Florida Keys Scuba Road Trip: Key Largo
As we make our way down mangrove-lined U.S. Highway 1, it’s hard to believe only an hour separates Miami from what was once famously dubbed “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys in the 1980s. Businesses may have come and gone since that time, but in Key Largo, there is no shortage of brightly colored signage alerting you to the fun, kitschy gift shops that appear largely unchanged by modern times.
Considered the gateway to the Florida Keys, Key Largo is both the longest key—33 miles—and our first stop as we head south from the mainland. A quick trip to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park—the nation’s first undersea park—shows there’s more to the Florida Keys than scuba diving and fishing.
There’s no better introduction to the Keys than this beloved spot, America’s first undersea park and home to the iconic Christ of the Abyss statue, a favorite dive and snorkel.
Nature lovers, families and ecotourists enjoy the many foot trails, glass-bottom-boat tours and camping areas found here and throughout the Keys, but for divers, there’s nowhere else in North America that compares to this slice of paradise. As we continue to our dive shop, we pass the famous Caribbean Club on our right and make plans to return later for sunset and socially distanced cocktails on the dock. Pulling into Rainbow Reef Dive Center, we can see the crew readying the dive boat docked on the canal behind the tropical-colored shop. We’re eager to dive the Spiegel Grove—a purpose-sunk artificial reef that sits 130 feet below—but that plan is temporarily delayed due to weather, so we head out to Molasses Reef instead.
Christ of the Abyss is a popular site for both divers and snorkelers.
A green sea turtle snacking on a jellyfish and giant pufferfish mean the changeup is not a disappointment. Molasses Reef lies within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and is a haven for marine life and corals. The sanctuary works hard to minimize human impact and protect North America’s only barrier coral reef, and the abundance of Caribbean reef fish and swaying sea fans makes for a peaceful first day of diving. But even a peaceful dive makes for a hungry diver, so once back at the dock we make our way to the Holiday Inn to get ready for a night of good eating. This isn’t your typical chain hotel—the Holiday Inn Key Largo is sandwiched between a canal where many operators depart and a Divers Direct megastore. It’s the perfect location for the traveling diver, and its pool deck features a lively tiki bar, great for post-dive cocktails.
Tonight, we are more focused on food, and make our way to the Buzzard’s Roost, an off-the-beaten-path establishment. The name is deceiving—this marina front gem is more fine dining than bar food. Sauteed hogfish in lemon butter and warm coconut rum cake make for a tasty conclusion to a fun day of reef diving.
A diver peeks out from behind corals popping with color on Molasses Reef.
MUST STAY: The diver-friendly Holiday Inn is canal adjacent, allowing for a few extra minutes of sleep before early morning dives.
MUST EAT: Try the conch fritters with a main dish of hogfish sauteed in white wine and lemon butter and a slice of warm coconut rum cake at waterfront Buzzard’s Roost.
MUST DIVE, WRECK: An advanced dive with a depth of 65 to 130 feet, the Spiegel Grove is a must if you have the skills. Goliath grouper love to call this 510-footlong wreck home.
MUST DIVE, REEF: A toss-up between Molasses Reef and Elbow Reef. You can’t go wrong opting for a shallow reef dive at these locations. Expect purple sea fans and an array of Caribbean reef fish.