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In Key West: Dinner $1, Sunset Free : Youth hostel caters to international set at $16 a night. But don't be rowdy during spring break.

February 14, 1993|LUCY IZON

KEY WEST, Fla. — Key West tends to cater to upscale travelers, but that doesn't mean that those on shoestring budgets can't enjoy a visit. More than 20 camping areas line U.S. 1 between the mainland and this popular resort town at the tip of the Keys. And, when budget travelers reach Key West itself, they can bed down at a local youth hostel for $16 or less per night.

During spring break, this isn't a town for students to get too frisky in. For the past several years, local authorities have been imposing a penalty for underage drinking, public rowdiness, etc. Rather than just sitting offenders down in jail, the city outfits them in orange-and-white vests and puts them to work cleaning the parks and beaches.

From Miami, a bus trip covering the 150 miles to Key West takes about four hours and costs $30. The beginning of the trip takes riders through Homestead, the city hardest hit by Hurricane Andrew last August. Even though many months have passed since the storm, the massive damage done by the high winds is still quite evident.

But most signs of destruction disappear as you leave the mainland behind.

There are both private and public camping facilities throughout the Keys, catering to those with tents or recreational vehicles. The rates are slightly more expensive than on the mainland.

For example, 42 miles southwest of Miami, at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, there are 47 campsites. The rate is about $26 for a site with electricity, and $24 without electricity. Half of the campsites can be reserved 60 days in advance; call (305) 451- 1202. For the unreserved sites, you should plan to get there early in the day.

Key West is the southernmost point in the continental United States, about 90 miles from Cuba. It's actually an island, measuring about 4 by 2 miles.

Because of its size, Key West doesn't heat up like larger land masses that tend to retain heat, thus the temperature doesn't vary a great deal. An average winter day is about 77 degrees, while a summer day averages about 87.

The Key West International Hostel is at 718 South St., (305) 296-5719. The building, originally a motel, was converted to a hostel five years ago. Up to 120 travelers can be accommodated in rooms that sleep five to eight people. It tends to attract an international crowd. There are no age restrictions and no curfews. Alcohol is not permitted. A $2 breakfast and a well-known $1 dinner (hot dogs, chili or stew) is available each day.

The Key West Hostel is independent of any international organizations. The upside is that you are not required to purchase a membership to use the hostel; the flip side is that it doesn't have to conform to any international standards. The atmosphere is casual and friendly. However, a fresh coat of paint on some walls, a re-painting of rusted bunks, and a general tidying up would help make the place more appealing.

The nightly rate is $16 per bed. Members of associations affiliated with the International Youth Hostel Federation are charged $13. Reservations can be made by telephone, using MasterCard or Visa. If you arrive by bus, the hostel will provide a free pickup service from the terminal.

The hostel is in the historic Old Town area, only a five-minute walk from the beach. The beaches, by the way, are imported . Huge barges of sand are brought in from the Bahamas to replenish them every five years.

A public bus follows a single route and charges 75 cents. But most budget-wise visitors get around by bicycle. Sixty are available for rent at the hostel for $4-$6 per day. You can also arrange for economical excursions at the hostel's front desk.

Half-day snorkeling trips are $16.80; half-day trips on fishing "party boats" cost about $22, plus $2 for pole rental. Diving courses and dive trips are also available.

Popular sites such as Ernest Hemingway's home, the Audubon House, the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society's Treasure Museum, and the Key West Aquarium are all within walking distance.

It takes about 40 minutes to walk from the hostel to the island's most popular attraction, and it's completely free--the nightly viewing of the Key West sunset on the waterfront at Mallory Square.

Each evening, about 30 minutes before sunset, hundreds gather to celebrate the end of the day. While the crowd gathers, musicians, jugglers, fire-eaters and an assortment of odd and eccentric characters perform.

Craft-sellers line the back of the boardwalk, and food vendors hawk everything from warm cookies to conch fritters. The main act however, is mother nature's. If it's a beautiful sunset, which it often is, the crowd shows its appreciation with a round of applause.

For more information about Key West or any of the Florida Keys, contact the Key West Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 11476, Key West, Fla. 33041, (800) 352-5397.

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