The Keys Are Closer Than You Think
While most may have their sights set on Islamorada or Key West when planning a vacation in the Keys, Key Largo should not be overlooked. And when it comes to southbound Saturday traffic on the Overseas Highway, it becomes the ideal destination for a day trip.
Fortunately for Coral Gables, Key Largo is just an hour’s drive away. That’s when you reach the top of the Blackwater Sound bridge, and see the turquoise waters stretch into the distance. From there you cruise down U.S. 1 (now Overseas Highway), where yes, you will see too much kitsch. Just let the over-commercialization go, because right off the main drag is the real deal. Here are two takes on a day in Key Largo.
The Wet Trip
Right after you go over Blackwater Sound bridge, and realize you’ve arrived in the Keys, you can stop for lunch at Blackwater Siren just down Yacht Club Drive. This restaurant is a funky dive that can be accessed by land or sea, with a dock for boaters who want to tie up. When in the Keys, eating seafood is a must. Here the Harvey sandwich is a tradition with grilled Mahi, lettuce, tomato and cheese, plus tartar sauce and waffle fries on the side. Or you can heat things up with the Macho sandwich, which is the same as the Harvey, but with blackened Mahi and jalapeños.
If you look up “things to do in Key Largo,” nearly every search result will be some sort of water activity, and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park offers just about all of them. They’re most known for their snorkeling trips. For just $30 per person, the two-and-a-half-hour excursion takes you to a coral reef about 35 minutes offshore. You’re allotted over an hour to swim with the fish in the bright blue waters. During this time, we saw rainbow fish that came straight out of the children’s book, a stingray and three barracudas. On the way back in, we spotted a manatee while cruising through the channel bordered by mangroves. They also offer kayak and paddleboard rentals and glass-bottom boat tours.
Snorkeling really builds up an appetite. Fortunately, Sol by the Sea is just 10 minutes down the road from John Pennekamp. Located on the property of the four-star Playa Largo Resort, the restaurant is known for its sunset views. We split the spicy conch fritters and tuna poke appetizers, which were both recommended by our server Reina. Continuing on the seafood theme of the day, we had the island fish tacos with a side of sweet potato tater tots and the wasabi tuna burger with a side of mango coleslaw for our entrees. In this tropical setting, you’ll want a cocktail to match the atmosphere, like the Island Spritzer. Made with Leblon Cachaça, strawberry and lemongrass Grey Goose, Aperol, Prosecco, sparkling water, and strawberries, it’s refreshing and not too sweet. Toward the end of the meal, we recommend a cool glass of rosé to watch the rose-colored sun sink below the horizon.
The Dry Trip
The Keys are synonymous with seafood, and there is no better place to eat fish right off the boat than at the Key Largo Fisheries Backyard Café. Down Ocean Bay Drive east of the Overseas Highway, it is a working fishery; outback under awnings are tables where you can eat the fish you order from walk up windows. There is a seafood market inside, where the locals go, but we were happy to eat our super fresh hogfish right there, in the breezy shade looking over the marina. A big draw for families.
We drove back north, heading straight up County Road 905 as it splits from U.S. 1. This cuts through miles of native hammock toward Card Sound Road and our ultimate destination, Alabama Jack’s. We stopped along the way for a stroll in Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, a tropical hardwood hammock with miles of nature trails. Once slated to be a massive development, the land was purchased by the state in 1982 and is now home to 84 protected species. We parked outside the entrance and walked down a paved road before taking a dirt road off to the left. It was a great country road, spackled by sunlight, the wind rustling and birds chirping, with no sounds of civilization. An inlet from the ocean appeared on our right, with a series of trails and promontories to explore its shoreline.
We drove north after our exercise, feeling a little more entitled to imbibing at the legendary Alabama Jack’s. This Old Keys hangout still puts on a good show, with country music from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It attracts all walks, including a fair number of bikers. There was a band in full swing, with a steel guitar player adding the twang. They were out of their key lime pie, but their peanut butter chocolate pie was easy to wash down with a couple of beers. A few boats lazily went down the mangrove-lined canal that runs along Alabama Jack’s, opening onto Barnes Sound. It was a perfect way to end the day, and from here, just 45 minutes back to the Gables.