Key Largo: Highs & Lows

So there’s this conversation starter we learned from our community back in Atlanta – it’s called “Highs & Lows.” It’s nothing crazy unique, but it is a fun way to get things flowing, say, around a dinner table with friends or family. The concept is that everyone goes around and shares a “high” – something really good or fun or funny – that happened that day (or that week or month) and a “low” – something hard or sad or frustrating. It can be deep and serious, or lighthearted and funny – no one gets to decide how you label a high or low besides you. 

It’s a really great exercise because 1) you’re forced to think back and reflect a little on the moment of life you’ve just come from and 2) it challenges you to consider both the positives and the negatives, the whole spectrum of thoughts and feelings of your experience when many of us naturally lean more to one side or the other. 

Now, in the actual game, if a person just absolutely CANNOT think of a low, then everyone has to chant “NO LOW, NO LOW, NO LOW, NO LOW, NO LOW” while banging their fists on the table like some scene involving the lost boys from Neverland. I have to be honest though, whenever someone says they had “no low” I mostly just don’t believe them, inwardly roll my eyes, and then hope the next person will be more forthcoming. Ha! 

I tell you this because I plan to use this format to reflect on each location Nathan and I travel to over the course of this year! (And also maybe to inspire your next dinner time conservation.) I’m a little later than I’d like to be on writing this for our first stop – Key Largo – but ya know, I had to build a whole website first. I’ll also be including more than one high and low as a way to fully capture our time there. A lot can happen in four weeks.

So here goes!

Key Largo Highs

The Water – This is one of the biggest draws of the Florida Keys for good reason! The water on both the ocean and bay side is beautiful, clear, and bright. It’s also filled with tons of fun sea life. We saw dolphins, turtles, a manatee, rays, tons of fish, and a few small nurse sharks (they’re not aggressive, don’t worry). When you’re there, you just want to be in the water or on the water – this is also partly related to the low of how blazing hot it is, but that’s for later. We stayed on the bay side (the west side of the Key Largo), which turned out to be a great choice because the water is so calm and inviting pretty much all the time. It also has a lot less of the bigger, more intimidating sea life that might make people nervous (think Jaws) the way the ocean side does. 

The Sunsets – Another benefit to being on the west side was the incredible sunsets. I mean you’d think you would get tired of watching and taking pictures of it every night, but they’re all so different depending on what the clouds are doing! I think I posted enough sunset pics to my Instagram story to last a lifetime. If I lost any followers over it, it was still totally worth it. We made it a habit to stop what we were doing every night to go out and watch the sunset – a habit that, so far, has continued into our next location of Asheville, NC.

The Seafood – If you love seafood, then Key Largo is the place to go. Pretty much every restaurant serves up local, fresh caught fish, shrimp, and scallops. Luckily Nathan and I both love it, so we ate a TON of seafood, both in restaurants and home cooked at the condo (purchased from the local Key Largo Fisheries). Our favorite restaurants were: Sal’s Ballyhoo’s (no views, but amazing food), Marker 88 (great food and a sunset view right on the water), and Mangrove Mike’s (casual breakfast/lunch spot we frequented every week). Because the Florida Keys get way more crowded on the weekends from South Florida folks driving down, we opted to eat out only during a couple weekdays, and then cook on the weekends. 

Paddle Boarding – This turned out to be my saving grace during our stay in Key Largo. I already mentioned how amazing the water is, BUT the reality is that it’s not really a beach place. At first I was kinda bummed, but after a couple of days I figured out that paddle boarding was my answer! We rented paddle boards for the whole month for only $250 each, and that allowed me to get out onto the water even by myself when Nathan was working. Bonus points that there was also cell reception on the water, so I could take my phone (in a handy waterproof bag) and AirPods and listen to music or a book while enjoying the sun and scenery. The water is so calm that you can literally just paddle out to a cove and lay down to float without moving much at all. Glorious. And you don’t really have to worry about social distancing on a paddle board, so there’s that. 

No Sickness – Speaking of social distancing, I do feel like it’s worth naming that neither of us got sick while in South Florida even though covid numbers there had been high. Definitely a win (read: blessing). 

No Hurricane – Even though we did have the threat of Hurricane Laura for a couple of days, she ended up passing far enough south of the Keys that all we got was a few windy days. It was definitely a risk to stay somewhere tropical that long during hurricane season, but over the course of the four weeks we were there (August 7 – September 4), it only rained maybe 1-2 hours! So not only did we manage to avoid a hurricane/possible evacuation situation, we had tons of sun the whole time. 

Taylor Swift – Ok it’s fine to roll your eyes at this one, but seriously I listened to SO MUCH Taylor Swift while we were in Key Largo! I’m kind of late to the game on her stuff, but girl can write some songs. Her latest Folklore album is absolute fire, and I listened to 1989 for the first time all the way through (and then about 10 more times). Now I’m officially on board. 

Visitors – Another thing we loved about Key Largo was how many friends came to visit while we were there! We had three rounds of visitors over the course of four weeks, and it was just so delightful to get to share a bit of our journey with them in person. We’ll try to keep going to cool places where people want to come hang out. 

Activities – These are some of the other fun activities we did while in Key Largo that I’d totally recommend:

  • Snorkeling at Pennekamp State Park – Going snorkeling with a guided tour for our first time out was definitely the way to go. They take you to the best part of the reef based on weather/water conditions, and they can tell you exactly where to swim for a great experience. We saw tons of colorful fish and coral, and even a giant spotted eagle ray.
  • Renting a deck boat in Islamorada – We did this twice when we had friends in town, and it was a great option that takes up most of the day. You can boat to snorkel locations, anchor and float in the water at the Islamorada sand bar, and explore the bay side too (if you have a reliable GPS – the water depth in the bay gets real shallow real quick, so it’s important to know where you’re driving).
  • Feeding the tarpon at Robbie’s – This is a quick stop, but definitely entertaining and worth it! We’d never seen fish so huge, and if you’re brave, you can buy a bucket of small fish to feed them.
  • Parasailing – I’d never been before, but parasailing in the Keys was beautiful since the water is so clear. Seeing the islands from way up high was breathtaking and peaceful. I doubt we would have done this had our friends not planned to go, but I’m so glad they invited us along so we could experience it!
  • Jet skis – I have to admit, I think this would have been more fun on the bay side (went rented from a place on the ocean side) or maybe doing one of the tours. Riding straight up in the ocean is a little choppy and there’s less to see, but it was still fun and I’m glad we did it.

Key Largo Lows

The Beaches – Or really the lack thereof. Which is fine if that’s what you’re expecting, I was just a newbie at the Keys and didn’t realize HOW little beach-type access to the water there is. What few beaches there are are very small and therefore crowded at peak times. If you’re lucky enough to stay in a nice resort that has a man-made beach during your stay, then you’re set, but definitely something to consider when thinking through where to stay and what you want to do while you’re there. 

Lack of Restaurant Variety – Since the Keys is known for its great fishing and seafood, they totally have that down…to the extent that many of the menus at the well-rated, popular restaurants look very similar to one another (Key Lime Seafood, anyone? Though that was a delicious dish). There was also a decent pizza place called Tower Pizza that we ordered from on our last night. Aside from that, the variety of dinner food is pretty limited, especially when we were coming from living in Atlanta where there are tons of options for Mexican, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese (and the list goes on) foods. It was totally okay for a trip, but something to think about for a long-term stay for sure.

The Heat/Humidity – Have you ever been in a sauna? Now imagine living in one. It’s kind of like that. Except without the steam and the exit door. I think there are people in the world who don’t mind sweating all the time – we’re just not those people. Thankfully the A/C in our condo worked GREAT. Nathan and I are also both used to running outside, so it was a big adjustment for there to not really be a ‘cool’ part of the day to run. There was sun and no sun, which did make a little difference, but the humidity is so intense that even if you wake up at the butt crack to run, you’re still going to be sweating buckets. Like I mentioned above, this reality was a big part of why you really want to have a way to get in the water or be on the water while you’re in the Florida Keys. The ocean water is actually quite warm too, but way better than nothing, and pretty enough to make up for it.

The Iguanas – I have to admit I was surprised and a little ashamed that the first time I saw a huge, bright green iguana walking along the road, my first reaction was “Oh, somebody lost their iguana!” As if they only live in homes with teenage boys, but definitely not in real life. I was very wrong on that. They do live in the wild, and not even someplace crazy and exotic – in South Florida! Which I guess depending on your perspective might in fact be crazy and exotic. Not only do they live there, but I can only assume based on their overwhelming numbers that they really thrive there, which totally makes sense if the alternative is under the care of teenage boys. Thankfully iguanas are not dangerous or aggressive (trust me, I looked it up when one got a little close for comfort at the pool). They also have Iguana Removal companies, which I truly never would have thought was a thing, but I spotted them several times in our condo complex. I guess they still don’t have it down to a science yet.

Juneau’s Experience – Now, we have a siberian husky. I could probably stop there and it’d be enough to count as a ‘low’ for being in Key Largo, but poor Juneau’s suffering didn’t end there. During our first week, she was on a run with me and apparently stepped on something that got lodged into the side of her paw pad. (This obviously could have happened anywhere, but it definitely turned out to be a low in our time in Key Largo.) She didn’t start limping immediately, and when we first looked at her foot we couldn’t see anything wrong. For a few days, her limp just got worse and worse and we thought she must have pulled a muscle or something. By the fourth day, she started licking her paw, and when we looked again there was a very obvious, gross, blistered area that ruptured as soon as we started pressing on it. I know, yuck. I’m really doing you a favor by not posting the picture I took of it. We took her to the vet the next day, and they assured us that whatever was in there had worked its way out, and she just needed some antibiotics, pain meds, and cleaner for it to finish healing. They were right, and she’s totally fine now, but all said and done she was down for a count for nearly two weeks – which, when you’re an active husky used to exercising everyday is a pretty big deal. By the end of it, she was driving us crazy with all her energy and we were counting down until it was safe for her to run again! 

Key West – Maybe it’s not exactly fair to put this on a list of “Key Largo Lows” because actually we couldn’t WAIT to get back to Key Largo after spending one night in Key West. We drove down to visit friends who were staying there and because we did want to experience the whole Overseas Highway drive. For that it was worth it once, but we wouldn’t do it again. We also did have a great time with our friends parasailing while in Key West and had a nice dinner and sunset too. The ‘low’ part was just the reality of being someplace so crowded with literally no grass in the remote vicinity of our bed and breakfast for Juneau to do her business. Poor girl literally went our first 10 hours there without using the restroom because there wasn’t a place to go. The next morning she resorted to pooping IN THE STREET because that’s the best there was! And yes, we cleaned it up. The place we stayed was also pretty awful. We were trying to go more affordable ($200 max for a night), and it turns out that was not awesome. The A/C barely worked, there were huge gaps under the doors so the noise from the room next to ours could easily be heard, and I’m pretty sure our entire mattress situation was six inches thick. I do feel like there’s gotta be a way to do Key West well, we just didn’t. Lesson learned. 

Our Takeaway

In general, we really enjoyed our four weeks in Key Largo. It was our first time being someplace tropical for an extended time, and we found that it definitely impacted the mentality we had throughout our stay. Our experience with going someplace like that in the past was to only stay a few days, maybe a week, and in that situation there’s a lot of pressure to spend every last minute soaking up the sun and water. You also care a lot about what the weather does because pretty much everything you’re there to do can only be done if it’s not raining. Being able to take our time with it was nice, and remarkably, despite all the sunny days, neither of us ended up with a bad sunburn because we were never in the sun for hours and hours at a time. 

When all’s said and done, we both agreed that Key Largo was a great place to visit, even for as long as a month, but we could never see ourselves living there. If we were to go back (and we totally would), we might stay at the same place (Buttonwood Bay Condominium), or somewhere in Islamorada which is a little farther south and where most of the restaurants and activities we really enjoyed were located. 

I’d absolutely recommend Key Largo as a vacation destination, and hope that some of the info here is helpful to you in thinking through what that could look like!

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