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Best of the Florida Keys

park it here
The most compelling detour off U.S. 1 comes up before you even enter the Keys: Card Sound Road, which connects the mainland with the top half of Key Largo. Less trafficked, the byway is lined with mangroves, canals, and locals selling blue crabs. • The shops at Treasure Village (MM 86.7 Oceanside, Islamorada; 305/852-0511) are skippable, but the giant, anatomically correct lobster is worth inspecting, as is April Fool, at 71 inches the smallest sailboat ever to cross the Atlantic. • On the docks at Robbie's of Islamorada (MM 77.5 Bayside, Lower Matecumbe Key; 305/664-9814; www.robbies.com), you can feed the tarpon, which jump out of the water to grab bait from your hand. • Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park (305/664-2540) is a 280-acre virgin forest—one of the few places in the world to see old-growth gumbo-limbo, mahogany, lignum vitae, and fig trees.

beaching it
Protected by a coral reef, the 113-mile stretch from Key Largo to Key West isn't lined with luscious white sand. But there are a few beaches worth a mention. Anne's Beach, a mere blip on Lower Matecumbe Key, has picnic tables, a boardwalk, and just enough sand to keep your toes happy. • On Big Pine Key, Bahia Honda was nearly wiped out by Hurricane Georges in 1999. Since rebuilt, it's once again a lovely crescent of sand with good swimming and views of a remnant of the old Flagler Railway bridge. • In Marathon, the family-oriented Sombrero Beach is perhaps the best thing about the otherwise grotty town. • The beaches on Key West can get as hectic as Mallory Square at sunset. Beat the crowds by going to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, which has clear, deep water and a perfect—and perfectly unknown—location for watching the sun go down.

eat your dessert
Every other restaurant in the Keys claims to have the best Key lime pie. Manny & Isa's (MM 81.6 Oceanside, Islamorada; 305/664-5019) may well be the winner. This Cuban joint sells pie by the slice ($3.50) that has the perfect amount of meringue, a pleasingly flaky crust, and a filling that tastes the way Key lime filling should. Few lime trees are left in the Keys, so most chefs use imported fruit or resort to bottled juice, but Manny collects the limes from his backyard and squeezes them himself. • If Manny runs out of pie—as he often does by mid-afternoon—there are plenty of runners-up. A close second is Little Palm Island (28500 Overseas Hwy., Little Torch Key; 305/872-2524), where the pastry is made with cashews, and whipped cream is used instead of meringue. • At Alice's at La Te Da (1125 Duval St., Key West; 305/296-6706), the pie's tartness is leavened by a layer of chocolate ganache. • Louie's Backyard (700 Waddell Ave., Key West; 305/294-1061) makes a fancified version, with a gingerbread crust and raspberry coulis.

getting lit: essential reading
Dozens of writers have found inspiration in the beauty and moods of the Florida Keys, but perhaps none captures the island as eloquently and, for the traveler, as helpfully, as Joy Williams in The Florida Keys: A History and Guide (Random House). A deft storyteller and smasher of myths, Williams has produced a guide that is funny and highly opinionated (though sometimes overly disdainful of luxury). For a more literary context, the required volumes include Hemingway's To Have and Have Not (Simon & Schuster), an imperfect novel that nonetheless portrays the ambience of his Key West; Thomas McGuane's Ninety-Two in the Shade (Random House); and The Key West Reader (Tortugas), a good compilation of renowned writers.

clichés worth doing (once)
SUNSET AT MALLORY SQUARE Key West's legendary freak show—the contortionist, the fire juggler, the escape artist—must be seen once. The Rouse-ified square brims with the pink-faced and inebriated, but it's a tradition to uphold.

CONCH FRITTERS Local conch is endangered, so the fried bits on your plate (or the chewy bits in your chowder) probably came from the Turks and Caicos. In any case, conch is the local version of escargot: a mere beast of burden for more eminent accompaniments, whether cocktail sauce or the hot-pepper jelly and wasabi served at Louie's Backyard.

HEMINGWAY'S KEYS Papa's ghost is inescapable here, especially in Key West, where he lived for nine years. The museum in his former house and writing studio (907 Whitehead St., Key West; 305/294-1136; www.hemingwayhome.com) is an exercise in imagination-stretching: here Hemingway sat, here he wrote, here he swam, here he argued with his wife. But to replicate Hemingway's life, you need to go elsewhere, like the bar at Sloppy Joe's, or fishing at sea, where he was happiest.


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