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Florida Keys & Key West/USA

Introducing Florida Keys & Key West

Before Henry Flagler completed his railroad in 1912 connecting the Keys to the mainland, this 126-mile string of islands were just untethered bumps of land accessible only by boat. (Little surprise, then, that their early economies were built on piracy, smuggling, ship salvaging and fishing). Flagler’s railroad was destroyed by a 1935 hurricane, but what remained of its bridges allowed the Overseas Hwy to be completed in 1938. Now, streams of travelers swarm down from the mainland to indulge in the alluring jade-green waters, laid-back island lifestyle, great fishing and idyllic snorkeling and diving.

The Upper Keys – from Key Largo to Islamorada – are cluttered with touristy shops and motels, and from the highway you can’t even see the water. But as you go further south into the Middle Keys, the land starts to open up, offering the startling realization that you’re actually driving from island to island. Trailing off like ellipses, the islands get smaller as you reach the Lower Keys, which is everything from Little Duck Key on. But far from petering out, the keys reach their grand finale at the end of the highway in Key West – many visitors’ favorite key of all.

Many addresses in the Keys are noted by their proximity to mile markers (indicated as MM), which start at MM126 in Florida City and count down to MM0 in Key West. They also might indicate whether they’re ‘oceanside, ’ which is the south side of the highway, or ‘bayside, ’ which is north.

The Florida Keys & Key West Visitors Bureau (800-352-5397; www.fla-keys.com) has information on the entire area. Check www.diveflakeys.com for a full list of dive operators.