Activities for visitors to the Florida Keys range from snorkeling, boating and fishing to bar-hopping in Key West at sunset. You don't even have to leave your car to enjoy the tranquil scenery of water and sky on either side of the toll-free Florida Keys Overseas Highway, a series of bridges and roads that connects the 125-mile chain of islands. And while the Keys are not as well-known for beaches as other parts of Florida, a few spots - like lovely Sombrero Beach in Marathon - are worth a visit.
But wherever your wanderings through the Keys might take you, chances are you'll encounter some of the islands' many creatures on land, in the sea or flying overhead. Tarpon fish crowd the docks at waterfront restaurants, birds and tiny Key deer abound in nature preserves, and stingrays can be seen through glass-bottomed boats at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. And six-toed cats have the run of the place at Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West. Here are some details.
UNDER THE SEA
One of the first major attractions you hit driving through the Keys from Miami or Fort Lauderdale is Pennekamp Park. Glass-bottomed boat tours are offered three times a day (9:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.) to the offshore coral reef. The tours take about 2½ hours and you're likely to see sharks, stingrays and smaller tropical fish through the clear, angled panels in the floor of the boat once you reach the reef. http://pennekamppark.com, $24 adults, $7 kids under 12. Snorkeling and other boating excursions throughout the Keys offer views of wildlife as well.
Also in Key Largo, the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center (near mile marker 93) is a sanctuary for rescued and rehabilitated wild birds. You'll see falcons, owls, cormorants and more in large cages, but there are also wild pelicans freely strolling about. More wild birds can be found on the beach nearby. Admission to the center is free but donations are encouraged. http://fkwbc.org.
The Hungry Tarpon Restaurant at Robbie's Marina in Islamorada is a Keys institution. The food is good and reasonably priced, with everything from fish tacos to Key lime pie, but the main attraction is what you see, not what you eat. Outdoor tables overlook the water, which is crowded with tarpon. For $3.30, customers can buy a bucket of tiny fish to toss to the tarpon from a dock. Pelicans float and waddle around, too, hoping to snag whatever the tarpon miss. Restaurant customers get free access to the dock; others can pay $1 to watch the scrum. hungrytarpon.com, 77522 Overseas Highway, Islamorada (a right after crossing the bridge past mile marker 78, then another right).
As you get to the Lower Keys, signs warn you to slow down and watch for Key deer, an endangered species. The small animals with white tails can often be seen by the roadside in the vicinity of Big Pine and No Name Keys, which are part of the 8,000-acre National Key Deer Refuge. fws.gov/nationalkeydeer.
But you won't find a traditional park entrance. Instead there are a few trails accessed from Key Deer Boulevard where you can take a short hike. If you're lucky, you'll encounter a deer or two in the brush in a moment of mutual surprise. From U.S. 1 on Big Pine Key at mile marker 30.5, turn north on Key Deer Boulevard and drive 2.8 mi. to the Blue Hole trail (park on the left). The entrance to the Jack Watson and Fred Mannillo Trails is a bit farther down the road. Reminders: Early morning and late afternoon are best times for wildlife viewing, but don't feed the deer. A visitor center is located in the nearby Winn-Dixie Shopping Plaza.
The Dolphin Research Center in Marathon on Grassy Key offers hands-on training in the care of marine mammals for would-be professional caregivers and trainers. But the center also welcomes visitors daily, offering narrated presentations every half-hour with the opportunity to observe the center's dolphins and sea lions. Pricey interactive experiences are also available, such as a 20-minute "Dolphin Dip" for $119 which involves interacting with a dolphin in the water. dolphins.org. Center admission: $23 adults, $18; children 4-12.
Other places in the Keys offering interactive dolphin programs are Dolphins Cove, Key Largo; Dolphins Plus, Key Largo; Theater of the Sea, Islamorada; and Dolphin Connection at Hawks Cay Resort, Marathon, Duck Key.
Sick and injured sea turtles have their very own hospital in Marathon at mile marker 48.5. The Turtle Hospital has released more than 1,300 rehabilitated turtles into the wild since it was founded in 1986. Daily tours of the hospital and turtle tanks are offered on the hour 9 a.m.-4 p.m. turtlehospital.org. $18 adults, $9 children ages 5-12.
The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West offers an entertaining look at the legendary writer's life and times, and you don't have to be a fan of his fiction or films made from his work to enjoy the guided tour. Stories of his travels, his women and his passions - hunting, deep-sea fishing, bullfighting - are fun to hear whether or not you're familiar with books like "The Old Man and the Sea" or "A Farewell to Arms."
But one of the most charming aspects of any visit is encountering the 40 to 50 cats that loll about, sprawling on vintage furniture, pristine bedspreads and in the yard. Many of the cats are polydactyl, meaning they have an extra toe, just like a six-toed cat Hemingway owned. The kitties are named after Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Audrey Hepburn. You're not supposed to pick them up, but they are amusing to watch. Tours are offered daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. hemingwayhome.com/ , 907 Whitehead St., Key West. $13 adults $6 children.