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The Florida Keys: Off-Season, Off-Shore

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 1999; Page E06
   


WHAT/WHERE: If you are hunting for a funky family getaway, the Florida Keys are a treasure, buried just minutes below Miami. One road in and one road out, the strung-together little coral-based communities can be a traffic nightmare during the winter. But in the summer, during the off-season, you can have the run of the islands. Fewer people; lower prices. A dazzling array of activities--fishing, biking, boating, windsurfing, swimming, sunning--will keep you cool and soothe your curiosity.

Once you're there, a wise man once said, you'll forget what you came there to forget in the first place. It's like visiting another country.

SURF-REPLACEMENT RATING: *****

In the Keys, you will find wonders and wildlife like nowhere in mainland America--coral reefs, exotic trees, phantasmagoric fish and beauteous birds. Though sandy beaches are few and far apart, the light green and deep blue sea is still the main draw.

BEING THERE: Rent kayaks at Bahia Honda State Park (305-872-2353), paddle to the little mangrove island near Seven Mile Bridge and wade among the congregation of conch shells. Windsurf in the mild Atlantic Ocean; parasail in the milder Gulf of Mexico. Or catch a boat to Sombrero Key and snorkel above the fish-infested reef. Land lovers can hike the nature trails of Crane Point Hammock, an environmental and archaeological preserve (305-743-9100), pausing to admire the gumbo-limbo tree and its bark that peels and flakes like the skin of a sunburned tourist. Or they can scope out a diminutive key deer on Big Pine Key.

For literary relief, spend a day in Key West. Tour the elegant grounds of Ernest Hemingway's house (305-294-1136). Bend down on one knee to inspect the penny he planted in concrete near his swimming pool and stop to pet one of the six-toed cats that stretch in the midday sun. In the afternoon, dawdle along Duval Street and mingle with the throngs at water's edge who have come to pay homage to another serendipitous Key West sunset. You might run into a long gray-haired man named Jeep and his amazing tight-rope-walking dog. Or the silver-coated mime. Or the bicycle trickster from Canada. This is a circus on the edge of the Earth. When the sun finally sets, even the most cynical kid will applaud enthusiastically.

Your charges will also enjoy the distinctive cuisine of the Keys. You will know you've arrived when you stop at the top of U.S. 1 and taste the conch fritters and alligator bits at the Cracked Conch in Key Largo. The air is fresh fishy. Here you can have your first slice of Key lime pie and perhaps your best. Along the way, try the day's catch at the Quay in Marathon on Key Vaca. At Harpoon Harry's in Key West, say hello to waiter Tom Smith, who serves cheerfully beneath the antique sleds, snowshoes and toboggan hanging overhead. Everything here is served on wry. (Ask Smith about his kidnapped Barbie doll.) Many restaurants throughout the Keys will cook the fish you catch and serve it with all the trimmings for about $10.

Battered by Hurricane Georges in late 1998, the Keys are still recovering. You will see homes that are missing roofs. Your motel room may need new air conditioning; the boat dock's pier may need replacing. But there's an insouciant indomitability here. This is Margaritaville, home to Jimmy Buffett and the laid-way-back lifestyle he sings of. And a quirkiness unlike nowhere else. On Sugarloaf Key, for instance, you can find a strange tower erected years ago by Richter Perky, who hoped to control the island's considerable insect population by attracting scads and scads of bats. Though the bats were mostly in Perky's belfry, you can still admire his enterprise. PS: Take plenty of mosquito repellent.

And what is the key that unlocks the Keys in the summertime? Water, as it turns out. Chris Goodwin, who was a charter boat captain for years and is now a staffer at Bahia Honda state park, says the summer is a delightful time to be in the Keys. But, Goodwin adds, "you should plan to spend your whole day in the water."

LODGING/BUDGET: Don't look for luxury. Or efficiency. The riches of the Keys are beneath the skin. Speaking of skin, expect to see a lot of it. The clothes you wear on casual Fridays in the District are too formal for the Keys. Dress way far down.

For a family of four, plan on spending a grand in air fare from Washington to Miami; a couple of hundred bucks on a rental car for a week; another hundred bucks a day on food and maybe $50 a day for diversions and souvenirs. Stay at one of the resorts, where two-bedroom suites run $200 a night or so, and you can spend a lot of time just playing tennis or swimming in the pool. Some places offer water-sport possibilities on site. Far and away the best souvenir from the Keys is an original tropical name painting--$3 a letter--by Alberto De Andrea, who works his magic in front of Hooters every evening at the corner of Duval and Caroline streets in Key West. For information on the Keys, 1-800-352-5397, www.fla-keys.com.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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