Slippin' Away to Key Largo

The spirit of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall hangs on in an intimate, restored 1940's resort tucked away on Florida Bay. It's the kind of place that you would like to share only with close friends. Hidden at the end of a long shell driveway behind the stream of convenience stores and dive shops that line Highway 1 on Key Largo, the Kona Kai Resort is the kind of tranquil, aesthetic oasis achieved only by personal care and loving attention to detail.

Transplanted New Yorkers Joe Harris and Ronnie Farina have re-created Key Largo as it exists in our imaginations. Lazy hammocks strung between the palms on a white sugar beach, a crystal clear lagoon where schools of tiny tropical fish play hide and seek in the seagrass, an old-fashioned swimming platform for sunbathing or just watching pods of dolphins break the satiny surface of the Straits of Florida.

During the summer months, the main event begins just before sundown. Across Florida Bay, massive clouds born in the Everglades rise like great atomic mushrooms, delivering strokes of lightning, funnel clouds, and translucent curtains of rain against the setting sun. During our visit, a few guests had gathered at the dock watching the performance in appreciative silence. The only sound to be heard above the thunder was the slow click of a camera shutter and someone opening a bottle of wine beneath the palm-thatched palapa.

You enter Joe and Ronnie's Shangri-La through an archway of carved wooden palms and a little footbridge over a decorative pond. Flaming crotons, fat gumbo limbos, and miniature banana trees line the shady garden path that leads to a small sandy beach with lazy hammocks slung beneath arching coconut palms and a beached Hobie Cat. A tall white heron named Nick stalks the garden like a slow-motion lawn ornament.

The small Kona Kai art gallery, one of the most sophisticated in the Keys, doubles as the resort's office. Along with a spectacular exhibit of photographic works by Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher, the gallery features a selection of furniture and ceramics by local artists.

The resort's 11 tastefully restored bungalows are set amid coconut palms, crotons, and an exotic tropical fruit garden. You can choose from studio, one-, and two-bedroom suites. Several bungalows are kitchen equipped. Many have a comfortable sitting area with television and an interesting selection of books-everything but a telephone and fax. Personalized call-screening and paging are handled by Harris, a refugee from NBC in New York, who fell in love with the Keys years ago.

Harris and Farina also act as concierges and eco-tour guides. But it is the personal touches that make you feel as if you are staying with tasty samples from Harris's exotic fruit garden of figs, miniature bananas, and ciruela, a small fruit that tastes like peanut butter. Farina's choice of bath amenities is just as unique: key lime soap and sandalwood lotion. Farina, a graphic artist, also from NBC, has brought her considerable talent to the decor-for example, a colorful hand-painted sunburst rises over the door to each cottage.

The Kona Kai offers tennis, a freshwater swimming pool and Jacuzzi, and an oversized outdoor Tarzan 'n' Jane shower for after the beach, but it doesn't provide room service. Instead, Harris and Farina give each guest a card for a 10 percent discount at Ballyhoo's restaurant, just across the highway. Don't be deceived by its casual looks. Ballyhoo's serves some of the best blackened tuna and fresh lobster in the Keys, along with great pastas and the most extraordinary tart key lime pie. After a good meal, try a little volleyball, paddleboating, kayaking, or just plain lying around in a hammock.

But why leave Sanibel or Captiva for Key Largo? Besides the interesting two-hour drive through the Everglades, the clear waters around Key Largo provide some of the best diving and snorkeling in the country. North America's only coral reef lies about six miles offshore in the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. Harris arranged for us to take an afternoon dive on the HMS Minnow, a small, well-equipped dive boat skippered by Captain Jerry Burcham, a retired Army Staff Officer who charters his boat to couples and small groups, just for fun. It's a short 10-minute trip to the reef. Magnificent staghorn coral formations and graceful purple sea fans are clearly visible from the surface. But, once you are in the water, it is like swimming in an aquarium, with schools of amber jack and dolphin hiding beneath the coral ledges. Colorful queen angelfish and midnight parrotfish glide past your face mask. Neither Hawaii nor Cozumel has better visibility or a greater variety of marine life.

For a back-country experience, Captain Billy Wert takes small groups across Florida Bay through a miragelike archipelago of mangrove flats that surrounds the southern boundary of Everglades National Park. Wert's boat runs in eight inches of water, floats in ten. He'll take you flying over waters where no one has been before. Bonefish, tarpon, and snook are the sought-after prizes. Even if you come back empty-handed, you'll never forget skimming across a field of sea grass in ten inches of water, watching horseshoe crabs and sea turtles navigate the sandy bottom, or coming upon a great white heron that appears to walk on water. The experience would appeal to any Floridian's amphibian psyche.

Thomas E. Whittingslow

Photo Captions:

The view from the Kona Kai Resort looks across Florida Bay toward the Everglades.

The comfortable 1940's era cottages have been completely renovated.

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Travel Tips

Kona Kai Resort
97802 S. Overseas Highway
Key Largo, FL 33037
800-365-STAY, 305-852-7200

The Kona Kai Resort is a 31/2-hour drive from Fort Myers via the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41).

Diving and snorkeling

HMS Minnow Charters Inc.
800-366-9301 or 305-451-7834

Back-country fishing and expeditions

Capt. Billy Wert or Capt. Barry Vieh