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Unlocking the Keys
South Florida's treasure islands are best explored at cruising altitude By Cliff Ransom

One great thing about an island-hopping road trip in the Florida Keys: You won't get lost. But just in case, you can follow our lead. Leave Miami via U.S. Route 1 by 7 a.m. in order to join the 9 o'clock snorkel tour ($33) at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (www.pennekamppark.com) off the coast of Key Largo. At that hour, the water's calm enough to see a rainbow of parrotfish, barracuda, and other assorted marine life without inhaling gallons of chop through your snorkel. Next, head south on Route 1 to Robbie's Marina (305-664-9814) at mile marker 77.5. Catch a boat ($15) out to Lignumvitae Key for a ranger-led tour through virgin stands of tropical hardwoods—and the island's 16.5-foot (5-meter) "summit." The day ends ten miles (16 kilometers) farther south when you pitch a tent on the waterfront in Long Key State Park ($24; 305-664-4815).

Thanks to the surrounding barrier reef, true sand beaches are few in the Keys. (Most resorts actually import sand.) But in Bahia Honda State Park (www.bahiahondapark.com), at mile marker 37, you can enjoy natural grit in your sunscreen and concession-stand hot dogs. At the Sugarloaf Key airport (mile marker 17), pilot Dan Haggerty runs a 35-minute aerial tour that buzzes 500 feet (152 meters) over shipwrecks, pods of dolphins, and uninhabited islands ($120 for up to three passengers; 305-745-2217). Continue 17 miles (27 kilometers) to land's end at the Southernmost Point Guest House ($115; www.southernmostpoint.com), a Key West classic. Get to bed before the Hemingway impersonators pass out—you're headed back north in the morning.

Fat Albert, the large surveillance blimp tethered 1,200 feet (366 meters) above the Cudjoe Key Air Force Base, doesn't summon images of peaceful watersports, but the boat ramp at the north end of Blimp Road provides public access to some of the best kayaking in the Keys. Big Pine Kayak Adventures (305-872-7474) will trailer touring kayaks to the water, then provide you with waterproof charts and, if you like, a guide ($35 per kayak, $190 for a full day of custom guiding). A seven-hour loop takes in both Knockemdown Key and the Tarpon Belly Keys, an old shrimping base famous for overgrown channels cut right through the islands. Dine at Mangrove Mamma's (305-745-3030) at mile marker 20 for conch chowder and rock lobster, then retire to Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge ($30; 305-872-2351) to nab a tent site with a view.

The Looe Key reef, seven miles off Big Pine Key, offers possibly the best snorkeling in all of south Florida. As at Pennekamp, you'll be surrounded by whorls of brightly colored fish, but Looe Key is also renowned for its spur-and-groove coral formations. Underseas Dive Shop (305-872-2700) on Big Pine runs four-hour snorkeling ($30) and scuba ($60) trips every day. Nearby, the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge (305-827-0774) is home to an endangered, thigh-high subspecies of the whitetail. Finish up back at Robbie's Marina, where you can rent a 16-foot (5-meter) powerboat ($45 an hour) in time to catch the sunset.

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December 2003/January 2004

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