Settling Into The Island Vibe – Key Largo, FL
So here we are on Island time, watching the palm trees sway and the ice in our fruity cocktail melt away under a tropical breeze. It’s a real thing this island vibe, but despite physically being on an island you might actually have to go looking to find it. You see the Keys are a bit of an odd mix and if you look in the wrong places you might not end up liking them at all.
You’ve Got To Look Past The Busy Bits…
First you’ve got to look past Hwy 1. It’s the one and only road going through the Keys and there are many places it narrows down to a single lane. So it’s packed and crazy (crazy!) busy with zooming cars. A single accident can easily cause miles of traffic jams and make a little 20-min outing stretch to hours. So, while you’re inching along in exhaust fumes you might well start to question your choices..
What the heck am I doing here? I mean, with this kind of traffic I might as well be in Miami, right?!
But if you let your eyes wander to the horizon you’ll see the pretty bits, particularly along the bridges where you rise just a smidgen above the water. Here the world is engulfed by bright green trees and crystal clear waters with neon-aqua and warm-blue streaks so intense they shouldn’t rightly exist in nature. And that’s where the magic of the Keys begin. The Coral Cays are thick as thieves with mangroves that ingeniously filter and clean the shallow water for miles around, so it’s some of the clearest water you’ll see anywhere in the US. Once your mind actually grasps that you can’t help but feel the stress of life wash away. You can’t be blue around that much blue, ya know…
Then you’ve got to look past the tourists. I mean the Keys survive on tourism so you’re not going to get away from them, and the ones you notice (just like anywhere you might travel in the world) are the loud and obnoxious ones. Right now we’re in the middle of Spring Break which makes it doubly bad with hoards of kids hanging around in tight groups, chatting, texting & posing incessantly for the perfect selfie. Plus they take over the restaurants at night. Where they get the cash to do this, I honestly don’t know. I was always totally skint in college myself, weren’t you?
But if you stop by the little hideaway restaurants outside the big eating rush hours and chat to the locals you’ll see a whole other side. You might meet the old guy at the Cuban Coffee place, dark as the coffee he’s drinking from all his years in the sun who hangs with his dog all day in the shade, or the gal from Michigan made-up to a tee, who came down to the Keys over 20 years ago and just never left. And everyone is friendly, and chatty, and they all bring a bowl of water for your dog and they all have a story to tell of how the Islands seduced them. At those off-hours things slow down and you notice the tropical breeze, and you take your time, and you *get* the whole experience.
And You’ve GOT To Get On/In The Water
Plus there’s that water again. If you’re able to find a little slice for yourself it’s close to magical. There’s not really any beaches down here, just areas of eroded coral thinned of mangroves, but the water is surprisingly chilly and oh-so clear. Get further out by boat or kayak (which you’ve GOT to do…seriously you must!) and you’ll really see the magic.
At 200 miles (322 km) long, The Florida Keys Reef is the 3rd largest living coral barrier reef the world (!) and it’s all preserved as a Marine Sanctuary. It starts just a few miles off-shore and it’s an amazing place simply bursting with colorful tropical fish, sea turtles, barracuda, sting rays and long waves of fan coral swaying with the sea current. The snorkeling here is some of the best I’ve done since Hawaii and although it took me ~12 hours to warm up again afterwards (man, that water is chilly!) it was so totally worth it!
That’s the Keys baby, or at least that’s our experience of the Keys after just a week in the Northern Section. Not a bad start, eh?
We Found Some Hidden Gems Too….
We rolled into Key Largo just over a week ago and squeezed ourselves into our site at John Pennekamp State Park (review coming) for some much-needed down-time. The original Spanish name of this island was Cayo Largo, meaning long islet and it’s the largest and most northern of the Keys, spanning 33 miles (53km) long. Plus being only around an hour south of Miami, it’s one of the most popular places to day-trip so there’s a steady influx of visitors everyday.
It took a few days for us to ease into the “vibe” of the place and see past the craziness of the crowds, but once we did we had a blast. We also had a secret head-start on the best hideout places thanks to tips from blog readers, as well as Chuck & Debbie who we met up with in Miami last month (thanks guys!!). Plus despite dog restrictions on almost all the beaches in the area we found a fabulous doggie gem as well as TONS of dog-friendly restaurants (with just a few exceptions pretty much every restaurant with an outdoor area allows dogs), so pooch got to join in the fun too. Oh and we really just scratched the surface. Once you start living on “Island time” a week passes by awfully fast and given that you’ve got to spend some quality time chillaxing (that’s what it’s all about, after all) I can’t say we tried everything. But these were our absolute fav experiences in that time-frame:
Best Cuban Coffee -> Denny’s Latin Cafe (MM99*)
This was a Chuck & Debbie recommendation and I have to admit that once we went & tasted that first shot of rocket-fueled sweet coffee goodness we were totally hooked. Stop by the big red sign and ask for a caffecito at the open window. Once you do you’ll be swimming on a coffee high so good you’ll never even notice the Starbucks right next-door. Trust me on this. Click HERE for more info.
BRING PAWS? YES! Outside tables are dog-friendly
Best Chillax Spot For A Brew -> Sharkey’s Pub & Grill (East of MM99.7*)
This is a popular post-snorkel happy hour spot on the bay side of Key Largo and has a really chillaxed vibe with a good brew list including some local offerings. We sat upstairs with doggie overlooking the canal and enjoyed a few drinks and a meal. Beer was great, food was OK. Neat little spot. Click HERE for more info.
BRING PAWS? YES! Doggie is allowed both downstairs & upstairs in the outdoor area.
Best Sunset View -> Sundowners (MM103.9*)
The cool thing about the Keys is that they are really thin islands so you can experience both sunrise (on Atlantic side) and sunset (on Bay side) in a single day by simply waltzing from one side of the island to the the other over Hwy 1. There are several restaurants/bars on the sunset side, the most “famous” of which is probably Sundowners. The sunset view was indeed perfect and I think it’s worth a glass, but the food was overpriced IMO. We enjoyed it, but I think next time we’ll try another spot. Click HERE for more info.
BRING PAWS? YES! Outside tables are dog-friendly. Come early to get a seat.
Best Fish Sandwich/Hidden Spot -> The Hideout (East of MM103.5*)
Can a single fish sandwich change your life? Very possibly folks, very possibly. The Hideout is an off-the-beaten path little spot that serves breakfast and lunch. My advice is to bring doggie here just outside of the regular meal hours (= tourists are gone), sit outside in one of the shaded tables and order yourself a Fish Reuben. Your-mind-will-be-BLOWN…! Click HERE for more info.
BRING PAWS? YES! Outside tables are dog-friendly.
Best Snorkling Trip -> Christ Of The Abyss
One of the awesome things about staying at John Pennekamp SP is that they offer snorkling and scuba diving right from the park, and it’s really quite reasonably-priced too. We took the first trip of the morning (highly recommended = less people!) and got out to reef before any of the other boats. Our destination was Dry Rocks and Christ of The Abyss, and it was just as spectacular as I had hoped. Seeing the 4,000 pound bronze sculpture (which has a super cool story to it) and snorkling the shallow reef around it was one of the highlights of our time in the area. Click HERE and HERE for more info.
VISIT NOTES: 2-hour ($29.95) and 1/2 day ($38.95) snorkel trips are offered at various hours from the concession building inside the State Park ($8 entry fee unless you’re camping on-site). Get there EARLY to sign-up. Definitely recommend a shorty wet-suit -> only $6 to rent and really, really worth it. You can rent snorkel, mask & fins on-site too, but the price for snorkel rental ($10) is actually the same as buying one right-out, so if you’re planning more than one snorkel trip, just buy it from the shop.
BRING PAWS? NO! No dogs on the snorkling boats.
Best Kayaking -> John Pennekamp SP (MM102.5*)
OK this may not be the “best” kayaking around Key Largo. We really don’t know as we didn’t try anywhere else, but we truly enjoyed it! For only $17 we rented a double kayak and putzed around for an hour along the various canoe-only trails right near camp. Water was crystal clear and glassy, sun was warm and it was perfect. Click HERE for more info.
VISIT NOTES: Kayaks & stand-up paddle-boards are rented by the hour from the concession building inside the State Park ($8 entry fee unless you’re camping on-site). Plus you’ll need to leave a $50 refundable deposit for the rental too, either by credit card or cash.
BRING PAWS? NO! No dogs on the kayaking boats.
Best Dog Beach -> Anne’s Beach (Islamorada MM73.5*)
It took us a while to track down a beach to take doggie. First of all there’s not much “beach” to speak of in the Keys, anywhere at all. These islands mostly consist of mangroves with paltry slices of coral sand. Secondly most of these areas prohibit dogs. We didn’t actually find anything (at all) on Key Largo so we had to look further afield and we hit the jackpot around 1/2 hour south on Islamorada in a little spot called Anne’s Beach. It’s a gorgeous little calm (bay-side) stretch of water with hidden pockets of coral beach, shaded picnic huts and a nice boardwalk, all 100% dog-friendly. The perfect place to take doggie for a shallow dip. Polly LOVED it! Click HERE for more info.
BRING PAWS? OH YES!!! This is the spot!
We had a few other neat experiences including some super-fresh, super-cheap fish from the Fish House (MM102.4*) just down the road from Pennekamp (can you say $7 for two big Ahi tuna steaks?), a cute little semi-permanent farmers market (Island Market MM101*) and lots of biking along the pleasant biking trail that parallels Hwy 1. But the rest of the time we really just hung out at our (very) quiet RV site, chatted to the locals and enjoyed the slowed-down vibe.
Yeah we’re living the Island life now, and all this just after a week in Key Largo. I hear the closer you get to Key West, the better it gets so there’s waaaay more goodness to come.
Next stop -> Marathon Key. See you there….
*NOTE/ What’s With The MM’s?? You might have noticed a few MM numbers in my post. What they refer to are Mile Marker numbers along Hwy 1, and they run from south to north. So MM0 is at the very southern-most point in the Keys (Key West) while MM110 is way up at the northern end of the Keys (Key Largo) exactly 110 miles away. Knowing which mile-marker an attraction is at makes it easy to figure out exactly how far away it is and many stores/places use them down here. It’s a Keys thing 🙂
Useful External Links:
- The Florida Rambler Keys Milemarker Guide – key attractions by milemarker
- John Pennekamp Guide – main visitor website for the State Park
- Dog-Friendly Florida Keys – great little guide on the best places to go with paws
- Snorkeling the Florida Keys – fabulous guide of all the main snorkel areas
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