ISLAMORADA, Fla. — You're on top of a serene blue world on the high white bridge just south of Lower Matecumbe Island in the Florida Keys.
Depending on which way you turn, the waters gleam azure or sapphire: Toward mainland Florida the warm, shallow bay is an opalescent aquamarine; across the deep Atlantic your eyes skim electric shades of blue as far as the Gulf Stream, a river of indigo pushing north at seven knots.
This unbound, living sea is the main reason to visit the Keys. Here, the sun rises out of the Atlantic and sinks into Florida Bay, and you can witness both events the same day simply by crossing the Overseas Highway.
Many travelers think of the Keys only as anchors for Highway 1's 115 miles and 42 bridges from the mainland to Key West. But there are hundreds of keys in Florida Bay, and the long chain connected by the road is divided into the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys, all with their own attractions. Green mile markers along the highway (often used as addresses) start at zero in Key West and end at 126 just below Florida City on the mainland.
The Islamorada group of islands in the Upper Keys, beginning at Plantation Key (Mile Marker 90) and stretching south to Long Key (MM 68), calls itself the "sport fishing capital of the world."
The town of Islamorada on Upper Matecumbe Key has the largest concentration of charter fishing boats in the entire chain of islands, with several large marinas furnishing charter trips or rental boats so you can fish for tuna, amberjack or blue marlin, or sail into Florida Bay, part of Everglades National Park, to watch for endangered crocodiles, manatees and roseate spoonbills.
Fishing reports are always available if you can scan your way through the ubiquitous Cuban salsa on the car radio to chatty WCTH, 100.3 FM. This local station also tells you where the local captains are and who has chartered them.
But fishing is only one reason to stop over on this 20-mile stretch of the Keys. Many nearby attractions, including the continental United States' only living coral reef, superior hotels and the best restaurants outside of Key West, make Islamorada an attractive final destination in Florida.
Pronounced EYE-la-mor-AH-da, this island group was named "Purple Isles" for the wild morning glories covering Upper Matecumbe Island, according to "Conch" (native) historian John Ovitt.
"One story goes that the Spanish named the islands for violet snail shells on the beaches," he said, "but the area wasn't known as Islamorada until early in this century when the wife of an engineer constructing Flagler's Overseas Railroad admired the flowers."
Although the Keys are no longer the pristine paradise that greeted 16th-Century Spanish explorers, or the sparsely populated islands that Henry Flagler and his railroaders encountered in 1905, the Islamorada area has many relatively unspoiled sites.
Newest of the area's four state parks is the San Pedro Underwater Archeological Preserve, opened last year a mile south of Indian Key. Ovitt and others, working with the Florida Department of Natural Resources, have enhanced the site where the 287-ton, Dutch-built galleon San Pedro sank. They replaced the anchor, which had been removed years ago, and added cannon replicas cast from artillery on her sister ship San Jose , also sunk in the area.
"Twenty-one ships loaded with treasure left Havana on Friday the 13th in 1733," Ovitt says, "and only one survived a great hurricane. Eleven wrecks lie in our waters, but the San Pedro is the most interesting. The site is 18 feet deep and easy for snorkelers and divers to explore." Ovitt also says that night diving, here and at natural reefs, is becoming popular. "Many corals blossom at night and you can watch sleepy parrot fish."
Ten-acre, uninhabited Indian Key, a mile off Lower Matecumbe, is rich in above-ground archeological sites such as circular cisterns and foundations. This tiny island is indebted for its colorful past to Capt. Jacob Housman, a famous "wrecker" who set up headquarters here in the 1830s.
In deep water only four miles from Alligator Reef, Indian Key provided an ideal location for Housman to watch for the hundreds of ships being wrecked. Business was a resounding success, and he built Florida's first resort, the Tropical Hotel, with a bowling alley and billiard room. Indian Key became a busy port and the seat for Dade County in 1840. (The seat is now Miami.)
The island attracted John James Audubon, who visited in 1832 and recorded birds he had never seen before, and Dr. Henry Perrine, a botanist who cultivated agave, tea, coffee and bananas.
But when the Second Seminole War broke out in 1835, Chief Chekika heard Housman was negotiating with the government for a contract to kill Indians at $200 a head. The chief and a hundred warriors attacked the island in 1840, killing Perrine and forcing Housman to flee.