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SOUTH OF REALITY
GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL IN THE CONCH REPUBLIC

It might be difficult to imagine, with the world so big and full of places to explore, that the tiny islands of the Florida Keys attract so many tourists to revisit them year after year.

Some get hooked on all the opportunities the Florida Keys have to offer and end up buying property in what has been referred to as America's Caribbean.

For example, Ernest Hemingway, celebrated author of "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms," first visited the Keys in 1928. He discovered the Keys' great deep-sea fishing and ended up moving to Key West in 1931.

Jimmy Buffett, singer and songwriter adopted the islands as "Margaritaville." He later settled in Key West where he sailed the waters and wrote songs about his adventures.

Buffalo's Bob Rich, Jr., owner of Rich Products Corp., says he was hooked on the Keys the first time he went into the backcountry to fish the flats. In 1993, he purchased a home in Islamorada with his wife, Mindy, who is also an avid angler.

"The Keys are special," says Rich. "We really enjoy living here and being part of the community."

There is indeed something unique about the Florida Keys. Some say it is the bright sunshine and, of course, the sparkling waters. Others say it is the curious mix of people and their laid-back lifestyles. The islands are definitely offbeat and full of colorful characters moving a step slower.

The locals are called conchs (pronounced konks) and they call their home the Conch Republic. The name originated back in 1982, when the locals came up with the idea to secede from the United States and declare war after the federal government set up roadblocks near Florida City screening cars for drugs and illegal aliens. The conchs were outraged over automobile delays. They raised the Keys' flag and marked the beginning of their new republic. National attention forced officials to remove the roadblocks. It was victory for the conchs who celebrated for a week. Today, Conch Republic Days is an annual event celebrated every April. A sign in the Islamorada post office sums up the funky Florida Keys.

The local mail slot is marked "Keys." The outgoing mail slot is marked "World."

It is a different environment from the cities of concrete and glass, and a perfect destination for vacationing families, fishing and diving enthusiasts, nature lovers and those who don't want to do anything. Just take one of the many commercial carriers that offer scheduled flights daily to Miami International Airport, Key West and Marathon.

The drive up and down the Keys is something to behold, and there are things to see all through the Keys.

The Keys' roadway is the southernmost leg of U.S. 1, which extends along the East Coast. Driving through the Keys along "America's Highway Into the Sea" is one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

The highway was constructed in the late 1930s and follows the trail originally blazed by Henry Flagler and his Florida East Coast Railroad in 1912. The road extends 113 miles and has 42 bridges leapfrogging from key to key.

One suggestion is to begin the road trip in Key Largo, the northern-most of the Keys which is located 42 miles south-southwest of Miami.

Visit Key Largo and Islamorada. Then, drive to Marathon and Big Pine Key, stopping along the way. Finally, cap your trip off in Key West.

Dress is casual so forget the formal attire.

But don't forget the suntan lotion.

The sun can be brutal for those who are not use to being so far south. Some may also find the temperatures a little warm and muggy. Temperatures average in the 80s most of the year, except in the summer when it can get hot enough to fry an egg. To stay comfortable, drink plenty of water and dress in cool, cotton clothing. There is a wide choice of accommodations throughout the Keys for every traveler's budget. You can rough it and pitch a tent in one of the many campgrounds or treat yourself to a three-bedroom cottage on a tiny island for $1,200 a night. Rates are seasonal and change depending upon the time of year. Rates are highest in January through May.

Before heading out on the roadway, be aware of the green signs with white numbers erected along the roadside called mile markers. They are used for residential and commercial addresses. The numbers begin with 127 south of Florida City and end with zero at the corner of Fleming and Whitehead streets in downtown Key West.

As far as travel advice, brochures, maps and guides are available through the Chamber of Commerce. Another good source is the Internet. The following are a few offbeat itinerary possibilities that you may want to add to your list. These are things that are somewhat special.

The Caribbean Club, Mile Marker 104, Key Largo (305) 451-9970

"The Keys are different from anything I've ever seen," Humphrey Bogart said in the 1948 gangster flick, "Key Largo." The Caribbean Club is the spot where MGM producers created the all-time movie classic. The thriller brought film greats Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore and Edward G. Robinson to the Keys. Today, the Caribbean is a lounge and local hangout decorated with some of the old movie's memorabilia.

Maritime Museum of the Florida Keys, Mile Marker 102.6, Key Largo (305) 451-6444

You can get to know the Keys a little better by peeking into some of the local's private collections. The museum showcases gold, silver and jewels found in the waters of the Keys from several local treasure divers. The museum opened its doors in 1991 by Joseph Kimbell who has been treasure hunting in the Keys since 1951.

Gus' Grille, Mile Marker 103, Key Largo (305) 453-0000

Enjoy one of the best sunset spots in the Keys at Gus' Grille located at the Marriott at the northern tip of Key Largo. The resort is located on a sandy beach overlooking the Gulf. Many locals reserve the grounds for weddings and receptions.

Jules Undersea Lodge, 51 Shoreline Drive, Key Largo (305) 451-2353

For something extremely different, why not stay underwater over night? Jules Undersea Lodge is a submerged hotel located right in the heart of underwater Key Largo. The lodge is ranked as one of the most unusual in the world. For starters, you reach it by swimming down while breathing from an air hose. Imagine relaxing in the comforts of your own room 20 feet below the water. No noise, no crowds. The only invasion of privacy you might encounter here is a mutton snapper peeking into your bedroom's porthole.

Overnight lodging starts at $195 per person.

The African Queen, Mile Marker 100, Key Largo (305) 451-4655

The original steamboat used in the classic, "The African Queen," sits at the docks of the Key Largo Holiday Inn. James Hendricks, of Key Largo, was so obsessed with the Bogart movie and the boat after watching the film that he bought the craft for $65,000. Visitors may stroll by the boat or book a cruise.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, Mile Marker 102.5, Key Largo (305) 451-1202

One of America's natural wonders lies just offshore of Key Largo hidden by a shallow layer of water. The famous John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established in 1960 to protect 78 square miles of fragile and beautiful living coral reef that was being plucked from the sea by shell and coral collectors. The Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary created security for another 100 square mile area of reef adjacent to the park. The diving and snorkeling here are some of the best in the world. Slip on a mask or take a glass-bottom boat ride to see a whole new world of exotic coral gardens filled with friendly colorful fish.

Dolphins Plus, Mile Marker 99, Key Largo (305) 451-1993

The non-profit marine mammal facility is home to several stranded and injured dolphins. Public educational programs and sessions are offered at the facility, which is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, Mile Marker 93.6, Tavernier(305) 852-4486

The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center helps sick and injured birds. Laura Quinn, director of the center, opened the non-profit animal hospital and orphanage on her own grounds in 1991. Today, she works closely with area veterinary clinics. Quinn invites the public to come by for a close educational encounter with pelicans, hawks, herons, owls and ospreys that are recuperating from injuries. Free tours are offered daily.

Fishing

Superior fishermen travel the globe to the Florida Keys for the excellent fishing opportunities. One thing that is appealing is the climate, which is ideal for fishing throughout the year. The other attraction is the numerous marinas, charter boats, famous guides, fishing schools, shops and boat rentals that cater to anglers of all experience levels everywhere in the Keys. Offshore fishing for the legendary big game, flats fishing in pursuit of tarpon and bonefish, and competition against other anglers are all at it best. Cheeca Lodge, Mile Marker 82, Islamorada, (305) 664-4651

The Cheeca Lodge is a beautiful resort in Islamorada and a hangout for celebrities that hide out in the Keys. Former President George Bush, former NBC announcer Curt Gowdy and diver Jean Michel Cousteau are regulars at the Cheeca. Drop by and take a look at the photographs lining the walls of the lounge. The food here is also some of the best in the Keys.

Lorelei, Mile Marker 82, Islamorada, (305) 664-4656

Lorelei, just across the street from the Cheeca, is a great place for sunsets. Numerous backcountry-fishing guides cruise into the docks in the evening. The setting with the sun in the backdrop is beautiful. There is usually live entertainment by locals every evening.

Robbie's Marina, Mile Marker 77.5, Islamorada, (305) 664-9814

Robbie's is an experience of a lifetime. Here you can purchase a bucket of bait for a buck and have a chance to hand-feed tarpon. Tarpon is a species that can weigh as much as 200 pounds. They are pursued by serious anglers in waters throughout the world. At Robbie's, there are hundreds of monster-size tarpon swimming around the docks.

Sombrero Beach, Mile Marker 55, Marathon

If you have never been to the Keys, you may not realize that the Keys are not known for their beaches, as is Florida's mainland. Sombrero Beach, located in Marathon, is one of the few beaches in the Keys and also one of the most beautiful in Florida. It is off the beaten path, but well worth the effort to find it. When you arrive at Mile Marker 55 turn left at the traffic light onto Sombrero Beach Road. Follow the road to the end.

Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project, Mile Marker 48, Marathon

When you are passing through Marathon, notice the building next door to the Hidden Harbor Resort. What used to be an exotic dance lounge is now a hospital for sick and injured sea turtles. The facility is run by Richie Moretti. He has devoted his life to helping threatened and ailing sea turtles.

The Seven Mile Bridge

West of Marathon, the highway leads to the most famous man-made attraction in the Keys, the 65-foot-high Seven-Mile Bridge.

Proud locals would like to claim the bridge as the eighth wonder of the world. It has earned worldwide attention and is one of the most photographed bridges in the world. Each year, in April, Marathon hosts the annual Seven-Mile Bridge run, with 1,500 runners competing in a foot race over the bridge. It may be the only race in the world held over water.

National Key Deer Refuge

Just beyond the bridge is Big Pine Key, the largest island in the Lower Keys. This is the home of the National Key Deer Refuge and the Florida Key whitetail deer, a miniature species about the size of a large dog. Hunters have annihilated this tiny deer, and now they are a protected species. Watch carefully as you drive and you may spot one.

Key West, Mile Marker 5

Hopping from island to island, the Overseas Highway takes you to Key West, the southernmost city of the United States and literally the end of the road.

In the early days, this tiny island barely measuring four miles long by two miles wide was a haven for rum-runners, sponge fishermen, wreckers and cigar-makers. Today, the tropical city is a tourist attraction drawing more than 1 million people annually.

Coming up with something different to do in Key West is not difficult. But finding time to do everything is impossible.

I recommend a tour by the Old Town Trolley to get a good overall taste of the city's architecture, historic structures, local artwork, businesses, lore and legend. Tickets are $18 for adults and $14 for children and passengers are allowed to get off and then, reboard.

The train starts at the foot of Duval Street and chugs past sites including forts, museums, galleries, famous homes of presidents, writers and artists. It stops at the Southernmost Point for riders to take photographs. Shoppers can to do some browsing along Duval Street, referred to as the longest street in the world because it runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. The one-mile- stretch is full of funky bars and cafes, chic galleries and assorted gift shops. When hungry, there are hundreds of eating establishments to try. Key West is one of the great culinary cities of the world, with as many different cuisines represented as any large city. Seafood is the main feature in most eating establishments since the waters of the Keys are abundant with fish, shrimp and lobster. Conch is served in virtually every restaurant in one form or another. The flesh of the pink-shelled snail is delicious and a must for anyone who hasn't tried it.

The newest dining area in Key West is the string of dockside restaurants along the waterfront at the end of Margaret Street. Dozens of casual eateries line the docks and overlook the water and Key West Marina.

At dusk, people all around town drop everything and head toward the docks at Mallory Square. Key West sunsets are so magnificent that the conchs celebrate them every evening come rain or shine. To add to the natural spectacle, Key Westers put on a spectacle of their own with mimes, animal acts and street performers. Everyone gathers to send out the day and greet the night in style.

Travel information

Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, (800) 822-1088 or (305) 451-1414; Islamarado Chamber of Commerce, (800) 322-5397 or (305) 664-4503; Marathon Chamber of Commerce, (800) 842-9580, (305) 743-5417; Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce, (800) 872-3722, (305) 872-2411; Key West Chamber of Commerce, (800) LAST KEY or (305) 294-2587.

Air Service -- Marathon Airport is served by American Eagle with connections in Miami. Key West International Airport is served by American Eagle, Cape Air, Delta Air Lines, Gulfstream International Airlines and USAirExpress.

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