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The Florida Keys, FL

Florida Keys in 3 DaysThree days is barely enough time to get to know any major destination. But AAA travel editors suggest these activities to make the most of your time in the Florida Keys.

By Patricia Miller

You'll definitely need a car to explore the Florida Keys from Key Largo to Key West and all points in between. The Overseas Highway, or US 1, is the only way in and out of the Keys by land, and most directions use mile markers on US 1 instead of actual numbered addresses; for example, Key Largo is located between mile markers 91 and 107, and Key West is located between mile markers (often abbreviated as MM) 0 and 4.

Day 1: Morning Your 3-day crash course of the Keys begins with a stop in Key Largo, the first island you'll reach after leaving the continental United States. Try eating out at local favorite Doc's Diner (MM 99.6) and starting the day with a hearty breakfast; patrons include firefighters and police officers (always a good sign). The owner is a local optometrist who, along with his daughters, warmly greets all customers. Highlights of the raved-about, extensive and well-priced breakfast menu include pancakes and malted Belgian waffles made from scratch, and Doc's Feast, which includes 12 scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham steak, pancakes, French toast, hash browns, grits and biscuits for $32.99—a great deal if you and your friends want to try some of everything (and you will). Lunch also is offered and includes Angus beef burgers, melts, sandwiches and salads. The décor is plain and simple, but that really doesn't matter when the food is so lip-smacking good.

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Work off all that filling breakfast fare with adventurous things to do at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (MM 102.5). The park was created in 1960 to protect the fragile living coral reefs, so most of the park is actually under water. Go scuba diving or take a glass-bottomed boat tour to get a close-up look at the reefs and the otherworldly creatures that inhabit them; scuba divers and snorkelers can even see a submerged bronze statue called “Christ of the Deep.” You can also take a dip at the destination's two beaches, catch some saltwater fish, and paddle a canoe or a kayak on a peaceful 2.5-mile water trail past thickets of mangrove trees. If you'd rather stay dry, wander through hammocks of hardwood and fruit trees on three nature trails or check out the 30,000-gallon aquarium in the visitors center.

Day 1: AfternoonYour morning at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park may very well extend into the afternoon, but after a dive or a ride on a glass-bottomed boat you might find yourself envisioning the fish you just saw on a plate with a nice lemon butter sauce; if you're searching for where to eat, try out another local food place. There's no need to dress up for lunch at Sal's Ballyhoo (MM 97.8) in Key Largo, where you can choose from a variety of freshly caught fish from the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico and have it prepared in one of many ways. There's also a raw bar, and don't miss the delicious pretzel rolls.

Looking for something to do after lunch? Adventure travel enthusiasts from around the globe flock to Key Largo (which calls itself the “Diving Capital of the World”) to explore its shipwrecks and coral reefs; a wealth of outfitters, guides and charters are ready, willing and able to help you do the same.

Day 1: EveningIf you prefer to keep your head above water, explore souvenir emporiums like Largo Cargo (MM 103.1) for such amusing mementoes as beer can shorts, which have pockets deep enough to hold—what else?—a beer can; or choose from assorted travel tchotchkes and beach gear including tote bags and flip-flops. Or make your way to Shell World, whose two locations (most extensive MM 97.5 and MM 106) contain one of the most extensive selections of seashells in the Keys (except for the surrounding waters) as well as T-shirts and a collection of stylish home accessories and gifts. Key Largo also has a variety of art galleries, including Key Largo Art Gallery (MM 103.2) which deals in colorful things to see by Florida Keys and Cuban artists.

Day 2: MorningRise and shine for the drive from Key Largo to Islamorada, about 25 miles southwest on US 1 between MM 65 and MM 91. From Islamorada, drive about 49 miles south on US 1 to Bahia Honda Key. On this leg of the trip, you'll drive on the Seven Mile Bridge over Florida Bay after you pass through Marathon.

Stop at Bahia Honda State Park (MM 37); it's touted by many as having the best beaches in Florida and in the Florida Keys. Most beaches in the Keys are small and rocky, but the ivory sand at Bahia Honda State Park's three beaches is soft and fine, perfect for squishing between your toes. You can also go fishing, rent a kayak, or go on a boat ride to the reef for some snorkeling. Stop in at the nature center to learn more about the area's flora and fauna.

And don't miss the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. Hike on a short and slightly steep nature trail for an amazing view of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean from the old bridge, originally part of the Overseas Railway. No longer in use, the bridge ends abruptly where a span was removed years ago; look across the way to see where the rest of the bridge begins for a one-of-a-kind experience. Should you work up an appetite as morning turns into afternoon, grab a quick bite at the park's snack bar; choose from sandwiches, salads and ice cream.

Day 2: AfternoonDon't be surprised if you spend more than just the morning at Bahia Honda State Park, especially if you're the outdoorsy type. When you decide it's time to continue your journey, head east on US 1 for about 7 miles to gaze at pint-sized Key deer in their natural habitat at the National Key Deer Refuge (MM 30.3) in Big Pine Key. First, stop at the refuge's visitor center (just off US 1 on Key Deer Boulevard in the Big Pine Key Shopping Plaza) for some brochures and a map. There are only about 800-1,000 of these endangered Lilliputian relatives of the Virginia white-tailed deer, so be cautious when driving in this area, as the deer often cross the roads. It's illegal to feed the deer, but it's delightful just to watch them in their natural habitat.

Day 2: EveningThe Keys are made up of some 1,700 islands. Tucked between Little Torch Key and Summerland Key, you’ll find Ramrod Key. The island was renamed after the “Ramrod,” a ship that was wrecked nearby. A short distance on the Overseas Highway (US 1) will bring you to Boondocks Grille & Draft House , a casual bar and grill with covered and open-air patio seating. The menu features items from burgers, ribs, steaks and chicken wings to fresh-caught seafood, handpicked from local fishermen including grouper, hogfish and snapper. Quench your thirst with a handcrafted cocktail or a craft beer from their diverse selection.

To reach the restaurant from the National Key Deer Refuge, drive 3.5 miles west on US 1 to Ramrod Key, to the thatched-roof building with an adjacent caveman-themed miniature golf course. This happening destination also features more than 20 LED TVs, bingo, live music, theme nights and trivia competitions.

Day 3: MorningHit US 1 bright and early for the 25-mile drive to Key West. Save your appetite for breakfast at Blue Heaven Restaurant & Bar (just south of Duval Street at 729 Thomas St.); it's practically a requirement for visitors. Roosters and their chicks, and maybe a cat or two, strut their stuff on the patio while you graze on such delectable dishes as eggs Benedict with lime hollandaise paired with your choice of meats; shrimp and grits; or banana, pineapple or pecan pancakes.

Only 4 miles long and 2 miles wide, Key West is a walking town. Most of the town's attractions, restaurants and shops can be found on or near Duval Street, Key West's main drag. Note that parking spaces are scarce, so park your car at your hotel and hoof it the rest of the day. To acquaint yourself with the area, make your way to 303 Front St. in Mallory Square and hop on the Conch Tour Train. A 90-minute tour of the isle features a “conductor” who relates stories about the island's distinctive landmarks, history and residents, including Ernest Hemingway and Harry Truman.

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Hemingway lived in Key West for a portion of his life, residing in a house on Whitehead Street with wife Pauline and a number of six-toed cats. Visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (about .7 miles south of Mallory Square on 907 Whitehead St.) for a glimpse of the celebrated author's life during the 1930s. The eclectic décor includes an Art Deco bathroom with yellow and black tile, Spanish and French antique furnishings and chandeliers, and Papa's Royal typewriter. About 50 descendants of his cats roam the grounds.

Day 3: AfternoonKey West is well-known as an artists' enclave and you can find their works at various art galleries and shops on Duval Street; most of the galleries are located at the southern end of the street. Pop into the Alan S. Maltz Gallery (1210 Duval St.) for brilliant nature photography, Wyland Galleries (623 Duval St.) for true-to-life color paintings and sculptures of marine life, and South Pointe Gallery (1201 Duval St.) for high-quality French Art Deco posters from the early 1900s.

After viewing man-made art at the galleries, walk just a little farther south on Duval Street to see original works by Mother Nature at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (1316 Duval St.). Saunter slowly on a winding path while you watch fragile butterflies in brilliant stained-glass hues glide weightlessly around the glass-walled conservatory. Tropical flowers, trees and small waterfalls combine with soothing new-age music to create a peaceful, stress-reducing environment.

Day 3: EveningGetty Images/Robert Glusic
Another requirement for Key West visitors is to watch the sunset at Mallory Square (at the northern end of the island); it's a long-standing island tradition where crowds watch the blazing golden orb take a slow dive into the Gulf of Mexico. Accompanying this resplendent spectacle is an outdoor sideshow where dozens of street performers, including sword swallowers, jugglers, magicians and musicians, do their best to entertain hundreds of onlookers.

However, standing in the crowds at Mallory Square on a warm day, especially after a day of sightseeing, shopping and water sports, can be a bit tiring. The solution? Make a dinner reservation at the Hot Tin Roof (Zero Duval St. at Mallory Square in the Ocean Key Resort & Spa, A Noble House Resort), a restaurant with an outdoor deck that faces Mallory Square and Florida Bay. You'll have a perfect view of the sunset while you dine on Floridian cuisine with a Latin and Caribbean flair. Choose from such items as curried crab cakes, Hot Tin paella and yellowtail snapper rubbed with dill chimichurri.

Finally, it's time to do the Duval Crawl. If you're not familiar with the phrase, it translates to bar-hopping on Duval Street, a popular pastime in this town. The main drag in Key West, Duval Street is party central, populated with a plethora of open-air bars and pubs. Catch local bands and knock back a cold brew or a margarita at hot spots like Bourbon St. Pub (724 Duval St.), Rick's & Durty Harry's Entertainment Complex (202 Duval St.), Sloppy Joe's (201 Duval St.) and Virgilio's Key West Martini Bar (524 Duval St.). If the mood strikes, amble down the side streets and check out Capt. Tony's Saloon (428 Greene St.), the location of the original Sloppy Joe's where Hemingway hung out with his buddies; or the Green Parrot Bar (601 Whitehead St.), known for having one of the best jukeboxes in town.

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The Florida Keys, FL

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