There is no place like the Florida Keys.
From 2008 - 2015, my husband and I lived in Key Largo working as PADI SCUBA instructors and dive boat captains. We loved our years, "Living the Dream," and some of our best friends still live there.
It's no secret that the last three years have been hard on the islands and the residents, first with Hurricane Irma in 2017 and now in 2020, with Coronavirus closing down the island chain to non residents for two months. But as resilient as the islands are, so are the people that call this paradise home.
I reached out to my good friend, Michael Byars, co-owner of Pirates Cove Watersports to talk about why people should make Key Largo their vacation destination and we both agreed that it's all about the water. Diving, snorkeling, fishing, wave runners, eco tours, parasailing, paddleboarding, and kayaking...a great day in Key Largo is a fun day on the water, a great dinner and watching a beautiful sunset.
Lets start with my favorite thing to do, DIVE.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the first undersea park in the United States. The state park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protect 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps which makes Key Largo a great place to enjoy diving and snorkeling.
Most SCUBA diving operations like Pirates Cove Watersports offer two trips daily out to the reef. They take divers and snorkelers to the best portion of the reef based on the condition of the ocean that day. Factors such as visibility and currents are evaluated and the crew works hard to make sure you have the best trip possible. The reefs are generally 25-40 feet deep and there a couple of shallow wrecks that are broken apart and are classified as reef dives. There are three wrecks, the Spiegel Grove, Duane, and Bibb, which were intentionally sunk to be artificial reefs. They are considered deep dives because the sand is approximately 130 feet.
If you're not a diver already, you can always try diving by taking a Discover Scuba Dive with an instructor.
If you want to snorkel, you can either go out on a dive boat to a reef or book your trip on a snorkel-only boat. A snorkel boat will often go to a shallower portion of the reef than dive boats, allowing you to see the corals and fish up close. My favorite snorkel boats are Sundiver and the Pennekamp snorkel boats.
If you'd rather catch fish than be in the water with them, there are a lot of great guides and fishing boats. You can charter a boat for either a half day or full day trip. Different species migrate through the islands at different times of the year so talk to your crew about what's running. For back country fishing, Chris Hanson with Scales 2 Tales Charters is a local favorite. The stars of the Discovery Channel television series, The Fish Guyz, Lain Goodwin and George Clark Jr., call Key Largo home. For deep sea fishing, First Down Charters owner Kevin Jeffries loves taking guests out to the blue water for mahi, sailfish, wahoo, and tuna.
4. Paddleboarding + Kayaking
Key Largo is full of calm water canals, mangrove areas, Largo Sound and Blackwater Sound. Decide if you want to paddle the ocean side or bay side and plan your launch accordingly. For a relaxing experience paddling through the mangroves, Pennekamp offers kayaks, paddleboards and canoes to rent. On the bayside, Pirates Cove Watersports offers several options and will recommend the best places to paddle. Keep your eyes open for dolphin and manatee which frequent these shallow waters and are often curious enough to approach you.
If you haven't been parasailing before, Key Largo is a great place to try it. You go up on the bayside and have a great view of the island chain. While flying high at 400 feet, you can see over the islands to the ocean and shipping lanes as well as see into Everglades National Park. This 10-12 minute ride will be something you'll never forget. Even better, have your picture taken (like we did) and walk away with a SD card, documenting your adventure.
Yes, Pirates Cove rents them as well. Even better than going out alone is taking one of their Waverunner Eco Tours. Customized specifically to you depending on how fast you want to go and what you want to see, the options are endless. Fun, educational, and safe, this a great way to tour Jewfish Creek, Dusenbury Creek, Adams Cut and even go out to the ocean.
On a boat with no more than six people, take an intimate tour through the canals and learn about the history of the Keys. Learn all about the birds, flora and fauna and take a ride through Adams Cut. These 90 minute tours are great for people of all ages.
To end your day, there are plenty of restaurants around town and many right on Blackwater Sound to watch the sunset. Every local has their favorite but a few of the most popular on the water are Jimmy Johnson's Big Chill, Snook's Bayside Restaurant, Bayside Grille and Blackwater Siren.
So whether it's for a day, a weekend or your entire vacation, you'll have a great time on the water in Key Largo.