Driving from mainland Florida, visitors to the Florida Keys enter the 125-mile-long subtropical island chain at Key Largo, the longest island in the Keys.
Key Largo is bordered on the west by Florida Bay and the Everglades National Park backcountry, and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, home to the clear waters of the Gulf Stream. Visitors can enjoy Key Largo’s ties to the sea including scuba diving, snorkeling, an underwater hotel, sportfishing, eco-tours, beaches and dolphin encounter programs.
The island also offers numerous shoreside activities including nature trails and a rehabilitation center for wild birds.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Key Largo is best known for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, mile marker (MM) 102.5, the first underwater park in the United States. The park is adjacent to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which encompasses 2,800 square nautical miles of coastal waters of the entire Keys chain.
The spectacular Pennekamp waters feature 55 varieties of coral and 600 species of fish. Their fragile living reefs are acclaimed as some of the most fascinating scuba diving sites in the world.
Back on land, environmental trails at Pennekamp Park wind through tropical hammocks of gumbo limbo, strangler fig, tamarind, wild coffee and mahogany trees. The Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, Route 905 at MM 106 bayside, offers opportunities to view rare tree snails, Schaus swallowtail butterflies, white crowned pigeons, mangrove cuckoos, lignumvitae trees, butterfly orchids and wild cotton.
Key Largo also gained notoriety when the 1947 movie classic “Key Largo”, featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, hit the silver screen. A local bar, the Caribbean Club, provided the locale for some of the movie’s scenes. Walls within the interior of this waterfront saloon are appointed with memorabilia from the movie.
Bogie’s presence still can be seen today in Key Largo. The steam-powered vessel of another American movie epic – “The African Queen” – is on view at the Holiday Inn Key Largo Marina and can even be chartered.
Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park
Things to see and do in Key Largo include the nature reserve Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park which conservationists years ago rescued from development. It is home to numerous endangered species; guided walks are offered. The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is America’s first underwater state park, with dive, snorkel, sunset, eco-tour, glass-bottom boat, canoe and kayak excursions. There are also nature trails, a beach, picnic grounds and campsites. The waterfront Harry Harris Park offers a beach, playground, sports field and picnic grounds.
Dolphin Cove Research & Education Center
The Dolphin Cove Research & Education Center offers bottlenose dolphin swims and encounters, crocodile and eco-tours, and kayak and canoe voyages. Like its sister facility, Dolphin Cove, Dolphins Plus Inc. also offers swims with the marine mammals as well as sea lion encounters.
Florida Keys Wild Bird Center
The primary purpose of The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center is to rescue, rehabilitate and release ill, injured and orphaned wild birds. A boardwalk winds through cages that house wild hawks, ospreys, spoonbills, egrets and more. Some are there to recuperate and will later be released; others are unable to survive in the wild on their own and have become lifelong inhabitants.
Works of noted Florida watercolorist Gregory Sobran, black-and-white photographs captured by landscape photographer Clyde Butcher and paintings from featured European artists highlight The Gallery at Kona Kai’s exhibits. A portion of sales benefits the Artist Environmental Network and its conservation awareness projects.
Room service is available at the world’s first underwater hotel, Jules’ Undersea Lodge, permanently anchored 30 feet beneath the surface of Key Largo’s Emerald Lagoon. The two-bedroom air-conditioned suite features complete accommodations and is a popular destination for those who prefer underwater honeymoons.
The 510-foot Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock, is the largest ship ever intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef. The vessel was the center of international attention when it prematurely sank and rolled over May 17, 2002. Later, a salvage team successfully reoriented the ship on its right side and it opened to divers, creating an excellent multilevel dive. The ship has attracted legions of fish and other marine life and can be viewed by scuba divers, snorkelers and glass-bottom boat patrons. It is positioned about six miles off Key Largo, in 130 feet of water, several mooring buoys provide convenient tie-off points for boaters.