By Mark Gauert
Explore Florida & the Caribbean
Key Largo, once the place you passed going “all the way to Key West,’’ is becoming a destination of its own – with new resorts and reasons to stop and pass time.
WHERE TO STAY
Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo, 97000 Overseas Highway, 305-852-5553, bakerscay.com.
The 200-suite Baker’s Cay Resort opened in February on 13 lush acres along Florida Bay, featuring valet and self parking, two swimming pools with a waterfall grotto, beaches, a library, nature trail, children’s eco-educational camp, curated guest activities, such as seaplane rides, dive and snorkeling trips to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and fishing charters; Aveda salon, beach activities, parasailing, four waterfront dining venues, gym, spa and in-room spa options. Children are welcome at The Curio Collection by Hilton property, as are pets – including an onsite husky named Maya, “Cay-9 Director of Pet Relations.”
Everything is bright and shiny new here, with a comfortable, family friendly feel but with plenty of activities for adults. Take in the high views of Florida Bay, across stands of gumbo limbo and mangrove, and listen for birdsong. Grab a book from the resort library and take a walk south to the relatively secluded Hammock Beach – a popular site for weddings – or take in all the activities on the livelier north side, which includes and smell the s’mores toasting on the fire pit for the kids – and more than a few of the adults.
I didn’t have any luck on my otherwise thrilling half-day fishing charter aboard Capt. Casey Scott’s 30-foot Sea Monkey, so I didn’t personally contribute to the resort’s Hook & Cook program. Fortunately, Executive Chef Andy Papson did – and the yellowtail snapper he caught that morning and served grilled in a banana leaf that night with champagne and Johnnycakes (he’s from New Orleans) made me feel lucky again.
Where to eat
Calusa, for Caribbean-Creole fare and fine views of Florida Bay, indoors and out; Dry Rocks, for tacos, chips and such, live music and flights of Baker’s Cay’s own Patrón Reposado and Añejo tequilas; The Pool Bar and food truck, for grilled fare; and the aforementioned Tiki Bar directly on the beach, with ice-cold cocktails. You don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to eat at the restaurants.
Now we’ve seen everything
We’re down with the Keys’ Reef Relief ’s “Skip the Straw’’ campaign (reefrelief.org/strawlesskeys), but we’d never slurped an ice-cold cocktail through a straw made of avocado pit until Baker’s Cay. We could get used to it.
COMING ATTRACTION No. 1
Bungalows Key Largo, 99010 Overseas Highway, 866-801-0195, bungalowskeylargo.com/bungalows
Editor’s note A fire May 5 destroyed the Beach House, restaurants, spa and pool deck portions of Bungalows Key Largo, forcing the temporary closing of the resort. “All guests and associates were evacuated, all are safe and there were no injuries – and no guest accommodations were affected,’’ a spokesman said. Owners say the resort is now scheduled to reopen on Dec. 19 and is accepting reservations for late December and beyond at bungalowskeylargo.com or 866-801-0195. “We have worked tirelessly to restore the resort to its original grandeur,” says owner Jerry Johnson,”and we are confident the finished product is worthy of the hotel’s opening fanfare.”
Bungalows Key Largo is an adults-only (21 and over), all-inclusive resort that opened in January, featuring 135 luxurious bungalows, valet parking, welcome cocktails, two pools, a spa, beaches, cruiser bicycles, unlimited non-motorized water sports, thatched openair fitness center, morning yoga, local car service in Key Largo and unlimited gourmet dining and premium beverages, among other amenities. The Noble House Hotels & Resorts property is smoke free and no pets are allowed.
The Bungalows checks off all the classic reasons for going to the Keys. Sunsets on Florida Bay? Check. Charming metal-roof bungalows? Check. Cruiser bikes to get around the sandy, 12-acre waterfront property? Check. Delicious, seafood-centric menus? Check. Picturesque beach bar – Sea Señor – where you can easily waste away an afternoon (or more) under coconut palms? Check. Throw in a zen spa, seaplane service from Fort Lauderdale and general no-worries atmosphere and you’ll be checking next if you really have to check out.
Arriving by seaplane, a 35-minute flight by Staniel Air from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (price varies). After a surprisingly gentle splashdown on Florida Bay, you’re greeted at the seaplane dock by resort staff, who take you ashore by electric Duffy boat for check-in and a welcome Coco Tiki Tai cocktail (see recipe below). You’ll feel you’ve gotten very far away – very fast.
Where to Dine
Most of the dining facilities on property were destroyed in the fire on May 5 – including Bogie & Bacall’s and Fish Tales. “The goal of the re-opening is to completely replicate the original resort amenities, fully restoring the two-story Beach House under thatch roofing – home to the Living Room common area [and] two restaurants: Fish Tales and Bogie & Bacall’s, as well as Hemingway bar,” the owners say.
Now we’ve seen everything
Two six-seat tiki bar boats, the S.S. Rum Runner and S.S. Margarita, set out regularly for cruises on Florida Bay. Presumably they’ll also come back.
COMING ATTRACTION No. 2
Mandalay Bay Resort, (coming spring of 2020) 97610 Overseas Highway, Key Largo
Tampa-based GNP Development Partners, a privately owned boutique real-estate investment and development firm, is about to start construction on a 25-room hotel at 97610 Overseas Highway in Key Largo. The 34,000-square-foot hotel – called the Mandalay Bay Resort – will consist of four buildings and will also feature a bar, waterfront restaurant, dive shop and full-service marina. Completion is expected in the spring of 2020.
Mark Gerenger, GNP’s managing partner, considered affiliating the resort with a major hotel operator but ultimately decided against it. “In the Keys, you don’t need to,” he says. “It’s more of a boutique market.” GNP is currently developing over 500,000 square feet in projects throughout the United States. Completed projects range from healthcare facilities and medical office space to residential and mixed-use development. —Robyn A. Friedman
GOOD REASONS TO GO TO KEY LARGO
Key Lime Pie Crawls
Full disclosure, in the great meringue vs. whipped cream on Key lime pie debate, I’m House of Meringue all the way. I believe our hardy Key lime pie forbears used the simple ingredients they had on hand to make the definitive pie – which were: Key limes, condensed milk, egg yolks to make the curd and egg whites and sugar to make the meringue. That’s it. There are many places to try on a Key lime pie crawl in Key Largo – Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (99336 and 99020 Overseas Highway, mrsmacskitchen.com) and Key Largo Fisheries (1313 Ocean Bay Drive, keylargofisheries.com/cafe), for example, both make popular pies. Heck, you can even pick up a frozen Key Lime Pie Co. pie (technically made in Key West but sold in Key Largo) at the Circle K Shell Station (106501 Overseas Highway) on the way north out of town and it’ll be defrosted and ready to eat by the time you hit the Miami-Dade/Broward line. But while these are all fine desserts, none rise to my mercilessly exacting standard for Key lime pie than the tart-but-not-too-sweet pie at Sundowners (103900 Overseas Highway, sundownerskeylargo.com), which, perhaps not coincidentally, also happens to have one of the sweetest views of sunset, too. The pie here comes under a cumulonimbus cloud of meringue. That’s it! I looked up from the table on the dock at sunset at Sundowners and noticed none of my tablemates had taken more than a forkful. “What’s wrong?” I said, going in for more. “Why aren’t you eating this wonderful pie?” House of Whipped Cream, all of them. More pie for me.
I can personally recommend the pan-seared hog fish (when it’s available) with Key lime caper at Sundowners, and the banana-leaf grilled yellowtail at Baker’s Cay; but I was too full after eating everybody’s else’s Key lime pie to complete a fuller review of the dining options in Key Largo. So here are some recommended by the resorts and locals, many of whom also work for the Florida Keys & Key West Tourist Development Council:
The Fish House, 102401 Overseas Highway, fishhouse.com. Especially at lunch, and especially for the yellowtail snapper sandwich.
Key Largo Conch House, 100211 Overseas Highway, keylargoconchhouse.com, especially for the breakfast menu, which includes Key Lime Macadamia Pancakes, Grilled Conch Omelet and, for anyone who has had too much pie, a reasonable egg-white Mediterranean Omelet.
Key Largo Fisheries, 1313 Ocean Bay Drive, keylargofisheries.com, especially for the “backyard’’ café, featuring a Key Largo Lobster BLT, Dottie’s Conch Salad; and the market.
I could invent a fish tale here, but, full disclosure, no fish were harmed during my half-day fishing charter aboard the Sea Monkey with Capt. Casey Scott (seamonkeycharterfishing.com). Please don’t hold this against Capt. Casey, ordinarily a formidable fishing guide, from a fourth-generation Keys family and just the nicest guy. But, when one of our fishing party started feeling some mal de mer, Capt. Casey’s mission turned from finding fish to finding calmer waters. Capt. Casey not only managed to do that – putting us into the shallows of the Islamorada sandbar, where we could step out of the boat and walk around in ankle-deep water – he also managed to keep us all entertained with stories from his childhood growing up in Keys, tell us about the famous people who live here and take us on a rip-roaring boat ride back. After all that, we’d forgotten we’d even gone out to fish.
No visit to Key Largo would be complete without the two classic reasons for stopping there:
A cruise aboard the African Queen, 99701 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, africanqueenflkeys.com. Channel your inner Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn on the Port Largo Canal for a 1.5-hour cruise or 2-hour dinner cruise on possibly the most famous movie prop in the Keys.
A snorkel excursion in the 53,000-acre John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, 102601 Overseas Highway, pennekamppark.com; or diving with one of the many local charters, such as Keys Diver, 99696 Overseas Highway, keysdiver.com; or Rainbow Reef Dive Center, 100800 Overseas Highway, rainbowreef.com. You may have never done either because you thought they were touristy or, hey, everybody does that. Well, I felt the same way about the Conch Train in Key West – until I took it and realized how much fun I’d been missing. Oops, maybe I shouldn’t have just admitted I once passed Key Largo going all the way to Key West.
WHAT TO DRINK
Recipe for the Coco Tiki Tai Cocktail, the welcome beverage at Bungalows Key Largo
1.5 oz Bacardi Coconut Rum
½ oz Luxardo Amaretto
½ oz Orange Juice
½ oz Pineapple Juice
Preparation: Add all ingredients besides grenadine into shaker, add ice, shake, strain over fresh ice, a splash of grenadine. Pour into branded coconut (or glass); garnish with an orange wheel, coconut shavings. We’ll surely raise one when the resort reopens.