Florida Keys Vacation!

It's been a while since I posted something here and it occurred to me that I haven't really logged many of my own experiences in this blog.  So I'm going to start correcting that with today's vacation recap.  Beaches, new cameras and jellyfish, oh my!

Driving

I think somehow in every American's mind, we tend to imagine a cross country road trip as the epitome of a family vacation.  Due in no small part to my own childhood driving to Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head, I have always had an affinity for the idea of a road trip myself.  The last few times I drove great distance, however, I could feel my age changing my perspective.  This trip, the longest I've driven in my entire life, may have been the final episode in that wonderful station wagon filled fantasy.

For any who don't know, driving all the way to the Florida Keys is a pretty long journey.  Depending on traffic and number of stops, the driving time is around 16-18hrs, taking into account your final destination in the actual Florida Keys themselves.  For us it was Marathon, which seems to be more or less in the middle between Key Largo and Key West.  The closest I have come to driving such distance was my 14 1/2 hour drive from New York City back to Lexington in a Penske moving truck when I moved home quite some time ago.  That drive was much worse than this one because I drove the entire thing alone in a giant moving truck...straight through.

Nearly two years later embarking on this trip didn't seem so bad.  I had my girlfriend along for the ride not only to keep me company but to share the driving load which made it seem like we would have no trouble at all.  We did take my 2-door car with bikes attached, which was my (terrible) idea, but it wasn't too bad.

We did hit one snag that really extended our drive.  Toward the end of the first driving day we stopped somewhere in southern Georgia to eat dinner.  We didn't stay too long and ended up having to go another 3 hours or so before we arrived in White Springs, FL. to stay in a small cabin overnight.  It was a really nice little place apparently very close to a river or lake of some sort.  We didn't have plans to stay long enough to find out.  

In the morning we woke up before everyone else as we had intended to push on to the condo in Marathon ahead of her family.  As we were practically ready to pull out and get on the road we realize that my girlfriend's wallet was missing.  She had her purse and other things, but no wallet.  She had left it back in Georgia where we had stopped to eat the previous night.  

Luckily after eating breakfast we contacted the manager of the Papa John's where she and her sister had eaten the night before and he confirmed that they indeed had her wallet in their safe.  It was a great relief and when we arrived to get it.  All the cash, cards, IDs, etc. remained completely intact.  We thanked him and even gave him a little cash because we were so happy everything was left in its place.  The only problem was that the trip added an unexpected 6 hours to an already impossibly long car ride.  So after leaving the house at 10am Friday morning, we didn't arrive in Marathon at the condo until around 2am Sunday morning.  I'm not sure I've ever wanted to get out of a car so badly as I did by the time we finally arrived.

The Vacation!

Now that we had finally arrived, it was time to do some serious vacationing.  I hadn't been on a real beach vacation in about 10 years.  The last time before this had been a "friends vacation" in Hilton Head where I got stung by a jellyfish and sunburnt to the point of sun poisoning on the first day we arrived.  I was keen to avoid repeating history on this vacation if at all possible.

The first day we were actually there was that Sunday and we went to Bahia Honda State Park to visit one of the well known and larger beaches in the Keys.  Since it's a state park, we actually had to pay to enter and use the beaches there which I guess surprised me a little, although it may be perfectly normal for state parks with beaches attached.  So long story short, we sunblocked up and headed into the hot tub warm water for a little over an hour.  I ended up super sunburnt somehow and that would dictate how I would spend much of the vacation.

After the sunburn, I elected to avoid most outdoor activities for a couple of days.  I did visit Sombrero Beach just down the street from our condo and it was beautiful.  It too had some seaweed and twigs on the beach but there was more sand here than the beach at Bahia Honda and it was surrounded by a really well kept neighborhood and activity area with beach volleyball courts and a playground.  It was my favorite beach we visited.

I also wandered around in a short afternoon driving trip for a couple of hours while everyone else went out scuba diving for the day.  Having received a new camera for my birthday, I wanted to explore a little and try to find random places to photograph.  I drove quite a ways onto Big Pine Key where I stumbled across a quaint catholic church and decided to take some photographs.

As I was heading back to my car after taking some pictures around the church, I noticed a deer running across a field beside the building.  It was a pretty exciting event because this particular deer is a Key Deer and part of the National Key Deer Refuge in the Florida Keys.  On our way down, I had heard that there were some parts of the keys where speed limits were as low as 25 or 35mph due in large part to being habitats for endangered Key Deer.  I hurried as close as I thought I could get without spooking the deer and managed to grab a couple of photos.  It was a really enjoyable experience.

Here are a few more random pictures from my day driving photo trip.

After a couple of days of sitting inside most of the time, I agreed to accompany the rest of the family on the boat out to a diving and snorkeling site at they City of Washington wreck site.  Scuba diving and snorkeling is one of the favorite activities of any clear water ocean vacation and the Florida Keys reef system is ranked something like 3rd in the world in terms of diving and snorkeling.  They have many scuttled and sunken ships to dive as well as an expansive reef system.

My girlfriend's family towed their 7 person speed boat all the way down from Kentucky and needless to say it was a packed ship with all 7 of us plus scuba and snorkeling equipment.  I chose to purchase and wear a long sleeve, white moisture wicking shirt while we were out to  avoid any further sunburn and it worked out great!  I'm not much of a boat traveler and neither is my girlfriend so the trip with a fully crammed small boat in the middle of the ocean was a little nerve racking.  

As it turned out we arrived in the Keys just in time for the jellyfish to begin migrating in as they do at that time of year.  So when we got to the dive site that day and all the divers (not me) got their equipment on and got into the water us snorkelers were left with an unfortunate number of jellyfish.  I ended up not even getting in the water that day and, in fact, the rest of the family didn't stay in very long either due to jellyfish, scuba equipment issues and some miscommunication between members of our two dive teams.

It was a very long day, but I will say that being out there in the ocean does have a certain appeal I never really considered.  I've never been much of a water person in general.  I didn't learn to swim until much later in life than most and even so, I'm not terribly good at it.  Seeing someplace where the water is so clear and warm really makes you appreciate how people can be so in love with the ocean. 

That night we ate some dinner and then I took my girlfriend out to a bar I had seen as I was returning from my photo drive the previous day.  It was called the Sunset Grille & Raw Bar.  It's located just before you get to 7-mile bridge.  It has a huge open air bar and dining area with an equally large outdoor deck and bar.  The outdoor deck also features a pool and giant projection screen for movies and sporting events.  There's an attached pier and a great view of sunsets overlooking 7-mile bridge.  

They had a great cocktail menu with 20+ specialty cocktails, each of which came in a souvenir glass.  Naturally, being tourists we each ordered two different souvenir drinks while we were there, taking home 4 souvenir glasses in the process.  We initially set out that night to find a drink served in a coconut.  They even had one on the menu here and we ordered it, but they were out of the hand carved coconuts so we weren't able to fulfill that mission.  The place was a great ocean side bar with a tiki feel.  If we get back to the Keys again, I think we'll visit this bar more than once during our stay.

After coming home from the bar that evening, we watched some storms off in the distance from the balcony of our condo.  We had a beautiful ocean side view from that place and watched stars and storms on more than one occasion while also sipping frozen or rum cocktails.  Living in any somewhat metropolitan area can make it easy to forget how many stars you can see in the sky from someplace with less light pollution.  It makes me want to visit the southwestern United States more and more.  

Anyway, we kept things rolling the next day with my girlfriend and I taking off on a sort of "couple day".  We wanted to go off and do our own thing for a while since the vacation time was winding down toward the end.  Since I wasn't able to snorkel the previous day, we had decided to reserve a snorkel tour together and be led by professionals.  The place where we reserved our tour ended up canceling the tour for that day and we didn't find out until we arrived to check-in.  They weren't particularly kind to us either which was really out of character compared to the rest of the places we visited.

As we began to drive away, my girlfriend suggested we see if we can find another guided tour. It just so happened there was another snorkel tour company located just next to the one we had reserved with and they had a couple of spots open.  They were incredibly nice so we went off to Sombrero Reef with their group instead.  It's probably the most popular snorkeling destinations in the Keys and one of the most popular in the world.

On this trip I was able to get in and actually do some serious snorkeling.  I'm still a terrible swimmer but I got a lot of experience using the snorkel gear and swimming with fins.  We had encounters with schools of tropical fish, moon jellies and even saw a couple of Barracuda along the way.  The corals were beautiful and the most fun was just holding hands and swimming around together to see everything.  It was a truly fantastic experience I'll remember forever.  Near and below the boat the fish were so thick you almost couldn't get through them to get back aboard!  One of the most breathtaking experiences of my life and a fantastic way to peak our vacation. 

That night we drove down to Key West together for a visit to Sunset Pier and an evening dinner just the two of us.  It was probably the most beautiful out of water scenery we saw the entire vacation.  There is certainly a reason for the name.  We had a couple of drinks there and experienced the sunset from beginning to darkness.  It was a moving experience for someone like me who doesn't see a lot of this sort of thing.  One other highlight of the Sunset Pier experience was that we finally got my girlfriend a drink served in a carved coconut.  

As it turns out, however, the dining menu wasn't exactly what we were looking for so we ended up wandering the streets of Key West looking for someplace to eat.  There was no shortage of options, but Key West is like the frat house of the Florida Keys so most places were full of loud music and drunk twenty-somethings.  We were looking for something a little more quiet that evening.  We did eventually land on a cute little place called Two Friends Patio Restaurant which was charming enough and frankly had a food menu that worked for us.  We would have stuck around for a little karaoke after dinner, but it was getting pretty late and we had the hour long drive back home to get through as well.  So we walked back to the car, said our goodbye to Key West (without stopping at the Southernmost Point) and headed home for the night.

The last day I spent relaxing at the condo, enjoying the spectacular view we had and mentally preparing to end our vacation with the arduous 18-hour drive home.  The rest of the family took one more boat trip for diving and snorkeling and we took off around 8pm that evening toward home.  The drive back was mostly quiet and uneventful with the exception of quite a few deer late at night out on Florida's Turnpike.  I really thought we were going to end up hitting a deer that night.  Thankfully we didn't and made the rest of the trip home over the next day without incident. 

We had an amazing Florida Keys vacation and I have to thank my girlfriend's family for taking us along with them.  It was the kind of vacation we both needed and we wouldn't have had the opportunity without their generous offer.  I like vacations and this Florida Keys one was perhaps the best I've experienced in my adult life, but I think the feeling of coming home at the end of a vacation may be the best of all.  

Have you been to the Keys?  What are some of your favorite places or experiences there?  We'll need ideas for the next time we go!