The Florida Keys

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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.

At MM 86.6, turn left at the giant roadside lobster for the Ragged Edge Resort (243 Treasure Harbor Rd., MM 86.6; 800/436-2023, 305/852-5389, ragged-edge.com/), a cute Tahitian-style motel consisting of 11 simple but clean cottages on the ocean starting at $79. The grassy, sprawling property is a perfect place for birdwatching on the raised deck or unwinding by the oceanfront heated fresh-water pool. At MM85, Drop Anchor Resort, operated by owners that put value in quiet, good taste, and affordability, is a real find (305/664-4863, dropanchorresort.com/), offering 18 cottages and motel units with a pool (50s vintage but redone with a cool Caribbean flair), all with fridges and AC, on a 300-foot sandy beach beneath a coconut grove. Units are $70 to $95 depending on season and rise to $90 to $115 for the deluxe oceanfront apartments. Finally, divers should head for Kelly's On the Bay (104220 Overseas Highway, at MM104.2, Key Largo; 800/226-0415, aqua-nuts.com/), a full-service resort with a peppy staff where 34 fresh rooms start at $80 in the high winter season and go down to $70 in low. One-day scuba instruction costs $150 per person, including a boat trip. If you're already certified, dives on its custom boats' two daily departures will cost $22 to $30 per person, including tanks and weights, depending on how many you buy in advance. Snorkeling is $25 a trip.

For good grub at a fair price, try Steve's Time Out Barbecue (101 Palm Avenue, at MM81.5, Islamorada; 305/664-8911), a simple, red-and-white-checkered-tablecloth kinda joint wafting with mouthwatering smells. Its menu is heavy on barbecue, of course, and the best deal may be the "triple header" combo platter with pork, beef, and pulled chicken, served with garlic bread, cole slaw, and a choice of baked beans or fries--all for $9.59.

Since Havana is just 90 miles from Key West across the straits, the area is suffused with Cuban culture. The Marlin (10277 Overseas Highway, at MM102.5, Key Largo; 305/451-2454) serves Cuban delights such as picadillo, ground beef in a light tomato sauce with olives, capers, and raisins, for $6,including a choice of two sides. There's also fresh seafood on the order of blackened dolphin (the fish, not the mammal) for $10, again with two sides. Papa Joe's (70701 Overseas Highway, MM 79.3, 305/664-5005), a Jimmy Buffet-style marina-side bar, is a well-known place to sit on the water with a beer, a cup of conch chowder ($2.95) and its signature grouper reuben ($7.95). The one place not to miss, however, is the quirky Alabama Jack's (58000 Card Sound Rd.; 305/248-8741), located 25 minutes north of Key Largo on a quiet road through Card Sound, but worth the detour. This rustic melting pot, overlooking a mangrove-lined channel teeming with colorful fish and birds, is a trip back to a simpler time. The thing here is bodacious plates of fried grouper or legendary conch fritters, both served with two sides for $7.95. Try to stop by on weekend afternoons for the live country western band and fun mixed crowd.

The middle Keys

Keep alert on the road as you head southwest from Islamorada, for the views of the open sky and the sea are dotted with green islands, swooping pelicans, and shades of blue you never imagined. Highlights of this area include Pigeon Key, with a small museum and historical buildings dating to the construction of Henry Flagler's railroad; an audience with dolphins--the mammal, not the fish--at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key ($17.50 but worth it; book plenty early if you want to book a personal swim with the creatures, 305/289-1121, dolphins.org/); the lovely Sombrero Beach at MM 50 on Marathon; and the amazing Seven Mile Bridge (actually a causeway) leading south of Marathon to the Lower Keys--as beautiful a drive as you'll find anywhere in America.

Possibly the finest budget place to stay in the Florida Keys, the just-renovated Lime Tree Bay Resort (MM 68.5, Layton, Long Key; 800/723-4519; limetreebayresort.com/) could easily charge twice as much for its 31 sparkling and professionally-decorated rooms--but let's not tell them that. For a place that looks and feels like a small luxe resort, the rates are mindblowing: $79 for waterfront motel-style rooms in low season, $102 in high. There's also a great pool and jacuzzi overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, tennis courts, on-site watersports, and a sandy sunning beach with coral rock formations.

Another excellent choice, the laid-back and basic Bonefish Bay Motel (12565 Overseas Highway, at mile marker 53.5, Marathon Shores; 800/336-0565, 305/743-7107, bonefish.com/) sits near the picturesque Bonefish Flats, where you can angle, not surprisingly, for bonefish. Don't confuse it with the similarly named, but crummy, "Resort" five miles up the road. Rates range $49 (simple rooms in fall) to $99 (one-bedroom efficiencies in peak season); there's a pool, free bikes, a dock, and a helpful staff. Finally, budget-minded fishing folk are lured, so to speak, by the Kingsail Resort Motel (7050 Overseas Highway, at MM 50.5, Marathon; 800/423-7474), featuring simple but pleasant motel rooms with phone, cable TV, screened porches, and AC for $55 to $69 in summer and $95 to $109 in winter. There's also a freshwater pool, a boat ramp, and docking, not to mention an outdoor grill for cooking up your day's catch.

Speaking of cooking, the Middle Keys harbor really good budget options; Try the authentic Cuban fare at Don Pedro (11399 Overseas Highway, at MM 53, Marathon; 305/743-5247), a simple but pleasant joint where Ana and Miguel whip up entrees as low as $4.25 (chicken tenders and fries) and no higher than $9.95 (stuffed shrimp); don't miss its powerful $1.00 café cubano. Also not to miss, the beloved 7-Mile Grill (1240 Overseas Highway, Marathon; 305/743-4481), located just before the Seven Mile Bridge, is a salty-old-timey-open-air-big-beach-shack-with-sassy-waitresses kinda place, where $9.95 gets you a wide selection of fresh seafood (stuffed crabs, shrimp, conch fritters) served with two sides. Sandwiches are $3.25 to $6.95, and most locals herald its key lime pie ($3.25) as the very best in the Keys--and they know from key lime pie.

The lower Keys

Apart from the unparalleled drive over the Seven Mile Bridge, the main attraction in the Lower Keys is, of course, Key West, the only real city in the entire island chain, with its sizeable old town chockful of lovingly-restored gingerbread Victorian homes, and honky-tonk Duval Street. The big resorts there are pricey (see sidebar for alternatives). You will find much less expensive options, however, on the islands leading up to it. The best of these include the 524-acre, Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key (30 miles before Key West), with its unusual flora and fauna, tidal lagoons, and long sandy beach, periodically named America's best; the Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key, with its adorable dog-sized deer (http://nationalkeydeer.fws.gov/); the superb diving at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary; and the usual panoply of watersports.

As for lodging, this stretch of the Keys is home to another star, the 45-unit Parmer's Resort (565 Barry Avenue, off MM 28.5, Little Torch Key; 305/872-2157,parmersresort.com/), a collection of pastel cottages on five tropical acres right on the Gulf. Its well-decorated, simple rooms, running $85 to $95 in high season and $65 to $75 in low, are an awesome bargain, considering the varied complimentary breakfast, bayfront swimming pool, aviaries scattered among wooded walkways, genuinely sweet staff, and boat basins and dockage.

Less expensive but still quite pleasant, the Caribbean Village (1211 Overseas Highway, at MM 10.7, Big Coppitt Key; 305/296-9542) consists of three pretty pastel-colored Caribbean-style cottages with its own tiny sunning beach and dock. The plain but cheerful rooms start at $45 in low season, going up to $95 in high, though for ten more bucks, it's more fun to stay on one of the two docked houseboats.

Perhaps one of the best ideas is renting one of the six-person cabins maintained by the state at Bahia Honda State Park (36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, MM 37, bahiahondapark.com/, reserve through 800/326-3521). Built on stilts above a pristine mangrove-lined inlet, they come with everything you need (linens, equipped kitchens, decks with grills and outdoor showers, AC and heat). All that costs just $85/night in the fall and $110 at other times, so it shouldn't surprise you that they book up early.

For eats, Julio's Grill at Looe Key Reef Resort (27340 Overseas Highway, at MM 27.5, Ramrod Key, 305/872-2215) serves simple fare on the order of salads, sandwiches and seafood platters, the most expensive of which is the yummy $6.95 shrimp cooked in garlic with home fries. A more expansive menu is served at Shark's Reef Saloon (31095 Avenue A, at MM31, Big Pine Key, 305/872-9000), a quintessentially Keys baitshop-looking place with a long bar, pool tables, and a salty local crowd munching down on competently-executed dinner entrees ranging from $7.95 (country-fried steak) to $9.95 (an 8-ounce New York strip), all served with a choice of soup or salad, plus potato and vegetable.

Finally, the nicest and perhaps most authentic budget-level option in the Lower Keys is the Key Deer Bar & Grill (28974 Overseas Highway, near MM31, Big Pine Key; 305/872-1014). Cozy and warm, it sports warm pine paneling, beamed ceilings, and whirring fans, not to mention the chance to meet a (stuffed) Florida panther close-up. It serves excellent pizzas (from $4.95), as well as pasta dinners (mussels marinara over linguine) with salad and garlic toast for $9.95 or less; the blackened chicken breast platter is also a winner at $8.95.

For official information, call 800/352-5397 or go to fla-keys.com/

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