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The Lower and Middle Keys

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

* MM 61 (oceanside): You may not have the thousands of bucks to spend on its prints, but the Alan S. Maltz Gallery (a quarter-mile off U.S. 1 in Hawk's Cay Resort on Duck Key, 305-743-3044) is worth a stop just to gawk at the nature photography.

* MM 54 (oceanside): If it's kitschy souvenirs you're looking for (you're in Florida, right?), Shell Man (305-743-2272) in Marathon is there for you. Rows of geegaws -- mood rings to T-shirts -- are bound to keep the kids busy, and the prices won't kill you.

* MM 53.5 (bayside): The front porch is nice, but the prices (prints starting at $20 or so) at Marathon's Bougainvillea House Gallery (305-743-0808) -- an artist co-op -- are what won us over. Lots of choices here, mostly of the palm-tree-and-pelican variety; the fused-glass fish in the window was a good deal for $20.

* MM 50.5 (oceanside): For an explosion of Caribbean color, pop into Krazy Larry's Last Store (305-289-5282) and the Goofy Gecko (305-289-4228), connected boutiques in a strip mall, for painted furniture, clothing, jewelry, tile paintings and barware (including $295 painted bar stools).

* MM 30.5 (bayside): For watercolors or sculptures with an aquatic bent, the Artists in Paradise Gallery (Winn Dixie Plaza, 305-872-1828) features the work of more than 30 locals. (Grab a picnic at the strip mall's supermarket while you're at it.)

* MM 15 (oceanside): Baby's Coffee (800-523-2326), which calls itself the "southernmost coffee roaster in America," is a great place for a caffeine boost before Key West. You can also buy java by the pound -- flavors include Baby's Wrecker's Roast and Voodoo Queen -- starting at $10.95.

LODGING

* MM 68.5 (bayside): The chichi mini-suites (Carib-hued rooms with big clunky furniture) are overpriced, but the standard rooms at the waterfront Lime Tree Bay Resort (800-723-4519, www.limetreebay resort.com; from $79) offer good value. MM 62.3 (oceanside): Cute and isolated (dig that long, sandy drive from the highway), the Conch Key Cottages (800-330-1577, www.conchkeycot tages.com; from $74) on Walkers Island all have full kitchens.

* MM 61 (oceanside): If you want intimate, go elsewhere. But the myriad lodging choices (rooms, suites, villas) at the sprawling, upscale Hawk's Cay (888-443-6393, www.hawkscay.com; from $189) on Duck Key get good grades from many.

* MM 57.5 (oceanside): It looks like every other roadside motel in these parts, but you can save some serious dough with the simple, tidy rooms at Grassy Key's Seashell Beach Resort (305-289-0265, www.seashellbeachresort.com; from $89). Bonus: the kitchenettes, free kayaks and sandy beach.

* MM 54.5 (oceanside): The 20 two-bedroom villas -- elevated to palm-top level -- at the Cocoplum Beach and Tennis Club (800-228-1587, www.cocoplum.com; from $175) look as if they were imported from Hawaii. Turn left (going south) at Cocoplum Drive at Route 1 and go about a mile.

* MM 49 (bayside): The Crystal Bay Resort (888-289-8089, www.crystalbayresort.com; from $85) is a bit frayed around the edges, but we like our Keys that way. There's mini golf, a marina, a small beach and 29 units (15 with kitchens) -- all spread out over a huge area, so there's no crowding.

* MM 48.5 (bayside): The Key West-style Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort (305-289-0888, www.tranquilitybay.com; from $299) opened in late fall and is perfect for larger groups. The two- and three-bedroom rentals include kitchens, porches, plasma TVs and 2.5 baths.

* MM 47.5 (bayside): Big rooms with kitchens and Barnacle Barney's Tiki Bar? Sign us up. The spiffy Hammocks of Marathon (305-743-9009, www.bluegreenrentals.com; from $119) is a time-share property with DVD players, a snazzy pool and enough activities to keep the kids out of Mom and Dad's hair for hours.

* MM 33 (oceanside). We love the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge (305-872-2351; rooms from $109, campsites from $35), a hotel/RV park/marina with pleasant rooms and a pool one flight up from the hubbub on the dock.

* MM 28.5 (bayside): Representing the Keys' snootier side, the mega-luxe Little Palm Island Resort and Spa (305-872-2524, www.littlepalm island.com; from a whopping $1,100) doesn't allow kids and is reachable only by boat. Then again, once there, you can settle into one of 28 plush bungalows, indulge yourself at SpaTerre or sink into one of the cushioned chairs at water's edge. It's just the opposite at Parmer's Resort (305-872-2157, www.parmersresort.com; from $69), a charmer comprising motel rooms, efficiencies and two-bedroom units with kitchens.

PLACES TO EAT

* MM 68.5 (bayside): There's no view and the dining room is dingy, but that's easy to overlook at Long Key's Little Italy Restaurant (305-664-4472). Huge portions include an enough-for-two bowl of spaghetti and meatballs for about $10.

* MM 59 (bayside): On Grassy Key, the Wreck and Galley Grill (305-743-8282) features TV sets blaring sports, well-priced seafood platters (from $13), all-you-can-eat-grouper specials and $1 drafts.

* MM 54 (bayside): We like tiki bars as much as the next bar hound, but Marathon's Island Tiki Bar (305-743-4191) is a standout, with its copious waterfront tables, soaring roof and food that matches the view. Dinner entrees start at about $10, but you can opt for lower-priced sandwiches and raw-bar offerings, including clams casino ($9.95).

* MM 50.5 (bayside): If you're hankering for a cold beer and fried fish done right, you can't do much better in Marathon than Herbies (305-743-6373), where the service is friendly and indoor picnic tables are the seating of choice. Start off with the conch fritters ($1.20 each), and go hungry.

* MM 49.5 (bayside): In Marathon, homey interior trumps homely exterior at Annette's Lobster & Steak House (305-743-5516). The massive menu features beef, pasta and nearly a dozen lobster entrees (from $23.95); early-bird specials ($14.95) include stuffed shrimp and baby back ribs.

* MM 47.5 (bayside). Go to Marathon's Seven Mile Grill (305-743-4481) if you have to  it's a landmark open since 1954, after all -- but be prepared to be less than dazzled: It's loud, expensive (our teensy fried-fish sandwich was $7.95) and cramped. But the bar is outstanding. Across the highway at the end of 15th Street, you'll do okay at the grungy Castaway (305-743-6247) if you stick to appetizers like calamari ($6.95) and the mucho strong margaritas. Ask for the "honey buns," chunks of fried dough that you dip into honey.

* MM 30.5 (bayside): Get directions to Big Pine Key's No Name Pub, then high-tail it over there. 

* MM 30 (bayside): For breakfast with the locals, head to the Big Pine Restaurant and Coffee Shop (305-872-2790), where the crowd is packed in tighter than fish in a net and the eggs Benedict ($7.75) is killer.

* MM 20 (bayside): With few other options in the area, Sugarloaf Key's Mangrove Mama's (305-745-3030) is a lot better than it needs to be. Tuck into such entrees as coconut shrimp ($19.95) or steak (from $21.95) in the pastel dining room. Or just go for a cup of joe and a slice of the best Key lime pie ($3.95) we sampled in these parts.

-- John Deiner

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