Key Largo, the closest Key to the mainland, is easy to reach and has that laidback charm that can only be found in the Florida Keys. Driving from Miami takes about 1 hour and you will feel the decompression begin as soon as you pass Florida City. Once this last bit of civilization falls behind you, your gaze will be drawn to the beautiful turquoise waters that stretch on either side of you, the sun’s rays glistening off the surface and you will begin to feel your worries and cares slipping off your shoulders.
Enter Key Largo, the largest and longest of the Florida Keys, a 33-mile narrow strip of land nestled between the Florida Bay/Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. These warm, crystal clear waters are home to the only living coral reef in the United States and are teeming with tropical fish and wrecks, making them the main draw to this tropical Key, aptly named the “Diving Capital of the World”. You will find that life here revolves around the water with a myriad of choices in activities such as diving, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking or boating. And when dinner rolls around, the seafood on your plate most likely came from one of the local fishermen’s boats.
Upon arriving in Key Largo you will notice that everyone refers to a place’s location by Mile Marker. Here is a quick lesson as the system is really quite simple and extremely helpful. Overseas Highway, the main road through the Keys, has green Mile Marker (MM) signs along the roadside. These Mile Markers designate how many miles north you are of Key West (which is MM0). The even numbers indicate the bayside or gulfside of the road and the odd indicate oceanside. So if your hotel is located at 100500 Overseas Highway, or MM100.5, you would be 100 miles from Key West and on the bayside of the road. Now you will be an expert at finding anything you want in the keys.
When deciding on your lodging, you will find your choices range from high-end resorts set amidst tropical gardens, like Kona Kai, small Mom & Pops that are clean and simple, chain hotels, timeshares, rental homes and cottages to the only underwater hotel in the United States, Jules Undersea Lodge. Many of these hotels have been here for years and have a very quaint but worn look to them. This is part of the Keys charm and their love of simplicity, people and their surroundings.
During the day, set out to enjoy all the area has to offer. Take a diving or snorkeling trip out to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first undersea park in the United States, and the Florida National Marine Sanctuary that encompasses over 178 nautical miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps. Here in this protected marine sanctuary, you will see over 55 varieties of coral as well as over 500 species of fish. Dive a wrecksuch as the Benwood, one of the fishiest wrecks, or try reef diving at Snapper Ledge where you will see schools of fish so thick you can hardly see through them or opt to snorkel and visit Key Largo Dry Rocks home of the famous Christ of the Abyss Statue.
If diving or snorkeling isn’t your cup of tea, you can still see the beautiful reefs through a glass bottom boat, have a once-in-a-lifetime adventure swimming with the dolphins at Dolphin Cove, kayak through the mangrove swamps with Florida Bay Outfitters or try your hand at fishing with choices of offshore, reef, wreck or backcountry trips available. If relaxing by the pool under the swaying palms and brilliant bougainvillea with a frozen drink in your hand is your favorite pastime there are hotels that give you that option and a beautiful view of the coastal waters as well. Note that there are no natural sand beaches on Key Largo but there are some manmade beaches for those that like the feel of sand between their toes.
In the evening, grab a seat at one of the local bars (preferably one with live music and great happy hour specials), pull up a chair on the beach and listen to nature’s music as the waves lap against the beach or sail out on one of Reef Roamer’s catamarans and simply enjoy the sunset show. There is no better place than the keys to watch the sun sink below the horizon, drenching the sky in colors of orange, yellow, peach, purple and red and waiting for that moment as the sun disappears to celebrate the end of another great day.
Food is also high on the list here after a full day of activities. One of the nice things about the keys is that most of the establishments offer entertainment while you dine as well as a friendly atmosphere that puts everyone at ease. If you love seafood this is the place to be. The menus are full of fresh caught local seafood – shrimp, conch, lobster & stone crab claws in season, dolphin, hogfish, snapper and grouper as well as the famous, yellow and tart, Key Lime Pie. You can dine on the water in what was once an old fish camp at Ballyhoos or at a glass-bottomed bar at the Pilot House or maybe you’d rather opt for one of the quaint, older places off the water such as the well-known Fish House. Want something a little more upscale? Try Snappers on the Ocean or find Tasters Grille & Market, a treasure hidden in a small shopping center, both located in Tavernier.
Remember, to enjoy the Florida Keys at their very best, you must embrace the “Conch” attitude - take your time, enjoy the moment, relax and enjoy the view and make new friends.