Cruising along the Overseas Highway, the ride feels more like a nature trail than a roadway. Butterflies fly backward. Miniature deer bound through green mangroves.
You roll through those wide-open mangrove swamps, everglades and savannahs the whole way to Key Largo, Fla. Look for wading birds such as herons and, in season, roseate spoonbills that turn progressively pinker during their stay in the Everglades.
Eighteen miles from the mainland you arrive in Key Largo, made famous in that Bogie and Bacall movie of 1948. It is sandwiched between the watery wilderness of Everglades National Park to the west and the fish-laden coral formations of North America’s only living coral barrier reef to the east. Located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the reef is just three miles from the shores of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Mile Marker 102).
Established by the state legislature in 1960, the land base of the park opened to the public in 1963, but tourists had been exploring the reefs for decades before by trains via Miami that began running to the Keys in the early 20th century. The first underwater park in America, it looks much like it did when it was founded. Tropical fish swim through the coral reef, while above kayakers and canoers navigate a maze of mangrove swamps. Visitors glide quietly through 2 ½ miles of marked trails, taking in an incredibly diverse ecosystem.
Snorkel and scuba trips to the reef are available from any of the local dive shops. Once underwater it’s a sensory overload of marine life: sponges, shrimp, crabs, turtles, lobsters, eel, and the nearly 600 species of fish navigating the coral reef. At a section of the reef known as Grecian Rocks, divers can engage in hide-and-seek with stunning blue parrot fish, sea fans, sea plumes, and other soft corals the size of palm leaves.
Named Cayo Largo, the “long rock shoal” by Spanish explorers, locals have long considered their island home the “Diving Capital of the World.” Six miles offshore in the Marine Sanctuary resides the Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot Navy ship intentionally scuttled in June 2002 as the backbone for a new coral reef.
Key Largo is nearly as famous as a sport-fishing destination. Anglers can find some of the best charter captains and fishing guides in the Keys that lead them after sailfish offshore, bonefish along the Atlantic shallows, or redfish and tarpon in Florida Bay.
Nestled in groves of trees and fauna, the Conch House is a quaint, Victorian house with a tropical flair and a lovely wrap-around porch. A pet-friendly establishment, the Conch House started out as a breakfast spot and recently expanded its menu and hours due to popular demand. It serves some of the best coffee, teas, and homemade desserts on the island. Try the raisin pecan French toast or blueberry pancakes, drizzled with a superb kiwi dressing.
Stop by Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill at Fisherman’s Cove for cool drinks at the sports bar and restaurant. Legendary football coach Jimmy Johnson and partners launched this enticing seaside eatery and watering hole where you can enjoy frozen cocktails by the pool at the Tiki Bar or sip a beer and watch the game.
Travel a few miles south of town and you come to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier that rescues and rehabilitates injured birds and releases them back into the wild. Located in a natural setting alongside the Bay, visitors can see and feel the real Florida Keys and discover plenty of healthy, wild, and beautiful birds. You can spy them along the boardwalk, up in the trees, or dive bombing the bay.
For more information, call 800-822-1080 or visit www.fla-keys.com/keylargo