Outside magazine, October 1995
The Florida Keys, the 100-mile string of bridge-connected islands that curve southwest into the Gulf of Mexico, can put you to sleep or make you want to rumba. On one level, the Keys are overdeveloped, air-conditioned, and polite, as safe as a waltz with your grandmother. But if you can get past the trendy "Kokomo"-inspired bars, the shiny boutiques, and real estate agents who wear neckties even when it's 92 in the shade, you encounter the old-fashioned, mysterious Keys--the sweaty, bump-and-grind tropics where anything can happen.
Two roads get you there. The fastest and busiest is U.S. 1. Avoid it. Instead, at Florida City--the last mainland town--take a left onto Card Sound Road, lined by mangrove creeks, fishing shacks, and dilapidated boats. Cross the Card Sound Bridge, and you're in what may be the least-known wilderness in the Keys, an otherworldly place that's best seen on two wheels. Bring your own machine or rent one from Key Largo Bikes ($15-$20 per day; call 305-451-4193). For the next 15 miles you can pedal along remote Florida 905 through Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, home of the nation's only American crocodiles, and Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site, featuring the continent's largest tropical hardwood forest, dense with mahogany, torchwood, and gumbo limbo.
Generations of anglers have made the gloriously odoriferous Key Largo Bait and Tackle (305-451-0921) their first stop on U.S. 1 for excellent advice about where to fish and what to fish for (guided trips, $195- $300). Iron-stomached winter anglers head into the Atlantic to engage sailfish made ravenous by wild and woolly weather.
On calm days, divers and snorkelers can sample Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the country's only underwater park, with reefs patrolled by pugnacious yellowtail snappers, parrotfish, and about 650 other species (park entry fee, $3.25 per person). Coral Reef Park Company (305-451-1621) runs charter trips and rents small motorboats, sailboats, kayaks, and dive equipment (two-tank dive, $37). So does Captain Slate's Atlantis dive shop (half-day dive trips, $24-$40; 305-451-3020), just outside the park.
Thirty minutes south on U.S. 1, on Upper Matecumbe Key, lies the laid-back but upscale town of Islamorada. Charter-boat captains and light-tackle guides lurk at every marina, motel, and tackle store, including the classy World Wide Sportsman (800-327-2880 or 305-664-4615), managed by the crusty George Hommell, fishing guru to George Bush. Hommell will arrange for backcountry fishing guides ($350 per day), offshore guides ($600-$750 per day), and group trips ($35 per day). What may be winter's most spectacular angling is available near shore, eight miles south at Caloosa Beach, where even waders flip needlefish flies, tube lures, and fat floating plugs at razor-toothed barracuda.
Recovering from 'cuda encounters, the former president often nests at Cheeca Lodge (doubles, $230-$1,000; 800-327-2888), an elegant plantation-style manor offering fishing and dive-boat charters. For a less costly thrill, go a few blocks to Manny & Isa's restaurant for an authentic slice of key lime pie (those made with real key limes have become an endangered species).
Marathon, in the middle of the Keys, sprouts strip malls and chain restaurants like crabgrass. But it is home to beautiful Crane Point Hammock, the Museum of Natural History of the Florida Keys. Call loquacious environmentalist Captain Ed Davidson (305-743-6054) for a museum tour, hammock walk, and snorkeling trip through the mangroves out back (around $250 for the day). The Hidden Harbor Motel (doubles, $65-$85; 305-743-5376), an old-fashioned mom-and-pop place down the block with utilitarian rooms, has the distinction of housing a turtle hospital in what was once a topless bar.
Key West, of course, is Key West. It has Bahamian architecture, "Floribbean" restaurants, street hustlers, shady poinciana trees, lizards in every shrub, and a sunset celebrated by an army of jugglers, fire-eaters, and what has to be the last of the tropical bagpipers. Sloppy Joe's, on Duval Street, is the most famous bar, but Captain Tony's, a dark, dank saloon on Greene Street, is where serious drinkers go to get drunk.
For a less harrowing adventure, try diving on Ten-Fathom Ledge, a quarter-mile-long coral plateau that plunges 100 feet. Key West Pro Dive Shop (two-tank dive, $85 including equipment and transportation; 800-426-0707) can take you there, as well as to the area's legendary wrecks, among them Tug Boat, Alexander's, and Cayman Salvage-Master.
Dry Tortugas National Park, known for its clear water and healthy coral reefs, is 70 miles from Key West. Key West Seaplane Service (800-224-2359) runs half-day trips ($159) for snorkeling and tours of huge Fort Jefferson. Stay overnight at a first-come, first-served campground (call 305-242-7700 for information).