Here’s the thing about barracuda: They’re not as scary-looking in real life as they are in your imagination. But as the silver-gray torpedo with gills glided along the craggy, mottled Looe Key Reef, as oblivious to me as it was to the scores of encircling bright yellow fish, begging for food with the subtlety of a Central Park pigeon, I was more thrilled than terrified. Really, it was the gigantic (but harmless) grouper and the (not-so-harmless) jellyfish that caused me to repeatedly and awkwardly backpedal in the water, my snorkeling mask fogging, my flippers flailing. Still, for a kid who grew up obsessed with sharks and whales and all manner of marine life, I spent most of my underwater hours off the coast of the Florida Keys in the throes of ecstasy.
The 15 cottages that dot Little Palm Island Resort & Spa house 30 suites in understated tropical hues, each with a private deck and some with private hot tubs. Between luxurious massages at SpaTerre and the plush, mosquito-net-enshrouded beds, it’s easy to get lost in dreamland. And between activities like kiteboard lessons, dolphin swims, and catamaran rides, you’ll earn those zzz’s for sure.
Regardless of which activities you partake in, the reef must be one. Aboard the well-worn Island Girl, Captain Willie Bailey ferried me a short way offshore into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the world’s third-largest barrier reef. A quick tutorial on keeping to the perimeter and it was into the sea for my first solo snorkeling expedition.
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The reefs you see on nature shows (or in Pixar movies) are riots of color and movement. Looe Key Reef is coy, curving, mysterious, like the femme fatale in a noir film. In and above its cracks and crevices, schools of bright yellow fish careened, pausing when I entered their realm, and then, upon realizing I was not a threat but a potential source of treats (snorkelers sometimes bring bits of food for the fish), they swam with great purpose directly towards me. Smaller bright blue fish flitted from coral to coral, while one or two massive, hideous groupers drifted from boat to boat at a glacial pace (they like hanging out in the shadows cast by the snorkeling vessels).
When I first spotted the barracuda, I immediately surfaced, spluttered a bit, and pointed it out to Captain Bailey, who assured me of its species and that it posed no threat. Back under for more observation, taking bigger and bigger circles, sometimes chasing the yellow fish; sometimes, frankly, being chased. Before long, the moon jellyfish arrived, nearly transparent, ranging in size from large olive to Frisbee. Despite wearing a long-sleeved rash guard, I managed to incur a few stings, and when dozens more washed in, decided it was time for my exit. The grouper and barracuda had disappeared into the shadows of the reef below me, as if they too were ready for their afternoon rest.
Details: Winter rates range from $990 to $2,590, double occupancy; off-season rates range from $690 to $1,690 Contact: www.littlepalmisland.com