Everywhere you look there is life. Even in the shallow bay where tiny seahorses hide among turtle grass. Small shrimp conceal themselves under weeds. Hermit crabs find homes in discarded shells. Blue claw crabs hunt the shallows looking for dinner.
Offshore the Atlantic Ocean beckons with shallow reefs that often break the surface. Countless mariners have lost ships to these shallow reefs that are five miles from land. It is another world. A part of our planet we hardly know and often cannot explain. It is a world of beauty where ocean dwellers entice divers to explore the undersea.
My first dives off Key Largo, Florida have faded in memory. I stayed at an annex they wanted to call a dedicated dive resort. It was a dump. Something like a barracks equipped with large cockroaches and mosquitoes. At the time it didn’t seem to matter at all. I slept soundly after diving all day. At first diving out of Key Largo was not what I was used to. I was challenged by deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream off Palm Beach County three hours and 120 miles north.
Key Largo’s offshore reefs are about four miles offshore in twenty to thirty foot depths. Fish are everywhere. Nurse sharks lounge in caverns, Atlantic sting rays cover themselves with a blanket of sand, goliath grouper are as tame as puppies, just as curious. Florida’s spiny lobsters poke antennae from most every coral head. The coral is rambunctious with stag-and-elk horn formations so large they seem to be on display. Hard corals loom like veritable islands from the sand.
Since those first dives I’ve explored Florida’s Keys over many years returning to dive sites I visited long ago. I photograph marine life, scattered plates and hulls of vessels that missed their navigational marks and ended as shipwrecks on shallow reefs. While there still are dive resorts, myriad motels and places to stay, there is now one exceptional property that has it all. When booked as a package with the resort or with the on-site dive operators it is more reasonable than what cannot even be considered competition. The Marriott Key Largo Bay Beach Resort has no equal.
“Kindness is what this business is about. People come for an experience and memory. People make it great. The destination doesn’t hurt,” resort General Manager John Haviaras said. He means it. John is a hands on manager. When I checked in he was there in his red Marriott resort shirt pouring Champagne in flutes for arriving guests. There were fresh baked cookies, Granny Smith apples, bright exotic orchids at the entrance and a large screen behind the lobby counter that projected underwater video.
I knew I’d made the right choice. Marriott’s lobby is well appointed. It provides comfortable space with house computers and free wi-fi for guests to use.
Born in Boston, John Haviaras received his degree in business from Penn State University. He took jobs in New York and Memphis and then had an offer to manage a hotel in Orlando.
“At Orlando hotels you never see anyone as General Manager. Guests leave early in the morning for theme parks and do not return until night. When I got the offer to move to Key Largo I was thrilled. This property was built in 1993. I’ve been here thirteen years. Guests pull in, park their cars and don’t leave. They dive here, eat here, paddle board and swim here. The property offers everything from water sports to recreation as well as spectacular sunsets. I love the Keys,” John said.
John is married with three daughters and has an extended family of guests he adopts as he greets them. He means it when he says he and his staff will do everything to make a stay memorable. John walks around the pool to talk with guests.
“We have a marine biology program every Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m. It is important for guests to know about our marine ecosystem. Guests tell us, ‘You have rocks and mangroves on your beach.’ We like to tell them why they are there. We want to tell them what we do have, why we leave the rocks and turtle grass. Marine biologists conduct the program. Kids are fascinated. Adults as well. They have a hands-on experience and learn about the marine ecosystem,” John explained with passion. The program is conducted on the beach in front of the resort’s magnificent pool with spouting water jets and a jacuzzi.
After checking out the pool and beach, I set off to find the dive shop. The marina dock is only a few paces from the pool. I followed a planted brick path to Emocean’s dive boat. It is is docked right alongside their spacious facility. I decided to check in early. Mike Atwell is General Manager of Emocean as well as their partner company Ocean Divers. Ocean Divers is located ocean side a few blocks south of the Marriott. The two dive operations partner with Divers Direct, a large dive store nearby.
Joni was at the Emocean counter. She gave me the dive schedules. I presented my certification card, signed releases and described what equipment I would need. Emocean is a full service dive center. The rest of the day was mine with no other cares but to swim, watch a sunset from the Marriott’s beach, then choose where I wanted to eat dinner.
Bobby Stoky is one of America’s most prolific restauranteurs. He operates five restaurants in the Florida Keys. Two are right on the bay overlooking Blackwater Sound only a short walk, on the same side of U.S. 1, from the Marriott. There is a wide sidewalk that also serves as a jogging trail and bike path that makes the walk from the resort safe. I felt like Mexican food so chose Señor Frijoles. The small restaurant and bar is right on the bay with outside tables as well as inside dining in air conditioned comfort.
The son of a charter boat fisherman, Bobby Stoky grew up on the water. His family moved to the Keys in 1973. They acquired Señor Frijoles in 1981. Bobby’s new book “Recipes and Tall Tales from the Legendary Restaurants of the Florida Keys,” is a best seller among food enthusiast and cooks.
Boaters can simply follow their GPS N 25.08.645, W 80.23.900 to tie up at Señor Frijoles dock off Blackwater Sound. The spacious wood deck offers spectacular views of the bay at sunset. Casual atmosphere prevails.
“We are pet friendly on the deck,” Samantha, my server, said. A man and his son were eating outside with their happy-go-lucky pit bull wagging its tail every time a diner walked past. The boy shared his meal with the dog. The atmosphere was convivial and fun. Tables were bare varnished wood, servers wear shorts. Samantha brought a bowl of water outside for the dog. Tropical cocktails and exotic drinks abound from the long bar inside or served at table. Wood beams in the dining room set the mood for what is an authentic Mexican restaurant.
Samantha put chips and salsa on the table right away when she brought a two sided menu. There is a challenge: “What is a Michelada?” It is Señor Frijoles Mexican style Bloody Mary made with a choice of beer, clamato juice, spices with a Tajin-salted rim. A whole menu page is devoted to specialty Margaritas, Tequilas, Mezcal and beers. The Hemingway is Zacapa rum, sugar, and lime juice. Drinks run about $9 to $12.
The bill of fare includes tacos, salads as well as Mexican specialties like burritos and enchiladas. I chose street vendor corn. It was grilled, sprinkled with house made cotija cheese, a spiced lime on the side. Next I tried the barbecued beef brisket tacos. They come with hard or soft taco shells. The brisket was pulled and tender since it is roasted for four hours.
I relish beef so ordered the steak Tampiqueno, a marinated ribeye grilled with peppers and onions served with a cheese enchilada, rice, and frijoles. The steak was $18, tacos are $12. The food at Señor Frijoles is plentiful and delicious. It is a great place for atmosphere and casual dining with amazing sunsets. Leave room for Bobby Stoky’s famous key lime pie. Tangy lime filing topped with a huge bevy of meringue.
I enjoyed a comfortable night back at the Marriott. The beds are amazing as are the views from the balcony. Below me Emocean’s dive boat was tied to the dock. The bay was flat calm. A nice breeze blew in. I closed the large sliding doors to the balcony after enjoying a rocking chair moment after dinner. Marriott’s rooms are spacious, air conditioned to a guest’s taste with a comfortable down comforter on the bed if desired. I put my left-overs from Señor Frijoles in the refrigerator to enjoy the next day, picked at a plate of cheese and fruit, a courtesy placed in the room, and caught up on my emails over the resort’s free wi-fi.
I was up early the next morning and got back to work on a new book I was writing. At 7 AM Gus’ Restaurant opened across the way for breakfast. I left off my typing and went downstairs and across to another building that was set facing the bay. I don’t usually eat breakfast; coffee and juice is my habit. It would be a long day diving. I knew I would not have a chance to eat much between dive trips so chose the breakfast buffet. The atmosphere inside the restaurant is at tables covered with linen cloths topped with glass. Live bamboo plants grace every table. Most face the balcony where outside dining is available.
I savored delicious brewed coffee while a chef made me an omelette. There are baked rolls, bagels, muffins and an array of sweets as well as most every cereal along with hot specialties at the breakfast buffet. Gus’ Restaurant offers luncheon and fine dining evenings.
I was off. All I had to do was board Sea Star. Everything was placed aboard the spacious 42 foot pontoon boat. Travis Ice is captain. I knew Travis from previous dives in the Keys at another facility. He is one of the most experienced dive boat captains in the keys. Dives are guided if desired or buddy teams can dive on their own. I chose to dive with divemaster Mike Varga. To get good pictures underwater it is best to follow a guide that knows where to look.
It takes about 45 minutes from the dock to motor out through a narrow cut then into the ocean through thick mangroves. It is a pleasant trip. The reefs are about 4 miles offshore at this point.
Captain Travis chose French Reef for the first dive. It was only in 30 feet of water. Since torrential rains hit the area along with high winds earlier there was sand in suspension. That didn’t daunt the fun. The ocean was calm and a warm 79 degrees F. We jumped off Sea Star and explored the reef. The sanctuary has lolled marine life into quiet acceptance of divers. Fish are not afraid and lobsters parade around unabashed. I took pictures of most accommodating nurse sharks.
The second dive was only a short hop away in the same area. Captain Travis picked White Bank. The reef was in 20 feet of water. Sand was in suspension again here so I began taking close up photographs of the coral restoration program plantings.
The coral restoration foundation is licensed to pick up broken pieces of coral. They are then grown in the ocean on something resembling Christmas trees with floaters. The pieces are harvested then glued with underwater epoxy to barren rocks or dead coral patches underwater. Many branches of freshly epoxied coral had been put down. Unfortunately there were dead branches of previous restoration work.
If coral cannot spawn it cannot live. For coral to grow in a healthy natural environment something must trigger spawning, the release of spores that become free swimming larvae. Coral is a marine animal with free swimming planula larvae in the first stage of its development before it settles on a substrate. This problem may eventually be solved by the coral restoration people dedicated to enhancing the reefs.
We returned to the dock. I was not hungry so decided to take a swim in the Marriott’s pool. I had about an hour before Sea Star left the dock for the afternoon dives. We left at 1:30 p.m. and headed out a different channel through the mangroves. I sat in the front of the boat enjoying the wind in my face. Captain Travis pulled up to a mooring ball at a place he called Michael’s Wreck. It was not so much an identifiable shipwreck as it was scattered wreckage of steel plates and beams. Since Travis was training a new Captain, Ed Still, who would remain aboard, he was able to dive with us.
Soon Travis looked under a coral outcropping at a lobster. The lobster moved off into the frame of my camera with Travis looking on from the other side. This became an odyssey with divemaster Mike Vargas herding the lobster between himself and Travis so I could take pictures. The lobster finally decided to climb up Mike’s arm and calmly posed for pictures.
The next dive was at a place called South Ledges. Mike pointed out a large Atlantic sting ray that had nestled itself under a ledge. The ray remained calm while I took pictures. Nothing in the sanctuary area seems afraid of divers since spearfishing is not allowed nor is harvesting of marine life. Without reason to fear divers, save for blowing bubbles, fish pose for photos without seeming to care.
After four dives of about a hour each I was glad to shuck my dive gear and rinse it in two large rinse tanks when we got back to Emocean’s dock. They maintain one large rinse tank with disinfectant and one with fresh water. I hung my wetsuit and gear in Emocean’s locker provided for guests that will dive with them the next day and headed for the Marriott’s pool. The sun was still bright overhead. It would be another two hours until sunset.
I took my swim went back to the room, changed and decided to have dinner at Sundowners. It was on the other side of the parking lot from Señor Frijoles and offered spectacular views of the bay at sunset. Sundowners has a large patio dining area outside. Live music is provided under a tiki hut just off the marina. Since I’d been outside all day I chose inside dining in air conditioned comfort. Tables face the bay. I could go outside to take pictures as the sun descended.
Bobby Stoky has provided Sundowners with a good wine list. Handcrafted cocktails like their Keys Sunset made of frozen daiquiri swirled with strawberry puree is $10. The drink is as beautiful to look at as to savor. Wines run $9 a glass. Offerings like New Zealand’s New Harbor Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is $30 the bottle. For those that like red wine Chile’s The Seeker Cabernet Sauvignon is $45 a bottle.
Sundowners menu provides something for every palate. There are salads that include grilled shrimp, avocado and grapefruit as well as house salad. A loaf of warm bread and butter is served in a basket. Starters include crispy calamari tossed in Thai chili served hot in a skillet, $13. The calamari is lightly breaded and tender. For those that enjoy chilled oysters, a half-dozen is $12.
Main courses include a variety of fresh caught fish dishes. Florida lobster tail is $30. Beef lovers will savor Sundowners bone-in ribeye cowboy steak, $39. The steak is succulent, tender and cooked to perfection. Baby back ribs are a specialty, hickory smoked with special house made barbecue sauce, $23.
No matter the course being served, sunset takes precedence. I left the table and went outside to photograph a gigantic orange ball setting over the bay. A keys sunset on the bay is unequaled for radiance and color. Sundowners location is an ideal place to enjoy it. When I returned I decided on a piece of homemade peanut butter pie with strawberry jam and coffee, $8.
I walked back to the Marriott along the deserted sidewalk. Even traffic on U.S. 1 quieted down as a peaceful evening settled over Key Largo. I sat in the rocking chair on my balcony and enjoyed a gentle breeze coming off the water.
Since my gear would be loaded by divemasters, I made coffee from the amenities in my room and hopped aboard Sea Star a few minutes before it left the dock. My tank was set up and gear prepared. Another nice ride out through the mangroves to Molasses Reef.
“A ship wrecked on the reef with a cargo of molasses in barrels. It was called Molasses Barrel Reef, shortened to Molasses. That’s why they built the light tower there to warn shipping,” Captain Travis explained. He gave divers and snorkelers site briefings. Molasses Reef always has something of interest to see and photograph. A small nurse shark was laying out in the sand when I first went down. Nearby a sting ray was camouflaged under sand, only its eyes and pulsing gills visible. A small green turtle had tucked itself under a ledge. It posed for pictures before swimming to the surface for a breath of air.
There was current at Molasses Reef. Captain Travis decided to motor over to Sand Island for the second dive. There was less current but visibility was not as good as Molasses Reef. Three sting rays were swimming together and an odd formation of Christmas tree worms bedecked an unusual stand of fire coral. Sea Star made good time returning to the dock. The crew refitted the boat with new tanks and gear for afternoon dives.
We left again at 1:30 p.m. this time to Grecian Dry Rocks. “Greek sponge divers in the early days kind of claimed this area to harvest sponges. That’s how it got its name,” Captain Travis explained. He described the configuration of the reef and where divers and snorkelers would find the best opportunities to observe marine life and coral. I dove with dive instructor Rick Murphy. A couple of nurse sharks rewarded our exploration of the shallow reef.
Only a short distance away is Key Largo Dry Rocks. It is here where the statue of Christ is mounted on a large concrete base. I swam over to the statue and began to take photographs before other divers or snorkelers arrived. Sunlight was filtering down in rays above the statue. For as often as I’ve seen this underwater statue I still find it inspiring. I swam away and waited for Rick Murphy to show up with his divers. This gave me the opportunity to take photographs of people against the statue. One woman took a moment to say her prayers.
We motored back past a barge abandoned when it broke free from workers building bridges in the keys for the Flagler Overseas Railroad that would eventually link Miami to Key West. Sea birds use the barge. When the wind is in the right direction guano presents a heavy smell. The sun was hot overhead, welcome after diving. I took up my perch in the bow and enjoyed wind in my face.
There are many ways to enjoy Key Largo. Divers have every opportunity to spend time exploring the offshore reefs. Shallow water off the Marriott’s bayside beach provides opportunity to see sea horses, small shrimp, hermit crabs, blue claw crabs and many juvenile species. The turtle grass is a hatchery. Underwater photographers shooting macro will want to take time in the shallow water of the bay.
For more information here are some helpful contacts: Key Largo Chamber of Commerce located at mile marker 106, 305-451-1414 KeyLargoChamber.org. Marriott Key Largo Bay Beach Resort 103800 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, FL 33037 telephone 305-453-0000 MarriottKeyLargo.com reservations 855-410-3911. Emocean Sports telephone 305-453-9881, EmoceanSports.com. Mike Atwell is General Manager of both Emocean and Ocean Divers. Ocean Divers is at OceanDivers.com telephone 305-451-1113. Señor Frijoles Restaurant MM 104 Bayside telephone 305-451-1592 SenorFrijolesRestaurant.com; Sundowners Restaurant Mile Marker 104 Bayside telephone 305 451 4502 SunDownersRestaurant.com. For information about Chef Robert Stoky’s book or other restaurants operated by his Florida Keys Restaurant Management group visit FKRM.com.
Lugging Stuff? Take the Auto Train
Some divers remember the Delta Airlines television ad. There was a good looking uniformed stewardess, the interior of a neat, spacious aircraft with the mantra: “We broil steaks aboard.” Delta was a premiere American carrier. On their flights from New York to Florida they broiled steaks aboard for every class of service. The food was plentiful and delicious.
No, that does not go back into the stone ages. It might just as well. I got stuck on a sardine can Delta flight recently. Packed in a four across middle seat without room for my legs. They were late, the service was poor and passengers wore street clothes without the passion for travel that inspired good manners and appropriate dress. I had to take stuff out of my luggage to make the weight restrictions. No more two free checked bags. No more ability to take dive gear along free of charge. No more bargain priced rental cars.
One dive buddy came down to Florida for a week of diving. He paid the surcharge to bring his dive gear. It was an hour to get to the airport with $100 for the car service. Two hours to get through security manned by personnel that are mentally equipped to take knitting needles from old ladies yet not stop state of the art criminals bent on causing harm. The flight was a completely full plane packed like sardines. After a late arrival there was the hassle of getting to the rental car agency then over a thousand dollars for the week’s car rental. All manner of supplemental charges added for collision damage despite the fact that he had his own insurance policy and used a credit card. A rental car agency wrinkle: they like to discourage dependence on credit card collision protection. Boom. The diver’s vacation was already dented. The return trip would be a carbon copy. Nothing was served aboard his flight.
I needed my car in Florida. I had a lot of dive equipment and underwater camera equipment to take. It was fragile and I could not trust airport baggage handlers despite the surcharge. I made inquiry and found that I could easily drive to just outside Washington, D.C., take Amtrak’s Auto Train to Sanford, Florida, just north of Orlando, be rested and not have the 900 extra miles to drive plus a motel overnight en route down I 95.
I chose the sleeper car. There are amazing sales on Auto Train that offer coach seats for $95. The vehicle, (it can be a van or even a car or SUV pulling a boat or trailer), costs about $194-244 depending on length. There are always specials that can be found on the Internet. All meals are included in the fare.
A hot meal choice of braised short ribs with baked potato, chicken, fish or vegetarian pasta, salad and dessert is offered in sleeper car service. Good meal service is provided complimentary in coach. Coach seats are large recliners. Passengers bring their own pillows and covers and often get two seats together to be able to lay down.
Sleeper service can be simple roomettes with two bunks, top and bottom, that the steward folds down and makes up with sheets, pillows and clean, plastic bag wrapped blankets, or Superliner bedrooms with private bathrooms and amenities. Handicap accessible bedrooms are available. They are spacious and have ample room for wheel chairs.
There is free Wi-Fi in all classes of Auto Train service. Lounge cars offer bar and snack service. Free bottled water is provided in sleeper service. Coffee machines provide complimentary regular or decaf coffee, tea and hot chocolate in every sleeper car. Train personnel are helpful and courteous. Terminals at Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida are modern and clean. Restrooms, newsstands, children’s playgrounds are amenities at the stations. Station personnel are courteous and helpful.
I drove my car in, the attendant had my name on the manifest, placed a magnetic sticker on the side of my vehicle. I pulled forward, took what carry on I needed, left the vehicle to attendants that used paper mats and plastic on the seats, went inside checked in, received my choice of dinner times, 5, 7, or 9 p.m., then waited in the comfort of air conditioned terminal. There was Wi-Fi so I could catch up on my work.
Boarding is early, usually around 2:30 p.m. Passengers can remain in their rooms or in the lounges available in coach and sleeper class service. Bar service is available. Hamburgers and hot dogs are grilled in the lounges for those wanting snacks before or after dinner. The dining car in sleeper class is set with linen table cloths and silver wrapped in linen napkins. Servers are courteous. Passengers are made to feel quite welcome.
Auto Train cars are double deckers. Large windows allow views as he train passes over rivers, through villages and across rural America. Sunsets can be magnificent over bays and rivers as the train moves along. Breakfast is a nice service of cold cereal, beverages including orange juice, fruit, hot bagels and sweet rolls.
Auto Train leaves the station at 4 p.m. every day. Vehicles should be at the terminal by 2 p.m. Auto Train service is the most profitable of any Amtrak train in America. It is also the longest train in the world consisting of 33 auto carriers and 18 passenger cars pulled by two diesel-electric engines.
If you plan a diving vacation in Florida and have stuff to haul, perhaps a boat to trailer, a family in tow that require bathroom stops every hour, food every so often and want to actually save money on motels, rental cars and fuel, the Auto Train is far better than either driving the whole stint on I 95 or flying then renting a car. For more information visit Amtrak.com or call toll-free 1-800-SKIP-I-95.
John Christopher Fine has authored 25 books, including award-winning books dealing with ocean pollution. He also writes for major magazines and newspapers in the United States and Europe. He is a master scuba instructor and instructor trainer and expert in maritime affairs.