Florida Keys: The Legendary Key Largo.

A stop at the Caribbean Club for an early morning Bloody Mary, followed by a visit to the African Queen, lunch at Mrs Mac’s Kitchen, and a late afternoon stroll through the Florida Keys Wild Bird Sanctuary.

The Upper Keys are about a one and half hour drive south of Miami Beach, which makes them far enough from civilization to be a haven for escapees from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, but close enough to the mainland to still feel connected.

They are a weekend warrior’s paradise, a place to run away to even just for the day.

Critics of the Upper Keys say they are nothing more than a Miami Beach playground, but if so, they are a playground or unparalleled beauty. Just south of Florida City, the Overseas Highway begins and the first mile marker appears MM126, which means you’re 126 miles north of Key West and heading straight for Key Largo.

You can also take the longer, more scenic route to Key Largo via Card Sound Road which lies 13 miles south of Florida City, and reconnects with the Overseas Highway at MM 109 in North Key Largo. Once you cross the Jewfish Creek bridge at the north end of Key Largo, you have officially arrived in the Keys, and can now kick off your shoes and allow yourself to start indulging in a little island mentality.

Legendary Key Largo as it likes to call itself, was originally known as Rock Harbor.

Islanders anxious to capitalize on their brief moment of fame renamed their home in 1948 in honor of the movie key Largo. The romantic film had Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Ba- call holed up on the island during a hurricane in what has become a celebrated Hollywood classic.

What was then a luxury hotel called the Caribbean Club was reportedly the site for a small portion of the shooting, though most of the film was actually shot on a sound stage in Hollywood.

The fact that Bogart and Bacall never set foot in the Keys the movie means nothig to Key Largo mythmakers who continue to take advantage of the Bogie/Bacall mystique.

Today, there are about 10,000 people living in Key Largo, mostly on the southern half of the island. North Key Largo has remained largely undeveloped, thanks to environmental concerns over damage to the offshore reef.

The first stop of the day is the Caribbean Club on Overseas Highway at MM104.

Now a rough and tumble saloon, open 24 hours a day, the dingy Caribbean Club immodestly hawks its past glory. Outside, a sign reads Where the Famous Movie Key Largo Was Made.’ The original structure burned to the ground twice, taking most of the romance with it. It has since been rebuilt and only part of the original foundations remain.

Inside its coquina-rock facade topped by a tin roof, old movie posters and photographs hang on the walls and the aroma of rum and bourbon hangs in the air. There’s an obligatory pool table with wooden paddle fans overhead.

Outside at the rear a row of picnic tables offers a broad view of the Gulf where you can do what many weather-beaten locals do each morning – sit down and order an eye-opening Bloody Mary.

Don’t be intimidated by the toothless fishermen who hang out at the bar, they’re harmless.

About a mile south of the Caribbean Club, in a shopping center on the gulfside of Overseas Highway, is the Florida Keys Visitors Center (daily 9am-6pm) where you can pick up free brochures on the Upper Keys.

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Further south on the highway at MM 103.5 is the Jules’ Undersea Lodge.

Although it’s a hotel, the Jules’ Lodge is no ordinary place to spend the night.

Located inside the Key Largo Undersea Park (daily 9am-3pm, tel: 451 2353), the lodge consists of a 30ft by 50ft concrete building that sits 30ft under the sea.

Formerly an aquatic research center, the totally self-contained hotel has two-bedroom cabins equipped with televisions and telephones, along with a communal area where gourmet meals are served.

Although only registered hotel guests are allowed into the bedrooms, tourists can visit the hotel by scuba diving in the fantastic undersea park. Scuba gear and snorkeling equipment are available for rent in the undersea park which, along with the hotel, features underwater music, archaeological exhibits, shipwrecks, a marine laboratory, lobster habitats, and sculptures.

Heralded as one of the planet’s last frontiers, the enclosed lagoon is designed to emulate the ocean’s natural environment while providing easy access for snorkelers and divers.

The Undersea Park is definitely worth a stop if you don’t plan on visiting John Pennekamp Park.

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