Exploring the reefs
Yet another window on the Keys' natural resources is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (pennekamppark.com) in Key Largo, a world-class destination for divers and snorkelers interested in the vibrant, shallow-water coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Pennekamp, at Mile Marker 102.5 on the Overseas Highway, offers snorkeling tours, scuba tours, kayak, canoe and powerboat rentals. The Spirit of Pennekamp, a 65-foot glass-bottom boat, makes three 2-1/2 hour tours daily of Molasses Reef, offering good underwater views enhanced by observations and educational banter from the crew.
The reef that runs 221 miles down the southeastern coast of Florida, past the Keys to the Dry Tortugas, is the only living coral barrier reef in North America and the third largest in the world. Less than 1 percent of the ocean floor is covered by reefs, so it's a rare destination.
A glass-bottom reef excursion yielded sightings of red mangroves, herons, egrets, parrot fish, fire coral, nurse sharks and queen angelfish, as well as stories behind such landmarks as the Christ of the Abyss underwater statue that's a popular attraction for divers and snorkelers.
On land, Pennekamp also features three sandy beaches, a rare find in the Keys' rocky terrain.
An angling afternoon
Even novice fishermen might be tempted to try their luck off the shores of Islamorada, known as the sport fishing capital of the world.
And what better than an afternoon of angling to channel one's inner Ernest Hemingway.
There are hundreds of charter boats and backcountry guides available to take fishing parties into the warm Gulf Stream waters that host marlin and other big game fish. Although the cost can reach $500 for private charters, larger sport-fishing party boats provide a lower-cost afternoon on the water.
For instance, party-boat excursions by Robbie's of Islamorada (robbies.com/partyboat) embark daily on 65-foot deep-sea fishing vessels equipped with crews that help newbies bait hooks and take fish off lines. On shore, the crew will clean and fillet the catches, which several local restaurants are willing to prepare.
Don't expect to pose next to a prize kingfish. Most of the party-boat catches are about the size of the fisherman's hand, but guests haul them over the rail with impressive regularity.
On a hot summer day, the most appealing attribute of the History of Diving Museum (divingmuseum.org) might be the air-conditioned interior.
Yet the museum, at MM 83 in Islamorada, also happens to boast the world's largest international collection of diving helmets and artifacts. In addition to an assortment of odd-looking, cumbersome suits, the tour features a "Parade of Nations" wall display of dive helmets from around the world.
Nearby, Theater of the Sea (theaterofthesea.com) hosts an informative marine life tour as well as old-fashioned shows by parrots, sea lions and dolphins. The latter are stars of the park's bottomless boat tour and also available for swim-with-the-dolphin experiences.
Open since 1946, Theater of the Sea is the second-oldest marine mammal attraction in the world and a fitting presence in the Upper Keys, where most things remain pleasantly unchanged.
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If you go
What: The Florida Keys are a series of islands bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico on the southern tip of Florida, about 160 miles south of Miami. From Key Largo to Key West, the islands offer a range of activities from watersports to historic sites and night life.
Getting there: Take Interstate 95 or the Ronald Reagan Turnpike south to Miami, then continue south on the turnpike to U.S. Highway 1 and the Florida Keys. There also are flights into Key West International Airport, which is served by AirTran, American Airlines, Cape Air, Continental Airlines, Delta and US Airways.
Accommodations and activities. Lodging ranges from major chains to bed-and-breakfasts and smaller mom-and-pop hotels. Popular activities include fishing, snorkeling, diving and boating.
Call: 1-800-FLA-KEYS (1-800-352-5397)