Established in 1963, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the very first undersea park in the United States. Containing a rich array of tropical vegetation, shore birds and marine life, it sits on Key Largo, adjacent to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. With the opportunity to snorkel, scuba dive and rent boats, there’s no excuse for adventure-loving families to miss this park out on their holiday itinerary.
Named after the Miami Herald editor who actively campaigned for its protection, John Pennekamp Park is part of the only living coral reef in the continental US. As an area of tourist-baiting beauty, the park’s formation came as a direction reaction to mass concern in the 1950s, when the area was inundated with businesses harvesting seashells, seahorses and natural sponges for souvenir profit. Rather than closing off the region entirely, the decision was made to allow visitors to enjoy the park in moderation, adding it to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Drawing in people keen to admire the intricate coral formations and associated marine life, John Pennekamp Coral Reef has come to be known as one of the best areas in the country for water sports and romantic getaways. For this reason, the park and surrounding Key Largo area has become the most popular park in the Florida State Parks system, attracting more than a million visitors a year.
Attractions: What Not to Miss
Boasting a PADI 5-Star Gold Palm facility, opportunities to dive at the state park happen twice daily, at 9:00am and 1:30pm. Equipment rental is available with special reservation rates for groups, or regular visitors can bring their own. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned professional, there is a variety of instruction courses that cater for every ability, including the opportunity to enrol on extended e-learning programmes. The best way to admire the clarity of the water and get up close with the local wildlife, expect to pay around $55 for two location dives, with equipment rental as extra.
If you’re lucky enough to visit in the height of summer, you may not need to worry about a wetsuit – 83Â°F water temperatures will keep you warm in just your bathing suit! Snorkelling tours come with either a group or personal guide, with equipment and drinks included. Be sure to visit the official John Pennekamp website before you set off, as ‘$5 off’ printable coupons are occasionally available on the relevant pages. Wheelchair users are also well catered’for with Encounter, the company’s snorkelling vessel with built-in marine head for guests.
For those who’d rather stay out of the water but still want to admire the marina, the glass-bottom boat tours allow a serene view of the sea in style. A high-speed catamaran capable of transporting up to 130 passengers, the boat travels between John Pennekamp Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Sailing through a number of shallow reefs, expect to see jellyfish, beautiful coral and even the occasional dolphin. With the tour taking two hours, this trip is best taken early in the morning while the animals are most active.
In line with the park’s natural policies, accommodation within the area itself is strictly limited to camping. Allowing access to RV’s and trailers as well as traditional tents, full facilities are available and youth groups are actively encouraged.
If you’d rather stay in a hotel, there are many to choose from in the Key Largo area. Island Bay Resort was the recipient of the 2014 Travellers’ Choice Award, and not without good reason – set among hordes of palm trees, it’s an idyllic resort within walking distance of a private beach and deck, complete with patio and BBQ grill. The perfect location for a honeymoon, the hotel offers a wide variety of special packages that will top off any romantic trip.
For family holidays, Dove Creek Lodge is right next door to John Pennekamp Park, possessing 21 luxurious bedrooms with ocean views and a friendly atmosphere. Its dedicated staff pride themselves on their desire to cater to their guests every need, so don’t be afraid to ask about transportation, tourist advice or even that extra fluffy pillow you’ve been coveting.
What’s in the area
Situated at the heart of the Florida Keys, there are plenty of opportunities for fun outside of the coral reef. Unique boutiques, restaurants and ice cream parlours fill the coastline, with an emphasis on long, relaxed lunches and casual social interaction.
If John Pennekamp Park itself didn’t sate your desire for wildlife spotting, the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key is just a short drive away. Home to Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and Californian sea lions, the center prides itself on its ability to rehabilitate marine mammals in distress. Encouraging visitors to learn about the animals through educational programs and workshops, it’s a great way to get up close and personal with dolphins without paying extortionate prices. The Turtle Hospital is also worth a visit, with plenty more heart-wrenchingly cute animals to admire.
Best of all the animal attractions, however, is Theatre of the Sea. Gathering together a wealth of animals deemed unfit to return to the wild, they are treated for illnesses, nurtured and included in a huge variety of interactive exhibits, shows and programmes. Visitors can swim with dolphins, sea lions and manta rays, and visit Lagoon Beach, which is only open to ticketholders of the theatre.