Despite its enduring quirks, Key West is light-years removed from the escapist island that awaited a failed country songwriter who pulled into town a penniless nobody in the 1970s.
That was Jimmy Buffett, of course, whose Key West-inspired 1977 hit "Margaritaville" would transform both his career and the Conch Republic into mainstream attractions. For Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States, it opened the door to a marketing gold mine, an image that eventually smoothed away the town's rough edges into something closer to a theme-park with booze.
It's home to the flagship location of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe, where tourists in Hawaiian shirts have been known to ask the bartenders if the restaurant's namesake ever hangs out there.
In reality, if Buffett were looking for the unspoiled Florida Keys experience now, he'd find it roughly 100 miles north of Duval Street. In the Upper Keys, the lifestyle moves at a tantalizingly slower pace and the escapist vibe is less self-conscious.
The Upper Keys stretch from the northernmost point of Key Largo, about 60 miles south of Miami, to Marathon, roughly the midpoint of the string of islands about 50 miles north of Key West.
In bars such as the Key Largo's Caribbean Club, a rustic watering hole where Humphrey Bogart filmed scenes for the 1948 film that shares the town's name, the cocktails or bottled beers are accompanied by salty banter of the regulars.
The Caribbean Club makes the most of its movie fame with a big sign out front and framed black-and-white pictures inside, but it's obvious that the locals aren't interested in offering tours.
Without the tourist bars, shopping and tram tours, diversions in the Upper Keys are more old-fashioned: fishing, snorkeling and wildlife.
We're not in Margaritaville anymore.
Dancing with dolphins
When it comes to nature in the Keys, one of the most popular options is going one-on-one with a dolphin.
There are several attractions that offer the chance to swim with the intelligent and playful mammals, but the Dolphin Research Center (dolphins.org) on the island of Grassy Key in Marathon makes the experience seem more like fun science than an intrusive stunt.
The center is a not-for-profit education and research organization that is home to 22 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and an assortment of California sea lions. It also rescues marine mammals in the Keys.
In addition to a variety of hands-on dolphin experiences — ranging from trainer-for-a-day program ($650) to Dolphin Dip ($104) — the center also offers programs related to the health, behavior and environment issues of the center's star attractions.
"They are all really different," a center volunteer explained in a recent educational session. "It's all about the relationship you have with the dolphin. So you're going to see a little bit of human training, too."
In Dolphin Dip, participants interact with dolphins for 20 minutes waist-deep in water on a submerged platform. With hand signals and word commands, wanna-be trainers on a recent afternoon cued dolphin residents Calusa and Pandora to shake hands, splash in water fights and execute flips and dance moves.
The duo's playful streak was evident when they occasionally ignored the commands to swim away and execute some other entertaining move.
"They're not robots," the trainer said.
Those not interested in paying big bucks to go in the water can watch the hands-on sessions at close range from the docks for the center's general admission of $20 adults; $15 for ages 4-12. Also, the dolphins often swim close to the wooden boardwalks that intersect the lagoons.
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