The Florida Keys are world-renowned for snorkeling and scuba diving thanks to the Great Florida Reef System which encompasses over 6,000 individual reefs. The area is full of brain coral, elk coral (resembling ferns or elk horns), and staghorn coral which are tree branch-like in appearance. Divers flock to the area because of an abundance of deep-sea shipwrecks, but those who aren’t certified can strap on a mask and fins and appreciate the marine life in the area. Barracuda, grouper, yellowtail snapper, parrotfish, and yellow and blue tang are familiar faces to snorkelers. While snorkeling is abundant throughout the islands, Key Largo is our pick for a day trip from the mainland.Snorkeling in Key Largo — Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/stignygaard
Famous for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo is a snorkeler's dream, and a number of outfitters have set up shop in the area. As the first of the Keys, it is just an hour and a half drive from the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, making it an easy day trip or weekend getaway. For a truly memorable experience, skip the larger snorkeling vessels and opt for a sailing and snorkeling combo, like Pirate’s Choice, a swashbuckling adventure on the sparkling waters surrounding the island on a modern “pirate” ship. Captain Lance narrates the journey with information about pirates and sailing, followed by snorkeling in the lesser-crowded Sea Garden and White Banks reefs. It’s great fun for all ages! The company also offers sunset sails and journeys aboard the iconic original vessel from John Huston's classic 1951 film "The African Queen," starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.Pirate's Choice — Photo courtesy of Pirate's Choice
After a day in the sun, bet sure to check out Happy Hour at Sharkeys’s, a classic Key Largo dive bar hidden from the usual tourist route. Sit on the waterfront patio and watch the dive boats come in as you snack on peel and eat shrimp, chicken wings, and $2 beers. Steel drum bands make it easy to linger a few hours away and the fish tacos are worth sticking around for. Like most authentic Key Largo restaurants, the staff is laid-back and friendly but on island time: join them.Private Beach at Largo Lodge — Photo courtesy of Largo Lodge
For a moderately-priced hotel, try the Largo Lodge, set on the Gulf of Mexico with plenty of extras like free kayak rentals for guests and private beach access. Garden units (which feature one queen bed) start from $85 while other options include bungalows and water view suites. Between snorkeling, happy hour, and a peaceful hotel stay, time can melt away on Key Largo.