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Top spots to stay, play and eat in The Keys

Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams found inspiration (and cocktails) on Key West. Here's where else they should have gone.
/ Source: Condé Nast Traveler

Big Pine Key
In the 1950s, Big Pine Key's miniature-deer population dwindled to near extinction; today, 700 or so skip around the island's ten square miles. It's home to the hardwood forest of the National Key Deer Refuge, best seen by bike (872-2239); rent one from the Big Pine Bike Shop to weave past the three-foot Bambis (Mile Marker 30.9; 305-872-0130). You'll see them later, too, stumbling around the grounds of the No Name Pub (N. Watson Blvd.). Stay at the simple, affordable Parmer's Resort on nearby Big Torch Key (305-872-2157; doubles, $135-$175).

The clear waters around this so-called Village of Islands teem with bonefish, tarpon, sailfish, mahimahi, and marlin. Hemingway types can arrange fishing expeditions through the Moorings Village, a collection of quaint houses that are available for rent by the week (305-664-4708; $4,550-$10,500 per week). Cheeca Lodge & Spa ] is similarly situated but swankier, having reopened in December after a yearlong renovation (800-327-2888; doubles, $399-$899).

Key Largo
Subpar (in the golfing sense of the word) is the only option in Key Largo, where aspiring pros ache to swing with instructor Jimmy Ballard, revered for his "theory of connection" (800-999-6664; $250 per hour). Later, sleep like a worn-out WASP in a four-poster bed at the Inn at the Ocean Reef Club (800-741-7333; doubles, $520-$730).

Key West
Palm-print doyenne Lilly Pulitzer got her start working with a "gay as your hat" couple who ran Key West Fabrics; though the store's closed, you can still buy brightly patterned fabrics at the Seam Shoppe (1114 Truman Ave.; 305-296-9830). Nab a pair of leather shoes made by local sandaleros at Kino Sandals (107 Fitzpatrick St.; 305-294-5044), and lug everything back to the Marquesa Hotel, once a Catholic boardinghouse and now on (305-292-1919; doubles, $330-$385).

Melody Key
Bomb-diggity is the best descriptor for Melody Key, a five-acre isle near Summerland Key owned by 311 rocker Nick Hexum. Renters join the island's only regular inhabitant, a five-foot iguana named Herman, and stay in a three-story, three-bedroom house kitted out with a pool, Jacuzzi, wet bar, fierce sound system, grill, and kayaks. Revel in the Caribbean sunset from the 360-degree crow's- nest balcony on the villa's roof (305-942-9197; $6,800-$8,000 a week for up to six).

Little Palm Island
More Fiji than Florida, Little Palm Island is reachable only by boat or seaplane. This—plus thatched roofs, massive hammocks, Thai yoga, crushed-seashell paths, and dreamy seafood—has made guests like Ivana Trump and Ralph Lauren feel miles from the mainland (800-343-8567; doubles, $890-$1,590).

Biscayne National Park
Ken Burns's Florida fave, Biscayne National Park is best known for the dolphins, manatees, and 500 species of fish that swim around Biscayne Bay. Since 95 percent of the park's 207 square miles is water, scuba and snorkeling are prime. You can also rent kayaks or explore coral keys in a glass-bottom boat (305-230-1100; canoe, $16 per person; glass-bottom boat tour, $45). Boat across from Everglades National Park, where the frontier-era Rod and Gun Club exudes the style of old aristocracy (239-695-2101; doubles, $110-$140).