It's been a couple of weeks since the girls and I caught a flight down to Miami before driving down to the Florida Keys for spring break. A very busy work schedule, coupled with some coaching (the Angry Birds are 1-0 after our first victory last week!) and birthday stuff has made it tough to write up a little guide here to Key Largo, but I have some time and thought I'd share some thoughts on the area.
First off, I've flown into Atlanta, D.C., Houston, and Chicago. Those are big airports, but I can't recall ever having such a long series of connections and surface travel just to get to the rental care center than we had in Miami. I grew up in a town of around 20,000 souls, and Pendleton would fit into one wing of Miami International. We must have walked a mile before hopping on a train to take us clear across the space and into a gigantic parking complex to grab our car. Tip here: when returning to Miami International, give yourself an extra twenty minutes to get through the obstacle course of trains and escalators.
Heading south is fairly simple, but Florida is filled with toll roads. I recommend you just stay in the Sun Pass lane and skip all of the starting and stopping. You'll have a toll heading down and one coming back, and the state of Florida will photographically identify your rental car and just bill your credit card. No big deal, no hassle, and it's cheap. My charges showed up yesterday, and it was just a few bucks.
We had great lodgings. We stayed at the Pelican and at Sunset Cove. Our room at the Pelican was bare bones, but at $100 it was fine. The management was helpful and pleasant at each spot. Both have very inviting grounds. Both provide a decent breakfast (coffee, cereal, juice, fruit, and pastries). Both offer awesome access to clear tropical water via their decks, and both have kayaks and canoes to take out for free. The folks at Sunset Cove, however, went above and beyond. They had free DVDs to borrow, and they loaned us a fishing pole they rigged up for fishing on the docks. I hope the Pelican buys some fishing gear and loans it out in the future. It's the sort of thing that will tip us in favor of Sunset Cove the next time we make reservations (the properties literally border each other).
Our room at Sunset Cove was larger, and had a kitchenette. At $150, we'd stay there again in a heartbeat. They also have room to dicker, and if you have a boat to launch, either place is great. Both have ramps.
Jeanne caught a dozen yellowtail snapper right there on the dock. Awesome fishing. There were many folks that came in each night with a stringer of fish. They cleaned them on the dock, and Lyla fed the pelicans the remains. Folks pan fried snapper every night for dinner. Awesome! Just go to Publix and buy a dozen fresh dead shrimp. Cut them into thirds (small bait for small fish on the dock) and just let them bump along the bottom. You'll catch a fish per cast, and little kids just adore it.
The Keys are filled with abundant seafood options, many of them right outside your door. If you wanted to camp at one of the state parks, or just fish each day, you could skip paying for dinner. Seriously, you can just dive down and rip lobster straight out of the structures if you have a mind to (and a license, of course).
Go to the Theater of the Sea and attend all of the shows. It can be spendy ($80 for the three of us), but it's well worth it. We spent about three hours there. We saw the wildlife show (turtles, alligators, crocks, and fish), the bird show, the sea lion show, and the dolphin show). They let our daughter come out of the stands to pet a dolphin named Sherman! She also got the chance to toss a ring to Wilbur the sea lion. Lyla and Jeanne snorkeled there with a bunch of colorful fish. It was awesome, and a great way to start our first day in Key Largo.
Also, you need to go to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We brought our own snorkeling gear, and I went out one afternoon. There is a ton of coral structure right on the beach, with stunning dropoffs and lots of fish. Also, on the day I went, there was a manatee. Seriously, it followed me around, snuffling up sea grass. Those things are so huge it was unsettling, but they're gentle. This one seemed playful. It had a notch out of its tail (boat, most likely), and it was clearly fine with humans in its proximity.
Dr. Beach loves Bahia Honda, and you will too. Sugar crystal beaches with clean, clear water and plenty of snorkeling. We had a great lunch at the little cafe inside, and spent an afternoon collecting shells, swimming, and searching through the coral tide pools.
There's golf in Marathon, though I didn't play the course. It's a pitch and putt, very relaxed atmosphere in a beautiful little place called Key Colony Beach. You don't need to bring clubs, as they rent them for $3.
And the food was really good. I ate seafood just about every meal, every day. One night, we just bought a pound of Key West shrimp and ate cocktails with lemon. I had mahi, snapper, conch fritters, and shrimp. We loved feeding the tarpon at Robbie's. Though the service was slow, our lunch there was really good (dig the blackened mahi sandwich) also.
Mrs. Mac's is awesome. Walking distance from our lodgings, it's old school conch republic at its finest. They know how to do Floribbean, and it shows. The Tijuana mahi was awesome, and there conch fritters were unbelievable. Get a pint of Big Rod's Coconut Pilsner and an order of conch fritters at the bar while you wait for them to do your fish. They'll also cook your catch for you!
The Keys are delightfully kitschy. There's tons of oddball stuff to see and do, and we didn't even come close to doing it all. We went down to Big Pine Key, home of the notorious key deer. Sure enough, one tiny deer came right up to Lyla and sniffed her hand!
When we do it again, perhaps this summer, we'll bring better snorkeling gear. We'll probably drive the 500 miles from Jacksonville with our own fishing gear. We'll try to do some camping on the beach, and we'll do lots more fishing. We'll try to harvest some lobster, and maybe spend a few nights in Key West. Each island has its own flavor, and we found Key Largo to be amazing. If you like being close to wildlife--to crocodiles, manatees, barracuda, snapper, deer, ospreys, pelicans, and iguana--then the Keys are your place...