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Florida Glide

WE were paddling atop an expanse of shin-deep water, and our guide was in the middle of a long recital of facts about the old Seven Mile Bridge, the decaying concrete structure we had just passed beneath.

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Yes, about seven miles long, he said, replaced by a new bridge with 440 individual spans, featured in the film “True Lies” — and it was right about then that he stopped. The guide, Dave Kaplan — Kayak Dave to his followers — pointed with his paddle to a dark blotch on an otherwise bone-white ocean bottom. It appeared to be moving. “Stingray,” he whispered from the perch of his cantaloupe-colored sit-on-top kayak. “Twenty feet away.”

Chris Livingston, the photographer I was kayaking with, pulled a camera from a waterproof bag and nimbly inserted it into an underwater casing. Meanwhile, I took a few last paddle strokes to bring our two-person craft in for a closer look.

We glided to within a kayak’s length of this four-foot-wide, undulating creature as it hovered just centimeters above the sea floor. For about a minute, we watched it coast through the flats at the approximate pace of a waddling land turtle. And then, unexpectedly, this platter-shaped behemoth darted off, leaving a cloud of white sand in its place.

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Kaplan said as we paddled onward. “We’ll probably see another.”

Given our vantage point — midway down the Florida Keys, surrounded by water so clear and so shallow — such a claim seemed more than just wishful thinking. As it turned out, in this case the prediction was wrong. On our paddle from near the Seven Mile Bridges to Bahia Honda State Park and back on a bright calm morning in late December, the three of us saw no more stingrays. But no complaints were lodged. Instead, we paddled past a spiky black sea urchin, a salami-length shark and at least a half a dozen wading birds. Not bad for a two-hour paddle that ended within 100 feet of our car.

The conventional way to explore the Florida Keys is by car. The chunk of U.S. 1 that stretches from the Florida mainland to Key West — 127.5 miles with 42 bridges and vast stretches of water on each side — is often counted among the most scenic drives in the country. A flight can be booked to Miami or Key West, a convertible rented and the simplest of courses charted along this well-traveled length of road.

When the landscape being traversed, however, is ultimately a series of islands, it quickly becomes evident that pavement takes an island-hopping traveler only so far. A deeper immersion requires not just looking at the shallow water, but getting on it. And a kayak may be the best way to do it.

“The Florida Keys is loaded with shallow water,” Tom Ashley, a boat captain who works for the Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, had told us the previous day as he carefully navigated his motorboat through the flats near Little Torch Key. He often takes guest and kayaks aboard to shuttle them out to remote shallows.

“Out here,” Captain Ashley added, “you can see water in five different shades of blue. But often the only way to reach that water is in a kayak.”

In the Keys, an archipelago of some 1,700 islands, finding a kayak outfitter has come to be about as difficult as spotting a pelican. A large number of them are based on or near U.S. 1, locally called the Overseas Highway, so that going from one to the next is no time burner. It is entirely plausible to go on three different types of kayak trips, in three distinctly different environments in the Keys, all inside of a single day.

Fly into Key West International Airport and the first paddling opportunity is a five-minute drive from the parking lot. Rent a kayak from the Lazy Dog Kayak Company and push off into a mangrove-lined creek at a put-in sited within 20 feet of an open-air bar.

Or 13 miles out on the Overseas Highway, secure a kayak at the tiki torch-laden Geiger Key Marina on Geiger Key and just 50 paddle strokes away see translucent turquoise water laced with canary yellow fish and purple coral.

Fifteen miles farther, hop on a kayak-filled motorboat for a 15-minute ride to start a half-day paddle around the often-deserted white-sand beaches of the Snipe Keys, where signs of civilization remain out of view from most every angle.

Keep going east, and you’ll find more kayaks and more shallow water to explore, all the way to the mainland.

It would be hard to find a part of the country that has embraced kayaks more fully or for more purposes than the Keys — or made them more readily available to tourists.

Kayaks are employed in conjunction with snorkeling and spear fishing. They are rigged with sails that can be flipped up in a matter of seconds should the wind blow in an opportune direction. Fishermen go out in them for a cheap form of flats fishing; a guided kayak fishing excursion can cost less than half the typical $400 for a skiff and guide. It’s also often exciting because the kayaks are so light that a hooked fish can pull you along while it is trying to escape.

LINK: http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/tr ... 0keys.html