Keys to Key Largo

Keys to Key Largo

How to experience the best of the laid-back Florida island’s wildlife-rich paddling adventures

PHOTO Schmidt

Key Largo is literally the stuff of songs and movies. Chalk up that creative inspiration to a few sweet factors. First off, the island in the upper Florida Keys is frost-proof, never having recorded even a single second of a freezing temperature. Its coldest month is January, with highs averaging 76 degrees and the lows at 62. This means that when water is hard up north, it’s prime paddling in Key Largo, whether by SUP or kayak. Its hottest months are July and August, with highs averaging 90 and lows reaching 77, but a sea breeze turns the burn into balm.

Key Largo was originally called Cayo Largo, meaning long islet, but its name matches another descriptor: largo is a musical term denoting a slow tempo. That’s an apt label for the laid-back key, which is an ancient coral reef and a few miles away from the only living coral reef in the continental United States — the John Pennekamp Coral Reef Underwater State Park. Only two to three miles from Key Largo, experiencing the living reef is a doable paddle for experienced paddlers, especially in summer months when the water is warmer and the waves are minimal.

However, for paddling beginners, John Pennekamp State Park offers nifty maps and signage that will route newbies and families through twisty mangrove creeks. Hover above manatees and don’t be surprised if one gives you a love nudge.

PHOTO Salm

If you’re not content with the profusion of color, fish, and forms that constitute the the John Pennekamp Coral Reef, the sunken 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove created (at one time) the world’s largest artificial reef. It will eventually be enveloped in coral and adorned with tropical fish, but it’s already a prime dive site. Key Largo is the diving capital of the world, but from a SUP or kayak, you’re in prime position to spot rays, parrotfish, angelfish, eels, barracuda, cowfish, and sea turtles.

PHOTO Schmidt

Paddle shops abound and offer an array of outfitted adventures, from coastal paddling to twisty creeks to the Everglades. Frank Woll, president of Florida Bay Outfitters Paddle Sports Center, leads paddlers to Garden Cove. It’s on the Atlantic side, but protected, perfectly situated for paddlers to experience life proliferating above the water as well as below.

“There’s great birding, but good marine life too, like rays, stingrays, manatees, dolphins, turtles, and sharks,” Woll says. “June is good for nurse sharks as they mate on the shoreline. Turtles are everywhere this time of the year.”

The elevated view from a standup paddleboard can also offer a change in perspective.

“The same areas are awesome for a SUP,” Woll added. “I’ve seen things from a SUP I never knew were there from years of kayaking. I even found a canoe a guy had lost in a storm. I just left it there for a canoe wreck because coral was already growing on it.”

It’s not the only wreck. “There are wrecks near shore in the Garden Cove area,” Woll noted. “You can snorkel around those. Sit-on-top kayaks or SUPs are great for snorkeling. They’re quite close to shore, so families can make it out there. One is sticking out of the water at low tide. They attract fish and they have coral on them too.”

If you want to use your paddle-craft as a platform for exploratory underwater immersion, perhaps to snorkel the big reef of John Pennekamp, that’s certainly possible if you have the paddling savvy.

“Expert paddlers could paddle out to the coral reef,” Woll says. “You can look down and see the reef. Bring an anchor or tie up to a mooring buoy and bring a mask.”

There’s plenty of paddling on the Gulf side too. K.C. Stuart is the owner, dishwasher, mechanic, driver, and guide for Out There Key Largo Kayak and Fishing Expeditions. He’ll load SUPs and kayaks on his motorboat and transport you to bliss, far from tourists and jet skis. You’ll see crabs, manatees, dolphins, sharks, rays, fish, bright, pink spoonbills, bald eagles, pelicans, cormorants, and more.

“All my paddling is done in Everglades National Park in Florida Bay,” Stuart says. “You can paddle in virtually any weather conditions. There’s an amazing variety of wildlife. You name it, it’s there. There’s shallow, clear water, so you can see what you’re looking for.

If you want to pair your paddling with a relaxing apres-adventure option, Garl Harrold, the owner/guide of Garl’s Coastal Kayaking, can show you the Everglades by foot and afloat, down paddle trails and walking trails, fusing your day with snorkeling and finishing it was sunset wine.

“We see everything from alligators to crocs, roseate spoonbills to wood storks and even lemon sharks and sawfish,” says Harrold, who has quite the paddling CV, having guided for National Geographic, CNN, The New York Times, Netflix, and even Disney IMAX. “We also do a snorkel kayak trip in Florida Bay where we often see manatee, dolphin, beautiful soft corals and other marine life. Our sunset Florida Bay trip includes a lovely wine toast while watch the sun dip below the horizon.”

To power your paddling, Key Largo has plenty of restaurants. The ones with “Key” in their names are all top-rated, whether it’s Key Lime Cafe for fish tacos or Key Largo Fisheries Backyard for grilled yellowtail, or Key Largo Chocolates or Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie factory for dessert.

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Whatever your paddling preference, the key to Key Largo is to go.

“You have to get on the water to really appreciate the keys,” Woll says. “You’re surrounded by water. You have the Atlantic side and the Gulf side and we’re close to the Bahamas and the Everglades. It’s a great place to visit and even better place to live.”

As the Bertie Higgins classic (sorta) says: You can have it all / *crocodiles and cor-al / Starring in your own late late show / *Paddlin’ away to Key Largo

More Info
John Pennekamp Coral Reef Underwater State Park
Florida Bay Outfitters Paddle Sports Center
Out There Key Largo Kayak and Fishing Expeditions
Everglades National Park
Garl’s Coastal Kayaking
Key Lime Cafe
Key Largo Fisheries Backyard
Key Largo Chocolates
Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory