let your thoughts wander

Category: Florida Keys

The Florida Keys

The full itinerary of our trip to Florida’s National Parks, included flying in and out of Miami and driving from there to Biscayne Bay, the Everglades, and eventually to Key West. Taking in the Florida Keys along the way.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Having received snorkel gear specifically for this trip, we were excited to try it out. We were disappointed, however, to find that the water was very cloudy at the park, and we did not stay there very long. However, we did enjoy the Environmental Education and Visitor Center and its aquariums displaying some of the native coral and marine life.

Photo of burger and fries from above with "MEAT" stamped on the top of the burger bun.

MEAT Eatery & Taproom

Eating at MEAT made for a fun experience and tasty food. It is a bit pricey, but a unique scene that you won’t find anywhere else. The Wisconsin beer cheese soup was ok, but that’s a hard sell when the consumer is from Wisconsin. The burger was good (Wagyu beef) and the fries (fried in duck fat) were top notch.

Camping at Long Key State Park

In preparation for the trip, we also acquired a two person tent that we could pack and take with us. This helped us avoid paying the high prices for hotels in the Keys, and was also our only option for shelter while camping at Dry Tortugas.

The first place we camped was on the beach in Long Key State Park. Staying at Long Key is an experience I highly recommend. Camping on the beach and listening to the waves was lovely. And the boardwalk afforded us time away from nearly everyone in the park, with the exception of the local wildlife – crabs, snails, birds galore! I would go back there in a heartbeat.

Photo looking out through the windshield of a car at a bridge that is 7 miles long and curves around to the left.

Seven Mile Bridge

It was exciting driving over the longest bridge in the Keys and peering out at the view of the old bridge to the south. The Old Bahia Honda Bridge was originally a railroad bridge – part of the Florida East Coast Railway. It was converted into the Overseas Highway in 1938. And the new bridge replaced it in 1982.

The old bridge now has a section removed from it – preventing access to the western most 5.8 miles. And, at the time of this writing, the entire bridge is closed for repairs – expected to reopen in 2021. I guess sometimes we do get lucky and miss out on some of the scaffolding everywhere!

Bahia Honda State Park & Old Bahia Honda Bridge

My boss at the time (who had formerly lived in Florida) recommended we go to Bahia Honda State Park during our trip. This was a perfect recommendation, as it served as our outlet for walking on the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. While on the bridge, we saw what appeared to be a manta ray swimming in the water – we’ll never know for certain what it was. We also saw a garden spider and a few Portuguese Man-of-War during our visit to the park.

Blue balloon-like creature laying on a pile of sea grass next to a large rock.

Portuguese Man-of-War

These creatures look like they would be fun to play with, but they most certainly are not! When we first came upon one washed up on shore, we weren’t certain what it was. I am glad we were able to easily search for it and learn early on to be cautious. They are not what you would expect to be dangerous animals – especially when you see them washed up on shore and they look like balloons. Be careful! Both in and out of the water.

Collage of two photos. Adult female deer on the left. Young fawn on the right.

Key Deer

While planning the trip, I read about Key Deer. Key Deer are the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer and can only be found in the Keys. In hopes of seeing the deer in person, we took a short detour to Big Pine Key and immediately saw several of them walking around the neighborhood. Two of which were a female and her fawn.

Photo of fish taco from above. Topped with light orange sauce and jalapenos, with more jalopenos and a lime wedge on the side.

Garbo’s Grill

After seeing Garbo’s Grill on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” earlier in the trip, it was immediately put on my list of places to visit while we were in Key West. We waited in line for 10-20 minutes, but we were rewarded with the most delicious fish tacos. When we visited in 2014, Garbo’s Grill was operating out of a small trailer. They have since expanded and now have a restaurant on Caroline Street. Be sure to check them out!

Concrete monument painted to mark the Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S.A.

Southernmost Point

As we tend to hit the touristy items as well as the off the beaten path items, the “Southernmost Point” was one of our pit stops. It’s not really anything special other than a photo op (and a line of people waiting to do the same).

Ocean water in the foreground. Silhouette of an island on the right in the background, with sunsetting in the middle and a sailboat to the left of the sun.

Key West Sunset

The sunset in Key West lives up to the hype! It was probably the orangest sunset I have ever seen. Be sure to get there early, as the crowd does get rather large, and there are vendors and street performers everywhere. Just as you would expect at most tourist attractions.

Adult couple sitting on the beach in the foreground with the ocean in front of them and a military fort structure to the right.

Dry Tortugas National Park

As outlined in my post on Florida’s National Parks, Dry Tortugas is a must visit for anyone who can make it possible. And I highly recommend staying overnight for at least two nights. Serenity at its finest.

Slice of key lime pie on a dark blue plate sitting on a light brown counter.

Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen

Having learned that the Keys are known for pink shrimp, I naturally looked for the best restaurant with pink shrimp on their menu. If you too want to try pink shrimp in the Keys, look no further than Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo. Be sure to also try the crab cakes. The key lime pie was ok as well.

Tarpon at Robbie’s Marina

Feeding the Tarpon at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada seemed far too touristy for me, but we had time and Bill wanted to go – so we went. I can honestly say the visit was more worthwhile than anticipated. I can’t say that I would do it again, but I can say it is worth a visit.

All-in-all the Florida Keys have a lot to offer. Much of what is seen from the road appears run down, but there are hidden gems along the way. Seek out those hidden gems and enjoy!

Photo looking down at medallion with location coordinates for Biscayne National Park with two sets of feet surrounding it.

Florida’s National Parks

One of my Wander List goals (inspired by Bill) is to visit all of the National Parks in the United States. To date, we have visited 27 of the 59 parks. We only started visiting them in 2007 – that’s an average of more than 2 parks a year! It does help that they tend to be clustered together. The parks in Florida (more or less) fit into that category.

When Bill set his sights on visiting Dry Tortugas, one of the most unique National Parks, it afforded us the opportunity to visit three in one trip – Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas. To get there, and around, we flew in and out of Miami and rented a vehicle after we arrived. Below are some key highlights of  the parks.

Biscayne

Unfortunately our visit to Biscayne was not everything it could have been. Through our research before the trip, we found out the boat concessioner who was working with the park had ceased their services, and we would not be able to shuttle out to Boca Chita Key and Elliott Key – the more historical and scenic portions of the park. The good news is that it appears they do have boat tours back in service at the time of this writing. (In case you are considering a trip to see Florida’s National Parks.)

Biscayne National Park sign with sculptural relief of fish.

When we visited Biscayne, free guided kayak trips were available (this no longer appears to be the case), so we signed up for one of the morning time slots – in hopes to still make the visit at least a little more interesting. However, it was extremely blustery that day and we were certain the kayak trip would be canceled. We still prepared, ensuring we were dressed appropriately and covered in sunblock. When the visitor center opened and we went to check in for the tour, our assumptions were confirmed – the kayak tour was canceled for the day.

We were offered to sign up for another day/time, but in our typical fashion, our itinerary did not allow for wiggle room. We had booked a fan boat tour for the afternoon and had to move on down the road.

We walked around the part of the park we could visit – saw fish, geckos, jellyfish (below), enjoyed the rocking chairs on the porch of the visitor center, and were on our way.

Small jellyfish near the surface of the water.

Everglades

The Everglades ecosystem paves the way for a plethora of animals to thrive! And if you want to see Florida Alligators, look no further than the Anhinga Trail in the Royal Palms area of Everglades. There were alligators everywhere you looked. In one area there were at least 20 alligators hanging out together!

Large group of alligators in a marshy area.

At one point along the trail, we stopped to watch the herons and ibises catch their dinner. Shortly after we decided to continue on, we heard quite a commotion coming from where we just where – birds were squawking, you could hear movement in the water, and then what sounded like the click of a jaw. We returned back as quickly as we could, but saw nothing. Needless to say, we are pretty sure we missed a bird getting eaten by one of the gators.

Blue Heron with a fish in its mouth.

That same day, while visiting one of the visitors centers, we noticed a “Wet Walk” listed on the schedule of events. We inquired about the trek at the desk and were informed that it was a guided hike through knee-high water – taking you through a part of the park that is not accessible without a guide. Knowing this was something we would potentially never have the opportunity to do again, we decided to sign up.

As we approached the area where we would be wading through the water, the ranger explained to us that the hill we saw off in the distance was not actually a hill at all. It was a grove of trees called a “cypress dome” that was thriving due to the water supply in that area.

Grove of trees off in the distance with flat prairie land in the foreground.

The closer we got to the trees, the more water we started to encounter and we knew there was no turning back! Using the sticks that were given to us when we met up with the group, we did our best to stay in “shallower” water and out of mud that was too deep to walk through.

As we observed the herons and egrets in the treetops, and Bill climbed on top of a large downed tree, our guide warned everyone that the tree may be home to an alligator. Soon after, a member of our group pointed out an alligator no more than 30 feet away from us. And then we spotted another that was even closer. Needless to say, Bill got down from the tree and the group decided to start heading away from the gators and their home. It’s a little unnerving when you are knee deep in water and mud, knowing it will be difficult to get away very quickly!

Alligator floating in the water near a log.

Dry Tortugas

A park like no other. Located 70 miles West of Key West, on an island that houses Fort Jefferson, a former military fort, Dry Tortugas is the most isolated National Park Bill and I have visited to date. We were fortunate enough to camp there overnight during our visit – although one night was certainly not enough! Next time we will have to stay at least three nights to enjoy it longer. Accessible only by boat or sea plane, Bill and I chose the less expensive option and booked a boat shuttle to the island. (Boats are also the required mode of transportation for anyone camping overnight.)

Dry Tortugas National Park sign

During the day, Dry Tortugas is fairly inundated with visitors – almost like a theme park. By night, everything is calm and quite – almost as though you are there by yourself. While staying overnight, the night skies are definitely worth taking in, although there are some lights on the island that lessen your view.

During the time we were at Dry Tortugas, there was a salt water crocodile living in the moat around the fort. Apparently he had been blown in by a hurricane a couple years earlier. He didn’t have a name, but one of the rangers had mentioned the name “Rocky” and that was what stuck with Bill and I during our time there. It was fun checking to see where he was as we explored around the fort. That evening, as we waited for sunset, we saw Rocky leave the moat and swim off into the ocean. He did not return before we headed back to the mainland – I still wonder if he ever came back.

Salt water crocodile wading through the water in a moat.

During that same time, as we waited for sunset, someone alerted us of something else in the water – it was a hammerhead shark! That was a sight to be seen for sure. I’m just glad we weren’t in the water at that time. The shark swam right through the area where we had been snorkeling earlier in the day. As if my scare with the barracuda wasn’t enough!

Looking down through the surface of the water as a hammerhead shark swimming through the ocean

Of the Florida National Parks, Dry Tortugas was definitely my favorite. Everglades does have a lot of amazing things going for it, too – but if I were to choose only one to return to, it would most certainly be Dry Tortugas. I highly recommend it!

My favorite destinations

There are many places I have fallen in love with. Below are seven of the top destinations I have visited and a few highlights from each of them. (In alphabetical order because I can’t bring myself to rank them.)

Cairns, Australia

Daintree Rainforest

Fruit Bats (locally known as Flying Foxes)

Great Barrier Reef

Crocodile Hot Dog and Kangaroo Burger

YoMG Frozen Yogurt

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Salt Water Crocodile

Hammerhead Shark

Camping on an island more than 70 miles away from any other major land mass

Paris, France

Parc Monceau

The Louvre

Whistler’s Mother

The Thinker

Park Hyatt Vendome

Pastries!

Portland, Oregon

Food Trucks

VooDoo Donuts

Nike Headquarters

Ruby Jewel Ice Cream

Sydney, Australia

Sydney Harbor

Pie Face

Gelato Messina

Venice, Italy

No vehicle traffic

Gelato!

Dal Moro’s Fresh Pasta to Go

Day trip to Burano

Vernazza, Italy

Ocean side serenity

No vehicle traffic

Day trip to Monterosso al Mare – enjoying Monterosso pie and anchovies while we were there

 

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