FLORIDA KEYS — Florida Keys vacationers can get a free companion airfare certificate, good for future passage on five legacy U.S. airlines when they stay in a room for two or more nights at participating Florida Keys accommodations. The promotion is valid through March 31,

Keys properties included in the program are listed in a special section of the island chain’s official Web site at www.fla-keys.com/freeairfare/.

While area tourism officials hope visitors will utilize the companion fare to return to the Florida Keys, the certificates can be used for travel anywhere within the continental United States. The certificates must be used within a year of being awarded.

According to Federal Aviation Administration security regulations, airlines can collect applicable service fees and taxes directly from certificate holders.

The program is administered by Airline Promotions Inc.

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For a fully crewed and practically private sailing experience, Sunny Sail Charters owners Bill and Laura Soulier have discovered a veritable niche in Marathon. Visitors to the Middle Keys in winter and spring months can choose from a handful of charters such as day trips with gourmet lunch and diving or snorkeling at the popular Sombrero Reef Lighthouse, or a calm afternoon anchorage at Bahia Honda State Park.

The most popular requests are for romantic three-hour sunset dinners and two-hour sunset sails. Customized personal trips for two (lasting up to six days) also are available, with a private cabin aboard the 43-foot Endeavor cutter-rigged ketch aptly named the Second Wind.

For information or reservations, visit www.sunnysailcharters.com or call 305-394-4319.

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Sections of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, a multiuse bicycle and pedestrian trail, are being improved. When completed, the trail will provide a scenic corridor extending from Key Largo to Key West that will serve not only as a highway, but as a recreational greenway for hiking, running, bicycling, in-line skating, sightseeing, fishing and kayaking.

Projects under way include resurfacing, widening and completing safety markings on the existing trail, as needed. In addition, trail safety measures such as crosswalks, ADA improvements on side streets, signage and traffic control devices are scheduled for installation on the Department of Transportation–owned property along U.S. Highway 1.

A number of new benches, receptacles and bike racks are planned, as is fresh landscaping adjacent to the Marathon Airport.

In the Upper Keys, 14 fishing platforms are to be added to the sides of the Channel Two Historic Bridge. Targeted for completion in spring 2010, the platforms will improve access for recreational fishing and provide safe passage for trail users.

At the Key Largo Trailhead, a new public use facility in the planning will include an interpretive center, offices, restrooms, a crocodile viewing area at the National Crocodile Wildlife Refuge and other trail-user amenities.

Other projects include retrofitting a number of the Middle Keys historic bridges for trail use and paving a new section of the trail between Ramrod Key and Big Pine Key.

For more information about Florida’s trails, visit www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/state/keystrail/default.htm.

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Scuba-Fun, a Key Largo dive center for European tourists, has moved to a new location in the median of U.S. Highway 1 at mile marker (MM) 99.2. The landmark building was painted with underwater scenes in 2007 by internationally renowned marine life artists Wyland and Guy Harvey.

The newly remodeled ground floor of the building hosts a check-in and retail area, classroom, scuba gear locker and staff room, as well as a sitting area for divers to chat about their dive experiences.

Scuba-Fun offers dive and snorkel trips, scuba instruction, accommodation packages with several local hotels, Everglades and Florida Bay kayak trips, sunset trip and sailing charters. The company caters mainly to international tourists and divers, and staff members speak German, Spanish and French as well as English.

For more information, call 305-394-5046 or visit www.scuba-fun.com.

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Paddlers and outdoor enthusiasts now have an opportunity to paddle with the people who quite literally wrote the book about it. Spurred by their award-winning book, “The Florida Keys Paddling Atlas,” the husband-and-wife team of Bill and Mary Burnham have created BurnhamGuides kayaking trips in the Florida Keys.

Two-night introductory kayak camping trips like the Seven Mile Bridge expedition include paddling beneath the Middle Keys’ engineering marvel as well as around Pigeon Key and No Name Key.

Lower Keys backcountry trips, lasting two to five days, are customized for six-person groups with an appetite for exploring the watery wilderness between Big Pine Key and Key West. Trips are offered weekly through March.

An eight-night, nine-day Paddle to Paradise from Key Largo to Key West tests participants’ endurance and limits as they paddle up to 17 miles per day and camp each night. Limited to 10 people, these signature excursions are only offered Feb. 9-17 and March 12-20.

Cost ranges from $450 per person to $1,350 for lengthier trips and includes boats, camping gear, guide and shuttle services, a full menu of camp meals and orientation on the camping system, as well as instruction and a skills assessment with a preparatory kayaking session.

To explore scheduled trips and details, visit www.BurnhamGuides.com or call 305-240-3298.

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Islamorada’s Islander Resort and its private concession, Islander Watersports, is helping cater to a growing sailing niche. Aficionados now have an opportunity to embark on sunset sails, snorkel cruises and private charters aboard Islamorada’s only sailing catamaran, the Horizon Cat.

A comfortable 38-foot catamaran, the Horizon carries a minimum of six and up to 24 passengers for daily trips. An open-air trampoline provides ample sunny seating, but generous shade also is available beneath a Bimini top and lounge.

Snorkel cruises are $35 per adult and $25 for children under age 12, with snorkel gear available for rent. Sunset sails are priced at $45 per adult and $35 per child under age 12.

Private charter prices are based upon length of time and number of people, and can cater to engagement or wedding events, meetings, team-building excursions and combination dinner and sunset cruises.

For rates and information, visit www.horizon-cat.com or call 305-307-3728.

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The goal of Key Largo’s World Parrot Mission is to provide a sanctuary for birds deemed otherwise helpless or homeless — providing a safe and loving home for cockatoos, macaws, African grey, blue fronted Amazon and other species of parrots.

Jenifer Dermer, the mission’s founder and avian behavior specialist, uses the modest aviary and its eight resident birds to help educate the public about the responsibilities of owning a parrot, in an effort to change the way people perceive them as pets.

Visitors who want to learn more about the birds and the mission can stop at Happy Feathers Gift Shop, located at MM 99 on U.S. Highway 1. Dermer and the birds can be found there on Thursdays unless the forecast calls for inclement weather that would be uncomfortable for the parrots.

Dermer also presents educational programs and entertaining shows for Keys guests and groups.

For information, visit www.worldparrotmission.org or call 305-453-1800.

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Water enthusiasts planning a dive or snorkel trip within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary can now use a Blue Star–recognized charter, ensuring that the operator is dedicated to coral reef education and conservation.

Blue Star is a new, voluntary recognition program established by the sanctuary to help reduce the impact of divers and snorkelers on the coral reef system that parallels the Florida Keys — the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States.

Dive operators who participate in the program must have staff who have met certain training criteria and are committed to promoting responsible tourism and teaching divers and snorkelers in-water etiquette such as practicing good buoyancy, taking care in placement of hands and fins and avoiding touching or standing on coral. Operators are evaluated yearly, and Blue Star–rated operators are to display a flag or decal with the Blue Star logo on their charter vessel.

Participating divers and snorkelers can become Blue Star Partners during their Keys visit by attending a reef etiquette briefing or watching a reef etiquette educational video to learn more about diver responsibilities

For Blue Star details, visit http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/bluestar/operators.html

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Paddlefish Kayak Expeditions connects families to nature through first-class sea kayaking tours and multiday expeditions. The Paddlefish philosophy involves location, location, location — the company’s Islamorada shop offers easy access to the water, breathtaking scenery and exciting wildlife viewing opportunities.

Nature lovers can explore isolated mangroves, paddle remote glades, cast a line or soak in the scenic landscape on half- and full-day trips including backcountry kayak excursions, kayak snorkeling and hiking excursions, backcountry kayak fishing trips, Indian Key kayak trips, and Everglades multiday sea kayaking expeditions.

For tour times, rates, tickets and information, call 305-517-3666 or visit www.paddlefishkayaking.com.

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The $31.6 million construction and renovation project at Key West International Airport is now complete, more than doubling the size of the previous airport.

The project included construction of a new terminal building measuring approximately 30,000 square feet that features second-level ticketing, baggage and security areas for departing passengers. The building also includes restrooms, concessions, a second-level walkway and an escalator and elevator. The Conch Flyer bar and restaurant, an expansion of the airport’s previous lounge, offers a wide range of food and beverage options and panoramic runway views through huge windows.

The airport’s 24,000-square-foot original building, which dates back to 1957, has undergone a complete renovation. The building now features a passenger arrival and baggage claim area with rental car counters, restrooms and a baggage service office on one side and a 200-seat departure lounge with restrooms on the other.

In addition, departing passengers can enjoy light fare, cocktails and sunshine at the Last Call Beach Bar, an indoor/outdoor restaurant and tavern with a 13-foot by 9-foot waterfall, deck and sandy mini-beach.

About 450,000 passengers arrive and depart Key West International Airport annually.

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Visitors interested in military history shortly will be able to tour a new Key West museum: a historic U.S. Coast Guard cutter that performed search-and-rescue missions between the Florida Keys and Cuba during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.

The 327-foot Ingham, launched in 1936, is believed to be the most decorated vessel in the Coast Guard fleet, and is one of only two preserved Secretary-class cutters. According to Coast Guard historical records, it is the only cutter ever awarded two Presidential Unit citations.

The Ingham served during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1980, when thousands of Cubans fled Mariel, Cuba, the vessel performed search-and-rescue missions in Florida Keys and South Florida waters.

Visitors to the Ingham will be able to view its radio room and “war room” featuring original working equipment, sick bay with crew X-rays and records, commanding officer’s quarters where Gen. Douglas MacArthur once was entertained, top-secret code room and many other areas of the ship. Artifacts on display include code bags for transporting classified messages, telescopes, weapons, uniforms and helmets, navigational equipment and photographs documenting the Ingham’s construction and long years of service.

Now a registered National Historic Landmark, the vessel was a museum ship in Charleston, S.C., before being relocated to Key West. The Ingham is docked on Key West’s Truman Waterfront beside the USS Mohawk, another former Coast Guard cutter serving as a floating museum.

A grand opening is being planned for early spring 2010. For more information, visit www.ussmohawk.org.

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The Marquesa Hotel, a sophisticated yet quaint enclave at 600 Fleming St. in Key West’s Old Town, has recently added six cottages, also located in the island’s renowned historic district, to its lodging options.

The Marquesa Cottages are 1,700-square-foot villas at 909 Windsor Lane, constructed to maximize guests’ privacy and relaxation. Each villa features three elegant bedrooms and three and a half baths, and overlooks a private pool, deck and garden. Other attractions include open living and dining rooms and fully equipped kitchens with top-of-the-line appliances.

The Marquesa Hotel itself, named one of the world’s 500 best hotels in the January 2010 issue of “Travel + Leisure,” comprises 27 luxuriously appointed rooms and suites in four historic buildings. All are set around a lush landscaped garden with a three-tiered waterfall and two swimming pools.

Adjoining the property is the 50-seat Café Marquesa, distinguished for its contemporary American cuisine.

For information and reservations, visit www.marquesa.com or call 1-800-869-4631.

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A theater named for actress Peggy Dow, best known for her role in “Harvey” with James Stewart, recently debuted at Key West’s Tropic Cinema, 416 Eaton St.

The 50-seat Peggy Dow Theater is the fourth at the Tropic Cinema, an 8,000-square-foot film center and multipurpose theater in Key West’s historic Old Town. Featuring a state-of-the-art sound system and both 35-millimeter and digital projection capabilities, the new venue is the first expansion to the five-year-old cinema facility.

Tropic Cinema is a nonprofit independent film multiplex dedicated to showing new, independent, alternative and foreign films. Its lobby and theaters also are the site of community cultural events ranging from jazz concerts to theatrical performances.

For more information, visit www.tropiccinema.com or call (305) 294-5857.

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The Sheraton Suites Key West, 2001 S. Roosevelt Blvd. overlooking the island city’s Smathers Beach, recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation. The property’s new look enhances both its interior and exterior, including the front entrance, front desk and lobby area, restaurant, fitness center, outdoor pool area and 180 guest suites.

The new decor uses vibrant colors and tropical patterns throughout the property. All suites feature new carpeting and furnishings that enhance the Caribbean-flavored design, 32-inch flat-screen televisions and wireless Internet access among other amenities.

The hotel’s Coral Crab Café, offering indoor and outdoor seating for breakfast, lunch and dinner, also underwent renovations. In addition, meeting rooms have been redecorated and now offer 1,100 square feet of flexible function space.

For more information and reservations, visit www.SheratonKeyWest.com or call 866-716-8106.

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Snorkel enthusiasts staying in Key West but eager to visit the Lower Florida Keys’ pristine Looe Key reef can do so aboard Sunny Days’ 65-foot high-speed power catamaran. Sunny Days’ Looe Key snorkel trip departs at 10 a.m. daily from Key West’s Historic Seaport and returns at approximately 3 p.m.

The trip includes more than 2.5 hours of snorkeling time in two Looe Key locations, expert instruction and sanitized premium snorkel gear, freshwater rinse facilities and wetsuits, if needed. Also included is a buffet lunch of deli meats, cheeses, fresh salads and fruit, as well as unlimited sodas and water.

The vessel’s amenities include two restrooms, stern ladders for easy water access and seating in a comfortable air-conditioned cabin and rear outside sundeck.

Passengers check in at the corner of Greene and Elizabeth streets in the Historic Seaport. Cost of the trip is $85 per person plus tax for adults and $50 per child ages 3-14.            For more information and reservations, call 800-236-7937 or 305-292-6100. Information also is available at www.SunnyDaysKeyWest.com.

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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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