Key Largo, Orlando's Closest Key

Orlando , Expert View Column , Inspiration
Key Largo, Orlando's Closest Key
By ATD’s Florida Experts, Susan and Simon Veness
The State of Florida is so large it could accommodate all of England and Wales inside its borders. But there is a small strip of Floridian land, just 33 miles long and 1 mile wide, that is brimming with activities no nature lover, sun-worshipper or active adventurer should miss. Welcome to Key Largo.

Scuba divers know the Florida Keys well. Not only are there abundant coral and artificial reefs, and more than 100 established Dive Sites,  there are also nine shipwrecks divers and snorkellers can explore, one of them—the English freighter, Benwood—relatively close to shore. Whether you’re a novice or an expert in the water fun department, there is a vast array of choice in the Keys.


Key Largo


Getting there is easy, if a bit time consuming. Simply take the Florida Turnpike to I-95 at Jupiter, then head south until you reach Highway 1. Hop on Highway 1, which will take you all the way to Key West. But you’re not going that far. You’re stopping at the first Key in the chain of islands and saving yourself an additional two hours in the car.

Key Largo was made famous by the 1948 Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall movie of the same name, in which Frank McCloud (Bogart) and Nora Temple (Bacall) are held hostage in Hotel Largo by mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) with a hurricane barreling down on the Keys. It all ends badly for Rocco, but McCloud gets the girl, and that’s a happy outcome. You, of course, will suffer no such inconvenience. For you, it’s blue skies all the way.

Key Largo is home to world-famous John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, located within the boundaries of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.  While Orlando has its land-based theme parks, it’s fair to say John Pennekamp qualifies as an ‘underwater theme park,’ with dozens of ways to enjoy its unique environment on land, too, including birding, hiking, picnicking, nature photography, sunning on the beach and shore fishing.  


Key Largo boat


Paddleboards and kayaks are available for hire at John Pennekamp, and, with 50 miles of mangrove channels to explore, you can easily make a full day of it. The water is ultra-clear and shallow, so you’ll have no problem spotting the wildlife around you.

But the main attraction here is the opportunity to get out to the reefs. Snorkelling and diving tours to reefs and wrecks are extremely popular, and those taking the tours are likely to see living coral, sea turtles, jellyfish, rays and even a barracuda or two. Along with a wide variety of smaller fish, big fish like the Goliath Grouper are in abundance, too.


Snorkelling and diving tours Key Largo



If you’re not a snorkeller or diver, Pennekamp’s double-decker Glassbottom Boat Tour is ideal for exploring the sea bed without getting your hair wet. The boat holds up to 130 guests, with an inner deck with viewing windows in the floor and two outside decks for a broader range of vision. You’ll want to be on an outdoor deck when you depart—and again on your return trip—as the tour goes through pretty mangrove channels on the way to open water. There is every possibility you’ll see stingrays, sea turtles dolphins and even manatees, plus loads of shorebirds hunting in the shallows.


Glassbottom Boat Key Largo


If you’re prone to motion sickness, come prepared with Sea Bands or Dramamine (or purchase Dramamine from the cashier when you sign in for your tour; just be sure to take it one hour prior to departure). The reefs are up to eight miles offshore, and, while it’s entirely possible the sea will be calm, nature doesn’t always accommodate, and it can get choppy out there. Boats will bob around above the reef for the 60-90 minutes you’re out there, so you’ll feel it if the waves are four feet or more. There is a sign at the check-in area indicating the sea conditions at the time your tour will depart, which will help you decide if you’d like to medicate or not.

One of the most popular dive sites in the Keys is also found within John Pennekamp’s waters. Christ of the Abyss is a submerged bronze statue of Jesus, with his arms extended upward, cast from the same mould as the Cristo degli Abissi statue in the Mediterranean Sea, just off San Fruttuoso, Italy.


Christ the Abyss underwater


You can hire a boat for pleasure, fishing, diving or snorkelling, but you may want to leave the work to an established tour company, and there are many in the area. They know all the best spots, and they often have a ‘secret’ location the general public won’t know about. The added bonus of assistance, if it should be needed, is a big plus, too.

Once you’ve been out to the reefs or wrecks, definitely make time for exploring with Paddle the Florida Keys, either by kayak or paddleboard, or book an eco-tour. You can also hire a paddleboard or kayak to use for the duration of your stay, and they’ll even deliver it to you.


Paddle Boarding Key Largo


Snook’s Bayside Restaurant and Grand Tiki is the place to go for dinner, even though its driveway off of Highway 1 makes it look like you’re heading into a run-down trailer park in the middle of nowhere. You’re not. You’re heading to one of the biggest surprises in Key Largo: a superb restaurant right on the waterside, where most of the tables are outdoors, the food is delicious, the cocktails are incredible and the sunsets are jaw-dropping. They even have a special bell-ringing ceremony each evening in honour of the sunset. If we’re waxing poetic, it’s because Snook’s deserves it.


Snooks Bayside Restaurant


With a four-hour drive to reach the Keys from Walt Disney World, it makes sense to plan two relatively full days, if not three, and we can highly recommend the Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort as your base, for its comfortable rooms, excellent views over Blackwater Sound, and wealth of recreational activities, including kayak, wave runner and paddleboard hire, plus diving tours that depart from the resort’s onsite marina. And, when you’re all tuckered out, there are plenty of hammocks and lounge chairs to relax in along the waterside, with a drink in hand and a sunset you’ll never forget.


Paddleboarding Key Largo


Have you been to the Florida Keys? Share your experiences with us! Would you like to visit the Keys? Drop by and ask all your questions on Attraction Tickets Direct’s discussion forums!

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Orlando , Expert View Column , Inspiration