As the highway jumps from Florida's mainland to the string of islands known as "the Keys," travelers immediately sense a difference. Giant red-and-white dive flags signal Key Largo's place as the sport-diving capital of the world. Souvenir shops peddle shells, coconuts, and kitschy nautical collectibles. And funky (not in a good way) motels line both sides of the thoroughfare.
Rest assured that amid this clatter of sensory overload, oases do exist. You just have to know where to find them.
At mile marker 97.8, a canopy of trees envelops the oval sign marking the entrance to Kona Kai Resort and Gallery. This green welcome mat hints at what's ahead: a lush, 2-acre tropical garden with palms, fruit trees, flowering shrubs, and even an orchid house.
All of this foliage creates an intimate setting for the resort's 11 guest rooms and suites. Bright and spacious, the accommodations feature spalike decor―ceramic tile floors, light-wood furniture, original artwork, and, in several rooms, oversize showers with glass-block walls.
But the appeal of Kona Kai extends beyond its walls and gardens to the small details that indulge guests' every whim. Parched? Grab a bottle of water and a mango from the poolside refrigerator. Feeling up for adventure? Take a spin in one of the kayaks or paddleboats tied up at the dock. Pining for culture? Tour the resort's New York-quality art gallery. The sunsets are complimentary, too. When the sun begins to edge toward the horizon, guests make their way to the beach and pier for the nightly Keys ritual. 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, another sign―this one a throwback to the 1950s―points the way to a family-style motel, the Islander Resort. Given the vintage feel of the place, it seems odd to find modern cars, instead of wood-paneled station wagons, filling the parking lot out front.
The resort's elongated one-level units, strategically placed for ocean 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 simply lounging on the wide beach. For cooling off, guests can choose among two pools (one freshwater and one saltwater) and a protected walk-in swimming area on the Atlantic.
Renovated in 2004, rooms are simple and clean with full kitchens and sunny, yellow-and-blue decor. Generous screened porches spill out to lawns with grills and picnic tables. Crisscrossing the property, sandy paths lead to hammocks and a shuffleboard court.
For a decidedly more modern experience, travelers can check in to Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort in Marathon, a 45-minute drive farther south. The full-service resort offers spa services, a fitness center, and a fine-dining restaurant. Its two- and three-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, blooming gardens and towering palm trees, and the property's centerpiece―a large, lagoon-style pool. It's the perfect place to enjoy another sunset at sea level.
From Miami, take Florida's Turnpike south to U.S. 1. Once in the Keys, U.S. 1 becomes known as the Overseas Highway, the islands' main thoroughfare. Everyone on the Keys gives directions using 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. Islander Resort (rates range from $149 to $425), mile marker 82.1 in Islamorada; 800/753-6002 or islanderfloridakeys.com. Tranquility Bay (rates range from $229 to $899), mile marker 48.5 in Marathon; 866/643-5397 or tranquilitybay.com.