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.
But once you get to Key Largo, 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. You can reach the reef via a glass-bottom boat called the Spirit of Pennekamp that departs from the park three times a day.
Wonders of nature
Most travelers have, at some point, been let down by the promise of a natural wonder that did not fulfill expectations.
But Key Largo's coral reef does not disappoint. Although the reef is 20 feet below the water's surface, 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 sargent major fish, blue hamlets, angelfish, barracudas and the occasional green moray or turtle swimming by. 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'd 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 in Australia. But part of the attraction of Key Largo's reef 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. And I didn't have to fly halfway around the world; I merely took a day trip while visiting relatives who've retired to the Fort Lauderdale area.
We also walked the short trails along the park shores, which showcase the mangrove swamps and hardwood hammocks that once thrived along the Florida coast. 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 with the open sea.
Feed the pelicans
From Pennekamp Park, we headed to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, a couple miles south of Key Largo, arriving just in time for the 3:30 p.m. pelican feeding. Every day, a few buckets of fish are thrown out to supplement the diets of wild brown pelicans who 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 the fish out, 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, picnic areas and a nice playground.
Fish restaurants abound on Key Largo, but like a lot of children with unsophisticated palates, mine 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 are also regular tables, chairs and a sushi bar.
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. But 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.
If you go...
Getting there: Take the Florida Turnpike south to Homestead/Florida City, then U.S. Highway 1 to Route 1. Key Largo is a two-hour drive from the Delray Beach-Boca Raton area, about 90 minutes from Fort Lauderdale and just an hour from Miami. Route 1, also known as 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 Route 1 is easy because the road is marked with mile numbers.
John Pennekamp State Park: Mile marker 102.5. Swimming, camping, hiking, canoe and kayak rentals, boat trips. Spirit of Pennekamp glass-bottom boat tours depart at 9:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 3 p.m.; the trip is 2 1/2 hours long. Tickets are $20 for adults, $12 for children under 12. For reservations, call (305) 451-6300. Snorkeling trips from the park leave at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.; adults are $26.95, children under 18 are $21.95. Scuba trips are $41 per person and leave at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Equipment rentals are available; there are also numerous dive shops outside the park. For more information, visit 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 sunrise to sunset, daily. 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 "Key Largo" movie 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 about a quarter-mile to the waterfront.
Guidebook: "Hidden Florida Keys & Everglades," by Candace Leslie, is an easy-to-use guide to the area (Ulysses Press, $13.95).
For more information: Contact www.fla-keys.com or (800) FLA-KEYS.