Greetings from the Conch Republic, the farthest south you can get in the United States by car (or van). I’m writing to you this week from the wonderful public library here in Key West. It’s been a great week for me in South Florida, full of fun in the sun. It’s been windy but warm and I’ve gotten to see some really cool places this week. I had a few nice days in the parks south of Miami, and then made my way down the Keys. I’ve been on some great excursions this week, seen some beautiful sunsets and spent some great time with friends old and new. Life is good here in the Keys, and it would be hard to complain. In addition, the days are getting longer and spring is not too far away. Lots of things to be grateful and happy about this week.
After I posted last week’s This Week on the Road, I did indeed go to Coral Castle. Coral Castle is an astounding place - the product of one man’s dream, innovation and hard work. While “castle” may be a bit of a stretch in the literal sense of the word, the fact that every man’s home is his castle makes it okay to use the word in my worldview. My castle is 100 square feet on wheels. Built by Latvian immigrant Edward Leedskalnin over the course of many years, Coral Castle is a fascinating structure to visit. I don’t think it is worth the $19 entrance fee to be quite honest, but it is Florida and this is one of the area’s oldest tourism ventures. To see all my photos and learn more about Ed and his dream, see my full post HERE.
Leaving Coral Castle, I went to visit my old friend Hans and his wonderful wife Diane. Hans and I worked together for many years at Trek America, the tour company for which I have worked for 13 of the last 18 years (and to which I will be returning this summer). I haven’t seen Hans in over ten years, and it was great to catch up, talk about old times on the road, gossip about the people we used to know and discuss our plans for the future. Unfortunately, I had become a bit ill somewhere along the road, so I wasn’t at my peak while I was visiting. On the flip side of that coin though, it was nice to be staying inside at someone’s home while i was sick and be able to nurse myself a little bit better. They were wonderful hosts and their hospitality was greatly appreciated.
Hans has been working at Biscayne National Park Institute for several years now, and this wonderful non-profit has kept the park open and operational during this ridiculous government shut-down. On Thursday, he hooked me up with a ride on one of their boats out to lovely Boca Chita Island in the midst of Biscayne National Park. This was a neat trip as we got to learn some of the history of the park and see this beautiful island which was once owned in its entirety by millionaire Mark Honeywell. He used to throw lavish island parties for his friends on Boca Chita, and even kept an elephant as a pet. Today, it is much quieter on Boca Chita, with a few private boats tied up along the shoreline and a dozen of us out there wandering around. On the way back to the mainland, we even had a pod of dolphins swimming around us which was cool. In the afternoon, I went on a different boat but with the same crew out to Anniversary Reef to do some snorkeling. On the way out of the dock area for this trip, we saw four manatee, another unexpected treat. The reef was nice, and our snorkel experience was great. It was a pretty full day in the park, and I enjoyed it very much. For all of my photos from these trips, see my full post HERE.
Friday I headed in the other direction and into the eastern unit of Everglades National Park. I headed all the way down to the end of the road at Flamingo, and then slowly made my way back, stopping to do several short walks along the way at West Lake, Mahogany Hammock, and Pa-Hay-Okee. Then I pulled in at Royal Palm and did the two short trails there: Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo. Gumbo Limbo was cool because it took me through several old layers of the ecosystem and felt very prehistoric. Anhinga, on the other hand, brought me out over the water for some wonderful bird watching, and some very close-up views of some very tired alligators. It was a wonderful place to end my visit, although no trip to that side of the Everglades is complete without a fruit shake at Robert is Here fruit stand just outside the park.
I also started my Saturday there, talking with longtime owner Robert himself. He told me about some of his favorite exotic fruits which he had on hand, none of which I had tried before, and even cut them up for me to eat right there. It was a wonderful experience. I’m going to write a post about Robert and his fruit stand this week, so stay tuned for more.
Stocked up on fruit, I hit the gas station and grocery store and then set off for the Florida Keys. My first stop is always the same, every time I head down here: Alabama Jack’s. Alabama Jack’s is a great little bar and grill a hundred feet past the “Welcome to the Florida Keys” sign on Card Sound Road. It’s actually on the mainland side of the toll bridge to Key Largo, but it’s a great stop nonetheless. I enjoyed a cold beer on the water and some excellent live music. It was a Saturday and a holiday weekend, so the place was packed but I still had fun. This should definitely be your first or last stop on any visit to the Keys.
From there I cruised on into and through Key Largo and started making my way south through one of my favorite parts of the country. The Keys may be connected to Florida by a highway, but they are definitely more Caribbean in personality. Nothing moves too fast in the Keys, you’re never far from an open bar and flip-flops and tank tops are acceptable attire in most places. The Keys are a great place to leave your worries behind and get back on island time.
My next stop was another old favorite: Hog Heaven in Islamorada. Situated right on the ocean with a beautiful lagoon and a private beach to watch the sunset from, Hog Heaven may be my one must-stop bar in all of the Keys. I got there in time to grab a cold beer and head out to the beach to watch the sunset. After the sun set, I headed back to the bar for a delicious blackened fish wrap and a cold Dogfish Head beer. The band that played that night on the floating stage was called Static, and they were a lot of fun. They played a lot of 90’s rock and old favorites, and they did a great job. It was a perfect first night in the Keys.
Sunday I had a very relaxed day. I ran some errands and caught up on some work and then stopped into the Florida Keys Brewing Company for a flight of their beers. The beer wasn’t my favorite, but I liked the atmosphere of the place. It was very colorful and laid back and there was a nice crowd there for a Sunday. From there I headed over to the aptly named Sunset Grill to watch the end of the playoff football games and watch the sun set behind the Seven Mile Bridge. This is a great spot, with a beautiful view. It was windy and a little chilly when I was there, but I still enjoyed the vibe and the sunset.
Monday I was off and running towards Key West. My first stop was one of my favorite beaches in the Keys: Sombrero Beach right there in Marathon. Like many places in the Keys, Sombrero Beach took a beating during Hurricane Irma, but I was glad to see it was back open and on the road to recovery. It really is a pretty beach and is one of the very few free public beaches in the Keys. From there I headed off to Bahia Honda State Park for the rest of the morning. I wanted to do some kayaking there, but the winds were just too high. I settled for a fascinating history walk with one of the rangers, a long walk on the beautiful beach and a seat in the sun to work on my podcast.
In the afternoon, I stopped into No Name Pub on Big Pine Key for a quick beer. This place used to be a lot of fun, but when I was there, it wasn’t great. It wasn’t even that busy, but the staff seemed overwhelmed and not very friendly. No Name Pub is the kind of place that was great when it was just a quirky little locals pub, but now has a strong love/hate relationship with the tourists who have swarmed it in the last few years. It was good to be there, but it may have been my last visit.
From there I went to the much more hospitable and beautifully situated Kiki’s Sandbar on Little Torch Key. This is a great bar right on the water with lots of sun, good music and plenty of sand to be able to kick off your shoes and wander around barefoot. I got the Tuna Nachos which were a work of art and delicious to boot. They were more than enough for lunch and dinner, and the chill atmosphere at Kiki’s only made them better.
Full of good vibes and good food, I headed on to Key West. I got there in enough time to park and walk down to Mallory Square for the daily Sunset Celebration. This is another thing which has gotten a little bit overrun, but it is a beautiful place to watch the sunset and there are always great street performances as well.
After the sun set, I headed over to Captain Tony’s, one of my favorite bars in the country, to meet up with my friend Tim. Tim worked for the same tour company that I did, but left before I started there. We have become friends through mutual friends in the company, but it was great to finally get a chance to hang out with him. We talked long into the night about old times and travel and caught up on all of the gossip.
Tuesday was a big day that started early. I was booked on the Yankee Freedom III to head out to the remote and beautiful Dry Tortugas National Park. I have been wanting to get out to the Dry Tortugas for years, but have never had a full free day to do it on. This was finally the day, and I’m so happy I got to go. The ferry ride out there is about two and a half hours long. The boat is a massive catamaran, but it was still a bit of a rough crossing. The winds were up, but the sun was out and it turned into an absolutely beautiful day. When we landed, we got time to explore Fort Jefferson, a 19th century fort which protects the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. It had a lot of fascinating history and was a very cool place to visit. After we toured the fort, we had a couple of hours to wander. I took a lot of photos which I will get up this week. It was a stunning place to photograph. Then I went for a refreshing swim in the magnificent clear, turquoise water. The ride back was even rougher than the ride out, but at least the sun was shining and I could sit outside on the deck. This was an expensive day at $180 for the trip, but it was worth every penny and I’m really happy I went. This is one of the most difficult National Parks to get to in the Lower 48, and I’m glad I finally had the chance to visit.
Today I’ve just been hanging around Key West, soaking up the sunshine while it lasts and enjoying being in the islands. As soon as I’m done writing this, I’m off to Earnest Hemingway’s house and then hopefully Fort Zachary Taylor in the afternoon. Tomorrow I will bid farewell to Key West and start making my way north again. I hope to catch up with a few friends in Miami over the weekend and then I’m off for the gulf coast and headed north. I have a lot to see and do on that side of the state and I am really looking forward to it. I hope to be somewhere near Sanibel by this time next week, but you never know. Looking at the forecast, it could be a rainy few days ahead, but it’s still pretty warm for January so I’m not complaining. Until next time then, I hope you have a wonderful week and make some time to spend in the sun, even if it’s cold where you are. Have a great week y'all, and I’ll see you right back here next Wednesday.