Monday, March 3, 2014
February 23-27, 2013
Camping in my brother’s driveway
Something we heard about last year that we decided to do on this visit is spend the day at Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the least visited national parks about 70 miles west of Key West. We were planning to snorkel while in the Keys at Sombrero Reef or Looe Key Reef, but figured it would not cost that much more to have the opportunity to visit the Dry Tortugas and get in an afternoon of snorkeling in a more exotic place. We were wrong of course—about the cost--but feeling up for an adventure, we decided to go for it anyway.
Other than by private boat, there are two ways to get to the Dry Tortugas, via the Yankee Freedom II, a catamaran ferry, or Key West Seaplane Adventures—both out of Key West. We opted for the ferry which departs daily from Key West at 8 am and returns by 5:30 pm. The trip out to the islands takes a little more than two hours, leaving plenty of time to explore the fort on the island, hang out on the beaches and get in some snorkeling. The trip includes a continental breakfast and picnic lunch, a guided tour of Fort Jefferson, and snorkeling equipment for those interested. Camping is also allowed on the island on a first-come, first-serve basis. You just have to load the boat a little early with all your camping gear including fresh water and food as there are no stories or concessions on the island. Visitors taking the ferry can also bring along their own kayaks based on a space available policy.
I will tell you straight out—other than seeing the moat and brick walls of the fort, I have no idea about this historical part of the tour. There was no way I was going to spend my time inside the brick walls of the fort with the white sandy beaches beckoning me to their shoreline. Vic did the tour and I headed to my first destination: the south beach of the island. Could you resist this beach?
For those who would like more information about the history of the islands, I offer a relatively brief synopsis. Ponce de Leon discovered these islands in 1513, naming them Los Tortugas after the many sea turtles he found there. The word “Dry” was added to let mariners know there is no fresh water available on the islands. The US acquired the seven keys that make up the Dry Tortugas as part of our purchase of Florida from Spain in 1822.
Located along a popular shipping route dating back to early Spanish explorers and merchants traveling along the Gulf Coast, the islands are steeped in legends about famous shipwrecks and sunken treasures. The most famous shipwrecks near the islands were the two Spanish Galleons worth over half a billion dollars discovered by Mel Fisher and his team: The Atocha and The Santa Margarita.
In 1846, the US Army began building a fort here to protect the shipping lanes of the Florida Straits and defend the Gulf Coast, but the fort was never finished due to several factors: lack of fresh water, the challenges of shipping bricks this far, and the invention of a new type of cannon which made the walls penetrable and the fort obsolete.
During the Civil War, the fort was used as a staging area and a military prison. The fort’s most famous prisoner was Dr. Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg who was accused of being a co-conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination. After the war, the fort used as a coaling station for US Navy ships.The most famous US Navy ship that ever fueled up here, just before its fateful mission to Havana, was the USS Maine.
Fort Jefferson was made a national monument in 1935 and, in 1992, to preserve Fort Jefferson and protect the island and marine ecosystems, the seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas were designated a national park.
Even though I did not want to spend much time in the fort, its 16 million bricks and 2000 arches are quite impressive architecturally. This aerial photo I borrowed from the National park Service website give you an idea of the fort’s massive size and classic moat.
When visitors arrive to the main island (the only one open to the public), there is an opportunity to go on a guided tour of the fort or explore the island and its waters on your own. A wagon provisioned with snorkeling gear is stationed near the dock for checking out your own gear for the day. I had intended to borrow my sister-in-law’s snorkel and mask as the free rental equipment was pretty basic, but in the haste of our early departure, I forgot it. Their snorkels were not very good as the tops were an open tube as opposed to the dry or semi-dry snorkels that prevent water from seeping in. Also my mask kept fogging up even though I tried the old spitting in your mask trick. Eventually, I used liquid soap from the bathroom aboard the ferry to defog my mask. Good equipment would have made my day more enjoyable. Vic was less fussy than I (surprising?) but I like to dive down and explore things more.
There are two main beaches each of which give access to the best snorkeling around the island. The south beach access requires you to swim out and then head back in to an area where reefs have formed around ancient pillars. It is a little creepy dodging all the rusty underwater formation, but the marine life here was pretty good. I bought a cheap underwater camera to try out and am pretty disappointed with the results, but the photos give you a little glimpse of what the snorkeling was like.
When I was snorkeling by myself, I found someone to buddy up with and he wanted to show me an amazing conch he has spotted. He dove down and brought it up so his wife could take a photo of him with it and then he offered to take a photo of me with this queen conch. Rest assured, I watched him carefully put this beauty back in its original habitat.
Vic joined me in exploring the coral reefs by the south beach pillars then we decided to try the snorkeling at the north beach. Here you follow the sea wall of the moat and swim into some deeper waters with pillars near the wall. The marine life was even more abundant on the north shore but my time was cut short by several 4-5 ft. barracudas who seemed to be staring me down. Ha. I saw some huge angel fish in this area and made several diving attempts to get a photo of them, but they scattered each time I snapped the shutter. Another snorkeler came along with his GoPro camera and I vowed that would be one of my next purchases as you can do video or still shots underwater that look amazing.
Aside from the snorkeling, I don’t think just hanging out on the island for the day would be worth the cost. The boat ride to and fro did not offer any amazing views and if there had been rough seas, it would not have been a pleasant experience. So, overall, we were glad to see this beautiful jewel of an island, but we have had better snorkeling in Cozumel, Hawaii, and even Sombrero Reef off of Marathon.
Since our boat arrived back in Key West an hour before sunset, we decided to check out the celebration in Mallory Square. We were going to meet Karen and Al of RV Travels there but Al wasn’t feeling too well, so we set out by foot from the boat dock on our own. The walk to the square was less than a mile along charming residential streets. When I see local folk hanging out on the patios of some of these historic conch homes, I get romantic notions of living in Key West (only seasonally). Who knows what the future may hold?
Fortunately, the cruise ships were all pulling out just as we arrived back to the harbor on this rather sleepy Monday night, so the square was hardly crowded at all. The carnival-like atmosphere was very festive and entertaining.
The sunset turned out to be pretty decent too. I especially liked watching the sky with the boats enjoying the view in the foreground.
After our fun day, we returned to a strong dose of reality in Marathon as my brother was hospitalized for pneumonia and, in the middle of the night after our return, his heart went into a life threatening a-fib with the fear of congestive heart failure. The doctors had him transported by ambulance to a hospital in Miami with more specialized cardiac care. My sister-in-law and I drove to Miami (about a two hour drive) and stayed with my brother until we knew his condition had stabilized. As I write this now, my brother is still in a Miami hospital getting a pacemaker put in today. I drove back to the Keys a few days ago and my sister-in-law returned with her son to Marathon this weekend. She will go pick up my brother tomorrow or Wednesday. He is expected to make a full recovery but needs to, as he puts it, “throttle down” a little as his Type A personality often causes him to overdo it.
We are heading back to the Holiday Cove RV Resort in Cortez for the month of March. Not in our original plans, but while we were staying there in January, they let us know about a cancellation and we decided to return to a place we know and love rather than pursue our original plan of exploring the east coast of Florida in March. Sure helps to have good friends in the place we are returning to as leaving the Keys is never easy. We figure my brother could use the rest--no more underwater boat cleaning for him! Life throws us curve balls sometime. My mom used to call it, “God banging on your hood.” Gotta pay attention to those messages from the universe.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
February 17-23, 2013
Camping in my brother’s driveway
The past week we have been in action making the most of our time here in this tropical paradise. Two things we wanted to be sure to do was meet up with some folks we met during our stay in Hilton Head Island and see our full-time RV blogging friends, Karen and Al, whom we have been fortunate to meet in the Tampa area two years ago.
Grayson and Glennda, the friends we met in Hilton Head, told us they would be at Bluewater Key RV Resort during February and March, so we took advantage of being able to visit them in the most gorgeous RV resort down here.
Check out the artistry of the gates leading into Bluewater Key RV Resort.
Even better than the gates are the actual sites—many of them with waterfront views. Here is Grayson and Glennda’s daily view outside their motorhome. I think I could live with this.
To make the sites even more attractive, many have tiki huts which have full size outdoor living areas.
Grayson and Glennda have been coming to this area for at least ten years, so they know it well and were great hosts in taking us to Salute, a fantastic café on the north beach of Key West, and then touring us around Key West pointing out their favorite places. Vic and I had never been to the north beach area. We were very impressed with the great beaches there—something we thought Key West was lacking.
Meeting Grayson and Glennda in Hilton Head was pure serendipity as we happened to sit next to them in the bar at Charlie's L'etoile Verte. Turns out they also had a motorhome and, as long term residents of HHI, were a wealth of information about the area. They are originally from Kentucky, and in true southern fashion, are super-friendly and charismatic folks. Aside from the pleasures of sharing a very delicious lunch with them, we enjoyed seeing their site at Bluewater, oohing and aahing over their Travel Supreme motorhome, and meeting Sugar Baby, their adorable Havanese companion who greeted us at their site.
On the topic of friends, we spent a fun happy hour together with Karen and Al at their favorite spot, the Sunset Grille just next to the famous Seven Mile Bridge. It’s amazing how much there is to talk about when two full-timing couples get together. One of the topics that is always of great interest to us is sharing favorite destinations. Karen and Al split their time between their new RV lot in the northern Georgia mountains, their home-base park near Tampa (which, most importantly, is near her mother) and the Keys. As Vic and I think about our future retirement plans, when we are not on the road full-time, we also envision a mountain retreat and a tropical retreat as the ideal lifestyle.
Of course any trip to the Sunset Grille has to include a few photos of sunset over the bridge and the bar area with a “beach” and a pool just for its patrons.
One of the best highlights of this past week was going sailing with my brother Mike and his wife Bonnie on their beloved sailboat of twenty years. Even though the boat, a 40’ Tartan, lives on the dock in front of their home, they don’t get out in it much anymore. Lives change when we get older and, sadly, the boat is now for sale. But, Mike and Bonnie worked hard to get it in shape for a day sail which required going underwater with a tank and scrapers to clean the prop and boat bottom. Ugh. Wish I could have helped. Having owned a couple of sailboats before myself, I was reminded of all the constant upkeep that is required for the pleasure it provides. Makes living in a motorhome seem hassle-free--thanks to Vic and his dedication to impeccable maintenance.
Time to go sailing! We loaded up the galley with wine and cheese and other goodies and off we went. The wind was blowing pretty good at 20+ knots. Since we were all in favor of a gentle sail, Mike decided to only use the foresail or jib and not the mainsail. With both sails up, we would have been heeled over too much for it to be relaxing.
Vic is the less experienced sailor among us, so it was a special treat for him to experience the Zen quiet of clipping along about 6 knots with no engine noise. Even though we were mostly sailing under autopilot, Vic had to pretend to take the helm for at least one photo op.
The wind was coming directly from the north so we set sail northwest into the Gulf about twelve miles out. The waters around here are pretty tricky to navigate in terms of varying depth, the tides, and hundreds of lobster traps to avoid. Thankfully, GPS units combined with autopilot make it much easier to set your course in navigable waters. The lobster buoys, however, can only be avoided by constant checking with your eyes as getting the lines in the prop, even without the motor running, can be a major problem.
We headed back on a southeasterly course just in time for sunset. Unfortunately, the clouds all seemed to disappear minutes before dusk so it was not one of the more memorable skies you are likely to see here. I did, however, like this shot of my brother with the shadows of the setting sun.
When we returned to the dock around 7 pm, I became the center of dramatic attention as my foot slipped on the dock and in the water I went with a full bag of provisions in my hand. I was incredibly lucky to have no injuries as the shoreline is all rocky with sharp barnacles. The saving grace was high tide. I was double lucky to have handed the bag with my camera and cell phone to Vic before launching myself from the pier. Once I realized I was okay, I could not stop laughing. My brother wishes he had a video camera mounted on the pier to tape my ungraceful exit. This drowned rat headed for a warm shower to desalinate and think of a way to restore my pride. I was the only one who wore my bathing suit on the sail, so a swim seemed a natural way to cap off this most perfect day.
Yesterday, Vic and I headed off to Bahia Honda State Park to go kayaking. There is no end of great places to get your boat wet around here, but Bahia Honda seems to be one of the favorites. The only downside was the $4.50 per person day use charge but it turned out to be well worth it. Bahia Honda is one of the best state parks in the Keys and it has great camping sites as well. As a result, its popularity makes it one of those challenging places to reserve as you have to set your alarm for 12:01 am eleven months ahead and still may be shut out. I think it is sad that the Reserve America seems to have made many popular campgrounds less accessible to most people as one RV could block off ten weeks of availability. (They allow five 14-day stays in a row with a one day break in between each stay.) End of rant.
We learned that circumnavigating the entire island would be about a five mile trip. That sounded doable to us, mostly because we tire less easily with the Hobie Mirage Drive pedal system than if we had to paddle the whole distance. What we didn't take into account were the currents on the return part of our trip on the Atlantic side, but it was an absolutely gorgeous day with little wind and amazing scenery.
The varying shades of turquoise waters were mesmerizing. Surprisingly, we hardly saw any wildlife--no stingrays, dolphins, or sea turtles. It was fun, however, to look down into the clear water and see a variety of marine life such as sponges, sea fans, coral, and tropical fish. When we returned to the kayak launch area after about three hours, I took the opportunity to swim in the ocean for awhile and it felt GREAT. The water temperature here is about 78 now and the bottom was all pure white sand.
In between all our adventures this week, we have been enjoying shared meals with my brother and sister-in-law, watching the dogs interact and play in the water, and tending to all the normal details of life. One pleasure which might seem mundane is hanging all our laundry on the big clothes lines in my brother’s yard.
That about wraps up week two in the Keys. We leave here on Saturday, so we plan to make the most of it! Not hard to do in such a magical place. . . .
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
February 10-17, 2014
We are very lucky to have a free place to stay in the Keys at my brother’s home on Dodge Lake in Marathon. The lake has a canal that leads out to the Gulf so we can kayak right from his pier. Staying in his driveway is much better than it sounds as we also have 50 amp power and full hook-ups. What’s not to like? This is our third year enjoying this spot and we feel quite grateful to be here.
Our dogs may be even more excited as they can be leash free with lots of play time with their “cousins,” plus they have access to the water. My brother Mike has an incredibly big driveway as it holds both his 40’ American Dream motorhome, our 36’ Phaeton motorhome, with plenty of room leftover for our Jeep and his Nissan truck. We even have a lovely view of palm trees and water from our front window.
My favorite part of his waterfront yard is hanging out by the pier or swinging in the hammock. Rico, proving true to his original nickname of “Loaf,” decided he likes to join me in the hammock. Life is pretty sweet rocking with your dog in a hammock.
Our first week here has been pretty low key (like the pun). The weather the first few days was on the warm and humid side, then a storm blew in with temperatures dropping to the 60s. For us, it’s all good except the weather does influence our choice of activities, especially the wind when we are considering kayaking. My first activity of choice is not weather dependent at all; it was to buy ten punch cards for the local Zumba class that I liked so well last year. I only go three or four times a week, but it is a major highlight for my mornings as I really like the instructors and their choice of music. It is like starting each day with a party. Fun.
One cloudy and cool day we headed down US 1 about twenty miles to check out the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge—something we had not done before. The Key Deer, a smaller subspecies of white tailed deer that are only native to the Keys is an endangered species. Fortunately, in 1957, the government established a National Wildlife Refuge to protect them which has helped increase their numbers, but cars are still the primary threat to the population. When you travel on US 1 on Big Pine Key, where the refuge is located, there are signs everywhere to reduce your speed and watch for deer. Most people follow these warnings as there is a $10,000 fine for hitting one. Ouch.
The refuge itself is about four or five miles off the highway. Along the way is a place called the Blue Hole where the Key Deer supposedly hang out along with alligators, turtles, and wading birds. We stopped at the Blue Hole, but, alas, only saw a few alligators. For some reason, everything really did look blue even on a cloudy day.
The trail around the hole, an abandoned quarry, was closed so we headed further into the refuge hoping to see some deer. We did but they scattered way too quickly, so I wasn’t able to get a photo of them.
The refuge happens to be close to No Name Key, were there is a popular tourist attraction—a bar that once was part of a brothel dating back to the 1930s. By this time a cold beer sounded pretty good, so we stopped there to check out the famous No Name Pub. One of the most interesting features of the bar is the thousands of dollar bills hanging from the ceiling and walls. They estimate there are over 65,000 dollars papering the place. We were not hungry when we stopped but many go there for the pizza which is supposed to be darn good.
When we were here two years ago, we had the good fortune of taking part in an informal boondocking rally right on the ocean side of Knight’s Key with a daily view of the Seven Mile Bridge .(My brother is good friends with the man who used to own the Sunset Grille who still owns the vacant waterfront property next to it.) The bridge, an iconic part of the Key’s history, is one of several scenic sites along what is known as the Overseas Highway. The original bridge, built in the early 1900s as part of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, was replaced by a newer bridge in the late 1970s, but they kept spans of the old bridge for walking, biking, and fishing. We learned that we could walk the dogs on the old 2.2 mile section of the bridge spanning from Knight’s Key to Pigeon Key. I was worried that the dogs might be afraid, but the pathway is concrete and rather wide, so they did fine.
We liked the walk so much that we returned a few days later by bike. This time we rode from my brother’s house, about fifteen miles round trip. The big surprise for us was learning how bike friendly the Keys have become. The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail now includes over 70 miles of pathways that parallel US 1 with a plan to complete the whole distance of 106 miles from Key Largo to Key West. The traffic on US 1 can be pretty gruesome, so biking on its shoulder would be treacherous. We only rode on the path about eight miles and, while it is great to have a separate trail, there are many side roads that intersect the trail so you have to be very alert—at least in the Vaca Key/ Marathon area.
Riding your bike opens up all kinds of vistas you wouldn’t see by car. We stopped at two lovely hotels to check them out. The first resort was called Tranquility Bay. I loved the plantation-looking architecture and their private beach.
The second place that caught our eye was called The Hammocks, appropriately named as they feature hammocks along the waterfront for their guests. The vacation villas here looked like a good getaway for those not living life on the road in a motorhome!
Our bike ride on the old bridge was great as they have walking paths on both sides with a wider path in the middle for bikes. As we were riding along someone pointed out to us that there were many stingrays in the water. There were at least a dozen of them in easy view, but I need a filter on my camera to get a better shot of anything underwater. We also saw a group of four dolphins cavorting around but they were too elusive for me.
There are lots of picturesque views from the bridge. From the end you can walk down to Pigeon Key, a national historical district, and tour the museum and surrounding buildings there. (We were not prepared to do this nor pay the $12 fee.) Pigeon Key was an important locale for housing the 400 workers who built the original bridge, once called the Eighth Wonder of the World, that was part of the Flagler Overseas Railroad.
Here are a few other shots from our bike ride on the bridge.
We have a local “bucket list” of things we want to do while we are here, but we have been pretty kicked back about checking off the list. Since we have both been to the Keys many times before (my father used to live here), we don’t feel as compelled to play tourists as we might be on our first trip to the “rodeo.” We both like experiencing life here in a more relaxed way. Having said that, tonight my brother and Vic were studying navigation charts for a trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park. At the top of my list is a snorkeling trip, but it doesn’t need to be in the Dry Tortugas. We are also looking forward to getting in some new kayaking trips, perhaps with Karen and Al of RV Travels.
I will be happy if I can say I read a whole novel in the hammock before we leave here. I read my very first novel, Pippi Longstocking, in a hammock at age eight. No wonder I am so compelled to swing between the palm trees every day. And, you might notice from the photos, that my brother has a lovely sailboat tied up to his dock. Sailing also used to be an important part of my life and there is a very good chance we will get Passion, his Tartan 40', out into the blue water. Stay tuned for Part II of this Pippi’s latest adventures.