This was our first repeat visit, and the reservation we planned the farthest ahead for! Since we knew we were going to Florida to visit Disney (thanks to Brian’s sister’s planning), we decided to go to the Keys again. The state parks in the Keys book up SO fast, that we really had to hustle for this reservation. We made it 11 months in advance, and woke up at 5 am (darn time zones) three days in a row to get a spot. We literally had a single chance to click at the perfect time each morning to get one of the available sites. It was very satisfying when we were able to reserve 13 nights at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The state park has full hookups, and at half the price of a private campground in the area, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular.
Because we had our visit planned in advance, we arranged for my mom to come visit! She joined us for the second half of our stay. We were feeling pretty tired from Disney and we’d already explored the area, so we took it easy until Mom arrived. Also, it was windy the first half of the week, so the conditions weren’t good for snorkeling or fishing. The one thing we did a lot of is eat seafood. Brian cooked whole tilefish, whole lionfish, and snapper filets. We also went to Island Grille for tuna nachos, and recreated a version at home.
We went on a hike in Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park (otherwise known as DJKLHBSP to the locals), which is right next to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We got a permit to hike on the backcountry trails, but when we got there, we learned that the trails were all paved roads, except for a short section that went towards the coast. At the end of the trail, there was a bunch of trash. It must’ve blown in from the hurricane. It was kind of shocking to see, and really made me think about where our trash ends up. There was a toilet seat hanging in a tree, lots of buoys and other fishing gear, and all kinds of plastic containers that were swept around in the ocean long enough to have all their labels scrubbed off.
We did see damage from Hurricane Irma across the Keys, more in the south. A lot is cleaned up, but many signs were missing, and a lot of construction is going on.
We rented kayaks at John Pennekamp, and went kayaking through the mangroves. It was a little tricky because the wind tried to blow us into the trees, and the narrow trails were two-way. We took a chance on a double kayak, even after being told that they are also known as ‘divorce kayaks’. We managed to operate it pretty well, and I only considered jumping out and swimming back once or twice.
We drove to West Palm Beach to see my friend Carly who was visiting her family. I vastly underestimated Miami traffic, and what I thought would be a 2.5 hour drive took us about 4 hours. It was great to see her, and her family was so nice. They showed us around their beautiful house and sun porch, introduced us to their dogs, and we had cuban takeout and talked. It was a great night.
After my mom came to visit, we picked up the pace and saw a lot. The first day we drove to the north side of the Everglades and took the Shark Valley Tram Tour.
The tram tour is a great way to see alligators and lots of birds including great blue heron, egrets, ibis, and anhinga. We saw a baby gator (babies have yellow stripes) and a nest of baby anhinga. After the tram tour we drove into the main entrance of the park and walked on the boardwalk at the Anhinga Trail.
We visited Robert is Here fruit stand to buy exotic fruits and a few of their delicious smoothies. We bought guanabana, papaya, black sapote, key limes, and passionfruit to make more smoothies.
The next day we drove from Key Largo at the north end of the Florida Keys, 100 miles down to Key West, which is the southernmost tip of the Keys. We ate sandwiches at Cuban Coffee Queen, while a stray rooster stalked our crumbs, and then popped into shops as we walked to the Hemingway House.
Brian snuck off to have a cigar while mom and I toured Ernest Hemingway’s house. The tour guide told us about Hemingway’s life and wives, and his time in Key West in the 1930s. All through the house and property were six-toed cats that are descendants from Hemingway’s cat. There are now 54 cats on the property. They are a major part of the experience, yet a tour guide didn’t seem amused when I told her I was just there for the cats.
After the tour we met back up with Brian at Blue Heaven where we had a couple drinks and mile-high key lime pie before we walked to Mallory Square for the sunset celebration. Then we drove home the 100 miles and saw a couple Key Deer on Big Pine Key.
The next day Brian hired a guide and went fly fishing in the shallow flats between southern florida and the Keys. He fished for tarpon, and saw some and cast to them, but didn’t get any to bite. He did catch a few speckled sea trout, which made a tasty dinner!
Mom and I had better luck with tarpon! We drove to Islamorada and ate lunch at the Hungry Tarpon, and then we bought a bucket of fish to feed to the tarpon. We managed to get a few fish to the tarpon and jacks, and a few fish were taken by the pelicans, one right out of my hand! The pelicans are so aggressive there!
The best part was when a manatee swam right up to the pier to see what we were doing. He (or she) seemed really interested in us! A few people pet it, and I tried so hard, but my arm wasn’t quite long enough. One woman thought her toddler wanted to meet the manatee so she dangled him head first by his feet down off the pier. He screamed! Others tried to feed it fish, which it ignored, since manatees (sea cows) eat grass (obviously).
Afterward we went to the Wild Bird Sanctuary. We took mom to a lot of the same places we enjoyed going to when we visited last year. We didn’t make it to the turtle hospital on Marathon this time, there are so many good wildlife experiences in southern Florida! We also checked out the artists’ village and its giant lobster.
The activity I was most interested in was snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Brian and I did this last year, but it was windy and the sea was choppy and we didn’t see much. This time the conditions were much better. We signed up for the extended snorkeling trip (4.5 hours), but they didn’t get 10 people to sign up for it, so we ended up on the 2.5 hour regular trip. I don’t know why the extended trip isn’t more popular! So, we snorkeled on the Grecian Rocks reef, and it was great! The water was so clear and there were fish everywhere. We saw barracuda, parrotfish, snapper, hogfish, small colorful reef fish, all kinds of coral. I must’ve brushed some fire coral with my forearm and it stung afterward. Mom and I wore new full face snorkels, which were so easy to breathe in. Brian wore goggles and a nose plug, so he didn’t have to shave his beard this time. He did cut it short though, to help with the Florida heat.
We had a great visit with my mom. Unfortunately, the first day of her visit, while we were on the Everglades Tram Tour, someone got into our truck and stole two brand new camera lenses and some other things. We just bought a fancy new camera and three lenses, and having things stolen from us was really upsetting. Fortunately, we had the camera body and most expensive lens, our phones, and our wallets with us. Also, we have full-timer insurance (from Foremost) on the trailer, which acts like a homeowners policy, so it covered the loss. Having things stolen from us has made me a bit more uneasy with leaving things in our truck or trailer.
Our time on the Keys with my mom flew by, and when it was time to go, we drove up to Gainesville, Georgia with my mom to visit my cousins Don and Diane. We had a great visit and were very well-fed for a few days to finish off our February of Family Fun! When we left Georgia, we were planning to head west, but instead headed back to Michigan to attend a funeral. Then we will be off to the west!
Day 518| Mile 54,319