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The Upper Keys

Sunday, January 15, 2006

ATTRACTIONS AND DISTRACTIONS

* Mile Marker 102.5 (oceanside): Snorkeling and diving the reefs at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (305-451-1202, www.pennekamp-park.com) is practically Key Largo's reason for being. The park has camping, showering and picnic facilities. Park fee $3.50 per person, snorkeling $35.

* MM 100 (oceanside): Take a look at the African Queen (305-451-4655, www.keylargomarina.com; free) -- the boat in the Bogie and Hepburn movie -- moored between the Ramada and Holiday Inn.

* MM 93.6 (bayside): Visit with recuperating winged ones at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier. 

* MM 85.5 (bayside): Bring mosquito repellent when walking the quarry and the short nature trails at the Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park (305-664-2540, www.floridastateparks.org/ windleykey; $1.50).

* MM 84.5 (oceanside): There's a hint of hokiness about it, but we loved the parrot shows and sea lion demos at Islamorada's Theater of the Sea (305-664-2431, www.theaterofthesea.com; $23.95). Give yourself at least two hours.

* MM 84.5 (oceanside): Join a party boat night or day, or go offshore fishing with Robbie's of Islamorada at Holiday Isle (877-664-8498, www .holidayisle.com). In the evening, the resort revelers toss back tropical drinks at the adjacent tiki huts.

* MM 81 (oceanside): The Florida Keys Memorial (across from the library; free) -- also known as the Hurricane Monument -- is a tribute to the 400-plus people killed during the 1935 Labor Day storm.

* MM 78.5 (bayside): Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park (305-664-2540, www.floridastate parks.org/lignumvitaekey; $1) is accessible only by kayak or boat. Pick up a charter at the Robbie's branch at MM 77.5 (305-664-9814; $20), then take a ranger-guided tour.

* MM 77.4 (oceanside): A Spanish ship sunk in 1733 is a playground for snorkelers and divers. The original wreck at the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Park (305-664-2540, www.florida stateparks.org/sanpedro; free), south of Indian Key, boasts fake cannons and an anchor. The area is marked by buoys; you'll have to arrange for a boat and diving equipment.

* MM 73.5 (oceanside): Anne's Public Beach on Lower Matecumbe Key is one of the area's few places to hit the sand. The two free beach areas are linked by a boardwalk with five pavilions and picnic tables. There's parking at either end, with restrooms.

SHOPPING

* MM 99.3 (on median): Housed in a tiny Key Largo bungalow, Ashleigh's Attic (305-451-2332) is a consignment gold mine: For $36.28, we walked out with a so-ugly-it's-perfect black pearl and diamante ring, a necklace, an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt and a casual skirt.

* MM 98 (oceanside): Key Largo's Pink Junktique (305-853-2620) comes highly recommended for antiques and other consignment wares.

* MM 87 (on median): Expressions Swim & Sun (305-852-1155), in Islamorada, has some of the most attractive swimwear we saw in the area  and it even sells clothing the somewhat-fashion-conscious would wear.

* MM 86.7 (bayside): Islamorada's Rainbarrel Artists Village (305-852-3084) comprises the studios and galleries of 10 local artists, and the works of many more.

* MM 86.7 (oceanside): There's just nothing like a 30-foot lobster on the side of a highway to grab your attention. The Treasure Village Courtyard Shops (305-852-0511) offer Keys-centric doodads and postcards, candles and local artwork.

* MM 81.5 (bayside): Anything and everything to do with sport fishing can be found at World Wide Sportsman (305-664-4615) in Islamorada. Visitors can also pick up edible souvenirs like Key Lime Cheesecake mix and board the Pilar, berthed in the belly of the vast two-story shop.

LODGING

* MM 99.7 (oceanside): The Ramada Key Largo Resort and Marina (305-451-3939, www.ram adakeylargo.com; from $99) won't win any design awards, but even the standard rooms are huge. Ask to overlook the marina.

* MM 94.5 (oceanside): Fancy-gentlemen-go-fishing decor and a pool table in your suite? Turn off the highway when you see the "Snappers" sign, head toward the water and check in at the Dove Creek Lodge (800-401-0057, www.dovecreek lodge.com; rates from $150, pool table suite from $520).

* MM 92 (bayside): With free kayaks, a hammock and Adirondack chairs waiting under swaying fronds, Tavernier's Coconut Palm Inn (800-765-5397, www.coconutpalminn.com; from $119) offers plenty of places to watch the sun set. Turn off the highway at Jo Jean Way and head for the water. The large rooms come with screened porches.

* MM 87.5 (bayside): For a B&B with real character, try Casa Thorn in Islamorada.

* MM 86.5 (oceanside): Turn off the highway for the Ragged Edge Motel (800-436-2023, www. ragged-edge.com; from $89), where waterside digs in Islamorada range from rooms with microwaves and mini-fridges to two-bedroom apartments with porches and kitchens. There are free bikes and a great view from the heated pool.

* MM 84.5 (oceanside): The studio efficiencies at the Pelican Cove Resort & Marina (305-664-4435, www.pcove.com; studios from $155, standards from $135) in Islamorada come with pull-out couches, kitchens and balconies.

* MM 83.4 (oceanside): Splurge on an ocean view at Islamorada's Chesapeake Resort (800-338-3395, www.chesapeake-resort.com; from $175), then take advantage of the pool, Jacuzzi and tennis courts -- especially since you're hit with a daily $18 resort fee. A salt-crusted cannon adds a touch of history to the 50-year-old hotel.

* MM 81.8 (oceanside): The prices and amenities may be la-di-da, but the atmosphere at the Cheeca Lodge & Spa (866-591-7625, www.cheeca.rock resorts.com; from $389) is relaxed. The $39 daily resort fee (!!) includes use of poolside cabanas, golf, tennis and Pilates classes. Among the 201 guest rooms is the George Bush Presidential Retreat, complete with donated mementos and marble floors.

* MM 81.2 (bayside): We wouldn't mind being marooned at the Kon Tiki Resort (305-664-4702, www.kontiki-resort.com; from $110), whose 25 lodging options include efficiencies and a three-bedroom villa. The grounds include a waterside grill area, a boat ramp and direct access to the bay.

PLACES TO EAT

* MM 104.2 (bayside): Key Largo's boisterous Hobo's Cafe (305-451-5888) has friendly folks serving up generous portions of fish, burgers and salads with black beans and corn ($8.95) and a lip- smackin' Key lime pie ($3.95). Photos of race car drivers dot the wood-paneled room.

* MM 102.4 (oceanside): Locals recommend the Fish House (Key Largo, 305-451-4665) for couldn't-be-fresher, filleted-on-the-premises gifts from the sea, such as dolphin and black grouper, served in a relaxed atmosphere (entrees $15-$25). Just next door, the Fish House Encore (305-451-0650) offers many of the same menu choices (plus a sushi bar and more steak and pasta options; $12.95-$26.95), a piano bar and two sports bars.

* MM 100.2 (oceanside): Nothing beats a Key lime chiller freeze ($4.25) on the wraparound porch at the Key Largo Coffee House (305-453-4844). Or opt for the panini ($7.95), entrees like yellowtail snapper with fruit ($17.95) or all-you-can-eat Mexican on Tuesday nights ($8.99).

* MM 99.4 (bayside): Whether you sit at the counter, in a booth or at a table in Mrs. Mac's Kitchen (305-451-3722) in Key Largo, you'll be surrounded by lamps made of license plates and empty bottles lined up on rafters. Try the flying saucer pita bread sandwiches ($5.25), the Superfishwich ($5.95) or the mushroom soup ($4.75).

* MM 95.5 (bayside): The bright yellow Harriette's (305-852-8689) is the kind of place you go for gossip, a gander at the Weekly Fisherman and some pretty good crepes (try the apple and peach combo, $5.95). Forgo beef in favor of the conch burger ($8.95). Open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. only.

* MM 91.8 (oceanside): Order the mammoth Mexicale omelet ($5.95) with pico salsa, corn and black beans and a cup of joe ($1.95) at Tavernier's Copper Kettle (305-852-4113) and you'll be set for the next, oh, 10 hours.

* MM 88 (bayside): In Islamorada, sunsets seen from the outdoor bar at Marker 88 (305-852-9315) may make you forget about the high prices  appetizers include coconut shrimp ($16), and seafood entrees range from $18 to $38. Vegetarian options include the angel hair with tomato and basil ($12) and the Island Tropical salad, with mixed greens, fresh fruit and toasted coconut ($8).

* MM 82 (bayside): If we had just one night in Islamorada, we'd spend it at the Beach Cafe at Morada Bay (305-664-0604). Ask for a table on the sand, complete with tiki torches, music and crazy drinks served in mason jars with glow sticks as stirrers. The menu includes a selection of tapas ($11-$15) and entrees such as Tuscan chicken ($24) and yellowtail snapper ($24).

* MM 81.5 (bayside): At the Islamorada Fish Company (800-258-2559), the menu is there for you to play with: Top your salad ($8.95-$15.95) with chicken, scallops or shrimp (prepared fried, grilled, blackened, etc.), choose from 15 types of seafood baskets ($9.95 to market price for lobster) or try alligator appetizers ($6.75).

-- Anne McDonough

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