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LUSH AND LUXURIOUS

The Gardens Hotel in Key West has a botanical paradise outside, a comfortable opulence inside.

We can thank "the lady of the orchids," as locals called her, for the stunning tropical botanical gardens.

The lady, also known as Peggy Mills, transformed a quarter of a city block surrounding one of Key West's oldest Bahama-style homes from a barren property with a sickly avocado tree to the lush display that surrounds the Gardens Hotel today.

Bill and Corinna Hettinger, who bought the property in 1992, 13 years after Mills died, spent 14 months and millions of dollars to restore, refurbish and add two buildings to make it one of Key West's premier inns.

Original structures include the main house, which dates to the 1870s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; a carriage house; and a Bahama-style "eyebrow" cottage, which refers to the slanting roof that partially covers the second-level windows. Two new buildings, designed to blend with the existing architecture, provide additional guest lodging.

Between the time Mills (who opened her gardens to the public in 1968) died and the Hettingers came aboard, the property changed hands several times and had become overgrown. So the Hettingers had irrigation installed and suitable ground cover planted.

All the attention paid to detail shows. Furnishings for the hotel were collected from around the globe. Fine American antiques, Old World craftsmanship and 20th century design combine to create an ambience similar to the small hotels of Europe that the Hettingers found so appealing during their extensive travels.

Hundred-year-old bricks from England, Honduras and the United States, once used as ships' ballast, pave the walkways. The bricks, like the four tinajones (teene-HONE-ez), huge earthenware jars used to collect rainwater during the Spanish colonial period, remain from Mills' time. The jars date to 1785 and were imported from Cuba in the 1950s. Hotel employees say that each one weighs a ton and they can't be found anywhere else in the United States.

Rooms are airy and bright during the day and, with the help of shutters and draperies, dark enough for even the most light-sensitive guests at night. The garden rooms and courtyard rooms have hardwood oak floors, king-size beds with antique headboards and white marble bathrooms with Jacuzzi bathtubs.

The second-floor garden room we stayed in was next to the pool and had a couple of cushy white wicker chairs on the porch outside. We found this an ideal place to perch while watching birds, sipping lemonade and enjoying the sights and scents of the gardens (including orange jasmine, magnolias, lantanas and orchids).

Our room had a TV, two phones, a hair dryer, a minibar, a king-sized brass bed, an English-style desk and chairs and, like all the rooms, an impressionistic oil painting of the gardens by New Zealand artist Peter Williams.

In the afternoons, guests could order drinks from the poolside bar or have the bartender deliver the libations to their lounge chairs.

Breakfast, served in the solarium on the porch outside the main house, was buffet-style and included fresh-baked pastries, fruit, cheeses, cereals, fresh-squeezed juices and coffee.

The staff was friendly and helpful. They seemed happy to share facts about the house's history, recommend restaurants and carry our bags to the room. We liked the turn-down service, complete with imported chocolates, provided before bedtime.

Although the excitement of Duval Street was only a block and a half away, it was almost hard for us to leave the secluded grounds. Fortunately, everything we wanted to do was within walking distance. We strolled to Mallory Square to catch up with the jugglers, fortunetellers, T-shirt artists and conch fritter salesman in time for the sunset celebration. We toasted the sunset and dined at the restaurant at the Pier House. And we did a bit of shopping in Old Town. (We never leave the island without stocking up on frangipani soap or sampling at least one piece of key lime pie.)

Stars, including actor Michael Keaton and singer John Mellencamp, have vacationed at the Gardens Hotel. Rooms are pricey: During the season, they range from $245 to $675 a night. For that kind of money, guests expect great rooms and excellent service. They get both, plus an exquisite tropical setting in the heart of historic Old Town Key West.

IF YOU GO

The Gardens Hotel, 526 Angela St., Key West, FL 33040. Phone: (800) 526-2664. Web site: http://www.travelbase.com/de stinations/keywest/gardens-hotel/.

Directions: The hotel is in Old Town at the intersection of Angela and Simonton streets.

Accommodations: All 17 rooms have a view of the garden and are decorated with mahogany furnishings, brass and iron beds, oak hardwood floors, porcelain lamps and beveled glass accent mirrors.

Amenities: Nina Ricci toiletries, minibar, coffeemaker, TV, telephone, hair dryer, ceiling fan, robes and a safe. Complimentary continental breakfast served in the solarium or on the porch.

Rates: Historic rooms range from $155-$245; garden rooms are $175-$295; courtyard rooms are $215-$335; suites are from $295-$675.

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