Despite its enduring quirks, Key West is light-years removed from the escapist island that awaited a failed country songwriter who pulled into town a penniless nobody in the 1970s.
That was Jimmy Buffett, of course, whose Key West-inspired 1977 hit "Margaritaville" would transform both his career and the Conch Republic into mainstream attractions. For Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States, it opened the door to a marketing gold mine, an image that eventually smoothed away the town's rough edges into something closer to a theme-park with booze.
It's home to the flagship location of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe, where tourists in Hawaiian shirts have been known to ask the bartenders if the restaurant's namesake ever hangs out there.
In reality, if Buffett were looking for the unspoiled Florida Keys experience now, he'd find it roughly 100 miles north of Duval Street. In the Upper Keys, the lifestyle moves at a tantalizingly slower pace and the escapist vibe is less self-conscious.
The Upper Keys stretch from the northernmost point of Key Largo, about 60 miles south of Miami, to Marathon, roughly the midpoint of the string of islands about 50 miles north of Key West.
In bars such as the Key Largo's Caribbean Club, a rustic watering hole where Humphrey Bogart filmed scenes for the 1948 film that shares the town's name, the cocktails or bottled beers are accompanied by salty banter of the regulars.
The Caribbean Club makes the most of its movie fame with a big sign out front and framed black-and-white pictures inside, but it's obvious that the locals aren't interested in offering tours.
Without the tourist bars, shopping and tram tours, diversions in the Upper Keys are more old-fashioned: fishing, snorkeling and wildlife.
We're not in Margaritaville anymore.
Dancing with dolphins
When it comes to nature in the Keys, one of the most popular options is going one-on-one with a dolphin.
There are several attractions that offer the chance to swim with the intelligent and playful mammals, but the Dolphin Research Center (dolphins.org) on the island of Grassy Key in Marathon makes the experience seem more like fun science than an intrusive stunt.
The center is a not-for-profit education and research organization that is home to 22 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and an assortment of California sea lions. It also rescues marine mammals in the Keys.
In addition to a variety of hands-on dolphin experiences — ranging from trainer-for-a-day program ($650) to Dolphin Dip ($104) — the center also offers programs related to the health, behavior and environment issues of the center's star attractions.
"They are all really different," a center volunteer explained in a recent educational session. "It's all about the relationship you have with the dolphin. So you're going to see a little bit of human training, too."
In Dolphin Dip, participants interact with dolphins for 20 minutes waist-deep in water on a submerged platform. With hand signals and word commands, wanna-be trainers on a recent afternoon cued dolphin residents Calusa and Pandora to shake hands, splash in water fights and execute flips and dance moves.
The duo's playful streak was evident when they occasionally ignored the commands to swim away and execute some other entertaining move.
"They're not robots," the trainer said.
Those not interested in paying big bucks to go in the water can watch the hands-on sessions at close range from the docks for the center's general admission of $20 adults; $15 for ages 4-12. Also, the dolphins often swim close to the wooden boardwalks that intersect the lagoons.
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)