Reef Madness

Let's wander the Florida Keys to happiness...

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The first time I went to the Florida Keys, I was worried. I may be the only boater I know who isn't a Buffett fan (Jimmy or Warren, for that matter) and I had a feeling that (Jimmy) was sort of de rigueur for the Keys adventurer. I needn't have worried. The assorted honky tonks and quirky bars of Key West, while definitely evocative of Margaritaville, featured all sorts of music but only one vibe: laidback. And that's the way I roll.

Sadly, I was not aboard a boat. In fact, I'd been with my brother in Miami where the weather was gray and overcast and after a few days of that, he said, let's go to where the weather is nice right now. We checked the forecast, hopped on a plane, and were in sunny Key West in no time.

I was glad to be there. But being in the Keys without a boat is like being in the Sahara without a camel, in Mexico without hot sauce, in the Rhone without a corkscrew…You get the idea. Next time I'm going by boat and based on tips I have received from picking the (occasionally inebriated) brains of happy Conchs (natives of the Keys) and passionate would-be Conchs (everyone else) these are the places where I plan to throw out the anchor or tie up.

Leaving Biscayne Bay, I'd follow the reef line that runs through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, as the 2,900 square nautical miles around the third largest reef system in the world is known. The Park maintains blue-striped, white mooring buoys all along the reef, except where closed to visitors to protect wildlife or scientific research.

Stopping in Key Largo, I'd visit the Caribbean Shipwreck Museum and Research Institute to check out artifacts from the wreck of the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship that sank in the Florida Straits. If I was boatless, (no way, José) I'd especially want to hop aboard a tour boat at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Established in 1963, this was the first undersea park created in the United States, and it now enjoys over a million visitors per year. The park was named after the late Miami newspaper editor John D. Pennekamp, who was an eco-warrior before most people had any inkling of the whiplash Mother Nature sustained while turning the other cheek. Park tours take visitors to snorkel inner reefs where depths range from 5 to 15 feet, but you can also hop aboard a glass bottom boat to Molasses Reef, which boasts the nation's first underwater geodetic marker, at the spot where the 400-foot freighter Wellwood went aground in 1984. Check your GPS accuracy here and avoid the Wellwood's fate!

By now, even if my GPS is spot-on, I'm no doubt feeling a little depleted-between slave ship horror, snorkeling sunburn, and the sinking feeling that even a highway rest stop will never be named after me, it's a perfect time to check into the Ocean Reef Club. Ahhh! A little pampering is just the ticket and once I get over the sensation that I don't belong anywhere this nice, I am equally convinced I should never leave. A private club, Ocean Reef has been visited by generations of returning owners, but is also open to sponsored guests. Their marina offers 175 slips, shop ping, dining, and makes a fantastic base of operations for the avid angler. Or check out Vintage Weekend, a four-day celebration of antique and classic planes, automobiles, and yachts that happens annually on the first weekend of December.

My next stop would be in Islamorada. I'd be tempted to pick up a mooring ball at Hens and Chickens-just because I like the name- but this fantastic snorkeling and diving spot is just one mile off Plantation Key, which means the Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina triumphs over my eccentricities. Eighty-five slips, full facilities and a park with pool, tennis, and a playground mean the dogs and I could be happy here for a long time.

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Before pushing on from Islamorada, I'd have to explore Looe Key, where the HMS Looe sank in 1744. It's one of the Keys' most spectacular reefs-home to star, brain, and elkhorn coral and plenty of less stationary marine life.

Between Islamorada and Marathon is Duck Key and Hawk's Cay Resort. This 60-acre luxury getaway offers great fishing, dolphin encounters, water sports, a saltwater lagoon, swimming pools, deluxe accommodations recently spiffed-up during a $45 million renovation, fine dining, and spa services.

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Marathon Key is a ten-mile stretch that covers Vaca, Fat Deer, and Grassy Keys. Again, although there's plenty to do here- wreck diving, snorkeling, scuba, etc.-I am tempted by the names. (And by the way, if I was Fat Deer, my feelings would be hurt. They couldn't go with "Plump Deer"? At least the key they called "Cow" was mocked in Spanish.)

All right, maybe my meandering route down the Keys is starting to get to me. It's clearly about time I experienced the civilizing aspects of Key West, and got a jolt of normalcy

The problem is, what makes Key West so beloved is that it's about as far from normal as you can get-which is why to many people, it feels just like home.

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I would put in at the Westin Key West Resort and Marina for its great location or the down-to-earth Galleon if I was staying awhile. I'd stroll famous Duval Street, which is lined with bars and restaurants, visit Mallory Square where an eccentric crowd gathers each evening to celebrate the sunset, hear some live music at the Hog's Breath, dine at Bagatelle, haunt Hemingway's old favorite Sloppy Joe's... When I'd had my fill of food and drink, there are quiet things to enjoy here, too. Exploring Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, or just wandering the quieter residential streets and admiring the Conch architecture would keep me happy. As long as I didn't see a For Sale sign in front of something adorable, I think there's a pretty good chance I wouldn't wind up wandering Mallory Square with a parrot on my shoulder. Don't you? www.fla-keys.com

If I've missed your favorites, let me know at _mary.south@bonniercorp.com_