What is generally referred to as the Florida Keys is actually more than 40 separate islands connected via Highway 1 with delightful names that evoke the imagination with wonderful images: Plantation Key, Fiesta Key, Fat Deer Key, Big Torch Key, and Sugarloaf Key. Yet if you are not a local, the names fade away. Everyone knows Grumpy, but those other six guys? What are their names? Similarly most folks think of Key West with its famous residents, lively Duval Street, and colorful history sitting at the southernmost point of the chain when they think of the Florida Keys.
When you hear Key Largo do you think of the destination? Or instead, the movie with the fresh-faced Lauren Bacall, her doe eyes promising eternal innocence blinking back at at you from the silver screen? From now on, I hope Key Largo is the first place you think of when you want to plan a vacation to the Florida keys.
For many reasons I think Key Largo is a better vacation choice if you are looking for value, great scuba diving and a bit more peaceful bliss. In no way am I encouraging you to forgo Key West, by all means do take a day or two and explore Key West, but your budget will thank you for choosing the quieter more laid back Key Largo home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for the bulk of your time on the keys. The state park was created in 1960 with the creation as the nation’s first undersea preserve, then with the designation of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in 1975, which is a part of the 2,800-square-nautical-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Key Largo features six unique Sanctuary Preservation Areas and offers diving and snorkeling, including many famous sites:
Statue of Christ of the Abyss – This famed bronze statue rises so close to the water’s surface that it can be easily viewed by snorkelers as well as divers. The statue is nestled between the coral formations of Key Largo Dry Rocks reef in just 25 feet of water.
Spiegel Grove – This 510-foot Navy transport ship was sunk in June 2002 as the latest addition to the Key Largo’s diving sites.
Molasses Reef – High profile coral heads and massive congregates of tropical marine life define this popular reef.
Benwood Wreck – A casualty of World War II, this shipwreck is now home to huge schools of grunt and porkfish.
The Elbow – This reef offers several historic shipwrecks, as well as the thrill of face-to-face encounters with friendly moray eels and barracuda.
The Bibb and Duane – These twin 327-foot US Coast Guard cutters were sunk intentionally as dive attractions in 1987 and now are virtually cloaked in colorful coral and gorgonian.
Even if you have never snorkeled before you should make time to visit John Pennekamp Park as this one of a kind experience will leave you richer, more knowledgeable about reefs in general, and hopefully a better steward of the oceans.
Not a diver? Try a waverunner tour over the open ocean and through tranquil mangrove canals that will leave you exhilarated and a bit poorer in the wallet, or glide by the mangroves in a quite kayak spotting wildlife all around you. Soak up some rays on one of the beaches in the area.
If you want a break from the water and sunshine head take a day and enjoy world class art, shopping and food. Is it the chicken or the egg? The beauty of the keys has bestowed many with inspiration over the years to create art. Or, perhaps artists simply have flocked to the region, the keys offer quite a number of art galleries, from the affordable to “you might need a second mortgage” to bring home that one of a kind treasure! Whatever your tastes or budget you will find something here as the art is as varied as the artists from originals to prints, oils and watercolors, sculpture of all sorts and mediums, Haitian primitives, collage, pottery, handcrafted jewelry, woodcarving, stained glass as well as hand blown glass, acrylics and a variety of fine craft from many artisans offer up unique designs that making window shopping or serious mission shopping an exciting and enjoyable day.
Where to Stay
For the BUDGET Conscious traveler: Fairway Inn (Florida City) This will put you about a half an hour from Key Largo, but you wouldn’t find a better place to to stay for a day or two and really stretch your vacation dollar while enjoying a basic clean room with a bit of tropical ambiance on the grounds.
Fairway Inn offers all the basics including a clean but small room plus:
Complimentary Wireless Internet & Cable TV
Individually Controlled Air-Conditioning
Refrigerators & Microwaves
Free Breakfast (Plain Jane, but it will get you started)
Girlfriend’s Moderate Priced Pick: Holiday Inn Key Largo
Situated next to Key Largo Resorts Marina, this hotel’s location places you in the middle of it all. Here you will find all the all the standard amenities you expect, plus a few extra that will let you know that you are on vacation and not just staying in another chain motel room. Holiday Inn’s grounds are peaceful and relaxing with a Tiki Hut Pavilion, poolside bar, two heated outdoor pools and a 24-hour Fitness Center with up-to-date cardio-vascular equipment, weights and the all important post-workout reward – the ability to slip into their Jacuzzi and feel the tension and tightness slip away.
What else makes this property a Girlfriend’s Gateway pick? They have a 75-slip marina with dockmaster offering charter boats for Deep Sea Fishing, Back Country Fishing, and daily Snorkel and Dive trips. There is also boat rentals, glass bottom boat, sunset cruises, and nearby dolphin encounters. Holiday Inn is close to being a resort property without the price tag – a good solid choice for the Goldilock’s budget.
If vacation means a five-star experience or you want someplace to celebrate a special occasion come to Cheeca Lodge and Spa. A resort that is far from the ordinary and will coddle you in luxury, exceptional service and tranquility. Cheeca Lodge is not actually in Key Largo, but Islamorada a bit to the south, but this location doesn’t take you out of the action. The Cheece lodge graceful elegance dates back to its opening in 1946. Truly a remarkable historic gem, not a tired lady in need of updating the Cheeca Lodge & Spa has been enchanting guests with its mix location, exceptional accommodations, and gracious hospitality for so many years that it has perfected the vacation experience.
With one of most beautiful and secluded private beaches in Florida, Cheeca Lodge is an exhilarating tropical playground, offering tennis, golf, the lavish Spa at Cheeca, and fishing right off the end of the 525-foot pier to simply snoozing in a hammock on the beach. Forget just the basics, here you will find the spacious West-Indies-style rooms, suites, and bungalows are appointed with every luxury – from fine linens, extravagant marble bathrooms, and screened-in porches to enjoy the stunning sunsets backdrops that conjure visions of post cards from mailed faraway destinations. Your choice of rooms is extensive as the property sits on 27 lush landscaped acres and has over 200 guest rooms, including suites that all boast full kitchens.
You will also find all the activities that you came to the keys for are right here: Eco Tours, Family Fishing Tours, Kayak Fishing deep in the Everglades’ no-motor zones for pristine fishing and amazing wildlife viewing opportunities. Want more? Sailing and Windsurfing, Parasailing, and Paddle Boarding! You and your girlfriends will have a great experience if you try this sport! And if it turns out that you are not as graceful as more experienced paddleboarders – -you will enjoy reliving your journey over drinks with your best girlfriends at nights edge.
And, did I mention the Spa and Cheeca Lodge? A beautifully appointed oasis of relaxation and rejuvenation with state of the art fitness studio, adults only lap pool, aromatherapy steam rooms, Vichy shower. So do book a custom facial or skin purifying salt scrub. You will not be disappointed.
No matter what your budget, or vacation goals, Key Largo not only offers something for everyone, but is a true tropical paradise found in the United States. Call me today and let me plan you and your group the perfect vacation getaway!