Miami Beach is nice but it comes at the steep price of parking, crowds, and traffic. But luckily, a much calmer paradise is just an hour away by car.
The Keys doesn’t have to be a major overnight trip (though it’s better if it is). You can do it in a day or half a day, even at the last minute. Because let’s face it, Miami traffic is so bad that it’ll probably take you just as long to get to Ocean Drive as it will to get to Key Largo.
The most direct way to get to Key Largo is via the Turnpike and US1, which takes you all the way to Key West. But for a slightly different view, there is one other way to get from the mainland to the Keys: Card Sound Bridge. The $1 toll road (SunPass not accepted) takes you to North Key Largo, giving you spectacular views along the way.
Key Largo is the closest key to Miami, so you can get all the benefits of an island getaway without spending all day on the road. You can be there in an hour to an hour and a half depending on traffic.
A day in nature
Key Largo is a great place to enjoy Florida’s unique natural wonders. At John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, you can enjoy snorkeling, kayaking, and even scuba diving. Entrance to the park is roughly $4.50 per person, depending on how many people are in your car.
Once inside the park, you can enjoy a 2.5 hour snorkeling tour for $29.95 per person that takes you through the park’s diverse coral reef. If you want something a little less involved, you can enjoy the reef from a glass-bottom boat for $24 per person. Both of these depart at different pre-determined hours of the day and reservations are recommended. You also need to arrive to check in one hour before your tour begins.
For a cheaper and more active option, you can rent paddle boats or kayaks for half or a full day. You don’t have to book these in advance, but you should arrive early to ensure you get one.
Kayaking at Gilbert’s
If you’re unable to get a kayak at Pennekamp, you can rent kayaks, jet skis, and boats from Gilbert’s Resort. The great thing about Gilbert’s is that you can kayak all around Jewfish Creek, and when you come back soaked and exhausted, you’re at an awesome outdoor bar and grill. If you’re lucky, you might get a live band covering Beatles songs while you enjoy some fresh stone crab and margaritas. Gilbert’s has a small beach, so you can also strip off your wet kayaking clothes and lay out.
Other beach options
If you’re looking for a more comfortable beach option that is less likely to be overrun with bikers, you can go down to Harry Harris Beach, 15 minutes away in Tavernier. The beach has a good stretch of sandy swimming area, barbecue grills and picnic tables. You can also launch boats from its ramp. The beach costs $5 per person for non-residents on weekends and holidays, and it costs $10 if you bring a boat.
Eating and drinking
One of the best things about the Florida Keys is the food. If you want fresh seafood, look no further. You can get fresh lobster, oysters, crab cakes, and fresh fish just about anywhere in Key Largo. At Key Largo Fisheries, you can enjoy a good meal with a view. Because it’s a market, you can also take the catch of the day home with you. Other excellent restaurants in Key Largo include Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen and Key Largo Conch House, so you can get yourself some conch fritters on your day trip.
Since it’s the Keys, almost all of the restaurants are extremely casual. They’ll happily feed you even if you’re covered in sand and your clothes are only halfway dry. And of course, you can’t leave the Florida Keys without enjoying some key lime pie.
Though most restaurants serve key lime pie, I’m a big fan of frozen chocolate-covered slices of the Florida treat. At Key Largo Chocolates, you can pick up a few along with ice cream and fudge. You won’t miss it; it’s the obnoxious pink and green place right on the main highway.
Enjoy the sunset before heading home
Before heading back to the mainland, grab a good spot to watch the sun set at Rowell’s Waterfront Park. There is no fee to enter the park, where you can also picnic or swim. If you’re not lucky enough to be on a sailboat, at least you can see their silhouettes against the backdrop of the sunset.