No matter where you are in the world, you're probably aware that yesterday was Valentine's Day – and whether or not you typically celebrate this amorous holiday, it's comforting to know that you don't need a specific occasion to justify a romantic getaway. So, the next time you and your sweetheart have the urge to flee town for a few days, consider heading down to Key Largo , the largest, northernmost island in the Florida Keys .
On a recent research trip there, my husband and I stayed at Rock Reef Resort  (97850 Overseas Hwy., 305/852-2401 or 800/477-2343, $85-295 d), a lovely, year-round oasis beside Florida Bay. Operated for the past two decades by on-site owners Linda and David Adams, Rock Reef offers a wide range of comfortable, moderately-priced accommodations. Beyond the main hotel building – which contains standard and deluxe rooms as well as efficiencies – lies the lush, spacious grounds of this charming, low-key resort. Amid shady palm trees, vibrant bougainvillea, colorful hibiscus, and other tropical flowers, you'll find more intimate lodgings, from well-furnished apartments to beachside cottages, including one that's ideal for honeymooners.
During our trip, we were lucky enough to stay in a one-bedroom, non-smoking apartment, which had a fully-equipped kitchen, central air conditioning, and a roomy, recently renovated bathroom, with decent towels, a spacious shower, and a built-in shampoo shelf at the perfect height. “We're constantly upgrading to make things nicer for people,” Linda explained.
Although the wood-paneled bedroom was a little dark, the living area had plenty of windows, making it a light, airy space in which to work and relax. The decor had a festive, tropical vibe – from the jungle-print bedspreads to posters of regional fish and birds – and if it hadn't been so unseasonably cold and blustery during our stay, we would've relished the foliage-enshrouded patio area.
With several hammocks among the trees, numerous lounge chairs on the beach, a hot tub in the garden, and a waterfront tiki hut from which to watch glorious sunsets, it's no wonder that the 21-unit resort is a popular option for wedding parties. The communal picnic and barbecue area is also a plus for large gatherings like family reunions. Of course, if romance is on your mind, you can't go wrong with this tranquil setting, where the hustle of the often congested Overseas Highway seems very far away.
In fact, it's the peace and quiet that initially lured Linda and David to Rock Reef. Originally from northern Pennsylvania, they discovered the resort, part of an old key lime grove, in 1980 and began vacationing there on a regular basis. By 1989, they knew it was time to relocate to a balmier place, so in lieu of moving overseas with their children, they decided to purchase Rock Reef Resort, hoping that, given the poor economy at that time, Americans would be more willing to visit the Keys than a Caribbean island. Several years after their initial purchase, they were able to buy the adjacent property, where they currently live – when they're not on vacation, of course.
Even today, Linda appreciates the airy grounds and casual atmosphere. “You can find your own space here,” she says. “Even if we're full.” No wonder then that people go back ever year. Rock Reef is even popular during hurricane season. In the event of a hurricane, Linda and David keep the resort open as long as they can. Unless there's a mandatory evacuation, they welcome people escaping low-lying areas – and their pets, too.
In pleasant weather (typical for Key Largo), you can relax on the private beach, swim in the bay, fish off the pier, or take a paddle-boat ride. If you have a small boat, you can even utilize the ramp and docking facilities (which cost $15/day and must be reserved in advance). Other amenities include cable television, daily maid service, wireless Internet access, on-site parking, and laundry services. In fact, the only problem that Dan and I encountered while at Rock Reef was poor cell phone reception, but if you're seeking romance and relaxation, that – and the fact that pets and fireworks aren't allowed – might not be such a bad thing. Of course, even with the no-pet policy, you'll surely encounter a few animals during your visit, including frisky lizards and squirrels, the owners' two friendly dogs, and Bogie, the 19-year-old yellow-naped Amazon parrot named after Humphrey Bogart.
Another terrific aspect of Rock Reef Resort is its location, which offers convenient access to shops and restaurants, including Linda's recommendations, Ballyhoo's Historic Seafood Grille  (MM 97.8, 305/852-0822, $8-33) and The Fish House Restaurant & Seafood Market  (102401 Overseas Hwy., 305/451-4665, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, $9-28). The resort is also an ideal base for fishing and diving excursions, trips into the Everglades, and area attractions like John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park  (MM 102.5 Oceanside, 305/451-1202 or 305/451-6300, 8 a.m.-sunset daily, $2 pedestrians, $4 motorcycles, $8 vehicles) and the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center  (93600 Overseas Hwy., Tavernier, 305/852-4486, sunrise-sunset daily, $5 donation requested). For more information about the Key Largo area, consult the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce  (MM 106 Bayside, 800/822-1088, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily).
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
© 2010 Laura Martone