You Don’t Need a Passport for This Caribbean-Style Getaway Near Miami

Just an hour from the bustling streets of Miami, a laid-back island escape awaits.

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida
Photo courtesy of Visit Florida
Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

Just an hour south of bustling Miami sits a tropical spot that feels a world away-yet doesn’t require a passport. The Caribbean-esque Florida Keys are a vacation destination for people from all over, but Miami locals are lucky to have all that beauty and tropical feel right in our backyards.

Key Largo is an especially great weekend getaway thanks to its position as the northernmost island in the string of Keys and therefore its close proximity from South Florida and the Miami International Airport. Home to tropical hardwoods, winding creeks, two state parks, a national park, and a portion of a national marine sanctuary, Key Largo boasts some of the most fascinating botanical scenery in the state.

Once a tranquil haven for scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts, Key Largo has transformed into a vibrant destination that caters to a diverse range of interests, including water sports, nightlife, culinary delights, and of course, some of the most breathtaking outdoor experiences in Florida.

Once you escape hectic Miami and hit the road, you’ll be on the scenic Overseas Highway, one of the most scenic drives in the country and your passport to an island getaway.

Travel time:

1 hour from Miami by car
1 hour and 15 mins from Miami International Airport via Keys Shuttle

Photo courtesy of Florida State Parks
Photo courtesy of Florida State Parks
Photo courtesy of Florida State Parks

If you don’t do anything else: Visit the country’s first underwater state park

Known for its unspoiled natural beauty, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, is the epitome of marine biodiversity encompassing 70 nautical square miles. The star of the show is undoubtedly the park’s coral reef ecosystem, home to the Christ of the Abyss, an iconic underwater bronze statue depicting Jesus Christ with outstretched arms that serves as a popular destination for divers.

The park’s crystal-clear waters offer excellent visibility for snorkeling and kayaking but if you’d rather stay dry, you can opt for a glass-bottom boat tour. Above the waterline, you’ll find tropical hardwood hammocks, mangrove swamps, and coastal strand forests.

The park’s educational exhibits and interactive displays provide valuable insights into the importance of protecting these fragile ecosystems. And if you’re up for something totally one-of-a-kind, check out the annual Pennekamp Underwater Music Festival in July, where musicians dive in wearing scuba gear and jam out underwater while playing their instruments.

Fill your days:

Outdoor activities in Key Largo

Key Largo’s best asset is its buffet of outdoor adventure. You can spend the morning paddle boarding through the lush mangrove tunnels or fishing the backcountry waters for snook, redfish, tarpon, and bonefish, and be hiking in Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park by the afternoon.

If kicking back is more your style, the Caribbean-style beaches are sure to wow you. At John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Beach, sandy shores meet rocky alcoves that are perfect for picnics. Don’t miss Cannon Beach, also nestled in John Pennekamp, where an old cannon plays guardian to the shore, inviting you to turn off your phone notifications and enjoy the view.

Founders Park Beach in Islamorada is a hidden gem. In this area, you can swim at a laid-back sandbar with Islander Girl Tours, a local mother-daughter duo that knows the waters like the back of their hands, while sipping on the group’s signature rum punch.

Photo by Patrick Farrell
Photo by Patrick Farrell
Photo by Patrick Farrell

Nightlife in Key Largo

Some island getaways offer bumping clubs where you can dance the night away. But Key Largo doesn’t want you to leave its stunning shoreline for a second, so the outdoor activities continue into the nighttime hours.

Nothing beats a sunset cruise with unparalleled views of the area’s vibrant water. Companies like Caribbean Watersports, Playa Largo’s on-site excursion operator, offer a Carolina Moon Catamaran Sail where they take care of the ride and serve mimosas and a cheese and fresh fruit platter.

And let’s not forget the simpler pleasures of Key Largo nights. Evening kayak tours will have you coasting along peaceful waters. The tranquil ambiance is also perfect for stargazing, so sink your toes into the sand and let the waves and twinkling stars soothe you. You won’t need to cue up ocean wave sounds here, you’ll get the real deal.

Can’t sleep without dancing the night away? Coconuts Restaurant & Night Club is your go-to spot. At night, the popular seafood restaurant transforms into a dance party so, when the sun sets here, your adventure is just beginning.

Eat, drink, and sleep:

Photo courtesy of Sol by the Sea
Photo courtesy of Sol by the Sea
Photo courtesy of Sol by the Sea

Restaurants and bars in Key Largo

The island vibes continue on the food front in Key Largo, where you’ll find seafood, tropical cocktails, and the island’s namesake dessert.

Make your way to Marker 88. A mainstay since 1967, the restaurant offers handcrafted cocktails, local brews, and an extensive menu that shows off the fresh seafood, making this a perfect place to enjoy the views right after a morning of snorkeling. Conch and other fish are staples of Key Largo cooking, and there’s no better place to try it than The Fish House where the menu covers signature chowders, fried fish, and daily catches.

For a dining experience like no other, check out Sol by the Sea. The seafood restaurant offers water table dining, where you’ll sit at a table that’s literally at the water’s edge. With your toes in the warm tropical waters, you’ll feast on Caribbean-inspired dishes with unmatched views as the backdrop.

For laid-back drinks, Snook’s Bayside Restaurant and Grand Tiki Bar is the spot. With live music and an enticing drink menu, it’s a party all the time. And, of course, you can’t leave the Keys without trying to iconic Key Lime Pie at the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory.

Photo courtesy of Playa Largo Resort & Spa
Photo courtesy of Playa Largo Resort & Spa
Photo courtesy of Playa Largo Resort & Spa

Where to stay in Key Largo

Situated on the historic grounds of a former pineapple plantation, Playa Largo Resort & Spa captures the easygoing vibe of the Florida Keys with a playful beach-chic design. The private beach area is a true slice of paradise, while the Ocean Spa offers a variety of treatments to whisk you away from the outside world, complete with champagne treatment when you finish your massage.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Victoria Leandra is an award-winning journalist and content creator specializing in culture, food, local people and unique experiences around the world. She has written for major media outlets like Huffington Post, VICE, Refinery29, Bloomberg, Thrillist, Elite Daily, PopSugar, Oprah Mag, Variety, Bustle, Mic, etc.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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