Florida’s Key Largo offers playful dolphins, national marine sanctuaries and Bogie to boot.
Like many an 11-month-old, Nyla had the attention span of a gnat. While Mom Nica responded instantly to every command—from receiving belly rubs and giving kisses to Superman pushes and dorsal tows—Nyla wandered off to greet nearby dolphins while I bobbed around the lagoon like a cork in my trainer-trainee capacity.
I was enchanted. Trainer Emily was just as much fun to watch as she encouraged the mammals: “You did great! I saw the whole thing!” she yelled excitedly as she high-stepped along the dock and tossed them fish treats. I wished for a longer stay at research and educational facility Dolphins Plus, but enticements such as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the film-famous African Queen and fresh Keys cuisine lured me onward.
Protect the Playground
Those not into water activities will find it best to vacation elsewhere because Key Largo is all about the water. It makes perfect sense, then, for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015, to be centered here.
When John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park—the nation’s first underwater park—was established in 1960, only the waters’ first three miles were protected, which didn’t include most of North America’s only coral barrier reef. The Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary extended that reach in 1975, but it took until Nov. 16, 1990, when the FKNMS was officially designated, to extend protection to the entire Keys region.
The designation pushed shipping traffic farther off the reef and prohibited oil and gas development. It also blazed 18 sanctuary preservation areas on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration boating charts.
Sean Morton, FKNMS superintendent, said he spends much of his time educating the local schools, communities and tourism industry, as well as tourists (including 500,000 anglers and 700,000 snorkelers annually), about water-quality issues and how to protect the coast and its inhabitants. They also host research programs about mangroves, sea life and protecting that vital, delicate coral. “We just keep pushing the rock up the hill,” he said of their efforts.
FKNMS staff networks with myriad local, national and international agencies to encourage everyone to do their part. For example, Dry Tortugas, Everglades and Biscayne Bay national parks abut the FKNMS, so they’re ground zero, but if farmers put animal waste or chemicals in the Mississippi? That’s going to eventually end up here.
Hitting the Water
Pennekamp is a popular spot, so visitors should arrive early to arrange a group snorkeling trip. I was eager to see Christ of the Abyss, a 4,000-pound bronze statue sunk 25 feet underwater in Key Largo Dry Rocks box canyon. A replica of an Italian statue, it celebrated its 50th anniversary in Florida in 2015.
Unfortunately, the currents weren’t in my favor—we were unable to anchor nearby. Our all-ages bunch headed to Grecian Rocks instead, where an hour-and-a-half in pristine water flew by. A shark and an eagle ray, as well as lots of coral and colorful fish that looked deceptively close, appeared below us.
More boat action can be had aboard African Queen, but visitors should be prepared to draw a lot of attention from spectators. Known to millions because of the 1952 Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn film classic, the Queen is a fun piece of floating history. Then-Steam Vessel Livingston was actually what the film portrayed—a 1912 working steamboat that ferried supplies and missionaries in Uganda until the 1960s.
After its name change and 15 minutes in the limelight, it chugged its way through periods of ownership transfers and neglect until a 2012 restoration. The 1896 steam engine remains—although it’s mostly powered by outboard motor—and African Queen is now the star of daily tours and the annual Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, keynoted by Bogie and Lauren Bacall’s son, Stephen.
A Person’s Gotta Eat
Accommodations here run the gamut from hotel chains and resorts to mom-and-pop motels to numerous vacation rentals. I opted for an Ocean Point Suites’ unit on Key Largo’s southern flank, great access for a predawn jaunt to Marathon to catch the day’s first rays from Seven-Mile Bridge (reopening this spring following restoration), plus a full-efficiency layout saved on food costs.
Although eating one’s way around Key Largo shouldn’t be missed. The popular, locals-favorite lunch spot is Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (the original location), a low-key bar/restaurant plastered with donated license plates from around the nation. The festive Fish House, whose ceilings are strung with seashell-, flamingo- and sunglasses-shaped lights, delighted with local specialty Matecumbe-style hogfish. Key Largo Conch House, situated in a pink Victorian with a white-railed green porch, boasted Caribbean Shrimp & Plantains perfectly cooked and artfully presented.
The iconic dinner spot, though, has to be waterfront Sundowners. The appetizer coconut bread and the manager-recommended Rum-glazed Mahimahi were superlative. Kicking back al fresco, watching kids feed tarpon off the dock and bidding the sun farewell was unmatched. Must-do dessert is at Key Largo Chocolates, where a Key lime pie wedge dipped in dark chocolate doesn’t disappoint. That—and Nica—would bring me back to Key Largo in a heartbeat.