Islands are fascinating places, and few island chains offer quite as many diversions as the Florida Keys. Although the threat of hurricanes might make some people nervous to venture onto U.S. Highway I – the route that links most of the islands south of the Everglades – it’s definitely worth the trip. If you’re really concerned about the Atlantic hurricane season (which runs from June 1 to November 30), rest assured that you can visit the Florida Keys any time of the year. My husband and I went there in April, but summertime is just as lovely – if a wee bit hotter.
While you could easily spend a few weeks exploring the Florida Keys, this colorful island chain is also an ideal area for a weekend getaway. If you’re short on time, there are three highlights that you should definitely not miss.
For nature lovers, the first stop should be Key Largo, the northernmost island in this famous archipelago. When we visited, we stayed at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park  (102601 Overseas Hwy., 305/451-6300), the perfect spot for sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and sportfishing. Established in 1963, this well-favored park offers convenient beach access, several picnic areas, a small campground, boat rentals, diving tours, glassbottom boat tours, and (my personal favorite) snorkeling tours amid the vibrant, shallow-water coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
A completely different experience awaits travelers in bustling Key West. Following a fascinating drive across Highway 1 – past numerous other keys, with names like Teatable, Little Crawl, Fat Deer, and Molasses – you’ll be greeted by palm trees, lovely Victorian-style inns, late-night bars, and gift shops galore. While Key West residents are fiercely proud of this crazy island, there is certainly a touristy vibe in many areas, and first-timers should be prepared for pricey hotel rooms and disappointing restaurants that frequently lure gullible tourists.
Still, whether you’re a visitor or a resident, you should definitely make time for a tour of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum  (907 Whitehead St., 305/294-1136, daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., $12 adults, $6 children, children under 6 free). Arguably one of the most well-known novelists in the world, Hemingway called Key West home for roughly a decade, and his former house and gardens are now open to the public. Well-informed guides lead insightful excursions through the Nobel Prize winner’s old rooms, including his private writing studio.
Along the way, you’ll learn plenty of intriguing tidbits, like the fact that Hemingway’s wife replaced all the ceiling fans with impractical chandeliers (much to the chagrin of today’s summertime staff members). Throughout the house and grounds, you’ll spy numerous cats, some of whom are descendants of Hemingway’s own feline pals. Many of the cats have been named after famous artists, writers, and movie stars; my favorite was Charley Chaplin, a black-and-white cat with Chaplinesque markings on his face.
After touring Hemingway’s former home, you simply must stop by the Blond Giraffe  (107 Simonton St., 305/296-9174, daily 9 a.m.-8 p.m.) for a slice of classic key lime pie. A frequent award-winner, Blond Giraffe offers four other locations in Key West, so it won’t be hard to find. If you’re really feeling adventurous, you should try the pie-on-a-stick, essentially a frozen slice of key lime pie, covered in dark chocolate. Just thinking about it makes me hungry all over again – and considering that key lime pie is my all-time favorite dessert, that’s a high compliment indeed.
For more information about the Florida Keys, including accommodations and activities, contact the Monroe County Tourist Development Council  (800/352-5397).