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Going down to 'Margaritaville' - Curt Yeomans

Last week, I asked readers to submit places they want to see, so I could write about those places for this week's column.

One person, a reader in McDonough, responded. Now, fortunately, the place this reader is eager to visit is a place I've already visited -- the Florida Keys. The reader said she's wanted to visit the Florida Keys since reading one of singer Jimmy Buffett's books.

I went to Key West 11 years ago. It was a family trip when the college I attended was on Spring Break. There is a lot to be said about the atmosphere down there, and I'm not talking about the temperatures, and whether or not it rains.

I'm talking about the personality of the keys --its so laid back.

Now, anytime you talk about the Florida Keys, the conversation eventually zeroes in on Key West, which is way at the very end of the keys. It takes an hour to drive down U.S. Highway 1, through the keys, to Key West. With traffic on what is, sometimes, a two-lane road, it can take forever to get down there.

My suggestion for passing the time is to bring Jimmy Buffett CDs. It sounds hokey, but it truly gets you in the spirit for being in the keys. Also, bring a snack, or plan on making a day out of the trip, with stops along the way.

So, what is there to do on the way to Key West? First, lets start in Key Largo, near the mainland. One place I recommend is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is right there on U.S. Highway 1. Now, if you are wondering what the name means, well, it's an underwater state park. You see, the coral reef in the keys is a protected environment in Florida.

What you'll find at this park are opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving in some of the clearest water you'll ever see. You can see all the way to the sea floor. A featured highlight on the scuba-diving tour is a Jesus statue, with his arms stretched out like the Jesus statue overlooking Rio De Janeiro.

But, if you prefer a more private snorkeling experience, there are plenty of places where you can just pull off the road, and go snorkeling in small coves. I would not recommend this, though, unless you just want to get a little practice using the goggles and snorkel. The water is not as clear in these coves, and you may end up coming across submerged vehicles and tires.

As you pass through the keys, you'll find lots of little mom-and-pop-style eating venues. One place I remember was a hotdog stand, that touted itself as "soon to be world famous," just before you cross the Seven-Mile Bridge, in the city of Marathon, Fla.

Now, if you need a place to stop on your journey, just to use a bathroom, or to re-stock your supplies, Marathon is your place. It's roughly halfway between Key Largo and Key West, and it's the only real city between the two. Also, I would recommend staying near Marathon. Unless you absolutely want the Key West experience to go all the way to your sleeping arrangements, you'll get better prices in Marathon. We stayed in a bungalow right on U.S. 1, near Marathon, when we were down there.

Now, coming into Key West, there are plenty of things to do. To get around, I recommend renting a scooter. It's how many people get around the island.

Some recommendations include visiting Earnest Hemingway's home (look for the six-toed cats and Hemingway's "last penny"); the Harry Truman Little White House, or the Key West Shipwreck Museum. The shipwreck museum is a must-see. It has a wooden observation tower that you can climb, and you can see all of the island from the top of that tower. Of course, there are plenty of places to eat as well, ranging from restaurants on the piers, to Jimmy Buffet's Magaritaville restaurant.

If you go to the Florida Keys, you'll have the time of your life. I highly recommend it.

Curt Yeomans covers education for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at cyeomans@news-daily.com.