Three months ago we decided to head to Florida so Bruce could share the Keys, Dry Tortugas National Park and The Everglades National Park with me. He was here after completing his Masters at University of Miami in 1993.
Campground reservations in the Keys were not available until April 1st. With that pin in the map, we maneuvered around to see various areas leading up to that. Happily, those adventures were awesome and are covered in other posts. Now it’s April and we are here for a week in the Keys at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge!
This park is located right next to the Key Deer Wildlife Refuge and deer would wander through our site every day! The endangered key deer are the smallest subspecies of North American white tailed deer. The largest males are a little over three feet high at the shoulder and weigh 85 lbs maximum. Big Pine Key is in the lower keys, about 45 minutes from Key West where the flight or ferry departs to Dry Tortugas National Park making it a perfect location for us.
Over two years have passed since Hurricane Irma directly hit the keys, but many places are still rebuilding, including our park which was heavily damaged. The office is still awaiting relocation from the temporary trailer to the rebuilt office and store building. A nicely redone roof-top pool and deck over the clubhouse provide a cool respite from the afternoon sun.
We are not usually city people, especially touristy cities. But, wandering around in Key West was really fun. We ended up going there 3 of the 7 days we were in the keys plus an extra day getting to the airport for the trip to Dry Tortugas.
Walking through the busy streets gave us a good overview of this vibrant community. Cute historic houses, with tiny porches and white picket fences outlining the small yards looked so wonderfully inviting. Although many homes are vacation rentals, the majority seemed to be residential which makes the city more appealing to us. We have seen the after-effects of many towns that were relinquished to tourists on our European river cruise adventures. Once residents give up on a town, the luscious bakeries and local fresh food shops can’t survive and the town quickly becomes a lifeless tourist facade. I hope Key West retains her vibrancy for the residents and that they don’t get tired of the endless cruise ship tourists!
Brightly colored shops, bars and restaurants lining famous Duval street entertained us as we walked around the city. There were 3 cruise ships in town that first day so it was extra busy. We came again when there were no cruise ships and it had a much different feel, still busy but more relaxed. Some tourist stops for us included Ernest Hemingway House, the lighthouse, the Southernmost Point in the USA and the Discovery Center for Dry Tortugas National Park. Rented scooters and bicycles were zipping through the busy streets next to the hop-on-hop-off buses and plentiful chickens. Live music at nearly every establishment drew us into several unique restaurants and bars.
Our tourist visit stretched over two mornings to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and better parking options (The Jeep doesn’t fit into the parking garage with the kayaks on top). A third visit popped up when we heard that some old friends were in Key West.
I can imagine a wild and crazy atmosphere after the sun sets! The party was just beginning to awaken in late afternoon. We didn’t stay to see the famous sunset views but enjoyed the beautiful 45-minute return drive over indescribably beautiful waters of the keys in the late afternoon sun. The watercolor palette of every shade of blue is impossible to describe. The colorful views gave me the same sense of awe as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I tried to get photos to show the colors but it just isn’t the same. And the narrow road with water on either side has no pull-offs to get good photos anyway!
A beautiful morning spent exploring Big Pine Key and the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, along with a tiny corner of The White Heron National Wildlife Refuge was peaceful. Many key deer walked through the campground daily but they were visible along the Key Deer Road too. A visit to Blue Hole fresh water lake and a hike on a wildlife trail worked up an appetite for lunch at the “No Name Pub” before crossing to No Name Key. Devastated landscape from Hurricane Irma changed the habitat for animals too. Our explorations were more about mosquitos than wildlife but we did see deer and a tortoise along the road. A lone alligator at Blue Hole, a snake and more deer on the wildlife trail were about it. We caught sight of a Reddish Egret jumping up out of the water like a mating courtship dance at a pond near the White Heron refuge but it was nearly impossible to see through the tangle of brush around the pond.
Dry Tortugas National Park
What an awesome way to spend our 16th anniversary! The ferries were full by the time we were reserving but we probably would have opted for the Seaplane anyway to satisfy my pilot husband’s love of flying and the fantastic views. The 40 minute flight also gives more time on the Garden Key before the ferry arrives. The 2 1/2 hour ferry ride is a nice option and still gives enough time to snorkel and explore the fort. They serve food and drinks aboard.
Snorkeling next to Fort Jefferson’s moat wall was great fun using our new waterproof iPhone cases. Our underwater camera is actually outdated compared to our iPhones and it has that annoying shutter delay that takes a shot after the fish already swam out of the frame! By the time we figured out how to get the iPhone to capture underwater photos, the ferry arrived sweeping the only real wave across the shore making the water murky. Now we know that the shutter release is a side button and the touch screen doesn’t work underwater.
Always up for a reunion with good friends, we returned to Key West to catch up with Bob and Linda. Bruce had worked closely with Bob for over 10 years. We enjoyed visiting with them and you’d never know the guys hadn’t seen each other for 23 years!
Knowing we are returning to stay for a whole month next year made leaving the beautiful Keys a little easier. Plus, the Everglades awaits!