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Highway to the Sea
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Highway to the Sea
  Florida Keys Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton . . .

Mallory Square is an empty pier by day, but,come evening, a couple of hours before sunset, a crowd begins to gather. First the celebrants, then the vendors and then the entertainers -- conch style.

And magically, before your very eyes, tee-shirt artists, beads and baubles artisans, fortune tellers, bagpipe players, tightrope walkers, jugglers, fire-eaters and a domestic cat show, transform a drab pier into a flashy chaotic circus.

On the horizon, the sun, like a giant spotlight, illuminates the show -- as if this wildness is the main attraction. It is ... until the sun touches the water -- then all eyes are on the powerful glow, slowly sinking into the sea. So profound is the image, the audience cheers and applauds when it dips, dips, and vanishes from sight.

Clearly, the sunset is an alluring vision and it is celebrated every night in Key West, the last key at the end of a flat almost straight 113-mile highway that links, like a necklace, a number of coral and limestone islets, quaint communities and distinctive personalities.

I rented a red Corolla at the Miami airport and headed for the highway. In no time at all, I was completely immersed in my surroundings. Behind me was the big city of Miami, with its opulent waterfront mansions, pastel skyscrapers and sandy beaches. Up ahead was the little city of Key West, with its gingerbread mansions, tin-roofed conch houses and recovered treasure.

Between the two, were Bogey and Bacall's Key Largo; an underwater park; many resorts; miles of swaying palms and water-rooted mangrove; scores of bridges decorated with stooped fishermen; countless pelicans, herons and osprey; and boldly displayed dive shops, dive shops and more dive shops.

Key Largo, the first and largest of the Keys boasts of having the most dive shops per mile in the world. It is the also location of the first underwater park in the United States: The 21 mile long John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park preserves the largest living coral formations in North America.

There are several ways to explore the reef. Snorkeling, diving or an excursion on a glass bottom boat. I wished that I was brave enough to take the one day's diving lessons offered by most of the shops. Unfortunately, it takes all my courage just to snorkel! Regardless, arrangements have to be made in advance for the diving lessons.

I missed the glass bottom boat excursion and the snorkeling tour and settled for the excellent slide show and sea life aquarium at the Visitor Center.

Later, I stopped for conch chowder (pronounced conk) at a roadside cafe. It was kind of like clam chowder, but not as good. The atmosphere was terrific, however. I half expected to see Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall walk in. I don't think much has changed in Key Largo since the filming of the movie in 1956.

Services and shops straddle both sides of the highway. If you veer off in either direction you'll come upon residential homes, scrubby swamp, or the ocean. So the words 'roadside cafe' might be misleading, implying I wasn't in the town's center. Well, the highway is the town's center. And there are no cafes other than roadside cafes until you get to Key West.

The largest town of the middle keys is Marathon. It is also the location of the Dolphin Research Center, a nonprofit teaching and research facility where for a tax deductible fee you can play and swim with the dolphins. The center has received national attention because of tending to sick and wounded dolphins found in the coastal waters. This is not a zoo. On the contrary, animals that have 'burnt out' from years of performing retire here.

By the time I arrived in Key West ( eight hours later ), I felt like a native. My hair was windblown. My shoes were off. I was relaxed, slightly sticky and completely unaffected by my appearance.

For the next three days I absorbed the flavors of flamboyant Key West. I absorbed its shotgun houses (called thus because, if you open the front and back doors, you can shoot a shotgun straight through); I absorbed its crazy tee-shirt shops; its dive shops, its noisy taverns; its funny-looking architecture; its local-flavored fishing docks; and its local-flavored natives.

For the next three nights I celebrated the sunset with the visitors, and the independent and eccentric Conchs.

For more information on the Florida Keys call 1-800-FLA-KEYS

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