Key Largo Day Dreamin’
by Terry Conway
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 the Everglades National Park to the west and the fish-covered coral formations of North America’s only living coral barrier reef to the east. The reef is located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, just three miles from the shores of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Mile Marker 102).
Named for a Miami Herald editor who helped spearhead its creation, the park was established by the state legislature in 1960. The land base of the park opened to the public in 1963, but tourists had been coming to see 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 can get lost in the maze of mangrove swamps. You glide quietly through a 2 ½-mile maze of marked trails, experiencing an incredibly diverse ecosystem.
You can also reach the reef via a glass-bottom boat called the “Spirit of Pennekamp” that departs from the park three times a day. The brilliant reef is 20 feet below the surface of the water, but peering through the boat’s V-shape bottom the coral and fish appear as if they are right beneath the glass.
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.
Spanish explorers named the island Cayo Largo, the” long rock shoal”. The first hint of a community came with the arrival of an 1870 post office in the present day Rock Harbor area. Locals have long considered their home the “Diving Capital of the World.” Six miles offshore in the Marine Sanctuary you will find one of the newest wrecks, 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.
After a long day of fun in the sun, treat yourself to a delicious meal that you absolutely deserve. Tucked off A1A, the Key Largo Conch House is nestled in groves of trees and fauna, a quaint, Victorian house with a tropical flair and lovely wrap-around porch. A pet friendly establishment, the Conch House is home to Romeo: a 4-year old Congo African Grey parrot that resides in the entryway of the restaurant in a big white cage.
The Conch House started out as a breakfast spot and has 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.
Chill out with some cool drinks at the sports bar and restaurant, Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill at Fisherman’s Cove. 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.
And, wherever you dine don’t forget Key Lime Pie. The limes are smaller than “normal” limes– yellow in color– so the filling for authentic Key Lime Pie is never green. Sometimes the pies are served as tarts with whipped cream, but more commonly are topped with meringue.
A few miles south of town you’ll 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 find 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/
For the past 15 years I’ve been a contributing writer to a wide variety of national and regional magazines such as Acoustic Musician, Blood-Horse, Long Island Boating World, Pennsylvania Equestrian and The Hunt, as well as daily newspapers, including the Philadelphia Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Delaware County Times. In addition, I contribute historical horseracing stories for ESPN.com and the PaulickReport.com I write regularly about travel destinations, wineries and craft breweries, accomplished chefs and culinary events. I am also a member of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association. www.terryconway.net