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Keys open up a world of discovery

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: October 10, 2013

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THE Florida Keys is must-see destination for any globe-trotter.

And Key West, with its idyllic turquoise seas and white-sand beaches, historic features and party-town atmosphere, is the one to choose if you're looking for a fun-filled and memorable stay.

The Florida Keys archipelago stretches around 100 miles from the northernmost island, Key Largo, to the southernmost point, Key West.

From where my partner and I were staying in Fort Myers Beach, on the Gulf coast of southern Florida, Key West is between five and six hours by car.

Not relishing such a long trip for our two-night stay in the Keys, we were thrilled to discover the convenient delights of the Key West Express.

This handy passenger ferry service cuts the travelling time in half and, thanks to an early departure time of 8.30am, whisks you into Key West just in time for lunch.

Key West could well take the crown for the biggest party town in the state – something we discovered shortly after boarding the ferry.

The bar was open from the moment we stepped aboard (7.30am), and the Bloody Marys were flowing as fellow passengers wasted no time getting in the spirit.

The smart and comfortable ferry made for a very pleasant start to our trip, however, and after a couple of hours soaking up the sun on the deck we docked in the crystal-clear waters of Key West.

The island – just 90 miles from Cuba – is perfectly picturesque, from the marina boardwalk taking you past the many harbourside seafood bars and restaurants, to the traditional colonial buildings nestled among palm trees and banyan trees... not to mention the rather bizarre sight of free-ranging chickens (and chicks) roaming the streets.

Key West is just six square miles, so you can easily walk from one end of the island to the other – although we learned the hard way to plan our days to avoid too much walking.

With temperatures in the 30s, trekking across town for the third or fourth time begins to lose its appeal.

Many choose to hire bicycles or scooters, which seemed the ideal mode of transport given the lack of available parking in the town.

We had two nights booked at the Key Lime Inn, a quaint 37-room historic hotel just a short walk from the town's main drag, Duval Street.

The comfortably appointed air-conditioned rooms are situated in separate buildings, and we were lucky enough to be sited immediately next to the lovely heated pool.

The secluded and peaceful environs encompass an acre of palm trees and other tropical plants; a perfect haven from the bustling centre.

Duval Street is known for its night (and day) life – evidenced by the many rum, cocktail and wine bars nestled among the equally prevalent boutiques, art galleries and gift shops.

And the fun is not restricted to Duval, there are many quaint and quirky establishments tucked away in Key West's network of streets.

A word of warning – this town is not cheap. Gifts and clothing are noticeably more expensive than on the mainland, and although you can find reasonably low-price food and drink, beware of bars in a particularly choice location.

We were caught off guard by a $6-a-pint bar in popular Mallory Square one lunchtime (we'd been paying around $3 back in Fort Myers).

Of an evening, however, the same Mile One cigar bar did come through with a really superb blues band – lounging on the comfy terrace sofas it was too easy to while away the hours with a beer or two (or three).

And while it's easy to stop off at one of the lovely yet rather pricey restaurants – we enjoyed a very nice lunch at harbourside seafood eatery Alonso's, $25 a head for a sandwich and a shared pitcher – it's worth looking a little further to find a more budget-friendly gem.

We stumbled across the Half-Shell Raw Bar in the historic seaport at the north end of the island, where we enjoyed dressed lobster, fries and coleslaw for just $13 each; superb.

And the nearby Hog's Breath Saloon, despite the rather dubious name, served up the best Bloody Marys in its quirky wooden shack, erected around a number of trees, alongside a reasonably priced raw bar.

Eating and drinking is not the only attraction to Key West – it's worth exchanging land for sea with some of the many watersport activities on offer.

Deciding that perhaps the best way to see the town was from 300ft up, we boarded a boat with Fury WaterAdevntures for a spot of parasailing.

Jamie and I were the first of our group to go up – in a tandem harness – and as the boat sped along we were winched aloft with the big white 'chute behind us.

The boat slowed and we were dipped in the water before being lifted higher once more... and all I can say is: Wow.

If you think the sea and sands look stunning from the ground, from 300ft up it's a whole other story.

The water is the bluest I've ever seen – and sometimes you can even see sharks and dolphins, although we missed out this time.

So peaceful is the experience that once the butterflies in our stomachs settled down, the serenity and stunning surroundings meant a perfectly tranquil 15 minutes which went all too quickly.

Next up was jetskiing with Barefoot Billy's.

We almost missed out on this thanks to a three-hour storm which kept us sheltering in the aquarium instead (fascinating, if rather small; we loved the displays but there could have been a few more).

But once the skies finally cleared we boarded our skis for a 90-minute tour around the island.

It was another great way to see the sights, which the friendly guides pointed out at various stops along the way, and with a good half hour of free time to whiz about on our own, it was a great way to blow off some steam.

Our final water-based activity was Sebagos' fabulously-named Champagne sunset snorkel sail, and it really did live up to its billing.

Captain Kyle and his crewmates Big Sexy and Little Sexy (don't ask) took us aboard their catamaran for a three-and-a-half-hour trip out to the third largest coral reef in the world.

This was my absolute moment of our Key West break – bobbing about on the surface of the water above the reef, watching snapper, grouper, Sergeant Major and parrotfish.

Not to mention the stingray a fellow snorkler followed for a little too long – and the jellyfish which stung my arm and leg.

We'd been warned about jellyfish – their sting is in no way dangerous, and while the nettle-like burn is uncomfortable it goes away after a short while.

Back on the boat we took advantage of the free bar while chilling out on the deck, sipping sparking wine (OK, not quite living up to the name), watching the sun set and soaking up the peaceful atmosphere as we sailed for shore.

You'd think all this would be enough to fill a three-day stay in Key West, however, there is just so much more to do on the island.

There are museums – we thoroughly enjoyed the Shipwreck Museum, where we learned about Key West's salvage industry – and historical buildings such as Ernest Hemingway's residence and the Little White House.

We took a fascinating tour around this holiday home where US President Harry S Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.

Furnished with the original, restored furniture from the 1940s when Truman was in residence, the stunning house is a real insight into the man himself and the era and is well worth a visit.

Just when you think you've seen all Key West has to offer, you stumble across something else which catches your eye.

I have a feeling we only just scratched the surface – and I just can't wait to come back for more.

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