The Key to the Keys
Welcome to the Florida vacation of your family's Key lime dreams: snorkeling, kayaking, hammock napping, and, yes, good pie. Our expert 14-year-old guide, Lily, leads the way to three idyllic resorts
Only on the Web: more details on the best of the Keys! See page 4.
To experience the Florida Keys in all their splendor, you have to take drastic measures. Turn off your MP3 player. Put down your Game Boy. Forget your DVD's. Tune out from virtual reality. And follow me.
I'm Lily Erlinger, 14 years old. My family was adopted by the melting-pot city of Miami nine years ago. My mother is Australian, my father, a photographer, is German (he took the pictures here), and I was born in Germany, as were my twin nine-year-old sisters, Ivy and May. Miami is a patchwork of different races, religions, and languages. But if there's one thing all Miamians have in common, it's the urge to head south on U.S. 1,the Overseas Highway. Destination: the chain of islands that string through the warm waters of Florida Bay and the Atlantic to the southernmost points in the U.S. The sun-faded, two-lane strip cuts through the ocean like a mirage. It connects residential islands, uninhabited atolls, and mere slivers of sand, occasionally lofting into astonishing bridges—43 in all; one is almost seven miles long! The first key, Key Largo, is an hour from Miami. The farthest out, Key West, is 159 miles southwest of the city and just 90 miles north of Havana.
But we don't make it down that far. My family's three favorite places to stay are much closer, in the Upper and Middle Keys. It's an hour-and-a-half drive to the Moorings and Cheeca Lodge, and another half-hour to Hawk's Cay. On the way to our first stop, we always brake for a homey breakfast at Harriette's Restaurant (Mile Marker 95.7 Bayside; 305/852-8689), on Key Largo. The Keys are known for their quirky people, and this is a good introduction to them. Take the 86-year-old avid scuba diver who sat next to me the last time I was at the counter. Or waitress Anne Marie, who's been dishing out Harriette's fried eggs and biscuits and gravy for 16 years. Her 12-year-old son, Ryan, eats breakfast while he waits for the school bus. Outside is a sign that says RYAN'S BUS STOP.
When we finally arrive at our hotel, we're well-fed and relaxed, and more than ready to hit the water!
Moorings Village The gorgeous island of Islamorada is home to the Moorings, my favorite place in the world to kick back. The resort's pastel-colored shingled houses, with tin roofs and large front porches, give a glimpse of the old Keys. Wooden walkways wind past the pool and tennis courts to a pale gold beach and a shower made from an upside-down watering can. Overhead, check out the bananas, papayas, and oranges. For us city kids, the Moorings means freedom. We're able to wander the grounds, which were once a coconut plantation. Sometimes, we're accompanied by Arthur, the owner's Newfoundland dog, whose paws are bigger than my sisters' hands.
This is chill time. Read your book in a hammock. Wade in the water and search for crabs. Lie on the jetty and toss bread to the fish. Gather coconuts, and ask the gardeners to punch holes in them for a taste of the sweet milk. If that makes you hungry for a snack, dash back to your house—it's only five paces away. Ask my family where we like to stay, and Dad will say Sifca, a cottage hidden away in the pines that's very private. Mom chooses Plantation: three bedrooms right on the beach. The twins want two-story Russell because they love racing up and down the stairs. As for me—well, I'd like to try all 18 of them before deciding.
Every morning, after slathering us with sunscreen, Mom lets us go solo to the pool—I'm the lifeguard, but she can hear us from our porch. The water is somehow always the perfect temperature. Later, Dad takes us out paddling in the kayaks that sit scattered on the sand. Next we'll master windsurfing. At night, we go down to the beach to lie in hammocks strung up between palm trees, wish on stars, listen to the waves, and play charades. This is a good place to bring dessert: either Florida's best Key lime pie, bought a short way down the road at the Cuban restaurant Manny and Isa's, or Mom's ice cream cookie-sandwiches—an advantage to staying in a house. She makes them with chocolate-chunk cookies, warm out of the oven, and scoops of vanilla ice cream.
When Mom doesn't cook, we head off to nearby Morada Bay Café, an ideal spot to bring a bucket and spade. There are cocktails and live mellow music for parents, the beach and glow sticks (mooched from the cocktails) for us kids. The food is great: curried yellowtail snapper, stir-fried Asian vegetables, burgers. After eating, we watch the sun setand give requests to the folksinger: Cat Stevens, John Lennon, and, of course, Jimmy Buffett. The entertainment keeps the finicky adults occupied while we steal a bit of time to ourselves. My sisters and I ditch our sandals under the tables and run up and down the soft, palm-lined sand, lit by flickering torches.
Back at the Moorings there might be a bonfire blazing in the barbecue area. That's just the kind of surprise detail that makes the resort so great. Look for the small Buddha resting in a hollow of a banyan tree, the conch shell carefully tucked under a jasmine bush, and the occasional crab that wanders up from the water. There's an herb garden next to every house. An old-fashioned wooden swing hangs from another banyan tree. And the most coveted hideout is under the thatched-palm roof at the end of the dock. I call it first.
Cheeca Lodge & Spa When my sisters get restless (all that relaxation can wear on a kid), it's time to change the pace a little. So my family checks out of the Moorings, piles into the car, and checks back in next door—at Cheeca Lodge.
Cheeca is famed for its action-packed roster of events and activities (attention, golfers and bonefishermen!). It's a favorite retreat of President George Bush Sr. The presidential suitehas a giant bathtub and is decorated with autographed photos and other tokens from his visits. We've never stayed in it; instead we get a one-bedroom suite with our own kitchen and balcony overlooking the sea. Cheeca hosts fishing tournaments, wine tastings, a monthly Moonrise Pier Party, an annual Earth Day festival, and lots of other celebrations. The twins join the kids' club, Camp Cheeca;in truth, if I could pass for a 4- to 12-year-old, I would too, especially for the field trips (every Thursday) to places such as Theater of the Sea, natural lagoons where the kids watch dolphin and sea lion shows, and the Dolphin Research Center.
With the twins out of our hair, Dad heads off with his cameras, and Mom and I relax in hammocks on the beach. Teenagers need their sleep, so I manage to work in a few naps a day. Some afternoons we all join a Cheeca motorboat outing to the local lighthouse, five miles offshore, for snorkeling. It's often a wild and bumpy ride because of the wind, and I won't mention what happened to May's stomach thanks to a particular bump. But when we finally anchor, the snorkeling is more than worth the trip. As soon as the water closes over our heads, we're in another world, with fish of every color and shape gathered in a mass, rocking in sync with the waves. There are so many fish, it feels almost as if we're staring at one huge creature, 20, maybe 30, times my size. May once spotted a baby nurse shark and decided it was time to get out. She likes it better in Cheeca's stocked lagoon. You can also take a three-hour family excursion to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, an amazing undersea preserve on Key Largo. If you're too scared or too young to snorkel there, you can sit safe and sound in a glass-bottomed boat and see the same beautiful fish and coral without getting wet.
Cheeca is known for luxuries, but it's also big on environmental programs—and so is my mother, who loves the resort's emphasis on protecting the Keys' ecosystem. The golf course, kept lush with recycled shower water, is a sanctuary for the Schaus swallowtail butterfly. Jet Skis are banned because they destroy sea grass and fish breeding grounds. During sea turtle nesting season, May through August, the lights are dimmed on the resort's beach. Kids learn all about the natural habitat of the Keys through Camp Cheeca. They go on guided walks. And—I'm not sure how environmentally friendly this is—they race Cheeca's pet hermit crabs. Last time we were there, our own Hermie won.
Hawk's Cay Resort Okay, time to bump up the energy quotient, and to travel farther down the Keys, to the cluster of five islands called Duck Key. Here, you'll find Hawk's Cay, a resort with 269 clapboard villas (plus 177 rooms and 85 boat slips), a swimming lagoon, five pools, a dolphin center—in other words, tons of things for families to do. Almost all of the guest quarters are on the water. They have two or three bedrooms and baths, a full kitchen, a lounge area: enough room for me to invite my best friend, Ben, to come along! Even teens can't help enjoy being at Hawk's Cay with their families.
The twins join the kids' club for select activities, such as pottery painting and beading, leaving time for Dad to take them to the mini-golf course and the pirate-ship waterslide. And while Ben reads, Mom and I go to the spa. There's a section for 8- to 16-year-olds that offers manicures, massages, and facials. I opt for the latter because I love the head massage that comes with it.
On exciting afternoons, we all go out in the resort's parasailing boat. Its captains, Moose and J.P., have us in stitches even before we leave the dock. Ivy and I get to go first. The sail is let out from the back of the boat. We begin to glide upward, kicking our feet furiously, nervously. My teeth chatter through a huge grin. When we rise to about 550 feet, the peace is incredible. Cushioned in a cocoon of wind, we sway gently. Straight ahead is nothing but blue. Below, we can see the shadows of the reef, as a few spasms of laughter float up from the boat.
I'd be hard-pressed to say which is more thrilling: parasailing or going to see the bottlenose dolphins at Hawk's Cay's lagoon, run by the Dolphin Connection. You start in a prep room, where a trainer talks about the history of the animals, their behavior, and how to handle them. Then you're divided into small groups to enter the water on platforms and watch a training session. That part is amazing—the dolphins swim right up to you, and you get to hug and stroke them, and the trainers have them do tricks. The twins are too young to be in the lagoon, but they can feed and "hold hands" with dolphins from the dock. These animals, by the way, seem to be treated with great care. Each spends only two hours a day interacting with people, and never more than four at a time. You really ought to bring your whole crew here. And if you see someone with blond hair and pesky twin sisters who looks as if she wished she owned the place, that'll be me.
His Name Is Always Hermie
Whenever we're in the Keys we get pets from the Keys Shell Shop (Mile Marker 82 Oceanside; 305/664-4784), on Islamorada. We pick the smallest, liveliest creatures in the store. Can you guess what they are?Hermit crabs! You can find them at every shell shop in the Keys. These critters drink fresh water (give them a shallow dish so they don't drown) and eat scraps (lettuce, apples, cooked meat, bread). They're sociable and will crawl over your hands and stomach. If they attach themselves to something, don't pull them off by the shell; you might break their legs, which should be gently released one by one. We always set our pets free before we leave, but you can keep them. They live an average of three years. One more thing—try not to put them in your hair; trust me!
For more tips, see www.hermitcrabs.com.
We Love This Shack!
Robbie's Rent-a-Boat (MM 77.5 Bayside, Lower Matecumbe Key; 877/664-8498 or 305/664-9814; www.robbies.com) is a rickety hut and pier where fishermen come to rent motorboats. Robbie's also offers fishing trips just for kids. But the fun right here is tossing bait—thread herring, $2 a bucket—to the prehistoric-looking tarpon that gather around the dock in a feeding frenzy. Try throwing the bait as far as you can, and watch the big fish race for it, or dangle a herring above the water—sure enough, a tarpon will jump out and snap at it. Be careful, though: there have been stories of tarpon eating more than just fish.
- Moorings Village 123 Beach Rd. (MM 81.5 Oceanside); 305/664-4708; www.themooringsvillage.com; cottages from $225.
- Cheeca Lodge & Spa MM 82 Oceanside; 800/327-2888 or 305/664-4651; www.cheeca.com; doubles from $129. Manny and Isa's MM 81.6 Oceanside; 305/664-5019; Key lime pie slices $3.50.
- Morada Bay Café 81600 Overseas Hwy.; 305/664-0604; dinner for four $80.
Hawk's Cay Resort 61 Hawk's Cay Blvd. (MM 61 Oceanside); 800/432-2242 or 305/743-7000; www.hawkscay.com; doubles from $210, villas from $375. Parasailing, ages eight and older, from $45. Dolphin Connection, dockside, ages five and older, from $55; interactive (participants must be at least four foot six), from $100.
The drive down the Keys on U.S. 1 is studded with quirky signs, eccentric motels, and...unusual mailboxes. Bet you can't find our nine favorites, pictured. Here's some incentive: Send proof—snapshots—that you spotted them all. The first 10 entries we receive with all nine correct will each win a T+L Family kid-sized beach hat, and one lucky person, picked in a random drawing of all complete entries, will receive a $100 American Express Gift Cheque. Hint: All of the mailboxes are on U.S. 1, between Key Largo and Duck Key, except number 6, which is in a public spot at one of the featured resorts.
1. Gray manatee with baby
2. Blue garbage truck
4. Tiger-striped fish
6. Replica of the Moorings Village plantation house
7. Sailboats at sunset
8. Green turtle
9. Multi-finned fish
Mailbox Hunt contest rules and regulations: Send an original photo of each of the mailboxes taken by the entrant, with your name, address, and phone number, to: Mailbox Hunt, Travel + Leisure Family, 1120 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10036. No purchase necessary. Contest open to legal residents of the United States. Limit one entry per family living in the same household. All entries must be postmarked by April 30, 2004, and received by May 7, 2004. Not responsible for incomplete, lost, or misdirected entries. All entries become property of Travel + Leisure Family. Void where prohibited.
Web Only: More details on the best of the Keys, including outfitters, restaurants, beaches, worthy detours, and 13 more places to stay
Related: Best of the Florida Keys
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 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.
DESTINATION RESORTS: 13 More Places To Stay
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.
KEY WEST HOTELS
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.
A nearby sister property, the pink concrete Wyndham Beach Resort (1435 Simonton St.; 800/626-0777 or 305/296-5000; www.wyndham.com; doubles from $329, kids free), has a smaller beach and similar resort amenities; all 150 rooms have balconies.
The Hilton Key West Resort & Marina (245 Front St.; 888/477-7786 or 305/294-4000; www.hilton.com; doubles from $299) sits on the Old Town waterfront and is walking distance from shops, restaurants, and galleries. Spend a day (or week) at Sunset Key, the resort's ace in the hole: a semi-private island 10 minutes away by launch, with a beach, restaurant, bar, and 37 bungalows.
The 120-room Hyatt Key West Resort & Marina (601 Front St.; 800/554-9288 or 305/296-9900; www.hyatt.com; doubles from $325) is one of the smallest of the large resorts, and has a low-key feeling. Bicycle and scooter rentals available.
Smaller yet is Ocean Key Resort (No. 0 Duval St.; 800/328-9815 or 305/296-7701; www.oceankey.com; doubles from $399, kids under 18 free), founded by the owners of Little Palm Island, who bought a characterless building at the foot of Duval Street and sank $5.5 million—and a lot of bright paint—into it. Book a room overlooking Mallory Square: all you'll remember seeing is the sun dropping below the horizon.
Island City House Hotel This 24-room compound includes an 1880's mansion fronting the street whose 12 "parlor suites" are decorated with Victorian antiques—somewhat dark for the Keys. The gingerbread-trimmed Arch House, over the old carriage entrance, has brighter interiors but simpler furnishings; rooms in the old cigar factory are larger, each with a hammock overlooking the pool. This is one of the few small hotels in Key West that allows kids of all ages. The one-bedroom suites in the Island City House and Cigar House have sleeper-sofas in the living room and are ideal for families. There's a large pool, and cribs, high-chairs and strollers are available free of charge. 411 William St.; 800/634-8230 or 305/294-5702; www.islandcityhouse.com; suites from $210, children under 12 free.
Marquesa Hotel When it opened in 1988, the Marquesa raised the bar among Key West hotels. The original building, a landmark 1884 Greek Revival boardinghouse, was bought by two local men who specialized in restoring Key West's architectural gems. They furnished the 27 rooms with iron four-posters, pine sleigh beds from Indonesia, English armoires, and planter's chairs from the Caribbean. The Marquesa's courtyard—two small pools surrounded by tropical plantings—is exquisite. Service is graciousness defined: a glass of white wine when you check in, a receptionist who remembers your name when you call six months later. Hands down, the best place to stay in Key West. Families (children must be 12 and older) book junior suites at the resort, which also has a tennis court and golf course. The hotel can arrange snorkeling trips, glass bottom boat and moped rentals. 600 Fleming St.; 800/869-4631 or 305/292-1919; www.marquesa.com; junior suites from $410.
Artist House This fabulous purple Victorian mansion has seven rooms and adornment to spare. Traditional Southern elements predominate: wingback chairs, four-poster beds, acres of swag-enough to make you want to put on a hoopskirt and a bustle. Although it's primarily a romantic getaway, this hotel suggests its two-bedroom villas for families with kids ages 13 and older. 534 Eaton St.; 800/582-7882 or 305/296-3977; www.artisthousekeywest.com; doubles from $139, teens $20.
Gardens Hotel Peggy Mills bought this 1870's house in 1930 and set about creating a showpiece botanical garden. She brought in 87,000 paving bricks, a Moorish fountain, and four tinajones, huge earthenware jars from Cuba that each weigh a ton. After her death, the place became a hotel with 17 rooms spread among five buildings. Breakfast—croissants, Key lime beignets—is served in the solarium. But you'll spend more time lolling in the pool, smelling the jasmine, and drinking a toast to Miss Peggy. Kids 10 and older welcomed. 526 Angela St.; 800/526-2664 or 305/294-2661; www.gardenshotel.com; doubles from $265, extra bed $20.
Heron House The three-building property is distinguished by artistic touches, such as stained-glass transom windows, intricately patterned brick patios, and a collection of rare orchids. The 23 rooms are large, with private decks and high ceilings; walls of teak or cedar marquetry add warmth. Kids must be 16 or older. 512 Simonton St.; 800/294-1644 or 305/294-9227; www.heronhouse.com; doubles from $189, teens $25.
Lightbourn Inn A 1903 Queen Anne house on a busy street conceals an astonishing display of compulsive knickknackery: autographed pictures of movie stars; antique furniture, lamps, and objets from around the world; and an entire wall of teddy bears. Breakfast is served by the pool—on Fiestaware, of course. Kids 12 and older allowed. 907 Truman Ave.; 800/352-6011 or 305/296-5152; www.lightbourn.com; doubles from $178, children $25.
A Florida Keys diet is bound to be plentiful in omega-3 and other fishy nutrients, but you'll get points off for breaded and fried. Thankfully, restaurants are warming to the healthful New World cuisine—tropical fruits and tubers, Latin-Caribbean flavors—that's ubiquitous in Miami and points north. In other words, the shrimp may be fried, but it will come with a mango-poppy seed dipping sauce. In the land of the laid-back, "formal" restaurants are happy to see kids, and the only dress code is a shirt and shoes. Seriously: A jacket is never required; ties are laughed at.
UPPER KEYS Fish House The line is long, the conch chowder peppery, and the catch of the day done eight ways (try Matecumbe-style: tomatoes, capers, shallots, basil, and lemon juice). And the nautical knickknacks lining the walls and strung on the ceiling are endlessly amusing. 102401 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 305/451-4665; dinner for four $100.
Snapper's Waterfront Seafood Restaurant On a mangrove-ringed inlet in Key Largo, Snapper's brings in the locals with killer rum drinks and good appetizers: cracked conch, blackened dolphin "fingers." All deep-fried items are hand-breaded, thank goodness. MM 94.5 Oceanside, Key Largo; 305/852-5956; dinner for four $140.
MIDDLE KEYS ChikiTiki Bar & Grille Hidden away in a Marathon marina, ChikiTiki serves dockside grub with Mexican touches, such as a green-chile cheeseburger and spiced fries. In most other ways, however, it's an archetype of its genre: the smell of sea air; a bar crowded with salts of all types. And, yes, that's a mousetrap holding down your bill. 1200 Oceanview Ave., Marathon; 305/743-9204; dinner for four $40.
LOWER KEYS No Name Pub This pub was established in 1935, which may be the last time it got a thorough cleaning. At least the dollar bills covering every square inch of wall and rafter seem to have been there forever, as have the characters wearing beards and trucker caps and eating tangy smoked-fish dip and grouper sandwiches off paper plates. The point is to be pleased with yourself for having found the place. N. Watson Blvd., Big Pine Key; 305/872-9115; dinner for four $70.
KEY WEST Alice's at La Te Da Go for a poolside table among the palms at the campy La Te Da guesthouse. Then go for the yellowtail snapper in Key lime beurre blanc, the "magic meat loaf," or the rack of Australian lamb. Most of all, go to meet Alice Weingarten, the island legend who visits every table wearing a floppy toque and cat's-eye glasses—the consummate Key West hostess. 1125 Duval St.; 305/296-6706; dinner for four $140.
Blue Heaven Restaurant In a former bordello allegedly frequented by Ernest Hemingway—hardly a unique claim in Key West—Blue Heaven is huge among the locals for a lively bar and breakfast in the backyard, complete with picnic tables and clucking chickens. It might seem untoward to eat eggs in such company, but the omelettes shouldn't be missed. 729 Thomas St.; 305/296-8666; breakfast for four $40.
Louie's Backyard Van Aken made his reputation here before being anointed king of New World cuisine. But Louie's maintains its status as an institution and is still a favorite among residents, despite the crush of tourists feasting on the innovative Caribbean-influenced food: lobster braised in truffle butter; grilled tuna served with a sweet soy, papaya, and seaweed salad. The "backyard" is really the Atlantic. 700 Waddell Ave., Key West; 305/294-1061; dinner for four $150.
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.
In a place where a plastic daisy on your flip-flops counts as a stylistic flourish, don't expect to find exceptional retail opportunities. There are a few specialty shops worth mentioning (all are in Key West). T-shirt shops have taken over Duval Street, Key West's main drag, like kudzu; for worthwhile gifts, try Fast Buck Freddie's (500 Duval St.; 305/294-2007), an old-time department store.
The local answer to Kiehl's, Key West Aloe (524 Front St.; 305/294-5592) is full of lab-coated assistants eager to administer to your sunburn.
They may not fly back home, but the colorful, boisterously patterned shirts and dresses at Key West Handprint Fabrics & Fashions (201 Simonton St.; 305/294-9535) are pretty much the town uniform.
Key West claims to have been the home of 11 Pulitzer winners; the best bookstore is Key West Island Books (513 Fleming St.; 305/294-2904).
If you must have one of those manatee-shaped mailboxes you've seen lining U.S. 1, Pelican Poop (314 Simonton St.; 305/296-3887) is the place to buy it.
two worthy detours
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.
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.
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.
The majority of this story was excerpted from "Best of the Florida Keys," an article by Peter Frank that appeared in Travel + Leisure in March 2003. The article was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details and prices directly with the service establishments before making travel plans.