The first few times I visited the Florida Keys I really didn’t understand the big deal. At all. Until I talked to my friend Angelique.
Once we had moved to Miami from Singapore, I couldn’t wait to check out Key Largo and I couldn’t believe we lived at only slightly over an hour from the exotic island I thought it was. I had the Beach Boys Kokomo song playing over and over in my head –
Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya, Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama, Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t we go…’
I thought if Key Largo was lumped together with The Bahamas and Bermuda, it had to be amazing. Imagine the disappointment.
We drove there on a Saturday morning and while the bridge that brings you to the island is gorgeous, once there I only saw a big road and a few quirky shops. For lunch we stopped by a less than average place and all we saw around us was docked boats with confederate flags.
Everyone that considers doing a one, or two-day trip to the Upper Keys from Miami needs insider information on where to go. Period. Don’t leave without it. There are a lot of hidden jewels, but you need to know where they are.
Since my friend Angelique told me exactly the ins and outs, it’s become one of my favorite day trips to take friends from overseas. They all think I live in paradise.
I usually leave Miami early – the views during the drive are incredible with early morning light. You can stop for a quick coffee somewhere, like the very down to earth but beautifully set Lorelei Cafe before starting one of the activities. Make sure you call ahead to the different places to reserve.
The Island Dolphin Care offers dolphin therapy for kids with special needs and families, which is also a magical thing to watch.
Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder is a not for profit that rescues stranded whales and dolphins. Visitors can take part in a range of experiences including swimming with dolphins. All contributions directly benefit the cause.
Flats fishing is a fun but intense activity that starts very early in the morning and takes up about 6 hours. Not the best for small kids and I don’t recommend it if you want to do other things as well. But it’s a great trip in itself. There’s a number of captains that offer a variety of experiences.
If you haven’t snorkeled much, taking a trip at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is another fun activity even though visibility isn’t always the best.
And for those who love birds there’s the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center.
Don’t expect anything high end in the Keys. It’s just not that kind of place. What you will find is quirky, beachy things for your home. Colorful metal geckos for your walls, ceramic turtles, wood-carved fish, shells, etc.
Best place to load up on a few souvenirs is behind Big Betsy, the giant lobster (at marker 86.7), and a few other small shops along the road around there.
The Moorings is the high end place to spend the night. Set on its own private palm-fringed beach, bungalows are set in an idyllic little shady forest. The resort was the set for Bloodline, a Netflix crime series filmed a few years back.
For lunch I like to go to Morada Bay Cafe (marker 86.1). The breezy waterfront location is great to spend a few margarita-filled hours. The food on the menu is healthy and yummy (my favorite is cashew-crusted salmon salad with strawberries but they also have a few great variety of other dishes) and the waiters very friendly.
Sol by the Sea restaurant at the Playa Largo Resort & Spa always makes the perfect end of a perfect day. Set on stilts overlooking the flats, the place is just a dream for sunset drinks and dinner. Make sure to reserve a table with a view. I’d drive down to Key Largo just to watch the sunset there, and I hate driving!
So here you go. I tell you it’s still not quite The Bahamas or Bermuda, but there’s plenty of paradise-like places and it’s only 1.5 hours from Miami so who’s complaining?