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Updated: 5:48 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 | Posted: 3:23 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

Florida Keys



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History

Once home to literary legends Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, the Florida Keys are a place like none other on earth. A chain-like cluster of about 1,700 islands -- with 800 named islands, included 45 that are inhabited -- beginning at the tip of the Florida peninsula, the Keys extend in a southwestern arc to Key West, the last of the inhabited islands, and on to the uninhabited Dry Tortugas. The islands divide the Atlantic Ocean to the east from the Gulf of Mexico to the west. Among the most popular destinations, from the mainland in order, are Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon Key, Big Pine Key and Key West.

Originally inhabited by Native Americans, the Keys were charted by Juan Ponce de León in 1513. The isolated outpost was well located for trade with Cuba, the Bahamas and was on the main trade route from New Orleans. As a result, it grew prosperous from repairing ships that wrecked on its shallow shores. For many years, Key West was the largest town in Florida until improved navigation led to fewer shipwrecks and it fell into decline in the late 19th century.

For many years the Keys were only accessible by boat. That changed in 1912 when the Florida East Coast Railway was extended to Key West with a series of over-sea railroad trestles. Twenty-three years later a massive hurricane struck the region, resulting in more than 600 deaths and a severely damaged railroad that would never be repaired. Transportation into the Keys was replaced by a U.S. highway in 1938.

Key Largo was established in 1960.

Why you should go

The Keys are an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, especially for those into water sports. There is no end to the opportunities for boating, diving, snorkeling, fishing, sailing and swimming. But there’s also plenty of art and culture to be found, as well as fine dining and luxurious resort accommodations.

Main attractions

* Key West/The Ernest Hemingway home: Although built in 1851 by a marine architect, the home’s most famous resident was author Ernest Hemingway. The acclaimed writer made his home there with his wife Pauline from 1931-1939. According to the current property owners, Hemingway maintained ownership of the home until his death in 1961 and continued to use it for sporadic visits to Key West after he and wife Pauline divorced in 1939. Following Hemingway’s death, the property was purchased and opened to the public as a museum. The two-story, five-room house was constructed using limestone blocks cut directly from the site. Visitors to the home and carriage house/writing studio can see many of Hemingway’s personal belongings (like the old Royal typewriter he used) and where he wrote many famous books and short stories, among them “To Have and Have Not” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” It’s located at 907 Whitehead St., in the heart of Old Town Key West, and it is open 365 days a year. www.hemingwayhome.com

* Key Largo/John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: America’s first undersea park, established in 1963, boasts 178 miles of undersea terrain that includes multiple sea grass beds, coral reefs and mangrove swamps. More than 1 million tourists visit the park annually. Recreational activities include camping, swimming, snorkeling, diving and glass bottom boat tours. The Visitor Center features a 30,000 gallon saltwater aquarium, which holds many of the underwater creatures that are found in and around the Keys. www.pennekamppark.com

* Tavernier/Florida Keys Wild Bird Center: The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center rescues and rehabilitates native and migratory birds in addition to providing educational opportunities for visitors. Visit the sanctuary daily to view permanent avian residents. www.fkwbc.org

* Islamorada/History of Diving Museum: Located in Islamorado, the History of Diving Museum details the story of mankind’s attempts to explore the ocean. On display are various types of diving and scuba gear produced from the dawn of diving history to current times. Tourists visiting the museum can learn how diving has impacted the worlds of underwater photography, treasure hunting and marine science. This is the only place you’ll find the world’s largest collection of diving helmets and artifacts from around the world. www.divingmuseum.org

* Marathon/Sombrero Beach: Sombrero Beach boasts an abundance of everything you’d want from a beach getaway: a sandy bottom beach with shallow clear blue water perfect for swimming and snorkeling, plus lots of sun, picnic pavilions, barbecue pits, playgrounds and free parking. Sombrero Beach is designated a Loggerhead turtle nesting beach; turtles lay their eggs on the beach at night from April through October. www.thefloridakeys.com/parks/sombrero.htm

How to get there

The two main airports for access to the Florida Keys are Miami International Airport and Florida Keys Marathon Airport has charter and general aviation services. Key Largo, Tavernier and Marathon all have runways suitable for privately owned and shuttle planes. Travel time by air from Atlanta to Miami Dade is approximately two hours. There are no Atlanta flights directly to Key West International Airport. Most require transfer in Fort Lauderdale. Air time is just over four hours. Key West is about 820 miles from Atlanta. Estimated drive time is 13.5 hours.

Links of interest

* Tourist Board: www.fla-keys.com

* Chamber of Commerce: www.florida-keys.fl.us/chamber.htm

* Hotel/Motel/Restaurant Information: www.keysdirectory.com

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