The Keys have long sparked the American imagination—both beautiful and dangerous, they’re a bit of the exotic right in our own backyard.
Located just south of Miami, the Keys are divided into five regions, each with its own character: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine, and the Lower Keys, and Key West. Thanks to its hard-partying reputation and Hemingway mystique, Key West usually gets the most attention, but Key Largo offers more of a slow burn. It’s a sultry getaway spot where the outside world fades into the background and island life comes into focus.
A Barefoot Luxury Oasis
For the perfect Key Largo experience, you should stay somewhere that mixes waterfront serenity with a lively beach vibe–a place like the brand new Baker’s Cay Resort.
Located on the former pineapple plantation of the hotel’s namesake, Captain Ben Baker, and rebuilt after being hit by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, Baker’s Cay offers a luxury island retreat where lush tropical forests meet the crystal clear waters of the Florida Bay.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
The 200-suite resort has two sides with distinctively different feels: a tranquil side complete with hammocks and a shaded, tree-lined waterfront which is perfect for losing yourself in a book; and a festive side with a tiki bar, complimentary watersports (kayaks, jet skis, stand-up paddleboards, etc.), live music, and a small, private beach. More adventurous types can take advantage of offerings like snorkeling, diving, parasailing, and day trips to Key West via seaplane.
Island life is all about seaside dining and Baker’s Cay does it just right. The property has two waterfront restaurants serving up delectable dishes from executive chef Andy Papson. Utilizing local ingredients, some grown on the rooftop garden, Calusa serves up Caribbean-Creole cuisine with a panoramic view to die for. Dry Rocks‘ expansive outdoor deck sits right on the beach and is a perfect spot for watching evening turn into night with some shared plates and a cocktail. They even have their own signature Patrón Reposado and Anejo tequilas, which give you just enough of an excuse to order that tasting flight.
Come for the Waters
Key Largo bills itself as the diving capital of the world, so if you ever wanted to try SCUBA, this is the place. After a couple of hours going over the basics in a swimming pool, you can head out to sea with a guide and check out the famous Christ of the Abyss statue 25 feet below the surface in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. More experienced divers can explore deeper wonders, like the 510-foot long shipwreck of the USS Spiegel Grove, resting 130 feet down.
But if strapping 100 pounds of equipment on your back and jumping into the ocean seems a bit much for you, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the water: snorkel through a breathtaking shallow reef, go after marlin on a deep-sea fishing charter, or parasail high above the beachgoers below.
Just keep in mind that this incredible underwater ecosystem is actually quite fragile. The Florida Reef is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, and increased tourism means increased stress on the more than 1,400 species of marine life that call it home. This year, Key West joined Hawaii in banning the sale of sunscreens that contain chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are harmful to coral reefs. So if you’re bringing sunscreen to the Keys, be sure to check that it’s reef friendly.
And if you’re a roll-up-your-sleeves type, you can volunteer your time to help restore the reef through organizations like Coral Restoration Foundation. They offer both water and land-based volunteer opportunities such as nursery work, outplanting on the reef, monitoring the health of coral, and doing outreach at their Exploration Center. (Or try some of these other voluntourism opportunities in the Keys.)
Here’s Looking at You, Bogart
Key West may have Hemingway, but Key Largo belongs to Bogart. Star of the 1948 film noir classic, Key Largo, Humphrey Bogart helped put this island on the map. The thriller finds Bogie holed up in a small hotel during a hurricane with the hotel’s owners, a few random guests, and some gangsters who decide to take them all hostage. It was the last onscreen pairing of Bogart and his wife, Lauren Bacall, and was one of the top-grossing films of that year.
Bogie’s presence can still be felt on the island today. Up until 2017, Key Largo hosted the Humphrey Bogart film festival, until it started to draw crowds too big for the out-of-the-way island locale. And Key Largo is the only place where you can take a ride on the actual African Queen from the 1951 movie starring Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Docked in the Marina del Mar marina at the Holiday Inn complex at mile marker 100, the restored, steam-powered ship offers 90-minute cruises five times per day, including a 2-hour dinner cruise.
It’s Not Dessert, It’s a Way of Life
You can’t go ten minutes in the Keys without hearing some mention of key lime pie. Which place has the best? Do you prefer yours with meringue or whipped cream? Did the pie really originate in the Keys? Some might call it a local obsession, but the end result is that you’ll be sampling lots of sweet, tart, creamy goodness while you’re here.
Every restaurant you go to will undoubtedly have their own version of key lime pie, and it’s almost a city ordinance that you must end every meal with a slice. Favorite spots for the velvety dessert are a matter of fierce local debate, but the contenders always seem to include Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, The Fish House, Sundowners, and the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory.
But when you find yourself in Key Largo, sitting by the water, watching the sun dip down into the waves, you realize that the best key lime pie is usually the one sitting right in front of you.