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Run away to...Key Largo!

Zickie, our daughter, and I have been traveling to Key Largo for years. It’s about as far removed from south Florida’s urban hustle as the moon from the sun. Drive about an hour south from central Miami, a Keys state of mind starts to envelop you. Have you ever visited these islands? If not, let me take a little detour so I can introduce you to them...

Island Runaways

(Spotting little tropical fish in Key Largo)

The Florida Keys are an archipelago of islands that lie off the Florida peninsula like small, green jewels scattered across a swath of glistening turquoise silk. Coconut palms, red hibiscus, and hot pink bougainvillea dot the landscape as you drive down the Overseas Highway as its runs 98 miles from Key Largo to Key West. The bridges that link one isle to the next pass over water so clear you can see straight to the sandy sea floor.

These islands were formed over thousands of years from coral reef, and what we see, walk on, and build on today in the Keys is in fact ancient coral reef! This translates to: few natural sand beaches. The lack of wide Miami-style beaches doesn’t deter the many, avid fans of the Keys or of more specifically Key Largo, the uppermost island in this gorgeous chain. Spending time in this tropical environment will motivate you to get out onto the Caribbean-blue ocean, to snorkel, dive, fish, or simply explore small mangrove islands by kayak or paddleboard. I keep returning to the Florida Keys, just like others who can't keep away, to escape the hassles, noise, traffic, and even the regular rules that dominate life back on the mainland.

island getaway

(A tiki hut bar in Key Largo. This one's located at the Hampton Inn.)

A couple of tips for our fellow Island Runaways should you be planning a visit: down there they use Mile Markers to give directions. The miles decrease along the central road, the Overseas Highway, until you finally reach Mile 0 in Key West. If you see a Key Largo address written: MM104.4, B/S, that means the place is located at 104400 Overseas Highway, on the bayside of the road. (Going south, Florida Bay will be on your right.) The abbreviation O/S stands for ocean-side. (Going south, the open ocean will be on your left.) Another survival tip? Pronounce the word “conch” conk. Do not pronounce the final ch or locals will gaze at you with pitying glances. Conchs are the Keys' mascot, and also a nickname for residents, especially Key Westers. It's also a tasty part of Keys cuisine.

Now, armed with this basic info, you’re ready. Once you cross the 18 Mile Stretch (or drive down by the more scenic Card Sound Road, which charges a modest toll), get set to slow down. Speed limits decrease. Brows unfurrow. No point trying to rush or lose your patience. You’re on Island Time now. Ahhhh.

Based on our own island runaways to Key Largo, Zickie and I have come up with a list of four activities and must-dos for a long weekend. This is our opinion, and not everybody would agree, but I feel the following list will give you a fine taste of this uppermost key, and leave you wanting to return for more.

1. SNORKEL. Or dive. If you scuba dive, great, but scuba expertise isn’t required to explore the Florida Reef, which is the third largest reef in the world, and the only one off the North American continent. To snorkel, you need to take a boat out at least a couple of miles off-shore. This will involve making a reservation at one of the many charter companies in the area.

Snorkeling Key Largo

Our recommendation? Either go with the tour operator in John Pennekamp State Park, or try Sundivers Tours, outside the park. Both have good equipment and lots of experience. The only requirement? You need to be able to swim. They will provide you with snorkels, masks, fins, and safety vests, which can be inflated or deflated. (I always wear mine inflated.) What can you see? Sea turtles, stingrays, parrot fish, striped sergeant majors, wrasses, and a host of other colorful fish. As your boat captain and crew will tell you: take care not to touch or bump the coral, since that would damage the upper layer of (live) corals, leading to infection, and eventually the death of that section of reef. Yes, Mother Nature needs our help in the Keys!

Key Largo sunset

2. THE SUNSET CELEBRATION. Sunsets have become a big deal throughout the Keys, and particularly in Key Largo. Ideally, you will find a bayside restaurant, hotel, bar, or other establishment long enough before sunset to snag a good seat. Order the libation of your choice. Then wait. Unless it's raining, the universe will treat you to a surprisingly long, spectacular show of colors. People have been known to clap. Once you see a Key Largo sunset, you might clap, too. (Some sunset-watching spots: the Caribbean Club for a honky tonk atmosphere; Sundowners for a big seafood meal; Snook’s for an attractive tiki bar; and Bayside Grill for the added plus of a dock with underwater lights, so you can see the fish flitting around.

3. EAT SMALL & LOCAL. Sometimes bigger does not mean better, so give one of the smaller establishments a shot. The three we’re recommending don’t have water views, but the trade-off will be lower prices. At dinner-time the Key Largo Conch House (MM 100.2, O/S) is a romantic spot, especially their outdoor garden, with tasty dishes, including vegetarian options. Little Harriette’s (MM 95.7, B/S) yellow beach-shack style makes us feel we’re really arrived in the Keys! It remains a terrific, inexpensive breakfast or lunch joint. Ballyhoo’s in the middle of the Overseas Highway median serves Southern food with a Keys twist. Don’t miss their spicy boiled peanuts. De-licious!

island travel blog

(Working on a bowl of spicy boiled peanuts at Ballyhoo's.)

4. INDULGE IN A SOUVENIR. With two locations, Shell World remains our favorite souvenir shop in the Florida Keys. At their second location, (MM 97.6) room after room of t-shirts, island décor, children’s toys, seashell jewelry, and flipflops tempt even the most curmudgeonly traveler. Zickie and I have yet to resist a visit here without buying at least a few trinkets. We’ve even blogged about the painted buoys the first location (MM 106, B/S) sells. Be warned: it’s hard to enter and not part with at least a little of your hard-earned cash.

Key Largo souvenirs

(Some of the goodies for sale at Shell World.)

Key Largo holds other treasures and special spots, but these four activities are the ones that our family must repeat each and every trip down to this island. Somehow, we never get bored, not of the fantastical light display that occurs during sunset, not of a lobster or fish dinner at Ballyhoo’s. My final bit of advice about enjoying Key Largo? Embrace the vibe. It’s an island obsessed with tiki huts, fresh fish, and the ocean. Your bartender may be barefoot. Pack your flip flops, sunscreen, bathing suit, and some comfortable clothes. And leave your cares behind!

Do you have a favorite Keys spot? Let us know if you do! If you're headed down to the Key Largo or Key West with your kids, check out my guidebook, Miami for Families, which has day-trips to both the first and final key and the Everglades. Cheers!

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