FLORIDA KEYS — The Overseas Highway, the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by the U.S. Congress in 1991. Only 30 other roadways in the nation have earned the prestigious designation.

Originally completed in 1938, the Overseas Highway incorporates 42 bridges over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. They include the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, which stretches 6.79 miles across open water and was referred to on its completion as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

In 1982, 37 of the original bridges including the Seven Mile Bridge were replaced with wider spans. Many of the old bridges still can be seen running alongside the newer ones.

To earn All-American Road status, a thoroughfare must possess characteristics of national significance and one-of-a-kind features, making it a visitor destination in itself. Designation also is based on a roadway’s cultural, historic, natural, recreational, scenic and archeological qualities.

Beginning Thursday, Dec. 17, visitors to Key West can take advantage of AirTran Airways’ nonstop jet service between Orlando and the island city. The AirTran flights, to be offered four times per week on 137-passenger Boeing 737-700 aircraft, will inaugurate the first scheduled service to Key West by a major low-cost carrier.

As well as nonstop Orlando flights, AirTran is to offer direct same-plane service from Atlanta and convenient connections in Orlando and Atlanta to destinations around the AirTran Airways network.

Flights are scheduled Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Departures from Orlando International Airport are set for 11:30 a.m. with arrivals at Key West International Airport at 12:40 p.m. Return flights to Orlando are scheduled to depart Key West at 1:30 p.m. and arrive at Orlando at 2:40 p.m.

One-way coach fares between Key West and Orlando are to begin at $119 per person plus taxes and fees.

For more information and to book a flight, visit www.airtran.com.

Cheeca Lodge & Spa, a 27-acre property at mile marker (MM) 82 oceanside in Islamorada, is set to reopen Dec. 15, 2009, showcasing its classic Florida Keys architecture, chic West Indies décor and tradition of “barefoot elegance.”

The property has been closed to the public since Jan. 1, 2009, after a New Year’s Eve fire heavily damaged its main lodge. Recently, a “topping off” celebration marked the highlight of an intensive 90-day major construction project that featured 62 concrete, pre-greened modular suites trucked to the Florida Keys and hoisted in place with cranes.

The 840-square-foot-suites were delivered with fully-equipped bathrooms — including marble tile floors, granite counter tops, bath fixtures and marble and glass rain showers — and all electrical wiring and cabling already installed throughout each suite. The modules are highly insulated, environmentally sustainable, energy efficient and can withstand a category 5 hurricane. The units are fabricated from 30 percent recycled materials.

Cheeca’s new four-story main lodge integrates the original porte-cochere entrance and is built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) specifications set forth by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Cheeca’s transformation also includes an expansive indoor-outdoor lobby lounge, meeting room with ocean-view floor-to-ceiling windows, two new restaurants and a club floor with sun deck.

The resort is scheduled to reopen Dec. 15. More information on Cheeca Lodge can be found at www.cheeca.com.

Hawks Cay Resort has been honored with two prestigious awards based on surveys among readers of “Travel & Leisure” magazine. In the magazine’s “2009 Top 50 Resorts in the U.S. & Canada,” the private-island resort at 61 Hawks Cay Blvd., MM 61, was named number 32. It also was named second in the state of Florida.

The publication’s annual World’s Best Awards are held in high regard throughout the travel industry. Hotels are ranked based on ratings in the categories of rooms, facilities, location, service, restaurants and value.

In addition, Hawks Cay Resort’s Calm Waters Spa was named the number-one hotel spa in the U.S. and Canada. The honor was announced in the October 2009 issue of “Travel & Leisure.”

With the delicate aroma of salt air and tropical fruits, the 7,000-square-foot Calm Waters Spa pampers with an extensive menu of massages, body treatments, facials and fine salon care characteristic of a full-service day spa conveniently located in the privacy of one’s own vacation villa. The spa also offers specialties just for teenagers.

The island paradise of Hawks Cay was reborn after a $35 million transformation in 2008, and encompasses a fully refurbished hotel, five children’s and adult pools, a natural saltwater lagoon, activity clubs for kids and teens, a marina and private villas. The hotel’s guest rooms, suites and villas offer garden views, ocean views and pool views with rich West Indies decor and local art and photography.

For information or to make reservations at Hawks Cay, call (888) 443-6393 or visit www.hawkscay.com.

Driving south along the scenic Overseas Highway has become more informative and enjoyable with the release of the audio CD “Florida Keys Road Trip, Miami To Key West by Mile Markers,” the brainchild of Keys resident Harry Bowman.

Meticulously created and narrated to follow the highway from MM 126 on the mainland at Florida City to MM 0 in Key West, the 2.5-hour travelogue accurately guides drivers on their journey through interesting attractions, points of interest, history and Keys lifestyles. Facts and trivia keep listeners tuned in, complemented by sound effects and background music by local musicians.

Narrator Bowman takes listeners through Keys history from the islands’ geological formation through today’s lifestyles and culture. Listeners know when and where to walk on the Bahia Honda beach and stroll along the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge.

Combined with the original northbound “Florida Keys Road Trip,” the 2-CD set makes a useful and entertaining gift for friends, family or a personal souvenir.

Each CD, priced at $24 (includes Florida state sales tax, shipping and handling), can be purchased at many attractions and lodging properties or by e-mailing floridakeysaroadtrip@gmail.com. A Web site is expected to debut soon, featuring a shopper’s section for iPod downloads.

Cycling tourists and active lifestyle visitors to and through Marathon in search of a cycle repair or outdoor sporting goods shop can find a rejuvenated Overseas Outfitters, located at 1700 Overseas Highway, MM 48. Jeremy Peterson, along with his father Mike Peterson, recently celebrated the location’s grand opening under new family management.

Overseas Outfitters focuses largely on bicycle sales, service and rentals, including seven- to 24-speed Trek cruisers and hybrids that rent for $10 per day or $60 per week. The shop also offers a wide array of athletic and running shoes, snorkel gear and a new line of kneeboards and wakeboards.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. For more information, visit www.overseasoutfitters.com or call (305) 289-1670.

Delta Airlines plans to offer expanded service between Key West International Airport and its Atlanta hub beginning Dec. 17 with the addition of daily mainline jet service. Once-daily round-trip flights are scheduled on Delta’s 124-seat Boeing 737-700 jets.

The new jet flights complement two existing flights between the two cities on weekdays and three on weekends operated by Delta Connection carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines. Passengers on the ASA flights travel on Bombardier CRJ-700 aircraft.

The new flights are scheduled to depart Atlanta at 9:55 a.m. each day, arriving at Key West at noon. Key West to Atlanta jet flights are scheduled to depart at 12:45 p.m., arriving at Atlanta at 2:50 p.m.

Amenities aboard the 737-700 aircraft include personal in-seat televisions with hundreds of hours of movies, live television, HBO, music and video games.

For rate information and reservations, visit www.delta.com.

Key West’s Santa Maria Suites Resort, featuring 35 luxurious two-bedroom suites at 1401 Simonton St., has recently joined Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

A sophisticated resort with a contemporary design, the Santa Maria Suites opened in 2007 on the site of Key West’s former landmark Santa Maria Motel. Suites overlook a tropical courtyard with lush landscaping surrounding a swimming pool.

Each suite includes a fully equipped state-of-the-art kitchen, three 42-inch flat-screen televisions, a bright and airy living room, custom designed furnishings, one king or queen bed in each bedroom and baths with marble walls, natural stone counters and large mirrors that lend a spa–like feel.

Small Luxury Hotels of the World is an exclusive brand of nearly 500 independent properties in 70 countries.

For more information about Santa Maria Suites Resort and on–line reservations, visit www.santamariasuites.com.

The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, the only frost-free tropical moist forest garden in the continental United States, is developing a new wetland habitat for species including the endangered Miami blue butterfly as well as a boardwalk system with wildlife viewing areas. The project is part of a multiyear restoration and expansion funded in part by grants of nearly $1 million from the Florida Keys tourism council.

Founded in the 1930s and maintained primarily by volunteers, the 15-acre garden lies just off U.S. Highway 1 at College Road near the entrance to Key West. It features more than 6,000 plants and trees — including tropical fruit trees, native fragrant plants, native palms, champion trees, tropical spices and local herbs — and provides habitat for 35 butterfly species and more than 270 migratory bird species.

Visitors can tour the unique site daily, enjoying a short film, four self-guided tours, more than two miles of boardwalk trails, a one-acre butterfly habitat, freshwater lake, nature chapel and courtyard with a waterfall wall of orchids. In addition, they can learn about the garden’s rich and diverse environment through “Wonders of Wireless” guided cell phone tours.

For more information, visit www.keywestbotanicalgarden.org.

Through Dec. 17, 2009, visitors to Key West can save as much as 50 percent on accommodations, museums and attractions, excursions, water sports and dining by purchasing a Key West Vacation Pass from the Key West Attractions Association.

Two levels of the exclusive savings pass are available. The $49 pass offers values on attractions admission, water sports, tours, dining and shopping, with savings ranging from two-for-one admission at historic museums and nature facilities to significant discounts on sunset sailing excursions, snorkel trips and other water adventures.

The $149 pass also includes discounts on accommodations, including free or reduced-price room nights with specified stays, as well as complimentary meals and resort credits.

Passes must be purchased online before arriving in Key West. For more information and to purchase passes, visit www.keywestattractions.org.

Visitors interested in Key West’s seafaring history can discover artifacts, historic photographs and other items recalling the island’s once-vital turtle-fishing industry at the new Key West Turtle Museum.

The museum is located at the site of a former turtle cannery building, beside one-time turtle holding pens or “kraals,” at the foot of Margaret Street in Key West’s Historic Seaport. It was developed by the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and Heritage Society after museum officials and volunteers performed an archaeological excavation of the pens that yielded thousands of artifacts.

The museum exhibit includes vintage photographs, audio recordings and even a display of original cans of Key West turtle soup. Attention also is paid to the turtle industry’s environmental toll and scientific evidence of the species recovery since the end of the trade.

Admission to the museum is $5 per person for adults and $2.50 per child age 12 and younger. For more information, visit www.keywestturtlemuseum.org and www.melfisher.org.

Pearl’s Patio Bar, the welcoming outdoor gathering spot at Pearl’s Rainbow, Key West’s internationally acclaimed resort for women, recently earned the 2009 “Best of Key West” award from the U.S. Commerce Association in the inns category.

The USCA “Best of Local Business” award program recognizes outstanding local businesses throughout the country that enhance the positive image of small business through service to their customers and community.

Located at 525 United St., Pearl’s offers rooms and suites in five distinctive buildings. Amenities include two swimming pools, two hot tubs and the comfortable open-air Patio Bar for cocktails and casual snacks. For information and reservations, visit pearlsrainbow.com.

Nature and bird lovers can explore a new aviary, meet rescued birds and discover a unique haven for wildlife at the Key West Wildlife Center, located at the corner of White Street and Atlantic Boulevard. The not-for-profit facility is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of native and migratory wildlife as well as educating the public.

Visitors to the family-friendly center also can take a nature walk through spacious tree-shaded grounds to view tropical plants and butterflies, feed turtles at a pond where wildlife gathers and learn about the resident rescued birds.

All wild birds living in the aviary — ranging from a great white heron blind in one eye to an American kestral unable to fly after being struck by a car — have permanent injuries or disabilities that prohibit their release. Displays tell each inhabitant’s story to enable readers to expand their knowledge about wild birds and their protection.

The center also houses an ever-changing population of Key West “gypsy” chickens awaiting relocation to a free-range farm in northern Florida.

For more information, call the Key West Wildlife Center at (305) 292-1008.

For more travel information about the Florida Keys & Key West call, toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, 1-800-FLA-KEYS (800-352-5397) or explore the destination’s Web site at www.fla-keys.com.

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FOR MEDIA INFORMATION ONLY:
Contact: Andy Newman/Carol Shaughnessy
1-800-ASK-KEYS (800-275-5397) or (305) 461-3300
www.fla-keys.com/media

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