Reeling in The Keys Florida: It's not full of tourist spots like Key West or Miami Beach, but if you like to fish, Islamorada is the place to go.

March 02, 1997|By Maria Hiaasen | Maria Hiaasen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A winter craving for sun and fun lures thousands of families to battle the crowds at Walt Disney World. Not us. We chose a less ambitious pilgrimage to Islamorada, the heart of the Florida Keys.

A pilgrimage it was. This is where my husband -- a native of suburban Fort Lauderdale -- spent a family vacation fishing for yellowtail snapper, snorkeling among Florida lobster and barracuda, and buying trinkets at cheesy shops like Shell World. Here -- he assured me -- Mom and Dad could thaw out while introducing the kids to tarpon and bonefish, brown pelicans and snowy egrets. We'd even glimpse a coral reef.

This is not Key West, a tourist town known for its Hemingway haunts. It's not Miami either; You won't find a long sandy beach or crowded night spots. No, Islamorada proudly proclaims itself the "SPORT FISHING CAPITAL OF THE WORLD," and if you don't like to catch fish, eat fish, feed fish or watch fish, this isn't the place for you.

I confess, I had my fill of gills and fins after three days. But I appreciated the consistently fresh snapper and mahi mahi we were served at the restaurants where we dined. While I'll never snare an elusive bonefish, I loved the boat ride through turquoise and sapphire waters out to the flats where they hide. And I'll never forget watching a fiery sunset over the Florida Bay from a tiki hut at our resort. The setting could have passed as a romantic Caribbean locale if it weren't for the sign posted dockside: Pop Fish Eyes So Carcass Won't Float.

The five of us anchored at the Kon Tiki Resort on the Gulf of Mexico side of Upper Matecumbe Key. It's at Mile Marker 81 on U.S. 1, the only road through this skinny chain of islands known as the Keys, or the Conch Republic. Functional, not fancy, our bungalow faced the gulf, the mandatory shuffleboard court draped by a grove of coconut palms, and the man-made, saltwater lagoon stocked with local fish.

We spent our down time on the sandy strip next to the lagoon. Mom and Dad watched the kids build sand castles and scanned the lagoon for sergeant majors, starfish, sea anemone and bonefish.

Feeding Billy the egret

The kids loved watching the resort's owner feed Billy, a snowy egret who roosts on the grounds. We were cautioned against trying this daily ritual ourselves, since the long-legged egret has a razor-tipped bill.

But that didn't stop us from crowding around at feeding time, nor did it deter the brown pelicans or the feral cats that thrive in the Keys.

While our bungalow had a small kitchen, a vacation isn't a vacation if Mom or Dad has to cook. During our first dinner out, the kids sampled dolphin (the fish also known as mahi-mahi, not the mammal) and fried conch fritters, made from ground conch, diced bell pepper and hot sauce in a rich dough.

"Almost as good as crab cake," said Ben, our 7-year-old, as he reached for another fritter at Squid Row, a restaurant in walking distance from our hotel.

A friend who lives in Islamorada steered us to more great food. We treated ourselves to fresh stone crab and Florida lobster at Uncle's Restaurant and had the renowned conch chowder and Key lime pie at Manny and Isa's Restaurant.

Lucky for us, our friend, an avid fisherman, made time for several outings with us on his boat. Ben reeled in, then released, a small yellowtail snapper. I was satisfied catching the view of the clear, shallow water of Florida Bay and the endless horizon along Everglades National Park.

If you don't know a local, you can rent a boat for about $100 a day or $75 a half-day at one of the local marinas. Or hire a fishing guide to take you out.

We spent a day at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park 21 miles north of Islamorada in Key Largo. The park, the first undersea park in the country, is the only living coral reef off the coast of the continental United States. It spreads three miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

Exploring shipwreck

The water was too cold for swimming at the park's lakelike Cannon Beach during our visit, but several snorkelers in wet suits explored the reconstructed Spanish shipwreck offshore. The park also features fishing, camping, boating, canoeing and kayaking. But most visitors come to see the coral reef, skin diving to it or gazing from above aboard a glass-bottom boat.

We took the 2 1/2 -hour glass-bottom boat ride. We sped through the deceptively calm waters of Saltwater Creek and the Intracoastal Waterway, spotting great blue herons, osprey and cormorants along the way. Then, amid the breaking waves in the open Atlantic, we hovered over Molasses Reef and spied on this unique habitat.

As the boat swayed, our guide explained how tiny animals called polyps made this limestone reef over thousands of years. She pointed to bulky elkhorn coral and to waving sea fingers and sea flumes. Those who didn't get seasick spotted neon-finned parrotfish and blue coronas.

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