- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

KEY LARGO, Fla. — For those who haven’t been there, the name Key Largo probably brings to mind Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and a hotel full of gangsters waiting out a hurricane with booze and gunplay.

Once you get to Key Largo, however, those black-and-white movie images are wiped out by the rainbow of reality: The turquoise sea, the green mangroves and the brilliant colors of tropical fish and other marine life found in the only contiguous coral barrier reef in North America.

The reef is in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, just three miles from the shores of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The reef is reached via a glass-bottom boat called Spirit of Pennekamp, which departs from the park three times a day.

Most of us have, at some point in our travels, been let down by the promise of a natural wonder that did not fulfill expectations — a whale-watching cruise during which a black dot amid distant waves was the sole whale sighted, or a wildlife trail where you were lucky to see a squirrel.

Key Largo’s coral reef does not disappoint. Although the reef is 20 feet below the surface of the water, the coral and fish appear magnified, as if they are right beneath the glass, which juts down into the water in a V shape. My two young children and everyone else on board were spellbound for the hour the boat hovered above the reef for what appeared to be close-ups of the marine life.

We saw yellow- and black-striped sergeant major fish, blue hamlets, angelfish, barracudas and, occasionally, green morays and turtles. The coral and seagrass in various shapes and colors swayed dreamily with the waves. It was like looking at the most beautiful tropical aquarium we had ever seen — only it was real.

Of course, serious scuba fans and reef seekers who are world travelers may scoff. Key Largo’s reef is not exactly like the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, but part of its attraction is its accessibility.

Snorkel and scuba trips to the reef are available from any of the local dive shops, but the glass-bottom boat was an affordable and easy alternative for me and my children. I didn’t have to fly halfway around the world, either; I merely took a day trip while visiting relatives who have retired to the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area.

We also walked the short trails along the shores of the park, among the mangrove swamps and hardwood hammocks that once thrived all along the Florida coast, and we enjoyed spotting the many egrets lined up like statues to watch our boat pass through the narrows that connect the shores of the park to the open sea.

From Pennekamp Park, we headed to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, a couple of miles south of Key Largo, arriving just in time for the 3:30 p.m. feeding of the pelicans.

Every day, a few buckets of fish are thrown out to supplement the diets of wild brown pelicans that live in the area, and the birds — somewhat prehistoric looking with their long, flat, clapping beaks and plodding waddle — come by the hundreds in hopes of getting in on the handout. You can volunteer to help give out the fish, but be forewarned: This is not a job for the squeamish, as the birds can get aggressive and the fish are not particularly pleasant to touch or smell.

Even when surrounded by the splendors of nature, sometimes children want to climb and swing, so we also spent some time at Harry Harris Park in Tavernier, which features a swimming beach and picnic areas in addition to a nice playground.

Naturally, fish restaurants abound on Key Largo, but my children, like a lot of others with unsophisticated palates, don’t like fish. So we compromised and had supper at Sushi Nami, a Japanese restaurant where I feasted on sushi and sashimi while they had chicken teriyaki. We dined at a low table, seated on cushions on the floor, with our shoes off, but if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, there also are regular tables and chairs and a sushi bar.

Other activities in the Key Largo area include fishing excursions, biking and expensive “swimming with the dolphins” programs at any of several research centers.

For us, the reef, the birds and the sea made for a perfectly magical outing that was easy to find, easy on the wallet and easily as memorable as the movie. If a visit to the real Key Largo doesn’t shake your head free of the Hollywood version, stop in for a drink at a local bar called the Caribbean Club. Some of the scenes from the movie were shot there.

Navigating the upper Keys

Take the Florida Turnpike south to the Homestead-Florida City exit, then U.S. 1, also known as the Overseas Highway. Key Largo is a two-hour drive from the Delray Beach-Boca Raton area, about 90 minutes from Fort Lauderdale and an hour from Miami.

The Overseas Highway meanders through the series of barrier-reef islands that make up the Keys; Key West is 113 miles southwest of Key Largo. Finding any site along this highway is easy because the road is marked with mile numbers.

www.floridastateparks.org/pennekamp or call 305/451-1202.

Florida Keys Wild Bird Center: Mile marker 93.6. Call 305/852-4486 or visit www.fkwbc.org. Open daily, sunrise to sunset. Arrive early for a parking spot for the 3:30 p.m. daily pelican feeding; $5 donation requested per car.

Caribbean Club: Mile marker 104. Bar where some scenes for the movie “Key Largo” were filmed; 305/451-4466.

Sushi Nami: Mile marker 99.5. Platter of sushi, sashimi and tempura, $16.95; chicken teriyaki off the children’s menu, $5.95; 305/453-9798.

Harry Harris Park: Mile marker 92.5; turn on Burton Drive and drive to the waterfront, about a quarter-mile.

Guidebook: “Hidden Florida Keys & Everglades,” by Candace Leslie (Ulysses Press) is an easy-to-use guide to the area.

More information: Visit www.fla-keys.com, or call 800/FLA-KEYS.

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