Laid-back Keys provide tropical option stateside


A client is craving a luxury getaway to a place with guaranteed sunshine, upscale accommodations, outstanding cuisine, friendly natives, loads of activity options and a handy time zone. You send them to the Caribbean, right? Wrong.

There's an enticing alternative much closer to home, where U.S. dollars are the coin of the realm and English is spoken. It's rich in history and filled with deluxe hotels, too. It's the Florida Keys.

Head south from Miami along U.S. Route 1, past Homestead and across the Seven Mile Bridge, and you are soon in another world. Credit 19th century railroad baron Henry Flagler and his impossible "railway that went to the sea" for first connecting Key West and all its sister keys to the mainland.

The famed Florida Keys Overseas Highway opened in 1938 and, after a brief hiatus during the World War II years, took up where the shut-down railroad left off. It's been serving travelers as the Keys' lifeline ever since.

Sailing away to Key Largo

Key Largo is the northernmost key, or island, in a 125-mile archipelago that stretches south to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental U.S.

Key Largo is sandwiched between Florida's Everglades National Park and, to the east, the world's third-largest living coral reef. With its abundance of nearby wrecks, locals consider Key Largo the diving capital of the world.

Although the title of Sports Fishing Capital of the World properly belongs to the next key south, Islamorada, Key Largo is likely the only place on earth to catch sailfish in the morning in the Atlantic Ocean and then venture into the backcountry in pursuit of bonefish, tarpon and redfish.

For luxury digs, it's hard to top the Cheeca Lodge & Spa, a 27-acre resort with saltwater and freshwater pools, a world-class spa and all manner of water sports available at a long pier that juts from a palm-fringed beach.

Dine at the excellent open-air patio restaurant and you'll feel you've landed in the West Indies.

The rooms are commodious with amenities galore; the more expensive ones come with balconies.

Before leaving Key Largo, visitors should be sure to stop by the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum, with its unique collection of historical diving equipment.

Farther south, another must-see is the Dolphin Research Center at Mile Marker 59. The world-famous facility boasts a wade-in swim program called Dolphin Encounter, allowing visitors to get waist-deep in the water with dolphins and receive an unforgettable "dolphin tow." 

Having the run of Marathon

052108keys2The next key south is Marathon, a 10-mile-long island "city" known as the "heart of the Keys" thanks to its mid-Keys geography. It boasts a newly renovated airport, if flying in is an option; currently, none of the major carriers offers service to Marathon.

An unusual luxury choice to stay is the Coral Lagoon Resort & Marina, 6 acres of lushly landscaped property with two- and three-bedroom, waterfront homes equipped with full kitchens and dining rooms.

If clients can splurge, have them stop at Little Torch Key to take the private motor launch out to Little Palm Island Resort & Spa. This 5-acre paradise was the favorite retreat of President Harry S. Truman.

This Noble House Hotels and Resorts property has only 30 rooms; most are stunning suites housed in thatched-roof bungalows. Peaceful paths meander amid lush greenery and past the lagoon-style pool. No cell phones are permitted, and there are no TVs or direct-dial phones in rooms.

The spa at Little Palm Island offers treatments in a zenlike setting. This is perfect peace married to sybaritic luxury and a favored spot for weddings.

A recent lunch at the restaurant started with a salmon mousse topped with truffles, drizzled with aged balsamic and surrounded by pools of lemon foam. Then there were five more courses.

This getaway doesn't come cheap. The most economical suites start at $700 a night. The larger corner suites go as high as $1,500.

Key to excitement

Once clients are utterly relaxed, it's time to hit Key West.

There's no place like it. Its downtown commercial spine, Duval Street, bustles with bar-to-bar action. Nearby, catch sunset in Mallory Square with its nightly carnival of musicians, magicians and performance artists. Venture off Duval and you're plunged into a tropical paradise of homes and small hotels.

Writer Ernest Hemingway lived here for 10 years, and his house with its 50 resident cats is a highlight of any tour. Also worth a stop: the Key West Museum of Art & History with its innovative exhibits. Best way to get the lay of the land is with the Old Town Trolley Tour and its showmen conductors.

There are dozens of cozy inns and bed and breakfasts; a breakaway favorite is the Mermaid and the Alligator.

High-end, upscale properties include Noble House Hotels and Resorts' other Florida Keys property, the Ocean Key Resort and Spa, at 0 Duval St. (see story below).

For a piece of history and grand luxury, point clients to the Casa Marina Resort & Beach Club, a destination for the rich and famous since the 1920s.

Here, they can get a massage on the private, 1,100-foot beach or enjoy gourmet cuisine under palms.

The resort recently underwent a $160 million renovation, and it shows, inside and out. The best rooms have balconies overlooking the ocean. 

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