THE FLORIDA KEYS

The Lower and Middle Keys

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

ATTRACTIONS AND DISTRACTIONS

* Mile Marker 67.5 (oceanside): There's not much of a beach, but Long Key State Park (305-664-4815, www.floridastateparks.org/longkey; $3.50 for one, $6 for two) compensates with camping, canoeing and nature trails. Pack a lunch and duck into one of the picnic cabanas on the park's boardwalk.

* MM 59 (bayside): Dolphins, dolphins everywhere. Interacting with the mammal is the top priority at the Dolphin Research Center (305-289-1121, www.dolphins.org), a nonprofit education facility on Grassy Key. Admission $19.50; dolphin programs (meet Flipper, swim with Flipper, etc.) from $40.

* MM 56.2 (oceanside): Campers will love the water views at Curry Hammock State Park (305-289-2690, www.floridastateparks.org/curryham mock; $3.50 for one, $6 for two) on Little Crawl Key. RV and tent campsites are $26 a night.

* MM 50.5 (bayside): For a kid-friendly break from U.S. 1 traffic and a good area primer, stop at the Museums and Nature Center of Crane Point Hammock (305-743-9100, www.cranepoint.org; $7.50). Or drive toward the ocean at the same traffic light to Sombrero Beach. There's an appealing park (swings, picnic tables, gardens) fringing the sand, and the beach itself (for the Keys, at least) is a beaut.

* MM 48.5 (bayside): The Turtle Hospital (305-743-2552, www.turtlehospital.org) is one of the Keys' top stops. Call for a tour ($15) of the first-rate facility, which nurses ailing reptiles back to health, then buy a T-shirt and donate to the cause.

* MM 47 (bayside): You can walk 2.2 miles down the Old Seven Mile Bridge to visit Pigeon Key (305-289-0025), a town built in the early 1900s for railway workers  or conserve your energy and hop on a tram for a guided tour ($8.50, oceanside).

* MM 37 (oceanside): The star attraction in these parts, Bahia Honda State Park (305-872-2353, www.floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda; $3.50 for one, $6 for two) has the top beaches, the nicest campsites and some of the Keys' best snorkeling. Plus, its waterside cabins ($120) are large and secluded.

* MM 30.5 (bayside): Stop at the National Key Deer Refuge visitors center (305-872-2239, www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer; free) in Big Pine Key Plaza, a quarter-mile down Key Deer Boulevard, and grab some info on the Bambi-like critters. Then drive around Big Pine and No Name keys and keep an eye out. Ask for directions to the Blue Hole, a rock quarry that's now home to gators.

* MM 29 and environs (oceanside): Snorkel or dive the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary.

* MM 17 (bayside): It's a trifle, but a weird one. Perky's Bat Tower (turn down the road at the sign for the Sugarloaf Airport and go to the end; free) on Sugarloaf Key was an early attempt at mosquito control; it's now on the National Register of Historic Places. The experiment failed: The oblong tower today remains bat-free.

SHOPPING


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