The second leg of our Fly-Drive-Dive trip was Palm Beach County Florida. Just short of 3 hours from our first stop in Key Largo, we arrived at The Marriott Palm Beach Gardens after driving north along Highway 1, around the outskirts of Miami.
Palm Beach, Florida is home to the PGA – the Professional Golf Association, and the area is uber chic with luxury shopping, world-class restaurants, and top-notch golf resorts at every highway junction. The Marriott we booked is more of a business hotel than the traditional beach resort, but has a great pool, terrace and hot tub to the rear, plentiful free parking, and lovely rooms complete with all the mod cons – laundry service, hairdryers, fridge and coffee maker in the very comfortable and spacious rooms. A full-service restaurant and bar are on the ground floor, and there are plentiful eateries and markets within a 5-minute drive.
A friend and dive shop owner in the Orlando area recommended Pura Vida Divers, so we took his advice and booked 4 days diving. This was a great decision, as these guys really know their stuff, and provided some of the best service we have encountered anywhere. Pura Vida offers two-tank morning and afternoon boat dives with most dive sites within 30 minutes of leaving the marina. And with the boats docked just 15 minutes south of the hotel it was so convenient.
It was surreal, leaving the inlet, bumbling past the multi-million dollar super yachts in the deep-water marinas and heading along the coast to see the huge urban landscape, including Mar-A- Lago and The Breakers resort hotels, but we had been told the diving was good, so were full of anticipation. We were not disappointed – the diving was pretty darn spectacular! Great stepped reefs, swim throughs and the perfect amount of current – together with great visibility of 20m or more.
The dive briefings were detailed, and the guiding if you wanted it, was spot-on too. This is drift diving at its best. We learned quickly to take that giant stride off the back of the boat with cameras in hand as soon as
the captain yells Dive! Dive! Dive! and follow the guide down to the site. Dive sites such as Juno’s Ledge and Flower Gardens offered up both the small stuff with numerous types of shrimp, crab and nudis to the big stuff with Goliath grouper, barracuda and sharks, it was all there! Schooling jacks, spadefish, grunts and snapper were common backdrops to the reef structure, and of course, as it was nesting season, turtles galore! We encountered numerous hawksbill, loggerhead and green turtles on every dive, and even spotted two leatherbacks on the surface, although these beauties were a little more camera-shy and shot off when we tried to get close to them.
And for the metal-heads, there are a handful of nice wrecks too, surrounded of course by Goliath grouper and several species of shark, including Lemon, Sandbar, Silk and Bulls – and it is not uncommon to get the odd Tiger or Hammerhead either. The wrecks here have been, in the main, deliberately sunk and form trails – three wrecks on one dive to make the most of the currents! The Shasha (184’ former drug-smuggling freighter) and the 180’ St Jacques and the 170” Gilbert Sea make up the ‘Governor’s Riverwalk’ wreck trail, and then there is the ‘Mizpah Corridor’, one of the best dives there is here. This is a 1/3 of a mile drift over the wrecks of the Mizpah, the PC1170 and the Amarylis, and there are plenty of Goliath grouper and sharks to accompany you as you do it! Then there is the Princess Anne, a 350’ long former car ferry, the Rolls Royce, the Edsvag and many more!
As well as day-boat diving, Pura Vida also offers two other very different options. Firstly, blackwater diving – a must-do! Dropping into the blue at night (and real night!) to drift along with the current behind a line of lights is very special. With 500’ of water below you, the line of lights is bait for the minuscule macro life that comes to the surface to feed at night and seeing all of these larvae stage animals giving off their bio-luminescence is an experience not to be missed!
Their second offer turned out to be one of our ‘dives of a lifetime’ Blue Heron Bridge. The bridge supports an 8-lane highway and spans the Inter-coastal between the mainland and Singer Island and is one of the most unlikely spots for a dive that you could think of! We arranged to meet our guide Lawrence from Pura Vida at 8:30am in the parking lot of Phil Foster Park. With high tide expected at 10:30am we kitted up and walked into the water around 9:30am beneath the huge concrete pillars, and then the magic began!
The bottom is sand and silt, and there is a man-made snorkel trail of sculptures, cuboid structures and even a sunken speedboat that provide the normal housing for fish seeking safety from the predators, but there is more – and far more!
Whilst this is the Atlantic Ocean, the warm currents coming up from the Caribbean wash these shores, bringing with them baby stuff of everything more tropical, and these seem to have found a home in the
more sheltered waters under the bridge. We found numerous types of juvenile Angel fish for one, crabs, eels, drums, jack-knife fish, garden eels, filefish, nudis a-plenty and then the special stuff appeared as we further honed our spotting skills. A piece of what looked like tree-bark turned out to be a Red-Lipped Batfish, a lettuce leaf slug, a tiny octopus hidden in a rock pile and then not one, but two Striated Frogfish! And to top this all, as we started to surface after two-and-a-bit hours (max depth was 4m!) a manatee joined us, so up close and personal that I was bumped out of the way!
After the rustic peace and quiet of the first leg of the trip in Key Largo, Palm Beach County offered a very different experience, and again, we promised to come back soon – it really is that good!
For the next leg of our trip, we decided to stay in the same hotel and commute daily to Jupiter, just 15 minutes further North. Check back for more details!
Key facts :
Getting there : This was part of our Fly Drive Dive itinerary, but Palm Beach is a destination we would suggest on its own. Nonstop flights to Miami or Orlando are available daily with several car rental companies to choose from based on your needs.
Air temperature : In the spring and summer expect highs of 26 to 32 with milder temperatures in the winter. Rain is more likely June through September.
Water temperature : An average of 25 in the cooler months and 29 in the summer
Visa requirements : An ESTA is required to visit the USA. Currently an ESTA costs $14.00 and is valid for multiple trips for a two-year period. Application can be completed online at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/
Currency : US Dollar with ATM easily found and all major credit cards accepted.
Electricity : 120V with 2 and 3 prong plugs.
Accommodation : We stayed at the Marriott Palm Beach Gardens, about 15 minutes away from Lake Park Marina and the Pura Vida boats. There are a number of hotel and resort options in the area to suit all needs.
Diving : Pura Vida Divers offers daily morning and afternoon charters. Their Blackwater charters are renowned and the Blue Heron Bridge dive is one we would do over and over again!
Price Guide : from £2195pp for 7 nights in Palm Beach with a 10 dive package, car rental and return flights and from £3695pp for our complete Fly Drive Dive 14 night package with diving in Key Largo, Palm Beach and Jupiter, accommodation, car rental and return flights.
Favourite Dive Sites : Juno's Ledge, Flower Gardens, Bath and Tennis (named as the dive site lines up with the Bath & Tennis Club of Palm Beach)
Favourite Spots : Publix, Target, Blaze Pizza, Carrabba's Italian Grill, PFChang's
Other Essentials :
Crate for dive gear : This was invaluable! We picked up an inexpensive plastic tub at Target and with our gear inside, we carried it right on to the boat and slid it under the bench. The were a few hoses at the Marina with fresh water available to rinse gear at the end of the day and the tub was perfect to carry our wet gear back to the hotel without soaking the rental car.
Cool bag with handles : These come in handy for lunches in between charters if you're like us and can't pass us a Publix sub. We had them made to order the night before and kept them in the room mini-fridge for the next day. We also used one to carry our assembled underwater camera onto the boat. Filled with fresh water it was an ingenious way to rinse off our precious gear after the dive.
Suction hooks : There are never enough hooks in a bathroom so a few of these in your bag are bound to be put to use. They are a permanently in our dive bags now.
Check our website for more information on diving in Florida
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