The Key to an Underwater World, and Fun!
Of the three of us who travel on adventures together, Robin and I recently celebrated the same milestone birthday (a lady doesn’t reveal her age!). For Dawn’s milestone the year before, we hiked out west (you may have read the post – What Happens in Vegas… Well, Nothing Happened in Vegas). In any case, we had a hard time deciding how and where to celebrate. Hiking and surfing in Costa Rica was the top contender, but our calendars just weren’t cooperating. What to do?
When Robin and Dawn suggested a quick weekend in the Florida Keys for snorkeling, I was game. When I was a little girl living in Hawaii (I’m an Army brat, after all!), I learned to snorkel in Hanauma Bay on Oahu. So I have pretty high standards for snorkeling. Oftentimes, the Caribbean waters let me down – what would the Keys offer, I wondered. All the same, a weekend away with the girls is always a good thing, and I was game!
We made our way down the Florida Turnpike and I-95 to the Overseas Highway, compilation soundtrack blaring from the stereo and road trip snacks on hand. We had a date with a boat, and we couldn’t be late.
We rolled into Key Largo John Pennycamp Coral Reef State Park. The name sounded promising, at least! Snorkels and masks in hand, we rented fins and checked in for our trip. Along with about 150 other anxious underwater explorers. What kind of experience was this going to be? I could just envision all 100 of us crowding around one brightly colored fish.
It turns out that the group of 150 or so was divided between three boats. We were off! The onboard staff gave quick snorkeling lessons to the inexperienced, and in a matter of about 20 minutes we were in prime snorkeling waters.
We sat strategically at the back of the boat, and were the first to jump in. Rather than stay with the masses, Dawn, Robin and I swam as far away as possible, planning to first check out the reefs “out there,” and make our way back to the boat, with the current.
Was I pleasantly surprised! The water was crystal clear, and the reefs not three feet below us were teeming with fish, coral fans swaying gently with the current. Now, I don’t know all the different species, but there were certainly schools of colorful fish flitting to and fro. Large grouper lazily floated just above the ocean floor, and moray eels slinked into their dark crevices. Lurking in the near distance, barracuda made their presence know, and even bared their sharp teeth for good measure.
It was like swimming in an aquarium! It was similar to Hanauma Bay! It was fun!
When the boat’s horn sounded – our cue to get back on board or, literally, miss the boat – we swam madly back to the boat and hesitantly climbed aboard. As the boat made its way back to shore, we vowed we’d be back. And I can’t wait.
The Key to Fun
Snorkeling under our belt, it was time to explore Key Largo. After checking into our canal-front room at the Courtyard Key Largo and a quick nap (fresh air and time in the water is exhausting!), it was time to find someplace for cocktail hour. A friend had told me about a bar that sits over the water, and has Plexiglas panels in the floor through which you can see the underwater world below. The Glass Bottom Bar. Perfect! The house drinks are fruity and quenching, and quite tasty. Could be a dangerous combination!
After a few drinks and rubbing shoulders with the locals, it was time to get something to eat, preferably with a water view and margaritas. Señor Friojles it was! Margaritas in hand, we ordered our food, but the main attraction was really the sun setting to the west. Breathtaking. And to think, it happens every day! AND, at the end of the meal – complimentary cotton candy, my absolute favorite! Much to my dismay, the cotton candy machine was on the fritz when we finished our meal, but I vowed there and then – I’ll be back!
Animal lovers all of us, we’d heard about a pod of whales that had stranded in the Keys a few months before, two of which were still rehabbing at the Marine Mammal Conservancy. After some investigating, we’d learned the center was in dire need of volunteers, and signed up for the 2 – 6 a.m. shift. In the dark of the night, we received a briefing, squeezed into wetsuits, and eventually slipped into the calm, shallow waters with number 300. (The center doesn’t name the animals that it rehabs so as to try and keep it scientific.) For an hour or so, Dawn, Robin and I, along with another volunteer and a “staff” member (though nearly all “staff” are permanent volunteers) supported 300 – she was so sick she couldn’t support herself. It was a privilege to help!
After a quick nap (are you sensing a pattern here?), Robin wanted to take a drive over the Seven Mile Bridge, part of the Overseas Highway heading south to Key West. And so we did. The incredibly blue waters to the right and left were amazing – so hard to believe here in the U.S., and not in the Caribbean! On the way back, we pulled off the highway, grabbed our masks and snorkels, and explored various waterways.
To fill the afternoon, we decided to stop for some stand up paddling (SUP). We’d SUP’d before, and thought ourselves pros. Fortunately, the waters were very calm, and though our eyes were wide open to spot some of the small sharks the shop owner suggested frequent the waters, we didn’t see any. Bummer – we were hoping!
After two fun-filled days in Key Largo, our short getaway came to an end. Reluctantly, we packed up the car and turned north, leaving the key to an underwater world and fun until another time. We’ll be back!
Susan B. Barnes is a travel writer and photographer. A proud Army brat, she was born on a military base in Belgium and has been on the go ever since. While Susan has traveled across the United States and into Canada, she has also managed to visit such European cultural hot spots as Paris, London, Ireland, Athens and Rome, and has even explored the second largest reef in the world off the coast of Belize and the cloud forest of Venezuela, among many other exotic locales. Having learned to rock climb in Yosemite National Park, surf in La Jolla and swim with whale sharks in Mexico, she’s always looking forward to her next adventure.