By Melissa Martinez
My adventurous cousin who loves scuba diving, is an advanced open water diver and has a really great divemaster for a friend, convinced me to become certified in first level open water diving on my recent Florida vacation. Destination: Key Largo.
Key Largo is the northernmost island of the Florida Keys island chain and is referred to by many as the diving capital of the world. The Florida Keys have the only living coral reef in North America, and it’s the third largest reef in the world. We scheduled our Florida vacation for May, with a flight into Miami; then a short two-hour drive south to sunny Key Largo.
Upon arriving, we first stopped at our hotel, Key Largo Grande Resort & Beach Club, which is a lovely resort with scenic views and activities and comfort for families and couples alike. In total our group consisted of 14 people — all family and friends, including a toddler and an infant, and this hotel was great for all of our needs.
For day one of my Florida vacation, I planned an afternoon at Dolphins Plus, as I had always wanted to swim with dolphins.
We had a most friendly and informative instructor who provided a brief tutorial on the lives and behaviors of dolphins.
Our structured dolphin swim took place in groups of two. We spent about 30 minutes or so in the salty ocean water with these gentle giants named LB and Dingy as they demonstrated their tricks and gave us plenty of kisses and photo ops. It was nothing short of awesome.
On day two, the diving began in the early morning. Our divemaster helped us charter a private boat for the group through Rainbow Reef (located right next to the Key Largo Holiday Inn). And while you can rent every possible diving apparatus you need, I came with my own snorkel, mask, fins and boots. The people of Rainbow Reef were great; they provided all the support, encouragement and safety any diver could ask for.
Some of the reefs we covered included the Statue of Christ of the Abyss, Spiegel Grove, Molasses Reef and French Reef. My first dive was right near the Christ of the Abyss, which is a nine-foot-tall statue underwater. It’s so close to the surface that snorkelers can see it, but I was so focused on getting acclimated to this new experience — and still a little afraid yet of encountering any animal bigger than myself — that I completely missed the statue! I must say, though, that once I got used to the water and seeing barracudas, eel and all the other countless fish swimming right by, that it is an entirely different world — it’s calm, serene and breathtaking. Seeing all of the underwater life in their habitat and swimming right next to them is unreal.
In total, I accomplished about six or seven dives averaging 20-45 minutes each, and the deepest I went was just past 60 feet. A pretty neat dive log for a first timer! I will say this: the boat was small, the waters were rough, and the three days were very hot and spent in a dive suit, so the best place really to ward off any heat or nausea was in the water. For anyone planning to scuba dive on a Florida vacation, I would suggest eating a very light and simple meal with water before diving. Keep it minimal. I also would recommend taking motion sickness precautions even if you think you may not need them, you will be thankful you did.
While I spent the majority of my Florida vacation diving, I did find a great place to unwind after a dive — directly across the water at the dock of Rainbow Reef and other boats and services. It’s called Sharky’s, and they offer some tasty bar food. On the way to the entrance to Sharky’s is the coolest little shop set up by a U.S. Navy Hard Hat Diver from World War II — a quirky guy with great stories! Also right near Sharky’s is the acclaimed original vessel used in the Humphrey Bogart movie “African Queen.”
Some of my other tasty finds included delicious Cuban food (with what I deemed the best café con leche in town) at Su Casa Cafe (we stopped by every morning thereafter for our coffee fix) and a fun local joint called Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen. And Num-Thai, which is tucked away in a little strip mall and is kind of easy to miss, came highly recommended and sure lived up to it.
All in all, I’d say Key Largo is an ideal place for a casual Florida vacation, with lots of diving and an array of other water activities.
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A market coordinator for Orbitz Worldwide, Melissa Martinez is a Chicago native and resident who dreams of having a home in Florida someday. Palm trees and beaches are on her mind daily, and she travels to the sunshine state annually.