KEY LARGO, Fla. — As Little Orphan Annie would say, “Leapin’ lizards!”
“You have to beware — sometimes iguanas drop out of the trees and land on you. It happened to a lady at the pool last week,” says Brandy Bailey of Playa Largo Resort.
Yikes. The iguanas at this seaside resort, a former pineapple plantation, are not the tiny anole lizards that skitter around your parent’s patio in Florida. Nope, these are National Geographic-worthy, Day-Glo-green creatures with spiky fringe down their backs. The biggest ones grow to 3 or 4 feet long. Native to Central and South America, they’re an invasive species here, often spotted hanging around by the pool (they’re never far from a water source) and cheeky enough to climb up on a beach lounger and lick off any schmears of guac or Key lime pie. Keep an eye on those fish tacos, kids! The king of them all, in these parts, is George, a monster iguana who got relocated because of behavioral issues, Bailey says. Call us obsessed, but we’re not the only ones: From what we observed, these lounge lizards are more photographed than the Kardashians.
Look, ma, it’s a ‘biguana’
Have we actually written three paragraphs about iguanas? Apparently so. Now we understand why some tourists take so many pictures of the squirrels on Boston Common; to someone who doesn’t live with those creatures, they’re strange and fascinating.
Bountiful, tree-falling lizards, for all their invasiveness (and don’t even get us started on the Everglades’ python problem) seem like a great fit in Key Largo. Although this Upper Key is just an hour by car from Miami, it couldn’t be more different. Instead of designer boutiques, there’s the Sandal Factory, Shell World, and Circle K. Many of the businesses — even law offices — have funky thatched-roof facades, as if to say, “We don’t take life that seriously here.”
“It’s a weird place — everybody comes from someplace else. It’s like the last stop on the train,” says Captain Lolly of Caribbean Watersports, who hails from Chicago but has been taking folks out sailing off Key Largo for the past 36 years. Her first mate, a fisherman named Stu, fled a bad relationship in New Jersey and just started driving, ending up in Key Largo. He is now happily settled, very tan — and fishing every day, the ultimate win in Key Largo.
Less touristy than Key West, and less chic than Miami, low-key Key Largo is the northernmost key in the chain of islands. It’s 2.5 miles wide at its widest and 33 miles long, with a year-round population of 11,000 or so. With the Florida Bay is on one side, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, you’re never far from water. The best strategy here is to stay in and on the water as much as you can — and don’t be shy about chatting up the locals. Their stories are as colorful as the hibiscus on Key Largo. Boating, talking, and drinking are hallowed pastimes here.
A former pineapple plantation-gone-luxe
Set along the bay side, Playa Largo Resort (from $352; www.playalargoresort.com), an Autograph Collection Hotel, is a good base if you like action. Named the No. 2 resort in the Florida Keys by Conde Nast Traveler, it’s one of those places where you can check in, throw on a swimsuit, and stay happily amused for days. Amenities include a watersports desk with kayaking, sailing, and stand-up paddling; snorkeling and sunset sailing excursions; eco-tours; a spa, and a kids club, plus four restaurants, a pool, beach bars, and poolside cabanas. Guest rooms are modern and comfortable, mercifully lacking the ubiquitous Florida motif (no sand dollars, plaster pelicans, or manatee-themed art). The downside, ugh: A daily resort fee.
At night, they celebrate sunset at the Sandbar with live entertainment and signature pineapple cocktails (served in an actual hollowed-out pineapple), a nod to the property’s history. Although they no longer grow the fruit here, the resort has partnered with local Islamorada Brewery & Distillery to create a private-label pineapple vodka. On the food side, seafood is — no surprise — a standout. Fresh snapper and grouper, spiny lobster, and glistening platters of sweet pink Gulf shrimp are menu staples. One of the more unique ways to dine here: A “Water Table” dinner (your feet dangle in the ocean), with your own private, shorts-wearing waiter.
Snorkel, rinse, repeat
To see grouper in the wild, as opposed to blackened on a plate, head out for a snorkeling expedition with Islander Girls Snorkel & Tours (www.islandergirltours.com.) Run by a mother-daughter team who grew up on the Keys, they’re aces at finding the spots with lots of fish. On the day we went, jellyfish seemed to be everywhere, gelatinous globs dotting the waters. First mate Amy (aka the Jellyfish Slayer, braver than we’ll ever be) handily swished the big ones away. Beyond jellies, we saw rays, a green sea turtle, and reef fish galore. The Florida Keys, as you may know, are made of coral, and surrounded by the third largest coral reef system in the world.
A famous place to snorkel here — one we didn’t visit this trip but have toured in the past — is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (www.floridastateparks.org), home to “Christ of the Abyss.” This 9-foot-tall bronze of Christ was sunk in 25 feet of water off the coast of Key Largo in 1965. It’s a popular spot for underwater weddings. The top of the statue, at 8 to 10 feet, is visible to snorkelers, but divers get the best look. The folks at Pennekamp park can set you up on a dive or snorkel tour, or a glass-bottom boat to see it. Other local dive and snorkel operators will take you there, too.
Typically, the waters here are clear with great visibility. Just bobbing around in the ocean is great. That nice sandy beach at Playa Largo Resort? Like the iguanas, it’s not from here; the Keys don’t have natural soft white sand beaches, so they import the sand from Florida’s Gulf coast, they say.
Bogie and Hepburn and Bacall
When in Florida, you’re practically obligated to do something super-touristy. For us, it was the African Queen Cruise ($49 per person; www.africanqueenflkeys.com). Who doesn’t love the classic Hepburn + Bogart 1951 film, “The African Queen”? This steamboat is the real deal, used in the movie, but originally built in 1912 for the British East Africa Railways to shuttle cargo, missionaries, and hunting parties. “Movie director John Huston borrowed it for location filming in what was then the Belgian Congo,” says captain Eddie Riley. After that, the 30-foot boat bounced around a bit — it even spent some time in the front yard of Hepburn’s Connecticut home, Riley says.
Now, dedicated as a National Historic Site, the African Queen serves as a passenger boat, hauling tourists on daily 90-minute cruises along the Port Largo canal. “Grandparents bring grandkids,” says Riley. “Movie buffs can’t believe the boat still exists.” His narration includes film trivia, and a look at movie stills from “The African Queen.” “We’re cruising in a piece of history.”
And there’s yet another Bogie connection: Some scenes from the 1948 movie “Key Largo” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were filmed on location here.
Bogie and ‘biguanas’ — man, we love this place.
For more information about Key Largo, visit https://fla-keys.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org