On the southern coast of Florida, below the bustling metropolis of Miami, are a string of pristine tropical islands. Hugging the bottom of the Sunshine State, the Florida Keys stretch 120 miles (193 kilometers), each a different shade of paradise. The closest island to mainland Miami is Key Largo, a large stretch of beachfront that is often overshadowed by its glitzier western neighbor, Key West. But for those looking to get away from Miami without traveling too far, a road trip to Key Largo and on to Islamorada – via snorkeling, underwater hotels, and even a party in the middle of the Atlantic – might be the ultimate escape.
A former underwater research laboratory used to explore the continental shelf off Puerto Rico’s coast, Jules’ Undersea Lodge is the first undersea hotel available to anyone willing to dive down. Located in the heart of the Key Largo reef, guests can access the accommodation by scuba diving through a tropical mangrove habitat into a hatch situated at the bottom of the lodge. Inside, you’ll find just about everything a regular hotel offers – beds, seating, a full kitchen, shower and 42-inch windows that look straight into the ocean. Visitors can book a stay here for anywhere from three to 24 hours and even request a meal delivered by a scuba-diving concierge on call.
This citrus-infused dessert, which dates to the 1930s, actually originated in its namesake: the Florida Keys. Across the Keys are numerous shops that offer unique takes on key lime pie, but a few stand out from the bunch. When you reach Key Largo, head to the Fish House Restaurant & Seafood Market, which serves a pie with a light filling and torched meringue topping that keeps regulars coming back. Should you choose to stop later in your trip for a second slice, another unbeatable shorefront option is the classic seafood institution, Green Turtle Inn on Islamorada, where the key lime pie has a special macadamia-nut crust and a rich tart filling.
Parked between the local troves of Key Largo’s eateries, bars and beach houses is a unique adults-only resort. Bungalows Key Largo is decorated with the trappings of Saint-Tropez, South Beach and Mykonos, hosting guests from all over for the ultimate luxury getaway. Guests are offered private bungalows, replete with colorful cruisers to ride around the palm-tree-lined property. The entire space features carefully crafted adornments reminiscent of your favorite exotic getaway – from lush lounging spaces with seashell accents to Grecian-inspired tiling. The best part? Each room has a private outdoor shower and soaking tub, many of which look out onto the beachfront.
Between three dining establishments, two pools and a duo of floating tiki bars that sail straight into the bay, Bungalows is the ultimate vacation spot for couples and groups alike. Be sure to check out the Zen Garden Spa’s serene Himalayan salt treatment room or head to the Hemingway Bar for cocktail hour at 6:30pm. The resort is currently accepting reservations for stays beginning on December 19, 2019.
Just off the shore on the route south from Key Largo is buried underwater treasure in the form of a 510-foot (155-meter) retired Navy ship. Spiegel Grove spans the size of nearly two football fields and armors a new offshore reef ecosystem since it was sunk 130ft (40m) into the Atlantic in 2002. Transferred from Virginia to Florida in that year, the ship would ultimately settle underwater as an artificial reef and tourist attraction, as directed by the State of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Now a veritable scuba diver’s dream, this massive ship is accessible to divers of all levels and flaunts some of the Keys’ most scenic underwater treasures, such as large groupers and colorful tropical fish. It won’t be difficult to track down a dive operator as a number of local companies provide tours and equipment to visitors.
Continue heading south on Florida’s Overseas Highway, and you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by the deep blues of Islamorada. Here, visitors can rent anything from a kayak to a speedboat and drive into one of the most scenic points of Florida. Just off the coast of Islamorada is a treasured sandbar where residents and visitors flock to a beach party in the middle of the Atlantic. Along a stretch of shallow land in the middle of the ocean, speedboats park and passengers jump off, food and drink in hand, to dance to the blasting music. Come prepared to drink and mingle with fellow partygoers. Head a little farther south still, and squeeze in a quick stop at Robbie’s to feed local tarpon and spot giant native pelicans roaming the shorelines.
For a glimpse under the sea without diving in the water, visitors can take a ride on a glass-bottom boat. On this 65ft- (20m-) long catamaran, up to 130 passengers can peek down into Florida’s marine life as it passes beneath their feet. The tour lasts for two and a half hours and runs through multiple shallow reefs brimming with sea creatures, including 500 different fish species. Adult tickets cost $24 per person, and the tour runs three times a day.