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Get out your funkiest swimsuits and sunglasses, slather on the sunscreen, and pop a Jimmy Buffett CD in the car stereo. A family adventure in the Florida Keys is like no other.
As you head south on the Overseas Highway (aka U.S. Highway 1) to "Margaritaville," crank up the volume. A ride through this string of tiny islands goes best with loud music. (Besides, it'll drown out the sounds of fighting in the backseat.)
Since the trip is long -- about four hours from Miami -- some advance planning is necessary to keep the peace. But there are plenty of great stops along the way. And, once you reach wild and wacky Key West, another surprise awaits -- the nightly sunset celebration.
The 100-mile highway is unquestionably one of the most spectacular (and unique) drives in the U.S. Nowhere else can you literally drive out to sea.
Your kids will be wowed -- at least temporarily -- by the road itself, which seems to float on water. Tell them to look left. That's the Atlantic. Look right, that's the Gulf of Mexico.
The highway also crosses 43 bridges (have them keep count to pass the time). Each span is fairly high, so the littlest ones can actually see emerald green lagoons, olive-green mangroves, and maybe even some wildlife down below.
Once they've lost interest, start making those pit stops for snorkeling, bird watching, and blowing off steam on the nearest island. Here are the most popular spots:
This first set of islands may not knock your socks off, unless you like scrubby land filled with strip malls and only glimpses of sea. But there's more here than meets the eye.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, for example. These two underwater parks, totaling 190 square miles, harbor reefs, 55 types of coral, and 600-plus species of fish. Stop here for some great snorkeling or a glass-bottom boat trip.
Keep the kids quiet by telling them to hold their breath as you go over each bridge along the highway. Most are short enough so they won't turn blue behind your back. But even those with hearty lungs don't stand a chance on the Middle Key's Seven-Mile Bridge.
Alongside this bridge is the old one, which takes fishermen and hikers two miles over water to tiny Pigeon Key, a restored railroad camp and National Historic Site. Cars are not allowed on the original bridge to Pigeon Key, but you can make a day of it by hiking out with a picnic lunch and snorkel gear.The Lower Keys
The small islands of the Lower Keys are less developed than their cousins to the north, and a good place to see local critters. If you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a white-tailed deer at the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key. The ones that live here are only two feet tall and very shy.
Another good detour: the Perky Bat Tower on Sugarloaf Key at MM 17. It was built in 1929 by Richter Perky in a failed effort to import bats to eat mosquitoes. The bats flew away and the tower has remained a lonely sentinel on the horizon ever since. It's not much to look at, but the story behind it will distract the kids.
When the Overseas Highway ends, you're in Key West. This southern-most city in the continental U.S. -- closer to Havana than Miami -- is known for its quaint, palm-studded streets, historic 100-year-old gingerbread houses, and a relaxed citizenry who call themselves Conchs.
Just four miles long by one mile wide, Key West is a great place for kids because it's compact. You can get most places by walking or renting bikes. The car, you'll soon find out, becomes a liability in this town of narrow streets and limited parking. If the young ones don't want to hoof it, hop on the Old Town Trolley, Conch Tour Train, or Bone Island Shuttle.
Plan to spend all of your time in Old Town. There's gaudy and touristy Duval Street, the waterfront, historic Ft. Zachary Taylor, and block after block of quiet streets lined with restored Victorian houses. Some of our favorite attractions include:
The dream of many a youngster is to swim with a dolphin. At the Dolphin Research Center, a not-for-profit teaching and research facility at MM59, they can get waist deep in the water or swim alongside these gentle creatures.
A trip to the Keys isn't complete without a deep-sea fishing trip, a snorkeling or scuba excursion, a glass-bottom boat ride, a sunset cruise, or a guided kayak tour, all of which can be arranged through your hotel or with the many operators in town.
Type of trip: Nature, outdoor, adventure, historic, scenic drive
Best ages: 10 and up
Ideal trip length: 4 to 5 days
Distance (to Key West): Miami, 160 miles; Orlando, 392 miles; Tampa, 425 miles
Best time to go: Spring; winter tourists are gone, weather is sunny but not as hot as summer.
Weather: 75/55 degrees in winter, 90/70 in summer. Warm waters and prevailing trade winds keep temperatures here cooler in summer than on the mainland.
Lodging: Cheaper rates in the Upper and Middle Keys to higher rates in Key West (deluxe guesthouses or hotels). Rates jump 10 to 20 percent in high season (Christmas through Easter).
Squirm factor: Some in Key West, a lot on the drive unless you schedule leg-stretching stops.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park MM 102.5, Key Largo Phone: 305-451-1202
Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge MM 30, Big Pine Key
Southernmost Point Whitehead and South Sts., Key West
Harry Truman's Little White House 111 Front St., Key West Phone: 305-294-9911
Hemingway House & Museum 907 Whitehead St., Key West Phone: 305-294-1136
Key West Cemetery Margaret and Angela Sts., Key West
Key West Lighthouse Museum 938 Whitehead St., Key West Phone: 305-294-0012
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum 200 Greene St., Key West Phone: 305-294-2633
Mallory Square Mallory Pier, Key West
Key West transportation Bike rentals
Old Town Trolley Phone: 888-868-7482
The Conch Tour Train Phone: 305-294-5161
Bone Island Shuttle Phone: 305-293-8710
Dolphin Research Center MM 59, Grassy Key Phone: 305-289-0002
Everglades National Park Florida City (the town closest to the entrance to the park) Phone: 305-242-7700
Florida Keys & Key West Visitors Bureau Phone: 800-FLA-KEYS
If your kids want to see real, live alligators in their native habitat, take a trip to Everglades National Park, a 1.6 million-acre water habitat just off the main road from Miami to the Keys. (Explain to them that alligators don't live in the Keys because they're fresh-water, not salt-water, creatures).
Keep your eyes glued to the roadside ditches along the park's 37-mile drive. That's where the gators hang out. Tell the kids to stay at least 20 feet away, and make sure they don't wander off. Teenagers and other rambunctious types should be warned not to throw things at these animals. Off Hwy 1 in Florida City, just before you start the drive to the Keys.
Favorite local spots: White Street Pier. Is the crush of people at Mallory Square at sunset too much for the little ones? Head to this quiet spot on the Atlantic side of the island, where the sunsets are just as stunning and you may find more pelicans than people.
Bahia Honda State Park. Located at MM 37 in the Lower Keys, this favorite local picnicking and camping spot has one of the top-rated beaches in the country.
Best souvenir: What's a trip to the Keys without a taste of Key Lime pie, a tart and sweet confection made from the juice of key limes? Don't be fooled by imitators, the custard filling should be yellow, not green. Many shops will ship a fresh pie to your home, too.
Annual events: The Conch Republic Independence Celebration, late April, Key West. The community festival hilariously commemorates an "insurrection" against the federal government in 1982 with a parade down Duval Street and a sea "battle" featuring tall sailing ships.
Traffic alert: Hwy 1 is the only road into or out of the Keys. Traffic can get quite congested on this mostly two-lane road, particularly in winter, around holidays, and on Friday and Sunday evenings, when Miami residents with weekend homes fill the road.
Road tips: Mile markers, those small green signs with white numbers appearing on the right shoulder of the Overseas Highway, begin at the corner of Fleming and Whitehead Streets in Key West (MM 0) and end south of Florida City on the mainland (MM 126).
If you're asking for directions, locals will cite a mile marker. Your destination is generally at, just before, or just beyond that number.
Reviewed April 2004.