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Go the distance in Fla.

Marathon, a coral island cluster, offers sights, sun, and surprises

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / December 29, 2004
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MARATHON, Fla. -- The most interesting things in Marathon are found along its fringes. That's mainly because Route 1 slices through the center of this 8-mile-long chain of coral islands, en route from Miami to Key West. Many people don't bother to stop for more than gas or trinkets, which is a shame. Any turn off the main drag, down roads to where the land meets Florida Bay to the north or the wide Atlantic to the south, offers recreation and relaxation opportunities.

Marathon isn't the name of one island, but of a bunch, including Conch Key, Crawl Key, Duck Key, Vaca Key, and several more. The name Marathon is related to Henry Flagler's early-20th-century project to connect Key West to the mainland via rail, and the immense effort it took to build a 7-mile-long bridge from the lower edge of Knight's Key to Little Duck Key.

It boggles the mind to think someone could look at an expanse of ocean and say, "Let's build a railroad here," but that's what Flagler did. Employing thousands of workers, the overseas railway took seven years to complete and functioned until the hurricane of 1935 demolished miles of track. It wasn't rebuilt. As cars replaced trains as the primary means of transportation, a highway was built adjacent to the rail line.

Today, portions of the original Seven Mile Bridge are intact, and you can walk or ride a shuttle across a 2-mile span out to tiny Pigeon Key, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The view from the bridge is worth the trip. On a sunny day, which is often, the water is a luminous turquoise, and shadows from puffy clouds skim the surface. The whole of Florida Bay is only 8-12 feet deep, and the shallows take on a purplish hue, like pools of plums beneath.

Once you arrive at the 5-acre island, which housed more than 400 laborers while the bridge was being built, you can tour several buildings that survived the hurricane, including the Bridge Tender's House (1912), the Paint Foreman's House (1907), and the Section Gang's Quarters (1907). A small museum tells the history of the railway, the island, and its inhabitants through artifacts, historical photos, models, and a video. Picnics are welcome, though swimming is not.

Getting wet is encouraged at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, where you can observe or take part in half-hour sessions that study dolphins' mental and physical activities. The center houses 16 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (including Pax, the 7-year-old grandson of Flipper) and two California sea lions, but don't call their antics "tricks." The dolphin "behaviors," which include leaps, flips, playing with toys, and painting T-shirts, aren't scripted shows but part of ongoing research held in a series of Florida Bay lagoons.

Part of the center's mission is to educate visitors about the marine environment, a point enthusiastically embraced, though perhaps not consciously, by Chloe Elsom, 7, and her sister, Jade, 11, from Yorkshire, England. The girls, hair wet from participating in the Dolphin Splash program, competed to show photos of themselves kissing dolphins and holding their fins in a "handshake."

"It's not commercialized here," said Fred Short, part of the group from England, adding, "We like the environment."

There are many ways to get out in the environment in Marathon, including snorkeling on coral reefs, fishing charters, scuba dive tours, sunset sails, and walks on nature trails through tropical forests and mangroves. From the plethora of available choices, the Red Mangrove Eco-Tour offered by Marathon Kayak caught my eye.

"They call me Kayak Dave," said the voice on the other end of the phone when I called to ask about the trip.

David Kaplan, or "Kayak Dave," is a native Miamian and whitewater kayaker now in his fifth season renting kayaks and giving tours in the Keys. He buys new boats every year, updating his bright rainbow-colored fleet to ensure you a reliably seaworthy vessel. This particular three-hour trip, billed as something a beginner can handle, launches in a quiet canal where recreational yachts nestle bow to stern, and then moves into the larger waters of Boot Key Harbor.

Kaplan offers a wealth of information about the flora and fauna of the area.

A yellow crown night heron flew past as we entered a smaller tidal channel, steering toward lagoons that only paddlers can access. Eventually, Kaplan guided us through a bower of mangroves. The light dimmed as we maneuvered single file through tunnels of twisting roots, at some points so narrow we laid our paddles down and pulled ourselves forward by the branches.

Soggy and happy, we returned to the dock precisely three hours later. I was ready for dry clothes and a place to be pampered.

I found my Shangri-la at Seascape, a 5-acre ocean resort with casual elegance and a lazy grace. Owners Sara and Bill Stites provided the perfect oasis at the end of a busy day, where my most rigorous task was lifting my glass during their sunset wine and hors d'oeuvres hour. Once a private estate, Seascape feels like you are staying at your best friend's lavish home, rather than at some anonymous hotel. There are nine spacious units, some with kitchens, each with brightly painted headboards, lush linens on foot-deep mattresses, and original works of art.

My room was up a flight of terra-cotta steps, and from that aerie I looked through sea grape branches and palm trees to the pale green sea beyond the swimming pool. Switching off the air conditioning, I opened the windows to tropical breezes and heard nothing but rustling palm fronds and the dull clack of venetian blinds against the sill. A pelican sat like a sentinel on the dock, and in the distance white birds swooped in silent loops in the dimming light.

In the morning, I took my coffee to a hammock strung in a buttonwood tree and felt the sun grow hotter as it inched up above the watery horizon. There are many things to do in Marathon, but sometimes doing nothing is the best choice of all.

Necee Regis is a freelance writer who lives in Boston and Miami Beach. She can be reached at neceeregis@yahoo.com.

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