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The Key to the Keys

Web Only: More details on the best of the Keys, including outfitters, restaurants, beaches, worthy detours, and 13 more places to stay

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.

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 hammock 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). N.B. There aren't any age restrictions for these excursions, but anyone planning to scuba dive must be certified.

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 your family, 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.

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.

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 Guava Room and Pineapple Suite can be connected to sleep a family of four. 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, children $65.

LOWER KEYS Little Palm Island The theme of this resort could be Gilligan's Island set in the Raj. Caveat: Only kids 16 and older are allowed. There are 30 duplex units on a mere six acres, so privacy, while respected, is secondary to a sense of isolation. After all, only a select few are willing to spend upwards of $895 a night in the Keys, meals excluded. What do you get for all that?Enthusiastic and diligent service. A roomy suite under a thatched roof, with ocean views. And thoughtful touches like your name in wood blocks above the door. 28500 Overseas Hwy. (MM 29 Oceanside), Little Torch Key; 800/343-8567 or 305/872-2524; www.littlepalmisland.com; doubles from $895.

The question of where to stay in Key West mirrors, in a way, the town's own existential dilemma. Guesthouses represent the past—eccentric, architecturally distinctive. Resorts signify Key West's evolution into a mainstream destination. At one extreme are inns campy enough to make Liberace look like Charlton Heston; at the other, properties much like those anywhere else in America. Between the two poles, however, are places of character and comfort, listed here.

There are several standouts among the island's larger properties. The 311-room Wyndham Casa Marina Resort (1500 Reynolds St.; 800/626-0777 or 305/296-3535; www.wyndham.com; doubles from $359, kids free), built by Henry Flagler in 1920, is reminiscent of other Florida land-boom hotels. The beautiful grounds slope down toward a large beach. There is an established kids' program for ages 5-12, but all guests can parasail, scoot on mopeds around the area, or play ping-pong by the sea.


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