A Key Find

(Originally published on MOLI 5/13/8)

Key Largo is the northernmost Florida Key. It’s the first one you hit as you drive down US 1 and emerge out of the Everglades’ river of grass and into this string of islands that hook between Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Depending on traffic, you can get there in an hour from Miami. This is both good and bad: Key Largo is the most accessible key, but it’s also the one where you’re most likely to run into urban problems, like crime.

At the Pelican, for instance – our favorite place to stay in the Keys and a jewel of a find I’m sharing with you now because I love you, oh MOLI reader – someone once stole my flip-flops from the shore as I was out kayaking. The resort figured it was the same young couple they caught trying to load one of the Pelican’s paintings into their car – and kindly reimbursed me for my footwear, which I had just bought down the road at one of my other favorite Key Largo establishments, Divers Direct.

Whatever: Having wandered up and down this Caribbean appendix to the U.S. many times in 20 years, I think that Key Largo has become my favorite key. Key West has the gingerbread houses and the gay-friendly nightlife – but it also has the roving drunkfest of Duval Street. Islamorada has Kaiyo Asian restaurant and the amazing Casa Morada – but both are budget breakers in these tight economic times. At $200 a night, the Pelican ain’t cheap – but for that price, you can get one of the waterfront rooms with your own private porch and watch the sun set over the water as you grill your fresh fish. It’s a quick, easy getaway from the city – and even after only one night, you’ll feel like you like you were in Jamaica, or the Bahamas, or Puerto Rico, or somewhere foreign and exotic and tropical. But you didn’t have to fly, and your dollar isn’t deflated here, and you can stop at Alabama Jack’s to see some old-fashioned clogging (yes, clogging) and eat a bowl of chili on the drive home.

Key Largo is a city. US 1 is lined with businesses; you’re not in the wilderness. That’s part of what’s so amazing about the Pelican (formerly known as the Hungry Pelican): At one end of its driveway, you can walk to a CVS, or get a milkshake from the funky diner Mac’s, or order custom deck furniture shaped like a lobster or fish or dolphin from the store across the street. But walk west down that driveway, past each of the modest cottages with its own little grill area, and you wind up at a Florida Bay oasis, with a hammock strung between palm trees over (imported) white sand and two docks leading out into the water, from which you can watch a mother horseshoe crab carting her baby around the bay’s bottom.

I’ve had some truly magical moments in Key Largo. Once, in a Pelican kayak, we found ourselves in a pod of feeding manatees. One of the great, lumbering beasts came so close to us, my husband scratched its head. On Mother’s Day last year, the water literally came to sparkling life: Some sort of tiny bioluminescent creatures do it every year in May under the full moon, and their coitus was leaving little squiggly marks in the water. This Mother’s Day, we kayaked to a mangrove island where cormorants and herons were nesting, and we saw a little white baby heron head sticking out of one nest in a tree.

Key Largo’s chief asset is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, an oceanic preserve that is world renowned for its snorkeling and diving. The variety of life here in shallow waters is astounding – although if you’re at one of the reefs where the glass-bottom boats dump tourists, the quantity of human life can get annoying. Still, there’s so much reef, that unless you’re snapping pictures of the Christ statue, you can usually get away on your own and find the nurse shark nesting under a ledge, or have a little damselfish attach itself to you like you’re some lost mother figure.

Every time we go to the Keys (which is a couple times a year – lucky us), we make sure to stop at the Key Largo Conch House, an old Victorian with tables on the deck, a golden lab named Chief, a parrot named Romeo, and great breakfasts, sandwiches, salads, and smoothies. They also serve dinners there now, but we haven’t made it there yet for that, as we’re usually grilling at the Pelican.

This past weekend, once the steak was done, we found out that all the forks were gone from our room. The woman at the desk told my husband she had just stocked all the cabins with flatware – again – and only gave us two forks, one of which was plastic. Okay, so that wouldn’t happen at Casa Morada. Then again, we couldn’t bring our son to that child-free institution. And Cole loves Key Largo so much, he begged us to stay another night.

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