Prepare yourself for a few realities before heading out on a road trip to Key Largo from South Florida. First, remember that catchy chorus from the Beach Boys’ song Kokomo, “Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t we go…”? Well, it’s about to be stuck on repeat in your head for the duration of your stay on the Florida Keys’ largest island.
Second, though you’ll discover all manner of accommodations, from hotels and motels to condo rentals, on 33-mile-long Key Largo, you’ll want to opt for the most memorable experience, the one that transports you into the heart of the Keys’ natural beauty, and spend a night camping in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, home to the nation’s first underwater park.
[Note: If you’re not a camper, Key Largo has you more than covered. Check out the reasonably prices Key Largo Hampton Inn. Now before anyone goes knocking Hampton Inn for not being a super sexy-sounding accommodation — guess what? Not everyone wants to camp … or drop a couple hundred bucks a night on a hotel — in fact, most people can’t.
Cue the Hampton Inn. It was totally quality, and in a great location, on the water, with a little beach. Much to the surprise of visitors to the Keys, quality beaches are in rather short supply down there. Add to the beach a totally stylish and renovated room, a really nice pool, and a bangin’ breakfast buffet, and you had 2 very happy (and normally very picky, well-traveled) campers.]
But back to Pennekamp…
The drive to Key Largo from South Florida is as direct a route as it gets: A1A is the only road into and out of the Florida Keys’ string of islands, and from Miami, it’s a straight and easy 1 ½-hour drive down to Key Largo. The island is incredibly well-developed, meeting every imaginable tourist need, from supermarkets and upscale restaurants, to waterfront dive bars and tattoo parlors — if you want it, you’ll find it on Key Largo.
While that’s an attractive prospect for many travelers, others may want to escape the development, and tuck into the island’s natural highlights. The best way to catch a glimpse of what the Keys were like before they became the tourist magnets they are today, is with a jaunt into John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
The park was established in 1963 to protect 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps, known today as the Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Though Pennekamp also includes a hiking trail through mangrove forests and 2 small beaches, the real reason you’re here is to explore the offshore coral reef tract, which – incredibly – is the only living coral barrier reef in North America and the third largest of its kind in the world.
Book yourself on one of the park’s snorkeling, dive or glass-bottom boat tours for close views of the reef. You’ll be met with thriving fan and brain corals, and a surplus of sea life — the reef is home to more than 250 species of fish. That said, you’re most likely to glimpse colorful parrotfish, damselfish, snappers, barracudas and sea urchins. If you’re lucky you’ll glimpse small sharks, spiny lobsters and even octopus.
Insider’s tip: if renting snorkeling equipment from the park’s concession and presented with the option to rent a wetsuit, do not act tough and opt out like you won’t get cold. You’ll be grateful you wore one if the ocean temperature is below 78 degrees F — trust me.
Camping in Pennekamp
After your underwater adventures, it’s time to set up camp. The park includes a popular campsite with 47 spaces for tents or RVs, as well as a designated area for group tent camping. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance, and it’s wise to book as far ahead as possible, particularly if you’d like to visit during peak season from March to July. The campground also offers 2 well-maintained restroom facilities with toilets and hot showers.
When Hunger Strikes
Once you’ve set up camp and have explored the reef, take a foray into the heart of Key Largo for a sunset cocktail. Among the many things locals and tourists revere about the Keys, truly nothing tops watching the sun dip into the sea. Our pick for ice cold beer, island-themed cocktails and snacks is the Bayside Grille; the restuarant’s outdoor dining area and pier sit directly along the bayfront.
Photo ops here are nothing short of stunning, as sailboats and smaller boats gather in the bay, silhouetted by the sunset. Click away, then head back to camp. Though campfires are not allowed, each site at Pennekamp has a small wood- or charcoal-burning grill where you can fire up dinner. A concession store near the visitor center provides eating essentials if you haven’t brought food from home.
Time to Unwind
Spend your second day relaxing at one of Pennekamp’s beaches, where warm water laps at the shores. Be warned — the beaches are more shells than sand; we recommend donning a pair of reef shoes when swimming. Finally, before heading home, pay a visit to the park’s aquarium, a 30,000-gallon saltwater marine aquarium, located near the visitor center. You’ll discover all manner of sea creatures and coral, and exhibits that interpret the park’s marine environment.