No "X" marks the spot, but hidden treasures still exist on Florida's famed Keys. Our hunt turned up three shimmering resort gems.
As the highway jumps from Florida's mainland to the string ofislands known as "the Keys," travelers immediately sense adifference. Giant red-and-white dive flags signal Key Largo's placeas the sport-diving capital of the world. Souvenir shops peddleshells, coconuts, and kitschy nautical collectibles. And funky (notin a good way) motels line both sides of the thoroughfare.
Rest assured that amid this clatter of sensory overload, oasesdo exist. You just have to know where to find them.
At mile marker 97.8, a canopy of trees envelops the oval signmarking the entrance to Kona Kai Resort and Gallery. This greenwelcome mat hints at what's ahead: a lush, 2-acre tropical gardenwith palms, fruit trees, flowering shrubs, and even an orchidhouse.
All of this foliage creates an intimate setting for the resort's11 guest rooms and suites. Bright and spacious, the accommodationsfeature spalike decor―ceramic tile floors, light-woodfurniture, original artwork, and, in several rooms, oversizeshowers with glass-block walls.
But the appeal of Kona Kai extends beyond its walls and gardensto the small details that indulge guests' every whim. Parched? Graba bottle of water and a mango from the poolside refrigerator.Feeling up for adventure? Take a spin in one of the kayaks orpaddleboats tied up at the dock. Pining for culture? Tour theresort's New York-quality art gallery. The sunsets arecomplimentary, too. When the sun begins to edge toward the horizon,guests make their way to the beach and pier for the nightly Keysritual. As orange hues spread across the sky and sea, tranquil,tropical Kona Kai seems a million miles from civilization.
Farther down the Overseas Highway, in Islamorada, anothersign―this one a throwback to the 1950s―points the wayto a family-style motel, the Islander Resort. Given the vintagefeel of the place, it seems odd to find modern cars, instead ofwood-paneled station wagons, filling the parking lot out front.
The resort's elongated one-level units, strategically placed forocean views, funnel guests toward the property's 1,100-foot beach.An on-site sports outfitter ensures abundant recreation options:sailing, biking, fishing, shuffleboard, volleyball, or just simplylounging on the wide beach. For cooling off, guests can chooseamong two pools (one freshwater and one saltwater) and a protectedwalk-in swimming area on the Atlantic.
Renovated in 2004, rooms are simple and clean with full kitchensand sunny, yellow-and-blue decor. Generous screened porches spillout to lawns with grills and picnic tables. Crisscrossing theproperty, sandy paths lead to hammocks and a shuffleboardcourt.
For a decidedly more modern experience, travelers can check into Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort in Marathon, a 45-minutedrive farther south. The full-service resort offers spa services, afitness center, and a fine-dining restaurant. Its two- andthree-bedroom cottages are filled with updated amenities, as well:plasma and flat-screen TVs, DVD players, and Wi-Fi access.
While these luxuries are nice, they're not the main attractions.Guests come for the wide swaths of white-sand beaches, bloominggardens and towering palm trees, and the property'scenterpiece―a large, lagoon-style pool. It's the perfectplace to enjoy another sunset at sea level.
From Miami, take Florida's Turnpike south to U.S. 1. Once inthe Keys, U.S. 1 becomes known as the Overseas Highway, theislands' main thoroughfare. Everyone on the Keys gives directionsusing mile markers, the little green signs along the highway.
Kona Kai Resort and Gallery (rates range from $189 to $898),mile marker 97.8 in Key Largo; 800/365-7829 or konakairesort.com. IslanderResort (rates range from $149 to $425), mile marker 82.1 inIslamorada; 800/753-6002 or islanderfloridakeys.com.Tranquility Bay (rates range from $229 to $899), mile marker 48.5in Marathon; 866/643-5397 or tranquilitybay.com.