Insiders Guide to Key Largo

As a resident of Central Florida, I travel to Key Largo every chance I get. Since 1972, I have visited over fifty times. This article will share the knowledge I have gained from lucky finds, mistakes and the changing landscape of the best dive location in the United States. Recommendations are strictly my opinions.

1. Travel – If you are driving down, get off I-95 and over to the Sunshine State Parkway as soon as possible. The two roads are within a mile of each other at Fort Pierce. The Parkway is a toll road, but I-95 in south Florida is insane… incredibly heavy traffic and road rules right out of the wild, Wild West. If you are flying down, consider Ft. Lauderdale as an alternative to Miami International. It is a longer drive, but you’ll have your rental car and be closer to Key Largo before the MIA passenger has even gotten bags. When you reach Florida City, you leave the Parkway and begin traveling south on US 1. There are two options. US 1 goes all the way to Key West and is the most direct route. However, if it’s anywhere near lunchtime, turn left on Card Sound road. It takes you a bit off track, but you must stop at Alabama Jacks. The fresh fish sandwiches and cold, cold beer are a great way to get your Conch Republic groove going.

2. Lodging -If you are looking for luxury, stay at the Marriott Key Largo. The property is a five star resort on the Bay side at (Mile Marker 103). Another luxury option is renting a house. One property has 7 bedrooms, 8 baths and a billiard room. Many are on canals that lead directly to the Atlantic Ocean and have amenities rivaling any resort. A great area to look for a rental is the Port Largo community. A more moderately priced option is the Florida Bay Club (MM 103 – Just south of the Marriott). It offers weekly condominium rentals with limited boat slips available. There are two and three bedroom units. The décor is dated but most of the rooms have a great view of Florida Bay and its’ beautiful sunsets. Florida Bay Club is located on Adams Cut with about a fifteen-minute boat ride to the Atlantic.

If you are looking for something less expensive, don’t rule out the house rentals. A number of homes are available at very reasonable weekly rates. Another economical option is the many private motels on the bay side of US 1. As an example, The Bay Cove Motel has a cottage on the bay that sleeps 6 with two bathrooms. The décor is primitive but there is a white sand beach and a nice view of Florida Bay. If you are bringing a boat, I strongly recommend the Marina del Mar (near MM 100). The room rates are reasonable and the Atlantic Ocean is 5 minutes away. They also have lockers for your gear right at the boat slip. Running water is included in the dockage fee. If you’re really looking to save money you can camp in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (MM 102). Bring lots of bug spray. The mosquitoes come out exactly at dusk and you will need to be completely covered or in your tent.

3. Food – My dive buddies and I don’t do fine dining in the Keys. I’m sure the Marriott offers a pricey opportunity to dress up and practice using the right silverware. But if you want Conch Republic food try Hobo’s (MM 101), Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (MM 99) and the Islamorada Fish House (MM 81). The ambience is 100% Florida Keys. My son thinks Mrs. Mac’s key lime pie is the best he’s ever eaten and we have eaten a lot of key lime pie. But I’m partial to her peanut butter pie.

4. Snorkeling – There are many charter boats available that cater to snorkelers. Make sure you get to Christ of the Abyss. The Christ statue is in 30 feet of water and has a good bit of coral growth. Lately people have taken to leaving cremated remains on the base. Other great snorkeling spots are Grecian rocks, Mosquito banks and a dozen more shallow reefs. You will see fan coral, colorful small coral formations and thousands of brightly colored fish.

5. Diving – The main attraction in Key Largo is SCUBA diving. They are many dive sites and the pricing among the charter boats is very consistent. You can shop around but you won’t find much difference in pricing. My favorite charter company is Ocean Divers, which is located near MM 100. They have two boats and you will find each will have a different itinerary, giving you more options. The USS Spiegel Grove, USCG Duane and French Reef are my “Must Do” dives. Here is some additional information on all three.

Located within the Marine Sanctuary, the Spiegel Grove is a 510′ landing ship, which was intentionally sunk in 2002. She sits upright in 134 feet of water with on-deck diving as shallow as 50 feet. This is not a one-dive site. I have been down on the Grove nearly 50 times and she continues to amaze me. The charter will typically take you on a short tour to give you a view of the well bay (where the landing craft were stored) and around the superstructure to the bridge. You will also see the two huge swivel cranes that loaded and off loaded the landing craft. Coral is growing abundantly and there are quite a few very large grouper who have taken up residence. Make sure and discuss with the charter what sections of the ship you will be seeing. Different trips see different sections.

Also in the Marine Sanctuary, French Reef is a great alternative to Molasses Reef, which is often overcrowded. It is a smaller site, but in my opinion is a better dive than Molasses. Since Looe Reef (near Key West) has deteriorated so badly, I believe French is one of the most spectacular reef areas in the Keys. Ledges, tunnels, and caves; most large enough to swim through are in abundance. Here are some of my favorite spots on the reef. For the opportunity to uncover hidden sea life try The Hourglass Cave (50 feet inshore from buoy F1) or Christmas Tree Cave (50 feet inshore of buoy F3). Buoy F5 marks a sandbank with coral ridges around and F6 has a swim-through coral head. Inshore of F7 is a ledge near an old anchor. White Sand Bottom Cave, the largest cave in the area, is located near the center of the reef. Depth ranges from 15 to 100 feet. If you have your own boat this is a great reef to bring your snorkelers and divers. There is truly something for everyone.

Just outside the Marine Sanctuary, The USCG Duane is a 327-foot Coast Guard cutter sunk in 1987 in 120 feet of water. She sits upright and the crows’ nest reaches 60 feet below the surface. Coral growth is profuse and thousands of fish are in residence. Other frequent visitors include bull sharks and scores of barracuda. This is a deeper dive and the surface current can be treacherous at times. It is listed in most dive books as an advanced dive. On a day when the current is ripping and the sea state is 3 to 5′ this is certainly true. However, on calmer days a diver with moderate experience will have no difficulty. One way to figure out what it will be like is to check the NOAA buoy website (www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=mlrf1) for two things. First you want to determine the sea state at Molasses Reef, since it is about 2 miles from the Duane. Secondly on the same website determine the location of the Gulf Stream. When it is within a couple of nautical miles of Molasses the current on the Duane gives the mooring buoys a wake and makes diving almost undoable. Since the Duane is outside the Marine Sanctuary, you may be competing with fisherman for mooring buoy space. Despite these potential downsides, the Duane is the best dive in the area. If you are really lucky you’ll get to see the resident Goliath Grouper. He is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, but really shy.

6. Things to avoid – Fast food… come on you’re in the Keys, surrounded by water! You won’t find fresher fish anywhere. Unless you interested in catching your own, avoid lobster season. It is total bedlam and they are thousands of people in rented boats who have no idea what they’re doing. Somebody gets killed just about every year. The specific dates vary from year to year, so Google it to get the exact dates. Bad weather can certainly destroy your trip. So check the NOAA website I listed in the paragraph on the Duane. Charter boats will go out in most any weather, but they don’t turn back if you get seasick. Make sure you know what you’re getting in to.

7. Day trips – You are in the perfect vacation location. Why go anywhere else? When the weather outside is frightening, you might try some of these suggestions. A really cool thing to do on a windy day is visit Dolphins Plus (near MM 100). They have multiple dive programs and I strongly recommend them. If you have never been and believe me it really isn’t necessary, you can travel the two hours down to Key West. Other than T-shirts and liquor your options are limited. Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum is interesting and worth the time. Mallory pier at sunset has a carnival atmosphere. However, if a cruise ship is in port it can be very crowded. If you are really in to deep-sea fishing then Islamorada is the place to go. And if you’ve never seen the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, the Seven Mile Bridge is a worthy destination. There is a park on the north side of the bridge with a great sub shop across the street.

I hope you found some helpful ideas in this article. If you are a SCUBA diver or a snorkel enthusiast or just curious about the largest coral reef in North America, visit Key Largo. You might fall in love with the place like I did. If you have any questions, please send me an email. I’ll be happy to respond.