You Don’t Need a Passport for This Caribbean-Style Getaway Near Miami

Just an hour from the bustling streets of Miami, a laid-back island escape awaits.

Key Largo paddleboarding
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park | Photo courtesy of Visit Florida
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park | Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

Just an hour south of bustling Miami sits a tropical spot that feels a world away—yet doesn't require a passport. The Caribbean-esque Florida Keys are a vacation destination for people from all over, but Miami locals are lucky to have all that beauty and tropical feel right in our backyards.

Key Largo is an especially great weekend getaway thanks to its position as the northernmost island in the string of Keys and therefore its close proximity from South Florida and the Miami International Airport. Home to tropical hardwoods, winding creeks, two state parks, a national park, and a portion of a national marine sanctuary, Key Largo boasts some of the most fascinating botanical scenery in the state.

Once a tranquil haven for scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts, Key Largo has transformed into a vibrant destination that caters to a diverse range of interests, including water sports, nightlife, culinary delights, and of course, some of the most breathtaking outdoor experiences in Florida.

Once you escape hectic Miami and hit the road, you'll be on the scenic Overseas Highway, one of the most scenic drives in the country and your passport to an island getaway.

Travel time:

1 hour from Miami by car
1 hour and 15 mins from Miami International Airport via Keys Shuttle

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Christ of the Abyss at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park | Photo courtesy of Florida State Parks

If you don’t do anything else: Visit the country’s first underwater state park

Known for its unspoiled natural beauty, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, is the epitome of marine biodiversity encompassing 70 nautical square miles. The star of the show is undoubtedly the park’s coral reef ecosystem, home to the Christ of the Abyss, an iconic underwater bronze statue depicting Jesus Christ with outstretched arms that serves as a popular destination for divers.

The park's crystal-clear waters offer excellent visibility for snorkeling and kayaking but if you’d rather stay dry, you can opt for a glass-bottom boat tour. Above the waterline, you’ll find tropical hardwood hammocks, mangrove swamps, and coastal strand forests.

The park’s educational exhibits and interactive displays provide valuable insights into the importance of protecting these fragile ecosystems. And if you're up for something totally one-of-a-kind, check out the annual Pennekamp Underwater Music Festival in July, where musicians dive in wearing scuba gear and jam out underwater while playing their instruments.

Fill your days:

Outdoor activities in Key Largo

Key Largo’s best asset is its buffet of outdoor adventure. You can spend the morning paddle boarding through the lush mangrove tunnels or fishing the backcountry waters for snook, redfish, tarpon, and bonefish, and be hiking in Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park by the afternoon.

If kicking back is more your style, the Caribbean-style beaches are sure to wow you. At John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Beach, sandy shores meet rocky alcoves that are perfect for picnics. Don't miss Cannon Beach, also nestled in John Pennekamp, where an old cannon plays guardian to the shore, inviting you to turn off your phone notifications and enjoy the view.

Founders Park Beach in Islamorada is a hidden gem. In this area, you can swim at a laid-back sandbar with Islander Girl Tours, a local mother-daughter duo that knows the waters like the back of their hands, while sipping on the group’s signature rum punch.

nighttime kayak
Photo by Patrick Farrell

Nightlife in Key Largo

Some island getaways offer bumping clubs where you can dance the night away. But Key Largo doesn’t want you to leave its stunning shoreline for a second, so the outdoor activities continue into the nighttime hours.

Nothing beats a sunset cruise with unparalleled views of the area’s vibrant water. Companies like Caribbean Watersports, Playa Largo's on-site excursion operator, offer a Carolina Moon Catamaran Sail where they take care of the ride and serve mimosas and a cheese and fresh fruit platter.

And let's not forget the simpler pleasures of Key Largo nights. Evening kayak tours will have you coasting along peaceful waters. The tranquil ambiance is also perfect for stargazing, so sink your toes into the sand and let the waves and twinkling stars soothe you. You won't need to cue up ocean wave sounds here, you’ll get the real deal.

Can’t sleep without dancing the night away? Coconuts Restaurant & Night Club is your go-to spot. At night, the popular seafood restaurant transforms into a dance party so, when the sun sets here, your adventure is just beginning.

Eat, drink, and sleep:

Sol by the Sea
Photo courtesy of Sol by the Sea

Restaurants and bars in Key Largo

The island vibes continue on the food front in Key Largo, where you’ll find seafood, tropical cocktails, and the island’s namesake dessert.

Make your way to Marker 88. A mainstay since 1967, the restaurant offers handcrafted cocktails, local brews, and an extensive menu that shows off the fresh seafood, making this a perfect place to enjoy the views right after a morning of snorkeling. Conch and other fish are staples of Key Largo cooking, and there’s no better place to try it than The Fish House where the menu covers signature chowders, fried fish, and daily catches.

For a dining experience like no other, check out Sol by the Sea. The seafood restaurant offers water table dining, where you’ll sit at a table that’s literally at the water’s edge. With your toes in the warm tropical waters, you’ll feast on Caribbean-inspired dishes with unmatched views as the backdrop.

For laid-back drinks, Snook's Bayside Restaurant and Grand Tiki Bar is the spot. With live music and an enticing drink menu, it's a party all the time. And, of course, you can’t leave the Keys without trying to iconic Key Lime Pie at the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory.

Playa Largo Resort & Spa
Photo courtesy of Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Where to stay in Key Largo

Situated on the historic grounds of a former pineapple plantation, Playa Largo Resort & Spa captures the easygoing vibe of the Florida Keys with a playful beach-chic design. The private beach area is a true slice of paradise, while the Ocean Spa offers a variety of treatments to whisk you away from the outside world, complete with champagne treatment when you finish your massage.

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Victoria Leandra is an award-winning journalist and content creator specializing in culture, food, local people and unique experiences around the world. She has written for major media outlets like Huffington Post, VICE, Refinery29, Bloomberg, Thrillist, Elite Daily, PopSugar, Oprah Mag, Variety, Bustle, Mic, etc.