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June 25, 2017

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Keys to fun, food and films

A frolic along the string of islands south of Miami

Key Largo, home to the restored African Queen steamboat, is the largest island in the Keys (fla-keys.com) and a place where fans of classic films and laid-back island lifestyles alike come to fall in love. Hopeless classic film nut that I am, I’d always longed to visit Humphrey Bogart’s Key Largo, and I finally had my chance.

One sunny January day last year, I climbed aboard the restored African Queen steamboat (keylargoprincess.com/queen; from US$49), and prepared to fall in love as Bogey and Katharine Hepburn’s characters did in the 1951 film named for it.

There are more than 1700 mostly very small coral islands with a total landmass of 356 square kilometres strung along the Florida Straits between the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Key West (pop. 25,000), near the southwest end of the chain, is the southern most destination in the US just 145 kilometres from Cuba. From cigar kiosks to spicy Cuban-inspired fish dishes, the town has a welcoming Cuban vibe with a heavy overlay of American tourist.

It’s long been a B&B mecca and these days Airbnb lists 246 rental units with a surprisingly high average rental rate of $365 a night. Why so high? Because the Keys, and especially Key West, can be a lot of fun. It’s more of a party town than a place to hit the beaches, though there are bits of sand to lie on throughout the Keys. Another caveat: unless you do a lot of careful planning, it might be wiser to leave the kids at home. One indication: the best deals on food in the Conch Republic, as the town is sometimes called, come with drinks during happy hour.

Getting there is an essential part of the Keys experience. The drive south from Miami is along 240 kilometres of US Highway 1, a two-lane stretch, which threads its way through the bright blue water of the Atlantic on the right and the Gulf of Mexico on the left. It’s an iconic route that was once home to the Overseas Railroad, the spine and lifeline that connected the Keys to the mainland along 42 bridges.

The trip can be done in about three hours, but leave plenty of time to meander. There are lots of places to swim and picnic as you wind your way south. Eighty kilometres out of Miami, you’ll come to Key Largo, proud to call itself the dive capital of the world and the aforementioned spot made famous by Bogart and his wife, Lauren Bacall. Next in the necklace is Islamorada, which bills itself the sports fishing capital of the globe, then on to Marathon and into the Lower Keys before coming to Big Pine Key just 47 kilometers north of Key West.

A different key

The unpretentious Keys are a little bit of bohemian kitsch and a whole lot of diving, fishing, arts and adventure. It’s a place where Key Lime Pie is on every menu, and “cook your catch” means there’s a chef in the kitchen just waiting to prepare your filleted fresh fish (see below).

If all things quirky and unique are up your alley, the Florida Keys delivers. Check out the funky music festival, view the underwater pumpkin carving scene, sleep in Jules’ Undersea Lodge and plunge into wreck diving, a hugely popular local sport. The Keys have a long history of shipwrecks so there’s always the glittering possibility of treasure still to be found. Even if you don’t discover gold on the ocean floor, you’ll find treasure in the Shipwreck Museum (keywestshipwreck.com; adults US$15, kids four to 12 US$9) in Key West and the History of Diving Museum (divingmuseum.org; adults US$12, kids five to 11 US$6) in Islamorada, which boasts the world’s largest collection of vintage diving masks. Ride the tour trolley (trolleytours.com/key-west; adults from US$30, kids under 12 free) through the Old Town in Key West and keep your eyes peeled for the former homes of president Harry Truman, playwright Tennessee Williams — the film adaptation of his play “The Rose Tattoo” was shot on the island in the 1950s — and writer, Ernest Hemingway.

Visit the Nobel Prize winning author’s two-storey Spanish colonial villa, now a registered National Historic Landmark and museum, and take a close look at the cats you’ll find meandering around. Do a quick toe-count and you’ll spy more than a few six-toed felines lolling in the garden and reclining on Hemingway’s chaise lounge. Legend has it that a ship’s captain gave Hemingway a white six-toed cat named Snowball, the start of a long line of furry descendants.

The prolific American novelist and war correspondent lived in Key West for 10 years beginning in 1929 and penned many of his novels on the island. He wrote about depression-era Key West in “To Have and Have Not.” Bogart and Bacall fell in love on set of the movie in 1944 which contains the famous Bacall line, “You know how to whistle, don’t you? Just put your lips together and blow.” The Humphrey Bogart Film Festival (bogartfilmfestival.com) is scheduled for October 12 to 16 this year. African Queen canal and dinner cruises run daily all year. As I climbed aboard that famous boat, I could imagine Bogart and Hepburn standing on deck, and when the magic moment came for me to take the helm and steer her along the canal, I hoped I made Bogey’s Captain Allnut proud.

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