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Just this side of paradise (and a bit south of Miami) lies a chain of coral islands. Cross the Monroe County line and you'll be in the first of the Florida Keys, Key Largo. While the island is legendary for its lore of pirates and sunken treasure, today countless visitors have discovered the real treasure of Key Largo lies offshore — in its world-class diving.
Long known for the clarity of its waters, Key Largo's star diving attraction is John Pennekamp State Park, the first underwater preserve in the nation. Home to more than 600 species of Technicolor tropical fish and 40 brilliant types of coral, the park is a part of the nationally protected Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. In addition to diving and snorkeling, the park offers guided walks, canoe trips, a glass-bottomed boat tour, picnicking, camping, fishing, boating and more. Adjacent to John Pennekamp State Park is the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. This underwater sanctuary encompasses more than 178 nautical square miles of reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove swamps. A nine-foot statue entitled "Christ of the Abyss," a gift from an Italian entrepreneur, has become world renowned as a Key Largo icon and landmark for divers. Old movie buffs will be delighted to find that the original African Queen, the boat made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in the movie of the same name, makes its home here.
Fresh seafood, of course, is the specialty here, and no seafood lover should leave without sampling the sumptuous bounty of the local waters. The island is also dotted with colorful shopping areas filled with "Keys-style" merchandise.
A bit farther south, the quiet town of Tavernier lies along the Overseas Highway. Rumor has it that Tavernier got its name from thirsty sailors on nearby Plantation Key. There, the sailors stopped to load their ships with fruit from the pineapple plantations and then went looking for some grog before returning to sea. Tavernier became known as such because there was always a tavern near. Now visitors can stop by this charming hamlet and tour a restored turn-of-the-century home, church and postal office.
The first stop on the road down to Mile Marker 0 in Key West, Key Largo retains its own distinct island mentality, sure to delight honeymooners or family vacationers alike.