We had worked our way up the Florida Keys, to end our time along the Overseas Highway at Key Largo, the northernmost location in the chain of keys. Home to two state parks, a national park, and a national marine sanctuary, Key Largo has some of the most fascinating botanical scenery in a state known for exactly that attribute. We pulled off the busy highway, entering the quiet, green oasis that was the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
It is our nation’s first underwater park. Protecting 40 species of coral and more than 600 species of fish on the only living reef along the Atlantic coast, the park is 25 miles long and about 3 miles wide. While the majority of visitors to the park come for water-related activities, there are nature trails winding through mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks. The campground is small, with only 48 sites to offer. We considered ourselves lucky to have reserved one of them many months ago. After setting up, we headed down to the waterfront. The day was sunny and warm, and the water looked very very good.
There were two beaches for swimming and sunning. But that is just the beginning. There are canoes and kayaks to rent, for paddling on the clear waters through the mangrove channels. Still, the main activities and most popular seem to be the snorkeling and scuba diving. We soon learned that it was possible to rent the necessary gear, if one was not so equipped, and then sign up for a boat tour that goes out to one of several interesting reef locations. That was exactly what Melinda had done many years B.C. (“before Chris”). Her scuba days now in the past, she was game to try anything Chris had an interest in doing. With the afternoon fading, the decision was shelved for the time being. Finding a good place to watch our first Key Largo sunset was more pressing. We headed out of the park.
Key West might flaunt their sunset viewings more, but Key Largo had just as much to offer. Perhaps not with respect to having one single, overly-populated and much-heralded sunset location, but rather many spots along the water’s edge in Key Largo provided great views. It wasn’t long before we found our spot. Melinda saw good potential and headed out to the end of a pier. Chris stayed on shore, comfortable where he was. His place offered a good view of the show about to happen. All he had to do was whip out his phone and snap the picture. Sometimes, even amateurs get lucky . . . not that he fits into that category.
Ever hopeful to get another great shot, she made the supreme effort to rise before dawn the next morning. As the sun rose above the mangrove waterways, her efforts seemed to be rewarded. It pays off to be on the spot as the sun breaks the horizon . . . the luminescence of colors doesn’t last more than a few minutes. She wasn’t the only one appreciating that first light—early birds were soon appearing, obviously anxious to catch the warmth of that morning sun.
Locals consider Key Largo to be the Diving Capital of the World, and it could easily be. One could certainly make a good case that it tops the list of diving spots here in our country. One criterion for justifying that title would be the quantity of dive shops and tour boat companies that exist in this area. I would venture to say that there are more of these operations per capita than in any other place. I believe that as a person travels through the town’s main drag, there is always a dive or scuba shop within sight. They are certainly on every block of the city. They must all do a substantial business, as they have the looks of having been around for at least a while.
At first Chris thought that he’d like to follow the program, renting scuba gear and heading out on a boat. But when it came to the crucial decision time, we both thought a glass-bottom boat tour would be more worthwhile to us. Pennekamp State Park has a fine Visitor’s Center, where a person can learn much about coral reefs and the fish that are attracted to them. We spent some time gaining a better understanding of what that environment was like, and then we were ready to buy our tickets to take an early boat out to one of the reefs.
We set out while the day was still a little cool. It would be a 45-minute cruise to reach Molasses Reef. Chris chose a prime spot on the forward deck, ready to enjoy the ocean view.
Melinda staked her spot out also . . . taking advantage of the sun’s warming rays.
The experience was surprisingly rewarding . . . more than we had expected. The viewing windows were plentiful, and the boat was hardly full. The ocean waters were very clear and the depth of the reef quite shallow, not more than 30 feet.
By early afternoon we were back on dry land.
Key Largo has an 18-mile-long stretch of a paved bike trail which we had anticipated using. Unfortunately, we discovered that most of it was being repaved, with the existing pavement torn up. Our afternoon activity being aborted, we drove out to a popular eating spot on the water and whiled the hours away.
Everything came together . . . the colors, the balmy breezes, even the perfect scattering of sailboats. It brought an old tune to mind . . . a recording made in the 1980s by a somewhat obscure artist, Bertie Higgins. It was entitled, appropriately enough, Key Largo.
We had it all . . . just like Bogie and Bacall,
starring in our own late, late show . . . sailing away to Key Largo.
Chris and Melinda