Boy, does time fly when you are having fun! We threw off the bowlines over 2 months ago and we have been so busy exploring that I am very far behind on the blog!
Last time I wrote, we had been in Key Largo for a couple of days just starting out on our adventure discovering all the Keys has to offer. I had been dreaming of getting down to the Keys for over 40 years and as they say, “better late than never!”
Our first stop was in Key Largo at the Key Largo Kampground. This is another hidden gem especially if you can grab one of the waterfront sites. They have really cute chickees (a Seminole elevated house constructed of palmetto leaves and cypress-log stilts) on your own private dock. I spent many an afternoon sitting in a lawn chair watching the fishing boats coming down the channel and maybe even took a nap or two!
Key Largo isn’t as touristy as Key West but there is great shopping and restaurants, as well as fantastic state parks and easy access to North Key Largo and the middle Keys of Tavernier, Islamorada, & Marathon. An added bonus is the Publix grocery & several restaurants were in walking distance from the campground.
Our first day was spent exploring Key Largo and getting ready for our first adventure by obtaining snorkeling masks & snorkels from Diver’s Outlet. The staff at Diver’s was VERY knowledgeable and helped us to select the right equipment for us.
We also went over to check out the John Pennekamp State Park where we had booked a snorkeling trip for the next day out to the underwater coral reef state park. We hiked the trails in the park and checked out the beaches. As it turns out, there are very few sandy beaches in the Keys and almost all of them have been created in the state parks. As the Keys are built upon coral rocks it is hard to find places that are just sandy oases.
The next morning it was off to the reef and a bit of snorkeling. Sorry I didn’t take an underwater camera – I just enjoyed the moment!
Jon’s sister, Chris, came down for a couple of days of R&R staying at a nearby B&B. Her good friends Pat and John drove her down and even came back down to pick her up. We enjoyed a day getting to know Pat and John having lunch at the Hobo Café and then taking them to John Pennekamp State Park to see the aquarium. We also had to do the touristy thing and drove out to Shell World for the obligatory souvenirs.
One of the best outings we had was going to the Theater of the Sea on Islamorada. Jonathan and I have really gotten away for going to animal shows and zoos as we feel the animals tend to be mistreated. Chris really wanted to go to the Theater of the Seas, and I have to say it was one of the best shows we have seen in a while. First, all of the animals are rescues and are being treated wonderfully. The shows are great especially the parrot show but the most outstanding performances were by the dolphins and their trainers. These women where AMAZING! The video & pictures just don’t do the show justice as we were too busy watching to catch it all!
Chris requested shrimp for dinner so after the show we stopped for dinner at the Shrimp Shack for some delicious seafood.
Our next adventure took us back in time and delved into a bit of movie magic. The Original African Queen is moored in Key Largo, and you can take a pleasant boat ride out to the ocean and through the canals of Key Largo seeing all of the houses and boats. You sit where Kathryn Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart sat and I even got in character by reenacting the famous scene of Rose Sayer (Hepburn) dumping Charlie Allnut’s (Bogart) gin overboard. On the way home we stopped at the Fernandez Cuban Grill for some delicious Cuban cuisine.
We purchased a Florida State Park Annual Pass our first day at John Pennekamp and really put it to good use going to several parks in the Keys. Our second one was the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Botanical Hammock State Park for an early morning hike. Unfortunately, the heat and humidity had already starting to rise, and it turned out that the trail we chose was closed due to flooding, and we had to back track quite a ways around the park. Once we were back in the air-conditioned car and had consumed a fair amount of water we were done for the day!
The waters were calling to us so be booked a kayaking tour with Florida Bay Outfitters which would take us around John Pennekamp State Park waterways and through the mangrove tunnels. We had an excellent tour guide that pointed out (and picked up) sea life along the way and navigated the labyrinth groves. It was a great trip and I highly recommend it!
We spent several days relaxing at the coach enjoying both the sunny and rainy days catching up on household chores, relaxing out on the chickee, and taking walks around the campground. We did cook a
lot, but we tried to go out to different restaurants a couple of times a week. Our captain on the African Queen recommended one, the Fisherman’s Backyard Café at the Key Largo Fisheries Marina. It was more of a local hangout off the beaten path and turned out to be one of the best restaurants we dined in at the Keys! The seafood comes straight off the boats into the restaurant, cooked to perfection, and onto your plate. It was the first time I had eaten hogfish and it was delicious!
One day on our walk around the campground we noticed some brown shapes that had swum up the canal behind our campsite. When we went over to investigate them, it turned out to be a pod of five Manatees that had come over to drink the fresh rainwater that was being funneled into a pipe and back into the canal. Turns out that manatees live in both fresh and saltwater water and though it is illegal to put a freshwater hose out to attract them, if they find a source of relatively clean water, they will drink till it is all gone!
On our drive to Islamorada, we saw another state park we wanted to go back to investigate. Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park has very nice hiking trails where you can learn about the fossil corals and ancient marine life as well as and the railroad Henry Flagler built out to Key West.
After getting hot and sweaty on our hike around the Geological Park, it was time for a dip in the beautiful crystal clear blue green waters of the Keys. We drove on to Anne’s Beach, one of the few public beaches that is not in a state park and snagged a shelter on the boardwalk. We spent the afternoon, snorkeling, swimming, and reading while we watched the fish and birds play in the water. All that activity called for something cool, so we drove on to Marathon and got homemade ice cream and Italian Ices at Conch Custard Ice Cream Shop. And what is a stop for ice cream without a little shopping at the nearby shops! There is a really cute souvenir shop, Marooned in Marathon, next door to the ice cream shop with some beautiful metal artwork and lots of pretty things to buy. They even had some nice plastic wine glasses we couldn’t pass up. I may have to go back down to get some of that artwork for our site in Umatilla – gives me a great excuse to go back to the Keys!
After our stop in Marathon, we headed back toward Key Largo stopping at two more state parks just to check them out, Long Key State Park and the Curry Hammock State Park. Both have small beaches and hiking trails that would be great places to get your steps in. That about wraps up our two weeks in Key Largo – we really crammed a lot in, but it was worth it!
Our next two weeks were booked at Key West’s Boyd’s Campground. We had read all the reviews and Boyd’s was always one of the highest rated campgrounds in the Keys. And the reputation is well deserved. They are not really in Key West but on Stock Island just a mile from the bridge. They had great sites, some right on the water, a nice small beach and pool, plus a food truck which serves 3 meals a day!
Our first day in Key West was spent getting oriented to where things were and explored the Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Yeah, we really got our money’s worth with that state park pass! You can take a very nice tour of the old fort and they have trails to hike and a beautiful beach!
Our second outing was walking Duval Street checking out the shops and going down to the Southernmost Point in US. We have now been to the 4 corners and the center of the Lower 48 states. This point was the last one we need to check off our list of NW, NE, SW, & SE furthest points. After getting our obligatory photo with the buoy, we stopped for lunch at the Southernmost Bar & Sandy’s Café. I may never eat seafood away from the coast again! This time is was a great grilled grouper!
As we walked back up Duval Street stopping in shops and enjoying the music coming from the open-air bars, we spotted the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. There were soooo many butterflies and rare birds!! It is definitely worth the stop when you are in the Keys.
We did find a place to play pickleball on Places to Play so one morning we headed over to see how these courts work. We found a great set of courts at the Higgs Beach Tennis and Pickleball Courts with a good group of players who invite us to join in. We played until the heat of the day got to us and we headed back to our cool RV.
It seems one of the de rigor activities in the Keys is to take a Glass Bottom Boat Tour. We chose the Fury Glass Bottom Boat Sunset Tour which took us out to the reef in the late afternoon and then we enjoyed a beautiful sunset on our way back to shore. The Florida Coral Reef stretches almost 350 miles from the Dry Tortugas to St. Lucie Inlet. It is the only coral reef system in the continental US and is being threatened by ocean acidification, changes in weather and storm patterns and sea level rise. We saw lots of fish (sorry it was really hard to photograph them through the glass bottom of the boat) and picturesque coral. (Side note: we wanted to do the Dry Tortugas but they have a very limited ferry that takes you out and back. There was no availability for the whole time we were there, you really need to book this way in advance of your trip!)
The sunset was AWESOME! Definitely take the sunset tour!
After the tour we walked along the waterfront to Mallory Square for the Sunset Party where you can go and watch the sunset, listen to music, shop vendors and grab a bite to eat.
Key West Botanical Gardens is another beautiful place to hike, and we spent a couple of hours one day rambling around the trails looking at all of the beautiful trees and flowers that only grow in the Keys. My new favorite tree is the Gumbo Limbo! The bark is an amazing auburn color plus the name is just fun to say!
After another couple of days playing pickleball we got back to sightseeing. We spent another day walking around Key West hitting all the must-see places. We toured Hemmingway’s home learning fascinating details about his life we never knew and seeing where he wrote so many of his great works. Plus seeing all of the 6-toed cats, and there were a LOT of cats! We got our picture at the 0-mile marker, saw our first Kapok tree, toured the Shipwreck Museum (Yes, we climbed all of the steps up the tower and rang the bell!), walked along the pier, had Italian ices, and ambled around the Key West Aquarium. We stopped for an early dinner (and to rest our feet!) at First Flight . This restaurant is in an historic building where the first Pan Am flight tickets were sold. Not only great food but fantastic ambience and outdoor patio.
A new adventure for us was night kayaking. We headed over to Night Kayak Key West and joined a group of three other couples and got into kayaks that have LED lit glass bottoms. You could see the sea floor of the mangrove tunnels quite clearly as we paddled around the small islands around Key West. We saw spiny lobsters, blue crab & rock crabs, starfish, Cassiopeia jelly fish, barracuda, tarpon, sting ray, a nurse shark, huge loggerhead sponges, mullet, and glass minnows – all through the glass bottomed kayak. It was a beautiful night, cool and not buggy at all. Plus, we had a great guide and being a small group we were able to get through the tunnels and across the other boat traffic with ease.
The rest of our time was spent walking Boyd’s, relaxing and enjoying the Conch Republic vibe. Though there isn’t a lot right around the campground there are a couple of restaurants worth checking out. We walked down to Roostica which was highly rated and had gluten free pizza and then another night we walked down to Chico’s Cantina for a great TEX-MEX dinner. Our last night at Boyd’s we had an excellent dinner from the food truck there, one more excellent fish dinner!
I have to say it may have taken 40 years for me to realize my dream of visiting the Keys, but man was it worth it! All I can say is we will definitely be back!
Real Time Update
I still have another blog to get us caught up about our trip up the west coast of the Florida peninsula but this one is long enough! Currently, we are in Red Bay, AL for our annual trip home to the Mother Ship – Tiffin’s Service Center. We are going to be here until the end of June as we are waiting for parts to be delivered – dang supply chain issues. And to be honest, we can really use the rest!! From here we will be heading north toward PA and our son, Alex’s wedding. Hopefully, with all of this down time we can get everything caught up.