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ISLAMORADA: R&R ALONG THE WAY

The location and relative development of Islamorada make it an ideal place to break the march to Key West and have some leisurely fun.

There are two ways to approach a trip to the Keys: Take a deep breath and drive the long stretch to Key West or stop, look and linger along the way.

I prefer the latter. Not only does it make the trek so much more bearable, it allows you to adjust to the Keys way of life. Which is to say, slow and easy.

So, when our family of four was planning a visit to Key West, I suggested a two-night stay in Islamorada, an area fairly well developed (by Keys standards) but not without its charms. We had already dropped anchor at the Cheeca Lodge, Islamorada's most famous hotel, on a previous trip. Now, we were looking for something simpler yet still respectable.

We found it at the Pelican Cove Resort.

On first approach, you may be a little skeptical. Pelican Cove sits perilously close to the sprawling Holiday Isle resort, a fun-in-the-sun place that seems right at home with the frat-party crowd. But when you drive down the alley that leads to the cove, you'll discover a much more subdued establishment.

The resort's main appeal is that every room faces the Atlantic _ or more precisely, a cove that leads to the Atlantic.

Even though Cheeca Lodge offers far more luxurious accommodations, our room there faced a parking lot, hardly a view to remember. On our Pelican Cove terrace, we greeted the morning sun as it crept above the horizon _ and we sat at night in the moonless dark, listening to nothing but the stillness of the water.

Unfortunately, a water scooter-rental business makes the midday a noisier affair.

As for the room itself, it was tight for a family of four, but it did have a queen-size bed, sleeper sofa and space for a portable crib. (We brought our own, but the hotel will supply one).

Best of all, there was a full kitchen, stocked with all the dishes and silverware you'll need. The only thing missing was a place to sit down and eat, except for a small table on the terrace.

Still, we managed to have most of our meals in the room, including breakfast, which the hotel provides free (just juice, coffee and doughnuts). Our one big meal out was at the Islamorada Fish Company, a first-class seafood eatery that sits on the water.

We spent a good chunk of our time hanging out at the hotel, splashing in the pool and Jacuzzi and sipping frozen drinks at the tiki bar. There's also a small, sandy beach of the man-made variety: At first, I scoffed at it. But when my 7-year-old son and I spent the better part of an afternoon snorkeling in the salty waters, I realized it was a nice amenity.

Venturing beyond the hotel, we found ways to amuse ourselves. We skipped a visit to the touristy Theater of the Sea, which is next to the hotel.

Instead, we took a morning drive to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in nearby Tavernier, where we saw what must have been a gazillion varieties of the winged creatures.

The center takes in injured birds and either rehabilitates them or provides them a permanent home. Leaving the sanctuary, we visited The Key Lime Tree store, whose name tells it all: From pies to candles to mustard, if it comes with key lime, this Key Largo store has it.

We also spent another eventful morning engaging in the newest of Keys pastimes _ swimming with the dolphins. There are about a half-dozen places to do this throughout the stretch of islands, all requiring reservations well in advance. We got lucky and were able to take advantage of a last-minute cancellation at Dolphins Plus in Key Largo.

So, what's it like? To tell the truth, not all that eventful. Your actual time in the water is limited to about 10 minutes and the dolphins seem more like trained seals than mysterious creatures of the deep. Not that it wasn't fun grabbing their fins and being taken for a ride.

But at $125 a person, it didn't seem worth the expense.

But our three-day trip to Islamorada was worth most any price tag. We left rested and ready for more adventures.

IF YOU GO

HOTEL: Pelican Cove Resort, 84457 Overseas Highway (mile marker 84.5), Islamorada, 33036. Phone: (800) 445-4690. Web site: http://www.pcove.com.

RATES (based on double occupancy): $115-325, depending upon type of room and time of season. Various discounts, including AAA, may apply. Children stay free. Our efficiency cost $175 a night during our August stay.

DIRECTIONS: South on I-75 and head east as it becomes Alligator Alley. Head south on I-75 at Weston and then take the interchange to Florida's Turnpike (a toll road). Take the turnpike extension south to its terminus in Florida City. Take U.S. 1 (which becomes Overseas Highway) south to mile marker 84.5 in Islamorada.

MISCELLANEOUS.: Florida Keys Wild Bird Center, 93600 Overseas Highway (mile marker 93.6), Tavernier, FL 33070; phone: (305) 852-4486. The Key Lime Tree, 95231 Overseas Highway (mile marker 95), Key Largo, FL 33037; phone: (305) 853-0378. Dolphins Plus, 31 Corrine Place (off of mile marker 99.5), Key Largo, FL 33037; phone: (305) 451-1993.

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