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Find Fish, Kitsch and Wildlife in the Florida Keys

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By Victor Block

One afternoon while visiting the Florida Keys I photographed my wife, Fyllis, swimming with stingrays and other denizens of the sea in a huge tank of water, then shoving live fish through an opening in a Plexiglas wall to feed hungry sharks on the other side. Driving back to our temporary home away from home, we passed houses fronted by mailboxes shaped like dolphins, manatees and seahorses.

The island chain that stretches southwest from the tip of Florida combines encounters with Mother Nature's magnificent handiworks with occasional touches of commercialism. Magnificent parks stretch out near shops selling sandals, shells and T-shirts. Recreational vehicle and trailer lots are adjacent to upscale resorts.

Key West offers a variety of tempting things to see and do, from funky and fashionable to historical and hysterical. Fyllis and I also wished to check the claim that other islands boast attractions and hidden corners that warrant a look.

For starters, there's the setting itself -- dots of land so narrow that we watched the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean, strolled across the highway and saw it set later into the Gulf of Mexico. The Keys include some 1,700 islands, about 40 of which are inhabited. The journey by car takes about three hours without stops, following the 113-mile-long Overseas Highway.

After leaving the mainland, travelers are immersed in local atmosphere. Bridges and piers are lined by fishermen seeking their dinner. Boats harbored in marinas are available for deep-sea fishing excursions and rides to snorkel and dive sites.

 

The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park covers 178 square miles of coral reefs, mangrove swamps and seagrass beds. Divers and snorkelers enjoy close-up encounters with more than 50 varieties of multihued coral and 600-plus species of fish, while landlubbers spot a multitude of resident and migratory birds.

The park also has two man-made beaches. Many people are surprised to learn that they are among the few stretches of inviting sand in the Keys. That's because reefs strung out east of the islands reduce the beach-building action of the surf. There are inviting exceptions. Anne's Beach on Lower Matecumbe Key is fronted by an elevated wooden boardwalk that meanders through a wetland hammock.

White-sand Sombrero Beach is a favorite among locals because of its isolated location off the main drag. Many sun-worshippers rank the baby-powder-soft sand at Bahia Honda State Park among the best anywhere.

The fact that there are few outstanding beaches on the Keys has its upside because that leaves more time for discovering other treasures. One of these is the variety of animal life encountered in the wild and at national refuges and state parks. Most appealing is the tiny and adorable Key deer, a subspecies of white-tailed North American deer found only in the Keys. The miniscule animals stand about 2 feet tall. Most live on Big Pine and No Name Keys in a federal refuge.

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