by Bill Vanderford, Southeastern Travel Editor

How would you like to hop a plane, and discover a warm island paradise? With today's reasonable airfares into Miami, and better rates for rental cars, It's easily possible to be in the middle of the Florida Keys sipping a cool drink in a comfortable chair within a few hours.

Such a paradise known as "Shangrila" was immortalized in song during the 1950,'s and was surely the basis for many dream trips. Today's dreamland, however, is often referred to as "Kokomo". According to the song by the Beach Boys, it is supposed to be a tropical paradise that encompasses many of the Caribbean islands, including the Florida Keys. So, when listening to the words of the song, one automatically conjures up visions of white sand beaches loaded with bikini-clad sun worshipers. That scene may be true in some of the Caribbean islands, but not in the Florida Keys!

Ganging up to hoist a toast to sunset.


One of the first things a visitor asks after traversing several miles of the Overseas Highway is, "Where are the beaches?" The Keys however, are formed from build-ups of coral or limestone, and are surrounded by miles of shallow flats in every direction that are protected by a barrier reef seven miles offshore on the Atlantic side. Therefore, any surf or sand is dissipated long before it reaches the shores. To enjoy the real beauty of Florida's "Islands in the Stream", which have been described as dangling from the tip of the peninsula like a loose thread from the toe of a sock, one must don a mask, snorkel and flippers to become part of this unique environment.

The Keys actually start in Florida Bay with Soldier Key and the Ragged Keys, which are only 12 miles south of Miami. Because of the popularity of Bogart's 1940's movie by the same name, however, Key Largo is recognized by most to be the first of the Keys. In fact, one can still sit and sip a brew on a stool once occupied by "Bogie" at the famous Caribbean Bar and watch a magnificent sunset across Blackwater Sound.

Super sunset.


More than a thousand incongruous parcels of land make up the Florida Keys, and many of those intricate clots of mangrove and coral are connected by the new Overseas Highway, which follows the roadbed of Henry Flagler's old railroad that hurtles from island to island for almost 150 miles from the mainland to Key West, and passes by blue-green lagoons shaded by palm trees and overhanging mangroves. A visitor might see a kaleidoscope of flora and fauna, including white herons, roseate spoonibills, pelicans, ospreys, or even one of the endangered Key deer.

Quality lodging in the Florida Keys is often hard to obtain, and should be an important consideration before departing. Those who go to the Keys unprepared or uninformed may end up in an unpleasant environment. Experience can be a harsh teacher in paradise, but one place right in the middle of these tropical American Islands provides safety and the best of everything. It is known throughout the world as the Cheeca Lodge, and has the finest accommodations in the Florida Keys.

This beautiful resort dates back to 1946 when it was known as the Islamorada Olney Inn. It was bought by Carl and Cynthia (Chee) Twitchell in 1960, and they combined their names into "Cheeca". The Twitchell's completely refurbished the old hotel and made it one of the most popular gathering spots in the Keys. It has long been the personal favorite spot for Presidents, including George Bush.


Cheeca Lodge docks put you on super bonefishing.


Within the Cheeca compound are two nationally acclaimed restaurants, nature trails with an adjacent saltwater stream that contains most of the local fish species and  Camp Cheeca.  This unique camp is designed to educate children from 6 to 12 years of age about the fragile ecology of the Florida Keys. Camp Cheeca also builds self-confidence and social skills.

Just a short drive south from the Cheeca Lodge, a New Orleans-style night life waits for visitors in the old downtown section of Key West -- at one time Florida's largest city. Today, historic buildings and forts, including Hemingway's house and its cats delight visitors, but very little can top the circus atmosphere of sunset watching from the old wharf at Mallory Park.

Describing the Florida Keys as a fabulous tropical paradise barely touches on the more than 500 species of fish that inhabit its blue-green waters and the host of tropical birds, animals and other colorful creatures that flit about the sunlit coral. These tiny spits of land, with old Spanish names like Matecumbe, Bahia Honda and Boca Chica, should rank among the best places on the globe to get away from the winter cold and escape reality for awhile!

For information about the Keys, contact the Florida Keys and Key West Visitors Bureau at 1-800-FLA-KEYS.