The key (har, har) to doing the Keys in little time and with little money is to get up early -- preferably on a weekday to avoid the weekend travelers -- and pack a cooler full of drinks and snacks. If you don't have enough supplies on hand, hit the road and then stop at the Publix in Key Largo (Tradewinds Shopping Center, MM 101.4) for ice and sandwich fixings.
The idea of this trip is to enjoy the open road and topography of our beautiful state, so travel the speed limit and stop off at lookout points to take in the expanse, capture the beauty on film, and sample a taste of old-school Florida living. For a little history lesson visit the Islamorada Library (Helen Wadley Branch, MM 81.5, Bayside; 305-664-4645), which has a stellar collection of historical materials in the Florida Room. Spend some time perusing the stacks while cooling off in the A/C. (And the other thing we love about public libraries: free public restrooms.) If you haven't broken into the cooler yet, enjoy a picnic in the quaint park behind the library -- known as Library Beach Park to locals -- and enjoy the frolicking wildlife.
To really appreciate the animals, head to the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center (Big Pine Key Plaza, on Key Deer Boulevard near MM 30; 305-872-0774) and pick up some handy maps and tips for spotting those cute deer and marsh rabbits.
Back on the road, it's still early afternoon and you're almost to the end of the state. If you're a fan of marine life artist Wyland -- the Thomas Kincade of the sea -- you'll want to check out Whaling Wall 52, Florida's Living Reef, located at Waterfront Market (201 Williams St., Key West), just as you're cruising into town. After you've reached the end of U.S. 1, find a metered parking spot near the Monroe County Courthouse (500 Whitehead St.), plunk a few quarters in, and set off on foot to relish this eclectic town. Walk along Whitehead Street for the colorful Key West houses and tourist haunts. Rather than spending $11 to tour the dead author's home, simply peak over the wall surrounding the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (907 Whitehead St.; 305-294-1136) and sneak some dandy snapshots. Then skip across the street to the Key West Lighthouse (938 Whitehead St.; 305-294-0012) to admire the structure up close, but you can't go inside unless you choose to part with your last eight dollars.
Your trip to Key West won't be complete until you pose next to the giant red, black, and yellow buoy that marks the southernmost point of the continental U.S., and then stop by the Blond Giraffe (1209 Truman Ave.; 305-293-6777) for a slice of the best (yes, a "Best of Miami" winner) key lime pie on your way out of town. Now, didn't that feel good to get away?