Just an hour’s drive south of the Miami International Airport, Key Largo marks your departure point for the changes in latitudes and attitudes that come with a trip through the Florida Keys.
Life is slower and a whole lot sweeter down here — and that latter part is all the more true if everything related to the ocean is your passion. The northernmost island in the chain and the gateway to the Florida Keys, 33-mile-long Key Largo is home to some of the best scuba diving in North America. And there’s tons to enjoy post-dive here too. The terrain mixes state parks, tropical hardwood hammocks, and the underwater wonders of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in one easy-to-explore island destination. Read on for our guide to making the most of your time in and out of the water in Key Largo.
OF WRECKS & REEFS
Key Largo’s fish-covered coral reefs are legendary and worthy of a visit all their own. But the island’s shallow fringing reefs have also been the demise of many a ship over the centuries. And as every diver knows, where there is underwater ruin, there is also bound to be incredible marine life calling it home.
A good place to start your underwater explorations is at a Key Largo classic, finning around the iconic Christ of the Abyss statue within the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Horizon Divers makes frequent trips here for both snorkelers and divers. The bronze statue is covered in soft corals and fans, and sits in just 25 feet of water — depths perfect for the snorkelers in your entourage to enjoy as well. The state park is a favorite spot for topside explorations too, perhaps aboard a glass-bottom boat tour that cruises over the reefs, or on your own, paddling a kayak through a trail of mangroves.
Just outside the park, Sea Dwellers Dive Center of Key Largo can get you out on the purpose-sunk wreck of the Bibb. Built in 1937 as a Coast Guard cutter, it’s a favorite for spotting schooling barracuda that sometimes roll 50 fish deep, as well as schools of Atlantic spadefish.
Down since 1987, the purpose-sunk wreck of the USCGC Duane is another top Key Largo draw for divers and a perennial favorite of guests at Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort. Rainbow Reef Dive Center makes regular boat trips to dive the Duane, too, and it’s a wreck in a league all its own. The ship saw action in World War II and in Vietnam before being decommissioned in 1985 as the oldest active U.S. military vessel. And in 1987, the 327-foot-long Duane was purposely sunk to form an artificial reef south of Molasses Reef. Strong currents and the fact that the wreck lies in 130 feet of water mean it’s for advanced divers only, but the reward comes in regular bull shark sightings and the marvel of schooling barracuda that patrol just off a hull carpeted with growth.
You’ll need more than one dive to take in the glory of the Spiegel Grove, one of the largest wrecks ever scuttled for an artificial reef, which stretches some 510 feet long (that’s close to two football fields, for perspective). Any dive shop you find in Key Largo is bound to be offering a trip out to this famous wreck, and you won’t go wrong signing up for a small-boat trip with Island Venture or heading out with Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures . The Spiegel Grove bottoms out at 130 feet deep on the sandy floor of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, with shallower structure to explore, too. The former landing ship dock was purposely sunk in 2002 and each section of the ship comes with a new highlight, whether you’re finning around midships to ogle the anti-aircraft guns or just taking in the whole length of this beast in great visibility off the stern.
And don’t miss a dive on one of the many mooring buoys at Molasses Reef, a long stretch of reef that starts snorkel-shallow and drops to around 70 feet, where hammerhead sharks and sea turtles are regularly seen. The high-profile spur and groove coral heads here make for a fun and weaving dive, with all kinds of tropical fish life to admire along the way. Operators that regularly dive Molasses Reef include Silent World Dive Center, Conch Republic Divers and Ocean Divers.
After a fun day’s diving, it’s time to kick back island-style at some of Key Largo’s most atmospheric restaurants and bars. Sunsets are always worth celebrating in these parts, and you’ve got options for where to toast that golden orb.
At Bayside Grille, famous for conch ceviche and other seafood, listen for the moody blowing of the conch to mark the sun’s official dip under the horizon. And Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill, on the bay side of Key Largo, is another favorite local sunset spot, with live music every night (and during the day on Sundays), an outdoor deck on the water, and a lively tiki bar where the key lime coladas and painkillers flow. More great steak and seafood dishes go down with Florida Bay views at Sundowners, with a covered outdoor deck, and a dock where you can feel the thrill of feeding huge tarpon. And every seat at the house at the popular restaurant and tiki bar Snook’s has unobstructed water views for doing what is simply second nature in these parts — toasting the end to another stellar day in Key Largo. For more information visit fla-keys.com/key-largo/
Plan Your Trip
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