The Florida Keys
How to holiday--affordably--in the fab Florida Keys
Ever since Bogey and Bacall sailed away to Key Largo, the string of coral islands at the southern tip of Florida has captured the imagination of Americans with its promise of romance, breezes, and sparkling waters. Unfortunately, this bit of paradise doesn't come cheap, with glorified motels often charging in the mid-hundreds even in low season. This is most true in the most famous, and admittedly the prettiest, of the islands: Key West, that Victorian-era seafaring town that has lured artists, boaters, and colorful misfits alike for well over a century.
Well, shady lanes and dollhouse inns are nice places to park your bags, but as proud tightwads we prefer to bunk and eat elsewhere in the Keys and check out the charms of Key West as a day trip. That being said, elsewhere in the Keys the gougers still outnumber the bargains by far, but we've identified the very best deals up and down Overseas Highway (also known as U.S. 1, the spine of these parts), with delightful rooms running as low as $45 and delicious dinners under $10.
But first, a reality check: If visions of endless beaches and sugary sands are dancing in your head, the Florida Keys has something different in store. Some sand--in reality, eroded coral reef--but it tends to be coarse and the mangroves hugging much of the coastline can turn the water brackish. What these teeny tiny islands do offer is glorious scenery, wildlife, and some of America's best fishing, boating, snorkeling, scuba diving at some of the planet's most important reef systems. Which is not to say that all who come are marine maniacs: long and lazy days of sunning, reading, and swimming pool action are high on many a visitor's list.
To get here, the best option is to fly on one of many budget airlines--JetBlue, Southwest, AirTran, Song--into Miami. Fort Lauderdale is usually cheaper, but adds about forty minutes to your drive down. Then rent a car (most run about $150 a week in high season, less on Priceline.com). The Florida Turnpike offers an uneventful 35-mile drive down through Homestead and Florida City, on the edge of the Everglades wilderness. From there, U.S. 1 threads another 30 miles through wetlands to Key Largo, the first and largest of the Florida Keys; from there it's another 100 miles or so to the end of the line--Mile Marker 0--in Key West. The highway skips from island to island, often alongside the crumbling railbed of the original overseas railway, built in 1912. Although the whole archipelago only takes about two hours to drive, choose your base depending on your tastes: diving (stay on Key Largo in the Upper Keys), history and culture (near Key West in the Lower Keys), or tropical seclusion (try any of the Middle Keys).
The upper Keys
Stretching 40 miles from Key Largo down to Tavernier and Islamorada, the Upper Keys offer convenience (decent shopping, near the mainland), as well as the terrific John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park ($2.50/person, Mile Marker 102.5, Key Largo, 305/451-1621). America's first underwater state park, it has a decent beach, nature trails through fascinating mangrove swamps, and stunning coral reefs where you can snorkel, scuba, or take a glass-bottom boat on the crystal-clear water. Stop also at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center ($5 per car, MM 93.6, 305/852-4486, fkwbc.org/) for a stroll through its tropical hammock forest and a chance to see endangered local birds (pelicans, osprey) being nursed back to health. Islamorada is also one of the few places in the Keys where boaters have easy access to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico (Marathon and Key West are two others).
For more serious nature lovers, a day trip 28 miles north to the Everglades National Park (enter via Florida City) offers a chance to see not just alligators and all manner of bird life, but also what South Florida was like before the arrival of cars and strip malls.
Among the few reasonably priced lodgings hereabouts, three properties stand out: First as you drive south on Islamorada, at MM 99.5 are next-door neighbors Sunset Cove Resort (877/451-0705, sunsetcovebeachresort.com/) and the Hungry Pelican Resort (305/541-3576, hungrypelican.com/), two Gulfside getaways. They offer shaded, quirky bungalows within walking distance to the shops and eateries in town. Most are $65 to $90 with a range of amenities; some have kitchens, but count on AC, cable, and free breakfast. Sunset Cove, in particular, evokes the Keys' free-spirited vibe with its whimsical animal sculptures--lions, rearing bears, a big brontosaurus--dotting the grounds.