There it was again: that euphoric feeling when my stress melts away.
A mere 20 feet below the surface in the 88 degree warm August water of the Atlantic Ocean, I could feel my muscles relax from neck to toes. The crick in my neck from sleeping during my flight to Florida disappeared along with my sluggishness from the early morning wakeup call so we could catch the dive boat at 8 a.m.
Call it hydrotherapy, island life or “hakuna matata,” but the laid back vibe of Key Largo, Fla., will cure what ails you.
My first look at Key Largo happened during a drive through years ago en route to Key West which is about two hours further down U.S. 1 and one of the most gloriously scenic drives you’ll ever take.
But if you miss stopping in Key Largo, you’ll miss a lot.
From the natural wonder of coral reefs and marine life to friendly people serving you fresh coconut shrimp by the water, Key Largo is definitely a destination rather than a pit stop. Since that first stopover, I’ve stayed in Key Largo three times and it keeps calling me back for more sunsets, sea life and serenity.
Under the sea
Of course, the main attraction here is the water and what’s in and beneath it.
Whether you’re dining on freshly caught grouper or swimming with it during a dive or snorkel, you can’t escape the ocean vibe.
If you’re a diver like me, the Florida Keys hold many an underwater adventure and the chance to go on a “Wreck Trek” with shipwrecks stretching from Key West to the Spiegel Grove and the Benwood off Key Largo. There’s something for everyone with shallow wrecks for novice divers and deep water sites for advanced divers to explore.
Key Largo is one of the best snorkeling sites in the country boasting the underwater playground of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Established in 1963, it’s the first undersea park in the United States encompassing nearly 70 nautical square miles.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is adjacent to it covering another 178 nautical miles of coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove swamps. These areas protect the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. and host bird and marine life.
Pennekamp offers canoeing and kayaking as well as fishing in some designated areas. You’ll also find some nice nature trails to walk plus picnic areas, a nice beach for swimming and a 30,000 gallon saltwater aquarium in the Visitor Center.
There are many ways to explore this natural wonder from swimming to glass bottom boat tours to kayaking, snorkeling and diving.
Companies offering snorkel and dive excursions dot the Overseas Highway and there are dozens to choose from in the Keys.
My favorite dive shop in Key Largo is Sailfish Scuba. Depending on the dive or snorkel site, they often allow divers and snorkelers the opportunity to go on the same boat which makes it fun for groups or families. Our group of five had three divers and two snorkelers and Sail Fish prides itself on having one guide for every group of six with separate guides for divers and snorkelers.
The crew here is top notch when it comes to safety, knowledge and customer service. They also take photos and videos underwater and guests can download free copies after each day’s trips.
On this trip, we got up close and personal with a young sea turtle and huge stingrays, tons of brightly colored tropical fish of every kind and even a few nurse sharks.
Back on land
Once back on the surface, it’s time for some good food and tasty tropical drinks.
But first, you’ll need a place to stay.
Pennekamp does offer camping for tents and RV campers. If that sounds a bit too rustic, there are plenty of lodging options to fit every budget. Three nice, medium-priced options sit within about 1,000 yards of one another around a marina just off Overseas Highway.
We stayed at Holiday Inn Key Largo this time and at nearby Marina Del Mar last summer. Both have spacious, clean rooms and delightful pools and tiki bars onsite.
Courtyard by Marriott is the third member of this triangle and all three offer terrific locations, nice atmosphere and mid-range pricing. The Holiday Inn sits right off the main road while Marina Del Mar and Courtyard are alongside the marina.
Waterfront view rooms offer pretty views, but know that you might experience a bit more noise with dive, snorkel and fishing charter boats heading out first thing in the morning.
At the table
One of the joys of visiting the Florida Keys is getting to enjoy some of the delicious, freshly caught seafood.
One of my favorite places to grab a snack or a tropical drink is at Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill. Yes, that Jimmy Johnson who used to coach the Miami Hurricanes and Dallas Cowboys.
He has quite the waterfront setup in Key Largo with a full restaurant, huge tiki bar and swimming pool. Grab a seat outside at the bar and enjoy some mahi bites, tuna nachos or conch fritters while taking in the scenery or sunset.
Another one of the best spots to catch the spectacular sunsets here is at Sundowners restaurant just up the road. You can dine outside on the water or inside the air-conditioned, glass-walled dining room and enjoy specialties like grouper with Key Lime hollandaise sauce, yellowtail ceviche or steak and seafood kabobs.
Speaking of Key Lime, you have to save room for Key Lime pie when you’re down here and one of the best places to savor it is Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, founded in 1976 and named after the owner’s mom. This is one of the locals’ favorite dining spots and for good reason.
Try the alligator tenders or snapper of the day but save room for the big finish of creamy, cold, tangy and sweet Key Lime pie topped with whipped cream in a graham cracker crust. It’s a sweet way to end a perfect day in this tropical town.