KEY LARGO — Florida has many fine restaurants where you can dine by the water. This might be the only one where you can eat in the water — table, chairs, feet all in the clear, warm waters of Florida Bay.
On a recent visit to Key Largo, we watched the setting sun while seated at one of the “water tables” at Playa Largo Resort and Spa. “Look, there’s a horseshoe crab,” our server pointed out as it crawled past, its spiky tail leaving a distinctive trail in the sandy bottom just inches away.
A four-star resort that is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection of hotels, Playa Largo is among the upscale resorts that have made Key Largo a popular destination for those who want a taste of the Florida Keys without driving another 100 miles to Key West. It is the largest key and the closest one to the mainland, less than five hours from the Tampa Bay area depending on traffic.
Playa Largo, opened in 2016 as the first resort constructed from scratch in more than two decades, covers 14.5 well-landscaped acres that were once a pineapple farm. Guests have access to a private beach, pool, several restaurants and a small marina. Because the resort is on the west side of Overseas Highway, the waters are generally calm and the sunsets spectacular.
The 178 accommodations include 10 bungalows and a three-bedroom beach house, most with views of either the bay or the tropical gardens where green iguanas can be spotted scurrying up the palm trees. Our large room, in a three-story building near the pool, had a seating area, rain shower head and a generously sized balcony. At cocktail hour we took a quick stroll to Sol by the Sea, an open-air restaurant and bar with a beach shack vibe. My husband had what he called “the best Caesar ever” while I ordered a delicious crab risotto topped with tilapia and grilled shrimp.
After dinner we settled ourselves into lounge chairs on the beach as the sky turned pink and purple. Up by the pool bar, a guitarist played old favorites including, of course, “Key Largo.” (”We had it all, just like Bogie and Bacall...”) As night fell, a hotel staffer lit a fire pit and set up a table with marshmallows for roasting. A nice, unexpected touch.
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The next morning we enjoyed a rare breakfast in bed, delivered in what must have been a room service record of eight minutes. Although Playa Largo has enough amenities and water sports “that you never have to leave,” as the resort touts, we wanted to check out other parts of Key Largo.
Toward the north end of the key is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, named for the Miami Herald journalist who crusaded to protect the area’s beautiful reefs. The nation’s first underseas park, it is ranked as one of the best state parks and is surely among the largest — it includes about 70 nautical miles of adjacent Atlantic Ocean waters.
Entering the park cost $9 for the two of us in a car and entitled us to use any of three beaches. We passed on those but enjoyed the visitors center with its aquarium and terrific 50-minute film on the animal life of the reef. The park, which also has a gift and sundries shop, offers kayaking, paddleboarding, fishing and glass bottom boat tours to the reef. The park’s boat was out of service so we headed back down the Overseas Highway to find another one.
The tour we chose cost $45 per person and lasted two hours on a boat with a snack bar that serves alcoholic and nonalcoholic specialty drinks. It took 45 minutes to get to the reef, at which point the boat stopped and rocked in the choppy waters. We peered through the glass at the sandy bottom 20 feet below and the fuzzy looking sections of reef. Sadly, as the guide noted, much of the reef has been destroyed due to natural and human factors. Not much could be seen. Still, it was an enjoyable boat ride on a pleasant day.
Also popular in Key Largo is swimming with dolphins. There are several dolphin encounters but when we asked a staffer at John Pennekamp to recommend one, she got a stern look on her face and said: “I never recommend anything with captive animals.” So it was back to Playa Largo, where I got in the bay and lazily floated around for an hour in the bathtub warm water. No dolphins, just a few curious little fish.
That evening we took off our sandals and waded down to our water table. Depending on the number of reservations, the resort will set up as many as four water tables a night but this time we were the only ones dining al fresco en agua. Our server — wearing waterproof shoes, he told us — brought a Caesar for my husband and a lobster roll for me. Another fine meal, another beautiful sunset.