The drive from Miami to the Keys is spectacular, a slow descent into an unusual but breathtaking American ecosystem; on either side, for miles ahead, lies nothing but emerald waters. (On weekends, however, you will also see plenty of traffic.) Strung out across the Atlantic Ocean like loose strands of cultured pearls, more than 400 islands make up this 150-mile-long necklace.
The Keys are divided into three geographical sections. The Upper and Middle Keys are closest to the Florida mainland, so they are popular with weekend warriors who come by boat or car to fish or relax in such towns as Key Largo, Islamorada, and Marathon. Just beyond the impressive Seven-Mile Bridge (which actually measures 6 1/2 miles), are the Lower Keys, a small, unspoiled swath of islands teeming with wildlife. Here, in the protected regions of the Lower Keys, is where you''re most likely to catch sight of the area''s many endangered animals - with patience, you may spot the rare eagle, egret, or Key deer. You should also keep an eye out for alligators, turtles, rabbits, and a huge variety of birds.
Key West, the most renowned - and last - island in the Lower Keys, is literally at the end of the road. The southernmost point in the continental United States (made famous by Ernest Hemingway), this tiny island is the most popular destination in the Florida Keys, overrun with cruise-ship passengers and day-trippers, as well as franchises and T-shirt shops. More than 1.6 million visitors pass through it each year. Still, this Conch Republic has a tightly knit community of permanent residents who cling fiercely to their live-and-let-live attitude - an atmosphere that has made Key West famously popular with painters, writers, and free spirits despite the recent influx of money-hungry developers who want to turn Key West into Palm Beach south.
Florida Keys Adventure
Before shelling out big bucks for any of the dozens of worthwhile attractions in Key West, there are two comprehensive island tours, the Conch Tour Train or the Old Town Trolley, which provide an excellent overview of Key West. And fun too!
Hemingway''s particularly handsome stone Spanish colonial house, built in 1851, was one of the first on the island to be fitted with indoor plumbing and a built-in fireplace. It also has the first swimming pool built on Key West (look for the penny that Hemingway pressed into the cement near the pool). The author owned the home from 1931 until his death in 1961, and lived here with about 50 cats, whose descendants, including the famed six-toed felines, still roam the premises.
It was during those years that the Nobel Prize-winning author wrote some of his most famous works, including For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Fans may want to take the optional half-hour house tour to see his study as well as rooms with glass cabinets that store certain artefacts, books, and pieces of mail addressed to him. It''s interesting (to an extent) and included in the price of admission. If you don''t take the tour or have no interest in Hemingway, the price of admission is really a waste of money, except for the lovely architecture and garden. Guided tours are given every 15 minutes - expect to spend an hour on the property.
As any angler will tell you, there''s no fishing like Keys fishing. Key West has it all: bonefish, tarpon, dolphin, tuna, grouper, cobia, and more - sharks, too.
Step aboard a small exposed skiff for an incredibly diverse day of fishing. In the morning, you can head offshore for sailfish or dolphin (the fish, not the mammal), and then by afternoon get closer to land for a shot at tarpon, permit, grouper, or snapper. Here in Key West, you can probably pick up more cobia - one of the best fighting and eating fish around - than anywhere else in the world. For a real fight, ask your skipper to go for the tarpon - the greatest fighting fish there is, famous for its dramatic ''tail walk'' on the water after it''s hooked. Shark fishing is also popular.
You''ll find plenty of competition among the charter-fishing boats in and around Mallory Square. You can negotiate a good deal at Charter Boat Row, home to more than 30 charter-fishing and party boats. Just show up to arrange your outing, or call Garrison Bight Marina for details.
Nightlife & Party with Locals
Duval Street is the Bourbon Street of Florida. Amid the T-shirt shops and clothing boutiques, you''ll find bar after bar serving neon-coloured frozen drinks to revellers who bounce from bar to bar from noon ''til dawn. Bands and crowds vary from night to night and season to season. Your best bet is to start at Truman Avenue and head up Duval to check them out for yourself. Cover charges are rare, except in gay clubs, so stop into a dozen and see which you like. For the most part, Key West is a late-night town, and bars and clubs don''t close until around 3:00 or 4:00 am.
A tradition in Key West, the Sunset Celebration can be relaxing or overwhelming, depending on your vantage point. If you''re in town, you must check out this ritual at least once. Every evening, locals and visitors gather at the docks behind Mallory Square (at the westernmost end of Whitehead Street) to celebrate the day gone by. Secure a spot on the docks early to experience the carnival of portrait artists, acrobats, food vendors, animal acts, and other performers trading on the island''s bohemian image.
A more refined choice is the Westin''s Sunset Deck, a luxurious second-floor bar on Front Street, right next door to Mallory Square. From the civilised calm of a casual bar, you can look down on the mayhem with a drink in hand.
Also near the Mallory madness is the bar at the Ocean Key Resort, at the very tip of Duval Street. This long open-air pier serves drinks and decent bar food against a dramatic pink-and-yellow-streaked sky.
For the very best potent cocktails and great bar food on an outside patio or enclosed lounge, try Pier House Resort and Caribbean Spa''s Havana Docks. There''s usually live music and a lively gathering of visitors enjoying this island''s bounty. The bar is right on the water and makes a prime sunset-viewing spot.
You''ll have to stop in here just to say you did. Scholars and drunks debate whether this is the same Sloppy Joe''s that Hemingway wrote about, but there''s no argument that this classic bar''s early-20th-century wooden ceiling and cracked-tile floors are Key West originals. There''s live music nightly, as well as a cigar room and martini bar.
Gourmet Cuisine & Dining Out
Florida dawns with local citrus fruit. Drink fresh-squeezed juice from the glass or stop at roadside stands for a bag of tangerines to go. From amberjack to Florida lobster, from mackerel to stone crabs and conch, fresh seafood rules in Florida thanks to 800 miles of oceanfront. Feast on platters of delicately sauced fish adorned with lemon, garlic and capers, or use your fingers to dip basketfuls of deep-fried seafood into cups of ketchup and tartar sauce at dockside picnic tables.
What was once a well-kept secret in Key West''s Bahama Village, Blue Heaven is now a popular eatery known for fresh food (it''s some of the best in town) and a motley, bohemian crowd.
It may be a little tough to find and it doesn''t have a water view, but the tiny, hip Seven Fish Restaurant in Key West isn''t about the frills. A mostly locals'' seafood spot, the motto here is ''simple good food''. We disagree. The food isn''t simple; it''s simply the best seafood in town, with fresh catches of the day, phenomenal crab cakes, friendly servers, and a cool, in-the-know crowd.
World''s Best Scuba Dive Sites
The warm, clear, shallow waters of the Dry Tortugas produce optimum conditions for snorkelling and scuba diving. Four endangered species of sea turtles - green, leatherback, Atlantic ridley, and hawksbill - can be found here, along with myriad marine species. The region just outside the seawall of Fort Jefferson is excellent for underwater touring; an abundant variety of fish, coral, and more live in just 3 to 4 feet of water.
Heritage Trail features nine historic sites from Key Largo to Key West. For each of the nine Shipwreck Trail sites there is an underwater site guide available, who provides the shipwreck and mooring buoy positions, history, and a site map, and identifies marine life you can expect to see.
World Class Golf Courses
A relative newcomer in terms of local recreation, golf is gaining in popularity here, as it is in many holiday destinations. The area''s only public golf club is Key West Golf Club, an 18-hole course at the entrance to the island of Key West at MM 4.5 (turn onto College Road to the course entrance). Designed by Rees Jones, the course has plenty of mangroves and water hazards on its 6,526 yards. It''s open to the public and has a new pro shop. Call ahead for tee-time reservations.
The kids will love the excitement of exploring Key West on the Conch Tour Train - a delightful 60-foot tram of yellow cars that weave its way around the Old Town. The city''s whole story is packed into a neat, 90-minute package on the Conch Tour Train, which covers the island and all its rich, raunchy history. In operation since 1958, the cars are open-air, which can make the ride uncomfortable in bad weather. The engine of the train is a propane-powered Jeep disguised as a locomotive. Tours depart from both Mallory Square and the Welcome Center, near where U.S. 1 becomes North Roosevelt Boulevard, on the less-developed side of the island. Daily departures are every half-hour from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm.
The Old Town Trolley is the choice in bad weather or if you''re staying at one of the hotels on its route. Humorous drivers maintain a running commentary as the enclosed trolley loops around the island''s streets past all the major sights. Trolley buses depart from Mallory Square and other points around the island, including many area hotels. Departures are daily every half-hour (though not always on the half-hour) from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm.
Whichever you choose, both of these historic, trivia-packed tours are well worth the price of tickets - a fun excursion for the entire family.
A popular mode of transportation for locals and visitors alike, bikes and mopeds are available at many rental outlets in the city. Escape the hectic downtown scene and explore the island''s scenic side streets by heading away from Duval Street toward South Roosevelt Boulevard and the beachside enclaves along the way.
Unlike the rest of the Keys, Key West actually has a few small beaches, although they don''t compare with the state''s wide natural wonders up the coast; the Keys'' beaches are typically narrow and rocky. Here are a few options: Smathers Beach (a magnet for partying teenagers), off South Roosevelt Boulevard west of the airport; Higgs Beach, along Atlantic Boulevard between White Street and Reynolds Road; and Fort Zachary Beach, located off the western end of Southard Boulevard.