Believe it or not, it snowed at home this morning - heavy, wet snow, an inch or so but fortunately, it didn’t last long! That's unusual even for Iowa, but it made us very happy to be leaving on vacation. So this afternoon we drove through rain to Moline. We've never used the Moline airport (MLI) before but the fares were so much lower we decided to give it a try. We had supper in Davenport at Cracker Barrel (courtesy of a gift certificate we had) then drove down to the Motel 6 across the street from MLI. What a great deal. The motel was nothing special except that the people were very nice, but for less than $70 (including all the taxes) we got a night’s stay in a comfortable room, more than 2 weeks of free parking and a free shuttle to and from the airport. Since our plane left at 7 AM this was way better than trying to drive the 2.5 hours in the morning! Toni was extremely prompt and friendly and far more awake than we were at 5:30 AM!
Wednesday April 20:
The planes rides were boring, which is probably good. We were stuck in Memphis a half an hour or so waiting for an emergency replacement crew member, but since that was our final leg, it didn't affect connections or anything major. It was 86° and sunny when we landed in FLL. Yay! We had reserved a car through Advantage (by far the lowest cost for what we needed, including a return to a different location); they were busy and it took a little while, but we picked up a cute little Toyota Yaris that fit both of us and luggage just fine.
We brought our own GPS so plugged it in, found Highway 1 and headed south! After a stop for snack, we crossed the first bridge of many that week (above right), arrived at the Largo Lodge soon after that (around 4:30) and immediately fell in love. It was like living in a well-kept botanical garden! The driveway into the grounds is above, left and some of the other landscaping shown below.
We were in a “garden room” for 2 nights - the budget accommodation that we really wanted. But then we moved to a cottage because that’s all that was available for the next 2 nights. The small efficiency was just fine: queen bed, AC + ceiling fan, a nice kitchenette, clean bathroom with a shower and all the amenities including loads of towels. There is a lovely dock area (left) with lounge chairs, perfect for sunset watching, and a "watering hole" that was populated mostly by ibis (right) though we did see some gulls and one vulture.
We learned from our pre-trip research that locations in the Keys are referred to by MM (mile marker) so you'll see a lot of that notation in this trip log. Mile 0 is at Key West, all the way south, the Largo Lodge is about MM 101.5. We had supper at the Fish House (MM 102) which was very good. Though not cheap ($50 + tip for two of us) it was fairly typical of the "moderate" restaurants in the Keys. After supper we walked next door to their second location - Fish House Encore - to see what the difference was. The menu was the same but the "Encore" is newer, a little bit classier (though they assured us that shorts and t-shirts are fine) and they have a very nice outdoor dining area in the back. Then we stopped at the Publix Grocery Store (MM101) and got some basic breakfast and lunch fixings, a 6 pack of beer, and some miscellaneous supplies. It’s a very nice store, has everything we could need, is just a few blocks away, but in general I’d say 50% higher than what I am used to paying back in Iowa - not, however, high relative to other prices in the Keys.
We totally enjoyed our first Keys sunset (above) and went to bed tired out but comfortable and content.
Thursday April 21:
We started with our typical breakfast of oatmeal, toast and jam and fruit then drove the short way to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park(MM102.5). It cost $9 admission for 2 people (it doesn't seem to matter if you are a resident or not). At the visitor center there are a number of aquariums with reef fish that were interesting to see but probably of more interest to those who have never been in a reef environment. We walked all 3 trails, starting with the Grove Trail (left) that winds through a hardwood forest up to a fruit tree grove. We saw numerous lizard-type critters that I believe are anoles (above, right); they do some interesting "push ups" and have bright red or orange colored dewlaps when they choose to extend them. Of course, when I try to take a picture they are very still and hide their flash of color. There was something that smelled faintly skunky which we learned later was probably a White Stopper tree.
Below are other highlights of this walk: a tree snail, John admiring a mango tree in the fruit grove and a cluster of key limes. Throughout our stay in Florida, John sampled many kinds of key lime desserts (but he says his overall favorite is still a Key lime pie from La Cabana del Pescador in Cozumel last year)!
Then we walked the Tamarind Trail which is a nature trail with information about a variety of plants. This is where we learned about the white stopper tree that smells skunky, and also the Spanish Stopper - a tea made from its leaves allegedly stops diarrhea. We walked around that general area (left is the boat channel that leads to the ocean) and then over to Canon Beach (right) which is really quite small. There were people snorkeling there but apparently it’s just a good place to practice and not much to see. Finally, we drove down to the "other side" of the park to the Far Beach (below, right) and Mangrove trail area. The trail is a boardwalk that goes through a mangrove swamp. Black, red and white mangrove trees are abundant in south Florida but I got better pictures of them later on. We did learn here that the black mangrove excretes salt (from the salt water) through its leaves. See the little white spots on the leaves in the picture at left? You can click it to enlarge if you need to. Those are salt crystals!
I was surprised that there was no sign of birdlife. Admittedly it was noon and not a good time for bird watching, but still, I would have expected to have seen some shore birds in the shade around the mangroves.
We went back to the Lodge and took our lunch out on the pier, enjoying the quiet and watching the birds there. After rest time, we headed south with the eventual destination of the Islamorada Art Walkabout this evening (held on the third Thursday of the month) but planning to just stop anywhere that looked interesting along the way.
Our first stop was at the Wild Bird Center at MM93.6. It has just a small parking area but is a wonderful place – definitely worth seeing. There are lots of birds that have been brought in sick or injured. Many are treated and released but some, like the booby who is missing a wing, become permanent residents. There is no charge but there is a donation box (we left $10). We saw various kinds of hawks (broad winged hawk above, right), owls (great horned owl guarding his lunch above, left) and water birds (below left are some injured cormorants in their pool). If you can manage it, be there at 3:30 PM - that's afternoon feeding time (below, center) on the shore and that attracts many "well" birds, including herons, egrets, gulls, pelicans, and ibis. It was great fun to watch. There is also a salt water pond beyond the feeding area where we saw a great blue heron and black necked stilts (below right).
A little further south at MM92.5 (turn east on Burton Road) was Harry Harris Monroe County park. There is a charge for non-residents on weekends and holidays but it's free for everyone during the week. It seemed to be a really nice place for kids – there is a sandy, man-made beach and a rock breakwater that serves as a walking path and also keeps the waves down. The picture at left was taken from the breakwater looking back at the beach.
Then we made a quick stop at the Rain Barrel (MM86.7 in Tavernier). There is a giant lobster sculpture in front (picture at right) so it's pretty easy to find! Billed as a "crafts village," it's a collection of flea market type shops and some quality galleries. It seemed to be an eclectic combination of kitsch, cheap souvenirs and fine arts - a fun place to browse, but they were closing up (5 PM) shortly after we got there which is why our stop was "quick."
The Morada Way Art Walkabout occurs along the highway at MM 81.5 and down the side street of Morada Way. It is held on third Thursdays from 6-9 PM, but since many of the artists were still setting up at 6, another time I think we'd have supper first and THEN browse the art. We spent an hour or so visiting various displays. We were introduced to "peace bells" by the Keys to Peace movement, and later saw the bell hanging in the new Community Peace Park in Key West. We saw lots of great art that we couldn't afford but it still was interesting to meet and talk to the artists.
We went to supper very nearby at Ma’s Fish Camp (MM 81 in Islamorada) – we were quite decadent and each had a basket of coconut shrimp which was absolutely delicious with 2 dipping sauces: a curry/yogurt/coconut (the hands down favoriet) and a tropical fruit blend. Then John had key lime pie and I had a chocolate kahlua “bread pudding” which was made with chocolate pound cake, not bread. Oh my… so bad for us but so yummy! That was actually one of our favorite meals of the trip!
We missed getting back for sunset by about 10 minutes, but there are more days.
Friday April 22:
We started by packing up this morning so we could be moved. We just had to get everything mostly collected - the staff did the actual moving and got everything out of the fridge as well. The new cottage was definitely the nicest accommodation of the whole trip (and yes, the most expensive, too). Since we don't spend a lot of time indoors, we tend to get budget accommodations - however, we loved the Largo Lodge so elected to upgrade for a couple of days rather than moving to a different place. Good choice! Below, left to right, are the front porch, living/ dining room and kitchen. One of my favorite parts of both Largo Lodge accommodations is a small thing: most of the lights are on dimmers! That was amazingly convenient both in the bathroom and the kitchen.
When we headed out, we first made a quick stop at the SunDivers office where John signed up for a snorkel trip tomorrow morning. We then arrived around 10 AM at Dagny Johnson Botanical State Park. It was a little hard to find because there are NO signs on Card Sound Road and the entrance is set back just a little from the street, so it was very easy to go right by it. But once you know it’s there there’s no problem: turn onto Card Sound Road and it’s about half a mile on the right, just past Loquat Drive. This is an interesting area - apparently it was destined to be a big housing development and so a wide road was started (see the big "entry circle" at the left). That project died and it is now a state park. Vehicles are not permitted, but the previously installed infrastructure makes most of the trail easily accessible by wheelchair, strollers, etc.
It was a nice walk but we didn’t see much wildlife and had already learned about the plants on previous nature walks. There was a group of birdwatchers leaving as we were coming in, so I’m guessing that 2 hours earlier in the day we might have seen more! We could HEAR lots of birds but I only saw one. We did see a profusion of what I think are green anoles, and a fair number of butterflies. At the right are some small clumps of mangrove growing in a swampy area. It was a nice walk, but at this time of year and time of day we didn’t see much.
Since we were already on Card Sound Road we drove up to Alabama Jack’s - a cult iconic restaurant built on a couple of barges so that it floats out over the sound. It's right next to the toll booth on Card Sound Road - an alternative route between the north end of Key Largo and the mainland. Unfortunately for us, it was just on the WRONG side (towards the mainland) of the toll booth but since the toll is only $1 it wasn’t a big deal. We got a table right at the water’s edge which was quite nice – we saw a manatee that didn't keep its snout out of the water long enough for a picture, but there were also lots of fish and birds to entertain us. In the picture below, you can see some of the long, thin pipefish right on the top of the water, as well as other, larger fish a little deeper. (With all of these pictures, you can enlarge it by clicking on it if you want a better view.) We listened to the laughing gulls – as they swoop around it really DOES sound like a laugh. And then we laughed at the red winged blackbirds trying to steal whatever food they could.
It was a place we never would have sought out if it hadn't been recommended to us by a friend (thanks Nancy and John). But it was a great experience and the food was good and priced right, too! They are known for their conch fritters so I went with that; John had a salad and fried spicy shrimp and we were both very happy with our meals.
On the way back to the key we witnessed the crazy traffic. It was Friday. It was also Easter weekend and apparently spring break in some places. So even early in the afternoon, traffic heading into the keys was backed up clear through Key Largo. We were glad we didn't have very far to go! We went down to the Key Largo Fisheries and bought a pound of very fresh grouper that John turned into a wonderful “sopa seca” (pictured at right) with the help of some fresh veggies and rice from the grocery store. John took a little swim before supper; after we ate, we sat on the pier with cool drinks and watched the sunset. I could get really used to this!
Saturday April 23
This morning John went snorkling with Sundivers. I dropped him off at the Key West Inn where the Sundivers boats dock (oceanside). They snorkeled at the Grecian Rocks reef, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. He had a good time – didn’t see anything radical or new, but enjoyed seeing some of his favorite reef fish again! He actually bought a disposable underwater camera and took pictures but somewhere along the line, the plastic camera casing got cracked so the film was ruined. Darn.
While he was out, I went to the Publix to pick up some groceries for supper tonight, then to the Thrift store to collect some glasses, plates, bowls for upcoming stages of our trip when we will not have a kitchen. I laid on the waterfront for a while, reading and enjoying the birds until it was time to go back to pick up John. My view looking up from the lounge is above, right; I also enjoyed the local ibis (left) that hang around on the fence.
After lunch was John's turn to shop - he bought some shirts and miscellaneous while I alternated between sun and shade and took a little nap out on the lounge. I cooked chicken stir fry for supper; we watched our last Key Largo sunset, read for a while and drifted pleasantly to sleep.
Sunday – April 24 Happy Easter!
This morning we slept in until 8 AM or so, had breakfast and packed up. We took a last walk around the Lodge grounds that we enjoyed so much: we watched the gray squirrels having breakfast and saw a southern black racer snake in a bougainvillea bush. He stuck out his tongue at us but didn’t move otherwise.
We filled up the gas tank even though it was only half way down because we feared it would get more expensive as we moved further down in the keys. It did – it cost about 10-15 cents more per gallon in the lower keys. We tried to stop at Anne's Beach (MM73.5) because it had been recommended to us; but it was so crowded that we not only couldn't find a place to park but it was very difficult to even turn around and get back out! So we kept on heading south to Long Key State Park (MM67.4) which was a delightful place to spend some time.
We walked along the boardwalk, climbed the observation tower and got a nice view of the hammock and the ocean (picture at left); then turned left on the Golden Orb Nature Trail. There were lots of nice ocean views (below left) and some undeveloped beaches. We saw the lighthouse on Tennessee reef 4 miles offshore, numerous gulf fritillary butterflies (below center) and lots of sandpipers. We did not encounter any spiders along that trial, but after we looped back to the boardwalk and took the trail in the other direction (south) we did see some spinybacked orbweavers. They were very tricky to photograph - they are so light that even a small breeze kept them in motion. Finally I asked John to stand behind one of them; he blocked some of the air and his shorts also provided enough contrast for me to focus on it hanging in its web (below right). The parasurfer (above, right) was fun to watch for a while. I also saw a black butterfly that hung upside down and had a striking orange and silver parallelogram on its underside. Frustratingly, I can’t locate it anywhere on line so I have no idea what it was.
We stopped at the Wreck & Galley Grill (MM58.5) on Grassy Key for lunch. It was very nice; while it is a sports bar and they had both NBA finals and some women’s fast pitch on TV’s, they were muted! Yay! Good food at a very reasonable cost ($7 - $10 for a sandwich basket with HUGE sandwich and a side dish) in a nice atmosphere. They have both indoor and outdoor seating. I had a fish BLT and John had a grilled fish. Then he had a Key Lime cheesecake for dessert and I brought my giant piece of carrot cake home for later! (It was so big that I ate it in 3 different installments.)
We checked in at Sea Dell Motel in Marathon a little after 2 PM. It was exactly what we expected. Though it was only one room, it had a king sized bed, enough room to move around, a microwave and a larger-than-mini fridge with a small freezer section so all of our cold food fit nicely. There was a small table with 2 chairs that worked perfectly for breakfasts. I LOVED the track/spot lighting over the bed that made it possible to read comfortably using the bed as a couch! And the lights are on a dimmer so it doesn't have to be so bright when not being used for reading. One of the other things that attracted us to the Sea Dell is the laundry facility. The large capacity washer and drier ($1.50 each) took care of our 4 days of dirty clothes in one batch. And we could lounge by the pool (at right) while doing laundry - what a deal!
After the laundry was finished, we took a walk along Coco Plum beach (around MM54.2) – a nearby Marathon City beach, narrow but fairly long. (Turn towards the ocean on Coco Plum Drive and the park entrance is clearly marked about 1.5 miles down.) In the parking area, there are several informational boards about sea turtles. Other than that, there wasn't anything different or unique about it but we had a nice walk. Above left is John "collecting" along the edge of the beach.
It seems that the best sunset watching in the area is at the Seven Mile Bridge at the south edge of Marathon (MM47). The original ("historic") bridge was built as a railway bridge between 1908 and 1912. Then, in 1935, it was modified for automobile use. Finally, in 1982, the "new" bridge, parallel to it, opened and the old one was retired. The old one is now available for bicycle and pedestrian use only. It's a little over 2 miles long and a great place for an evening stroll (though I read that there is a chance it will be closed up for financial reasons - I hope not, it is a very nice place and gets a lot of use). The usable segment of the old bridge ends at Pigeon Key (a historic site open for tourists). This first night, we were tired out, so just walked down the stairs right before the bridge to a small park on Knight Key. It's a great view of the sunset and a nice place to sit. There were also fishers taking advantage of the evening - both human and heron (at right)!
After the sunset, we had a late dinner at Panda House. It had the advantage of being within walking distance of our motel so it was easy. The food was good and relatively cheap but nothing special.
Monday April 25
We were up and off today to Bahia Honda State Park (MM37), getting there shortly after 9 AM). There were signs up at the entrance saying that there would be no snorkel trips and no kayaking because of high winds. We weren't planning to do any that day, but it also was a clue that the snorkeling John did in Key Largo was all that he would get in on this trip.
We started at Sandspur beach (picture at right) - sandspur is the "Florida name" for what we call sand burrs! We walked up and down the beach, laughing at the sandpipers – some willet, some sanderlings and some ruddy turnstones – and gulls. Then we took the Silver Palm Nature Trail (silver palm tree at left below) and learned a bit more about some of the plants – we met one that looks like a magnolia and smells like a gardenia and I cannot remember its name! One of the fun parts was watching a reddish egret dancing/fishing in a lagoon (center). Apparently they make shade with their wings to attract the fish. We also met wild poinsettia (right).
Next we drove over to Loggerhead Beach where a long sandbar lets you can go out fairly far into the ocean without getting over your knees! The water felt nice since it was a hot day. We watched this great egret (left) carefully examining the sand for something good to eat. We walked the beach a bit, checked out the body art (right), and eventually hiked all the way around under the old Bahia Honda bridge to Calusa Beach.
We had our picnic lunch near the nature center at the only available picnic table (this is a very popular park even during the week). We laughed at the birds a lot since they were begging for food and battling over every crumb they found. Below see John taking a picture on the sandbar at Loggerhead Beach, old Bahia Honda bridge and Calusa Beach as seen from the top of the bridge,
After lunch we walked up on the pedestrian part of the old Bahia Honda bridge where you get a nice view of the area, the ocean and small islands. John took this picture of Barb on the bridge. We had some very yummy ice cream in the snack stand ($3.50 for a double dip cone but GOOD ice cream and worth it on a hot day); took a quick look in the nature center which had some nice exhibits but it's very tiny and didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know. Then we headed back to relax at the motel for a while.
John took a nap; I swam some laps in the small pool which was very pleasant; then took a shower and made some fruit salad for snack. John went off to a thrift store and a book store (are you seeing a pattern here?) then joined me poolside for a relaxing break reading in a lovely breeze until supper time.
Supper was at El Siboney, a Cuban restaurant down the street from us. I had stuffed shrimp, fried plantains and black beans and rice; John had the same sides with grilled grouper. It was all very good. We hiked out on the “old” Seven Mile Bridge a couple of miles (just short of Pigeon Key - picture at left) for tonight's sunset. After that supper, we needed the walk! Along the way we saw a fisherman rescue a pelican that was badly tangled in fishing line (right). They gently cut him loose and he flew off. Yay! The sunset, as we are becoming accustomed, was awesome!
This morning we headed south for a day in Key West. Our first stop was the West Martello Tower,where the Key West Garden Club maintains lovely gardens. Entrance is free and there was free parking in a couple of lots nearby which is quite unusual for Key West. They provided a nice, laminated map to help us find our way around! We were impressed and left a donation to help cover their costs. We saw the Community Peace Park with the Peace Bell that I mentioned earlier - pictured at right. We took many many pictures but below are just a few to give you an idea of what it is like. (See more in the Photos Without Comment Keys section!) We drove by the southernmost point just to snap a picture and say we were there (left) and headed to the Eco-Discovery building out by Fort Zachary State Park. At Eco-Discovery we also found free parking and no admission. It was really an amazing place - lots of interactive exhibits and a very nice video. We were there for about an hour but it could easily have been twice that if you pushed all the buttons and read through everything. Again, we left a donation!
Finally we drove up to the more well-known (and crowded) part of Key West and parked at the Pay n Ride ramp at Grinnell and Caroline, then walked along the Historic Boardwalk, saw Mallory Square (that has a carnival-like atmosphere at sunset, but was empty at that time of day), the "roads to Key West" sign at left, and then started down Duval St. We were not particularly impressed with the famous street. We were ready to sit down and have lunch – many places offered what appeared to be good food but also loud music, competing with everyone else’s blaring music. Finally we moved a block or so off of Duval on Greene Steet and settled on Thai Cuisine. I had Shumai – dumplings stuffed with shrimp and veggies – and John had a sushi special then I finished it off with a strawberry smoothie to go. The food was good but our waitress was didn’t seem to understand much which made it slow and more than a little tedious. We thought perhaps she was new but after reading numerous reviews, it appears that it's always like that!
We wandered up and down Duval St which is similar to a main street in other tourist towns. There is a mix of expensive galleries of very nice art and cheap “junk” hawked to souvenir seekers. We saw the infamous Margaritaville store, the lovely St. Paul Episcopal Church, and the "Smallest Bar" (below). It was hot and I was tired or walking. We stopped at Mattheessen & Magilner's Candy Kitchen where we got 2 delicious GIANT cookies (choc chip for me, oatmeal raisin for John) and John got a butter pecan ice cream cone, too. We were intrigued by the art work of Peter Lik – he’s an awesome photographer but also has his pieces (huge) processed with a special type of paper that gives them a very special lighting effect. They are just amazing.
When we finally were worn out we sprung the car from its lot ($8) and made our way back out to Highway 1. Back on Big Pine Key we stopped at CoCo’s kitchen (Cuban) in the Big Pine Shopping Center (MM 37 - turn west at the light) for a supper that was very good, very quick, extremely cheap. Recommended by a friend (thanks Renee), this place is the deal of the century in the Keys! John had an eggplant sandwich on Cuban bread; I had conch fritters which I ate with my fingers (this matters later). While we were eating, we saw our first key deer right there in the parking lot!
So, after we ate, we drove on down Key Deer Blvd and saw several more. Right near the end we stopped and saw a mama deer and her fawn. They came right over to us, apparently expecting to be fed so I pulled some grass and offered it. She turned her nose up at the grass but she was quite taken by (apparently) the Cuban spices and salt on my fingers. Both of them licked and licked! I’ve never been a salt lick for a deer before. They were adorable and we took lots of pictures.
John napped while I cooled off by swimming some laps in the pool; then I showered off, had some yogurt and fruit (late dessert). He went out and took some local sunset pictures down at the end of our road. We’re tired but it was a good day!
Wednesday April 27
Today was a sort of rest day. We slept in until 8:30 AM then went to another Marathon City Park - Sombrero Beach - where we walked the beach a couple of times (saw some chiton fossils at left), relaxed and read books. We also watched a group of 5th graders on a field trip frolick and play “boys vs girls” keep away in the water (picture at right). We saw a frigate (below right), and more sandpipers and gulls. Some comedy ensued when a laughing gull dove at the small ball the kids were using in their game. To their relief, it missed! There's a nice, small pier at the end of the park where we posed at left below.
After lunch we had nap time then went to a furniture store and tried out chairs! John sat in a lot of types of chairs and got some ideas for our living room. It was 93° and the air conditioned store was a nice place to hide out for a bit. We had leftovers tonight so we would have less food to carry around for the next few days we'd be on the road. The last Keys sunset below!
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