The Florida Keys are made up of 1,700 coral isles that curl from the south Florida peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico. Key Largo is the first island on the arrow-thin Overseas Highway. It’s also the largest.
Hop a flight to Miami, rent a car, and it’s a short one-hour drive to Key Largo. As cheesy T-shirt shops and tacky roadside bars float past your window, you might think we are leading you astray with promises of Caribbean luxury. Turning into Playa Largo Resort and Spa from Highway One is like finding a vintage Chanel bag at Goodwill. Sorry Florida, you know we’re right on this one. “The Keys” often get lumped together and painted with a singular Jimmy Buffet brush.
Stretched over fourteen acres of pristine white sand on the shores of the Florida Bay, Playa Largo has resorts within the resort. For honeymooners or couples who just really like each other, there are The Hammocks. The cheerily painted bungalows are hidden from the hustle of the main resort in the shade of literal Florida Hammocks (trees). Each of the ten cottages features a master bedroom encompassing the entire second floor, lookout decks, full kitchens, living rooms and secluded back porches.
The hotel has 177 rooms decorated in a contemporary style and blessedly free of kitschy oceanfront décor, and outfitted with $400 illy coffee makers.
For the ultimate retreat or destination wedding, there’s The Beach House. It is on the far end of the resort beach and has a private pool overlooking the ocean, wrap-around deck, private beach and event lawn. With three bedrooms, endless lanai seating and hammocks strung from the branches of the waterfront sea grape trees, it’s no wonder The Beach House is already booked every weekend for the next year.
Hotel room rates start at $400 per night. The Hammocks at $900 per night. The Beach House $3,500 per night.
If you want to bring the entire family or your entourage, book one of the brand-new Ocean Residences by Playa Largo. These luxury homes are across the street on the Atlantic side of the island (that’s how narrow Key Largo is), offering both privacy and full service. (Note: You can’t walk from the homes to the resort, but it’s only a two-minute drive.) Each of the five homes feature private balconies, soaking tubs in sprawling master suites, full indoor and outdoor kitchens. Guests of the Ocean Residences have exclusive access to the oceanfront pool, all resort amenities and the clubhouse located at the tip of the community at the watersports pier. The clubhouse offers lockers, showers and a full lounge—making it easy to enjoy beach activities from kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing, parasailing and more without needing to drive back “home” to shower and change.
Every stay includes a picnic basket of breakfast goodies delivered every morning with additional options to pre-stock the fridge or invite a private chef to handle dinners.
The real stars of the show are the expanse of talcum white sand and warm waters. Choose from a chaise lounge shaded by the beachfront trees or one of the many pods of hammocks. The Florida Bay is a shallow lagoon that connects the Gulf of Mexico with the western side of the Keys. Grab a floatie and drift on the still water until you hear the bell that’s rung daily to warn that sunset is just thirty minutes away. Take a spot at one of the two fire pits, sip a sunset cocktail and enjoy the resort’s Eventide Celebration. The staff lights tiki torches as Caribbean drumbeats fill the air. Guests are offered cocktails and asked to write their worries/stresses on a piece of paper that’s placed on a floating buoy and set off to sea. We couldn’t find paper big enough for our worries, so we just went for the cocktail portion of the evening.
The zero-entry pool with arched gazebo is designed for envy-inducing Instagram posts. The Sand Bar services the pool and beach with food and cocktails. It’s not often that we rave about the culinary offerings of a beach bar, but the Sand Bar is exceptional. Try the gluten-free pizza that actually tastes like pizza and the watermelon salad drizzled with basalmic reduction.
The largest spa in the Keys, The Ocean Spa offers a variety of treatments using locally sourced ingredients for scrubs, wraps and more. But the most important factor in evaluating a spa, in our opinion, is the ability to enjoy a post-massage nap. So the expansive relaxation area with double-wide chaise lounges separated from other guests by whisper thin curtains had us hooked.
The highlight of a stay at Playa Largo is getting out on the water with Captain Lolly who commands the mighty Carolina Moon catamaran. Ok, it’s not all that mighty, but with Captain Lolly at the helm, it’s an amazing amount of fun. You can book day trips, sunset trips and champagne trips. The water is as warm as the south Caribbean, the champagne is cold, and Lolly is a gifted photographer who loves nothing more than to send you home with amazing memories of your time in Key Largo. Book through Caribbean Watersports under the pier at the end of the beach. caribbeanwatersports.com
EXPLORING THE REEFS
Surrounded by crystal blue water and thriving reefs, Key Largo is a hot spot for diving. Here you’ll find the only living barrier reef off the continental United States. The area is also known for its remarkable wreck diving. You’ll find the world’s largest artificial reef, the 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove (deliberately sunk to create a reef) and more.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established in 1963 and is the first under-the-sea park in the U.S. Here you can swim with the coral fish and high five the underwater 4,000-pound Christ of the Deep (sometimes called Christ of the Abyss), a bronze statue by Italian sculptor Guido Galletti submerged about twenty-five feet under water. The Jesus effigy is robed and barnacled, with arms outstretched and gaze raised to the light above. Though he’s covered in dangerous fire coral, he’s been high-fived frequently enough that it’s been worn off his hands, making it safe for you to do the same. Brides have the option to feel like a mermaid with Playa Largo’s underwater weddings. Couples say “I do” amongst the shallow-water corals, shipwrecks and hidden treasures of the Keys. To anchor their love, they can sponsor the planting of a coral reef fragment that will remain and continue to grow over the years.
The best food in the area is at Chef Michaels in nearby Islamorada. Anyone who’s seen the moodily atmospheric Netflix series Bloodline, set around a family-run Islamorada beachfront inn, knows the territory. Chef Michaels is a roadside treasure deserving of a Michelin star. Reservations are a must. Order the lion fish cooked whole. Not only is it delectable, you’re helping to save the ocean by removing a dangerous predator. foodtotalkabout.com
On your way back to the resort stop at The Islamorada Brewery & Distillery located at mile marker 82.2 with a bright yellow-and-teal-colored tasting room. It’s the only brewery and distillery in the Florida Keys. It turns out gin, vodka and rum from one distillation pot; and as skeptical as we were, the signature rum holds its own against any Caribbean spirit out there.
Make sure you go out back to the beer garden where you can enjoy cocktail flights in one of the Adirondack chairs shaded by palm trees. Grab a snack from the food truck, Spanky’s Kitchen. islamoradabeerco.com