As with most holiday stories, this one will be long, filled with food and at some point I will take away some deep, meaningful life lesson. I’m just kidding about the last part, but I’ll definitely hook you guys up with where to go and the glorious reasons as to why.
Driving down US 1 headed to the keys is something I grew up doing. As a kid I made this trip with my stepdad to go fishing and as I got older I took trips down with my girlfriends to dance to cuban music and watch the sunset on mallory square. My hope was to make it to key largo with enough time to get a few sunset shots and as the sun started getting lower I started losing hope this would happen. Finally! The hotel! but who has time to check in when the sunset is literally happening? Not me, so I grab my gear and run through the lobby and out the back toward the beach. The sky is lit with neon pinks and aqua and the clouds are stunning. I need this! Luckily, I live in a bathing suit so I quickly shed my clothes, grab my dome and head out into the water. “Mrs., be careful, there’s sting rays!” “ok,” I reply and still head out. I hear the same guy tell his wife, “I don’t think she know’s electronics and water don’t mix,” so I toss my dome out into the water and hear his wife go, “I think she knows what she’s doing.” Half right, I am just making this up as I go. I missed the light on any half-in-half-out shots so back to the beach to put the camera on the tripod and hope that I don’t drop it into the water. I cradle my camera closer than any baby I’ve held my entire life (my family knows this is true because I’m terrified of babies) and gently place it down in the water. Perfection. I could not have asked for a better sunset, and that guy was right, there were rays, and that just added magic to the moment.
The next morning I can truly appreciate Playa Largo for what it is. You wouldn’t believe a year ago Hurricane Irma tore through the keys and up the western side of the state. The damage at my house was bad enough but the keys were leveled. This hotel looked as if it remained untouched as Irma passed by and carried on like it was just another day. I had already seen the beach lined with fire pits and hammocks, but now I could see the massive pool and outdoor bar. Playa Largo also has two amazing restaurants and if you like ceviche, it has one specializing in that. A bit of a warning, even the mildest ceviche is hot and this is coming from a girl that can’t have her breakfast without green pepper sauce all over it.
Off to my first wreck dive! If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to go out on another cattle boat. Diving with 20 other people is never fun, but diving in a group of 4, highly recommended. Blue Water Divers is located on US1 conveniently right next to a dive shop in case you forget anything, like dive sheets, like I did. We head out to Spiegel Grove for our first dive of the day. The Spiegel was sunk to become an artificial reef, but was flooded too quickly when sinking and caused it to land on its keel. Attempts were made to reposition the ship, but ultimate Hurricane Dennis pushed her back on her keel and she’s remained there since. The Speigel is 510′ long and 84′ wide with the top deck at about 60′ and the hull at 135′. Ultimately, the visibility for how deep we were was amazing and the swim through’s were huge giving me confidence that wreck diving is not so hard.
One dive down, one to go. One of the girls on board said she wanted to see fish so we were told the next location would have plenty of fish. Dive two was also a wreck dive called the Benwood. Now this one has a much cooler story than ‘we meant to sink it but messed up and now it’s sideways,’ so get your listening ears on kids. Picture this, the setting is 1942 so you know what that means right?! WWII is happening and nazi’s are everywhere hide yo kids! So, under the cover of night we have the Benwood and the Tuttle both en route to their respective ports, but these is war times so, the ships are running dark due to reports of German u-boats being in the area. Remember playing manhunt in the dark as a kid and running around your yard until BAM you ran into that other kid and you both ended up on the ground? That’s what happened here. Both captains made reports of seeing a dark object in the water, but maneuvers to avoid each other were done too late and they collided. Not all is lost, the phosphate rock on the Benwood was savaged (thank god right?) and today it is home to hundreds of species of fish, turtles and more. If you are a beginner that is not even sure if you like that water, start with this dive. You can see all the way to the bottom before you even dive in and the visibility is a minimum of 80′ with no current. In other words, this dive is a playground you won’t want to leave.
I have decided to start a new tradition after diving that includes celebratory margaritas. What better to go with a celebratory margarita than a celebratory taco. Luckily there’s a place that has both right next to Blue Water Divers called Sharkeys. Bonus, you can watch all the cattle boats come in and see how exhausted everyone is.
Next stop, Key West. Next dive, the Vandenberg. I’m still feeling confident from my first wreck dive so I am happily looking forward to this one. The Vandenberg was once a missile range instrument ship. In her youth she was used by the military and the airforce but as she got older things went down hill. A small claim to fame is the Cyrillic seen on the hull, you may be wondering why an American ship has Cyrillic written on it, this is the down hill part. Before she was turned into an artificial reef she was used in a movie called ‘Virus.’ I read the movie had cyborg’s in it and who doesn’t love that? So I decided to watch it. Y’all the wreck is scarier than that movie, do not waste your time watching it, just dive instead. The wreck is 522′ long and 10 stories high with its keel sitting at 140′. It goes without saying she is huge! I let my guide know I have only done one wreck dive and he tells me we will go by my comfort level. We start our descent I watch him get inverted and swim through a small opening. He is clearly more confident in me than I am considering I’m going, ‘this is it, this is the exact spot of my death,’ as I attempt to swim after him. Good news folks, I survived. This wreck was a little intimidating at first with debris snagging my regulator a few times, but I quickly became aware of how to better maneuver myself through the narrow doorways and stairwells. Because of the size of this wreck both dives were done here. I brought my GoPro with me for the first dive but due to limited visibility I left it for the second.
Four dives down and it’s time to press pause on the adventure button and do something I’ve never done. Go to the Hemingway house. Spa days are expensive, instead, go to the Hemingway house, sit in the garden and play with the cats. This is a happy distraction from the bars on Duval.
Speaking of Duval, did you know there’s good food in Key West? While Irish Kevins will always be a favorite place to sing-a-long to drinking songs and watch a live stream of temple bar in Dublin, I have to take a minute to point out a few other places worth checking out.
Little Pearl– locally sourced seafood and the best octopus I’ve ever had! They even have little mangrove seedlings lining the window.
Thirsty Mermaid– if you’ve never had conch before then this is the place you need to go to. Cracked conch with artichokes! This is the only way it should be eaten.
DJ’s Clam Shack– located right on Duval Street. Go up to the counter, order a lobster roll and enjoy each heavenly bite as you find the next bar on the strip.
Hogfish– this technically isn’t on key west, it’s just north on stock island. Large portions of amazing local seafood. I had a table next to me order a hotdog, chicken tenders and a burger. You’re in the keys, don’t be those people! I haven’t even mentioned the best thing about this place yet…
Latitudes– this is just a short ferry ride over to sunset key and you have to make reservations. The food is perfectly done and elegantly displayed, you almost feel bad eating it. But after that first bit you’ll have to remind yourself to slow down and savor not only the food, but the ambiance as well.
What’s a trip to the keys without fishing? A waste, that’s what it is. “What would you like to catch?” the captain asks, “something big,” I reply. Off we go and in what seems like a matter of minutes we already have our first fish on. Vibrant green flashes into the air and it is clear our first catch is a beautiful mahi. I wrestle for a few minutes watching neon colors dart just below the surface before pulling her in. First catch in and the line goes back out. Our captain seems to know exactly where the fish are, we pull in a few black fin and then it happens. He starts shouting out to the first mate and I scour the horizon to see what he is potentially point at and all of a sudden I see it. Sailfish on! I like to think I am in shape, but in moments like this I realize my upper body training is significantly lacking. In what seems like hours wrestling with my left arm becoming fatigued, I finally pull her in along side the boat. Since sailfish is not on my menu we decide not to pull her into the boat. We head back to the docks and the captain filets the mahi and tuna while I hang off the ledge like a child, watching the pelicans and tarpon vie for food.
So if you’ve stay with me through this long story, thank you. I’d like to wrap up this tale of adventure with something that perfectly sums up the keys: fishing, food and good vibes. Earlier I mentioned Hogfish bar and here’s where I tell you the best part. If you have a fresh catch you can bring it here and they will cook it for you. All you have to do is pick out the sides and a beverage and sit back.