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Archive for December, 2006

Notes from the Keys

OK, we’re back online after a 30-hour hiatus …. seems like a long time, but it really wasn’t. We reluctantly left the sun and warm breezes of Bahia Honda on Friday and spent the night at one of the National Park campgrounds in Big Cypress National Preserve, along Rt 41 in the Everglades with the birds and gators.

A cold front came through, too. It seemed cold at 58 degrees in the evening, but then Colin called and said it was 10 in Plattsburgh with fresh snow. And to think, I’ll be there next week …

A few random items about the Florida Keys and Everglades:

1) No-see-ums can be a plague in the Everglades and Keys even in the dry season (winter). We have so many red spots on our feet and legs that we look like measles patients.

2) You can’t get online in the Everglades with Verizon.

3) Bahia Honda is nice but ridiculously hard to get into. If you can’t get in there, try the new state park, nearby: Curry Hammock.

4) The cheapest gas in the Keys is found in Key Largo.

5) We haven’t found a key lime pie that beats the one we had at Ted Peters’, but there was one on Marathon that was pretty darned good. Lime juice in the whipped cream topping is a nice touch.

Bahia Honda fun

To my mind, the pace of life should slow down in a place like Bahia Honda. I wish I could take a pure vacation but work obligations will not allow that, so I’ve done the most I can by working early in the morning and late at night.

Bahia Honda ranger talk.jpg

I’ve said before how useful the ranger talks are at state and national parks. So I “rescued” Brad from his late-morning drowse and we headed over to the old bridge to hear about the old Keys railroad financed by Henry Flagler from 1905 to 1912. It’s another great railroad debacle story like the one I heard in Anza-Borrego State Park last January. The railway is gone now. Route 1 covered it, and the only vestiges are some abandoned bridges.

There are nice beaches at Bahia Honda, and they are quiet this time of year. We took a picnic cooler and spent the afternoon wading through the shallow waters. Despite cold weather virtually everywhere else in the continental US, the Keys have once again been in the low 80s. I’ll be sorry to start heading north again so soon.

Bahia Honda cooking.jpg

Brad and Mary came over last night for dinner. Brad has some experience in the restaurant world, and so he’s a handy cook. We let him do some of the work last night…

Bahia Honda Brain.jpg

… while Mary and Emma played games and watched a little “Pinky & the Brain” on the big new screen.

We have debated whether to try to get another day here in Bahia Honda. The consensus seems to be that we won’t try, because we have a few stops we want to make on the way back up to Tampa and we don’t want to rush. Our schedule is being driven by airline tickets to depart Tampa on Monday. We’ll be flying to Vermont for what Emma calls “fake Christmas” for a week. After the sun and balmy weather here on the Keys, arriving in Vermont will be a shock indeed.

Bahia Honda.jpg

Bahia Honda State Park

You can’t get into Bahia Honda State Park very easily. This place is so popular that it often books up 11 months in advance. We tried a couple of months ago to get a spot here for this week, but it was impossible.

Then last week Brad tipped me off that a few sites had last-minute cancellations this week. I immediately got onto and found one site available for two days. Miracle! So we cancelled the rest of our stay at John Pennekamp State Park and headed about 65 miles further down the Keys.

(If you need to cancel or modify a reservation that you’ve made with ReserveAmerica, wait to do it at the campground. This avoids a $10 change fee that you’ll get if you do it by phone in advance.)

The Keys are basically one road all the way down, Rt 1, “Overseas Highway”. Instead of using addresses, most places indicate location by Mile Marker. We went from about MM 102 to MM 37.5. Before we left, we had breakfast at the Hideout restaurant, which is a very homey small place near the park next to “Jules Verne Undersea Lodge” (ideal if you would like to spend your vacation in a bubble under water). The Hideout doesn’t look like much but it’s friendly, local, and the back porch has a nice view.

Keys iguana.jpg

As we were packing up at Pennekamp, a very large iguana wandered by the campsite. This one was a good two feet long in body with a two foot striped tail. Iguanas are not natural here — but some pets were probably set free years ago and now you can see them thriving on the Keys. This guy was a monster.

We also met John and Thelma, the campground volunteers at Pennekamp. They gave us some good advice on travel to Mexico and have helped to lower Eleanor’s suspicions of it. She now concedes that a trip with a few other people (a mini-caravan) would be OK. I’m starting some serious planning …

Keys tarpon.jpg

Along the way at MM 77, you can feed the tarpon at Robbie’s. But the brown pelicans are aggressive there and the experience can be, um, challenging.

Keys bridge sunset.jpg

Brad and Mary are parked just down the row from us. We took a sunset walk up to the old Flagler Bridge, a leftover from the railroad that first connected the Keys back in 1912, and then returned to their Airstream for a superb Thai dinner that Brad and Mary whipped up for us. We contributed Key Lime Pie for dessert, of course.

Key Largo snorkeling

John Pennekamp State Park is the home of America’s first underwater park, and the only reefs in the continental US too. So it’s not surprising that snorkeling and scuba diving are the two most popular activities here.

I had tried to snorkel here a few years ago, but was stymied by bad weather. This time things looked better, so I carried my gear from the trailer over to the park’s shop for the noon boat. (Since the tourists have not begun to arrive in large numbers yet, reservations weren’t necessary.)

My buddy on the trip turned out to be a French man who was in town for a convention of polymer chemists. He spoke little English and I speak very little French. Perfect. I had fun trying to translate the Captain’s speech about coral protection, reef fish, inflatable vests, and Man O’War jellyfish. I learned the French word for jellyfish, then promptly forgot it.

The reef is about five miles offshore. The trip out, winding through canals of mangrove, is visually interesting and fun, especially in a fast twin-diesel turbine boat. Unfortunately, out in the open water the seas were running 3-4 feet, which is too choppy for snorkeling. Also, I suffer from mal de mer, as I explained it to my snorkel buddy, and once they anchored the boat at Grecian Rocks reef, the motion began to get to me. I got in the water fast.

On the reef the waves were 1-2 feet, acceptable for snorkeling. It still was a bit rough but, hey, I was out there, I’d spent $31, and being in the 78 degree water was a lot nicer than sitting on a pitching and rocking boat for 90 minutes. Besides, my French snorkel buddy needed me. He didn’t know the signal to come back to the boat when time was up.

Keys snorkeling.jpg
Hey, aren’t you supposed to have top of the tube above the water?

We saw colorful reef fish of all types, conch, several types of coral, and even a Spanish cannon. (My French associate Jack provided all these pictures from his underwater digital camera. I took many others with a film camera but haven’t developed it yet.)

I was thrilled to see a two-foot long grouper capture and eat a 4″ long reef fish right in front of me. (I guess the colorful disguise didn’t help that little guy.) But I didn’t see some of the creatures that I had hoped for, including nurse sharks and stingrays.

Keys fish.jpg

Eleanor and Emma checked out the two beaches that are here in the park. Like most of the Upper Keys, Key Largo has no natural beaches, so the only ones you will find are man-made and quite small. They could have gone snorkeling off the beach over a reproduction (!) of a Spanish wreck, but the water close to shore was too turbid from the wave action today. It was also Art & Crafts day — they made jewelry for Christmas gifts. The trailer is filled with colorful beads and silver wire.

I would have liked to have taken them with me, but Emma is not ready for a snorkel boat yet. She needs to get out of the habit of standing up everytime she sees something underwater. The coral is too fragile for that.

We’ve snorkeled four states so far on this trip: Vermont, Maine, Florida, and Texas. Anywhere the water is clear, we’ll go take a look. Any suggestions?

John Pennekamp SP, Key Largo, FL

Chokoloskee Island is one of the “Ten Thousand Islands” that make up the lower Everglades and provide a delight for kayakers and fishermen. To say that this area is abundant in wildlife is a serious understatement: everywhere you look or listen you can find them, and the photographic opportunities are superb. My 200 mm lens really got a workout.

Everglades blue bird.jpg
Many more photos on the Flickr album!

Everglades City is a piece of “old Florida” that is probably going to disappear in a few years. Already we can see the condos and “vacation villas” showing up and displacing the older residences. The town doesn’t look like much at first, but digging in you’ll find a numerous small restaurants and cafes, fantastic boating, fishing, sight-seeing opportunities, and great scenic vantage points from unexpected locations.

Everglades City.jpg

On our way out, we stopped at City Seafood on Begonia Street to pick up something interesting for lunch. This turned out to be some large grouper sandwiches and a bunch of steamed spiced shrimp. $6.95 for each item, and everything was terrific.

Everglades City lunch.jpg

Before we left the Everglades, Brad and Mary urged us to drop in on the H P Williams Wayside area on the Tamiami Trail. (The Tamiami Trail is also known as Route 41, the two-lane road that stretches from Miami to Naples, and then northward to Tampa.) This is an ideal stop for the Airstreamer, since there’s a parking lot with dedicated spaces for RVs, and superb bird and gator viewing. Bring a long lens or binoculars, but most of the creatures will be within 100 feet of you as you walk the boardwalk.

Now we are in Key Largo at John Pennekamp State Park. I am hoping to go snorkeling today at noon, if conditions are good. The sun is in and out of clouds but the sky is mostly clear and we are enjoying upper 70s while even in Tampa it is 15 degrees colder. The water is a balmy 78 degrees here, and the seas should be reasonably calm, so the only real blotch on the snorkel trip is that there is a “Man O’War” jellyfish warning in the water. Still, the boat trips are going to the reef, so apparently the operators feel conditions are still acceptable. I’ll report on that tomorrow.

Chokoloskee Island, Everglades, FL

I-75 is a long ribbon connecting Jackson Center, OH (the home of Airstream) to Florida’s Everglades. Given that this is December and the entire country seems plunged into temperatures best associated with refrigerator compartments, we chose to head south.

Our goal was to get into the Everglades for a quick one-night stopover. We’ve visited the Everglades before in our 1968 Airstream Caravel, but we’ve never been to the Everglades City area, so that became our destination. Coincidentally, in the morning I received an email from Brad and Mary saying that they were staying at Chokoloskee, and we realized it was basically the same place, and for a bonus, there was a campground offering a $17.50 full-hookup rate for holders of the Passport America discount card.

Chokoloskee trailers.jpg

So while Brad and Mary were out riding a National Park Service boat tour, we pulled up next to their spot and set up camp. After six months of emailing each other as we roamed the country, I think they were a bit shocked to find us finally parked ten feet away!

Chokoloskee pelican.jpg

Before Brad and Mary returned, we also got a chance to photograph some brown pelicans at the marina. I’ve uploaded a bunch of nature photos from this stop to our Flickr album, which you can see here.

We hit it off with Brad and Mary, and ended up putting together a fun dinner made up of various “Indian food in a box” packages we both realized we were carrying, and staying up till 11 p.m. yakking. We’ll see them again on Wednesday.

I’ll talk more about Chokoloskee Island, and Everglades City, in Tuesday’s blog, when I catch up. Here’s where we camped (requires Google Earth to view).

Skyway Fishing Pier

On the road again, and it feels good! We towed the Airstream down to Ft De Soto for the afternoon, and met Brett, and another Airstream couple, Terry & Marie, at our “day camp” by the North Beach. They brought motor scooters, so I got to take one out and give Emma a ride.

Ft De Soto Emma scooter.jpg

One of the neat things about taking your Airstream to Ft De Soto is that you can park on the bay at several points, on reasonably firm sand.

Ft De Soto beach camp.jpg

Our next stop was the Sunshine Skyway South Fishing Pier, across Tampa Bay. Readers of the Vintage Thunder blog last year may recall we’ve been here before. It’s a neat spot for an overnight. Bert & Janie drove out to join us for the evening, just to see what it’s like. They may bring their Airstream next time.

Skyway kids.jpg
Bert interviews some fishermen on the Skyway Pier

After sunset Bert and I went down the pier to try to get some night shots of the nearby Sunshine Skyway Bridge. I like how this bridge looks like a sailing ship at night, but it’s tough to get a decent shot even with a tripod. We were at it with two Nikons and long lenses, for half an hour.

Skyway Bridge.jpg

It has been a quiet, if damp, night on the pier. Being over the water, a mile from shore, it is naturally very humid. But the temperatures have been perfect and as I type this, the sun is rising to give a pink and blue start to the day. We’ll tow south today, either to Naples, the Everglades, or the Keys, depending on how it goes.

Our Google Earth position on the Skyway Pier.

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