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The Keys

Although it takes only 45 minutes to fly from Miami to Key West, a leisurely drive allows a true Southeast Florida experience. The 113-mile Overseas Highway, sometimes called the "Highway that Goes to the Sea," leapfrogs from key to key, treating travelers to turquoise seascapes and deep green landscapes under a brilliant blue Florida sky. The highway can be traversed in fewer than four hours from Miami, but many visitors prefer to get into the spirit of the islands and take time to explore the treasures along the way.

florida keysIsland hopping down to Key West along the scenic Overseas Highway, travelers will encounter numerous parks and special attractions sure to enchant and excite the entire family.

The jumping-off point to the Florida Keys is Key Largo, 42 miles southwest of Miami. After leaving the city behind, visitors will want to head straight for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park — the first underwater preserve in the United States — and the adjacent Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. A combined 20 miles long, these refuges feature 55 varieties of delicate corals and almost 500 different species of fish. And the 9-foot-tall "Christ of the Deep," a 4,000-pound bronze statue, presents an unexpected underwater shrine. Diving is the best way to tour the underwater paradise, but many of the wonders are visible from the glass-bottom boat, snorkeling and sailing tours also offered at the parks. For those who prefer snorkeling in an enclosed in-shore lagoon, the Key Largo Undersea Park offers a unique array of undersea adventures. Visitors can study the remains of a shipwreck, explore an underwater research laboratory and view a bizarre underwater art studio. If one day isn’t enough, how about spending the night at the Jules Undersea Lodge, the world’s first underwater hotel, anchored 30 feet beneath the lagoon’s surface.

In Islamorada, families can visit the famous Theater of the Sea, where porpoises and sea lions cavort in spacious, coral rock-lined natural ponds, and barracuda, tarpon and shark can sometimes be spotted.

FishingKnown as the "Sportfishing Capital of the World," Islamorada is heralded for its angling diversity and features the Keys’ largest fleet of offshore charter boats and shallow water "backcountry" boats. Across the breathtaking Seven Mile Bridge, the Lower Keys provide an easygoing respite, with wide-open settings bordering breathtaking ocean views. Here, visitors can camp beneath the tropical island skies, take a night dive or spot the tiny Key deer that reside in the area. Take a kayak excursion through the Keys’ shallow-water backcountry environment, ranging from mangrove communities to turtle grass flats to sponge flats. Wildlife and rare birds abound in these unspoiled areas. Visitors can explore the backcountry from a rented kayak or take a guided tour, which promises to be a fascinating mixture of field trip, natural history lesson and just plain fun.

For a close encounter of the unforgettable kind, try swimming with friendly dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key. The center is one of three facilities in the Keys that provide visitors with an opportunity to interact with the intelligent and curious animals. The center also features a number of educational and entertaining programs focusing on marine mammals and the environment.

Marathon Key, heart of the Florida Keys, is home to Crane Point Hammock, a 63-acre land tract that is one of the most important ecological, historical and archaeological sites in the Keys. The area contains evidence of pre-Colombian and prehistoric Bahamian artifacts and was once the site of an entire Indian village. Vacationers can explore these and other historical landmarks at the Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys and the adjacent children’s museum, the first of its kind in the Keys.

On Big Pine Key, a dwindling herd of tiny Key deer — each no larger than a medium-sized dog — can be spotted in the National Key Deer Refuge and are sure to charm the kids. The refuge provides ample hiking and bird watching among tropical forests and alongside Blue Hole, the largest body of fresh water in the Florida Keys, where Key deer are joined by various birds, turtles and alligators for nourishment.

At the highway’s end lies Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States.

Key West offers the ultimate island vacation, with scuba diving, sailing, fine dining and historical museums. Visitors can now enjoy all the island’s amenities and stretch their vacation dollars with the Key West Guest Card and Guide. The $5 card offers discounts on attractions, restaurants, bars, shopping, watersports and fitness. The card is accompanied by a Guest Guide and a fold-out map of Key West highlighting major traffic routes and listing the 60-member Key West Innkeepers Association, made up of guest houses and attractions. Cards are available by calling toll free 1-800-KEY-INNS (U.S. & Canada) or by faxing (305) 296-7170.



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