trunks coated with hundreds of tiny crabs, is like entering a primeval universe.

CRABBING Ever wondered where Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach gets the gall to charge some $50 for a portion of claws?The answer, sort of, comes from Keys Fisheries Market & Marina (end of 35th St., Marathon; 305/743-4353; www.keysfisheries.com), the harvesting affiliate of the famed restaurant. You'll go out on a commercial boat to see how labor-intensive the work is. A typical 12-hour run (yours will be much shorter) involves pulling 600 traps, each yielding a pound of claws on a good day. The business is extremely competitive, and complicated by a short season, theft, and strict environmental regulations. The crabs themselves are tough fighters: they can break your fingers with their claws. Still, it's an enjoyable, and educational, excursion. Best of all, you get to take home (or devour on the spot) whatever you catch.

DESTINATION RESORTS
The term resort applies loosely in the Keys: many places thus labeled consist mostly of a tiki hut, picnic tables, a hammock strung between two palms, and a cement-block building that needs a fresh coat of pink paint. There are, however, several exceptions.

UPPER KEYS Kona Kai Resort & Gallery Owned by a couple who quit their New York jobs to decompress in the Keys—a familiar story line down here—Kona Kai is small and unpretentious. The 11 rooms, in four low-slung tin-roofed buildings, are furnished simply but thoughtfully (rattan footstools, ceramic tile floors, 340-thread-count sheets). The hotel is arranged around gardens of orchids, palms, and gumbo-limbos and a mosaic-covered pool surrounded by hydrangeas and hibiscus. 97802 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 800/365-7829 or 305/852-7200; www.konakairesort.com; doubles from $247.

Cheeca Lodge & Spa The resort's name is not an Indian word, but rather the combined names of Cynthia "Chee" and Carl Twitchell, the A&P heirs who established the hotel in 1961 as an exclusive retreat for the well-heeled. George Bush père is a frequent guest, golf and fishing are the presiding passions, and Yankee-style understatement is the guiding aesthetic, with interiors clearly descended from a different era. Of the 203 rooms, the most desirable are the renovated deluxe beachfront bungalows. Besides the par-three executive golf course, there's tennis, windsurfing, Camp Cheeca for the kids, and a 5,000-square-foot spa. MM 82 Oceanside, Islamorada; 800/327-2888 or 305/664-4651; cheeca.rockresorts.com; doubles from $159.

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