Kayaks, Hemingway, and Dry Tortugas NP

For the first time in our short RV career we welcomed overnight guests into our rig and it was so much fun! After our first week in the Florida Keys my cousin Mitch and his daughter Lauren joined us to celebrate Lauren’s 21st birthday and New Years.  Our time together was filled with laughter, toasts, and new adventures in some of the most beautiful spots on the planet. 

As soon as they arrived we headed into Key West to explore a bit, hit a few happy hours, and watch another spectacular sunset. We then headed to the nearby El Meson de Pepe for dinner (our second of three total visits to this great Cuban restaurant). 

The next day we headed back into town for more exploration. In particular we took the tour of the Hemingway Home and met the famed six-toed cats. Many of the 40-50 cats on the property can be traced back to Hemingway’s cat Snowball. They were very friendly!

We also saw the penny that is embedded in the cement next to the swimming pool his wife Pauline built when he was away. In 1938 it was the first pool to be built in Key West at a cost of $20,000. Exasperated at the expense, Papa Hemingway reportedly flung a penny towards Pauline and said, “You’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that too.”

One evening we took a night kayak trip with clear-bottomed LED-lit kayaks. Paddling through the mangroves we could see fish and coral right below us! We saw some cool sea creatures and got a great sunset as well.  

On Wednesday we had hoped to make it a beach day but the weather didn’t really cooperate. In fact it rained off and on all day. So, we made the best of it with a few more cocktails at some of Key West’s finest establishments and brunch at the legendary Blue Heaven. Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict with lobster made the rainy day seem not so bad!

On New Year’s Eve we spent the day on the water with a fun kayak through the mangroves, including a portion where you had to use your hands to guide and propel the kayak. It was fun until Mitch and Lauren saw a snake! We also saw lots of Cassiopeia, or upside-down jellyfish, and crabs. 

That evening we watched the sunset once more and then had a wonderful tapas dinner at Santiago’s Bodega. Due to the pandemic Key West instituted a 10:00pm curfew over the New Year’s weekend so the crowds were very small. Masks are mandatory inside and outside. Still, we headed home very early before the police began their sweep of the area. 

Our last big adventure in Key West was a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, the most remote national park in the country–almost 70 miles west of Key West. We boarded our ferry, the Yankee Freedom III, early in the morning. It was so early Cuban coffee was required!

After a two plus hour voyage we docked at Garden Key and Fort Jefferson, the largest man-made masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. The fort was built during the Civil War to safeguard U.S. shipping and to defend the Gulf of Mexico from potential enemies. Though never completed it served as a military prison and active military outpost, housing hundreds of Union soldiers. 

We explored the fort from top to bottom and enjoyed the spectacular views from the top level amid cannons and powder magazines. 

Dry Tortugas is also known as a primo snorkeling destination. The boys explored the waters while Lauren and I stayed on the beach and soaked up the sun. It was the perfect place for a little photo shoot too!

The water was chilly 75 degrees and the guys said it was “perfect.” It was truly an experience of a lifetime, and we are so grateful to have shared it with Mitch and Lauren. 

Too soon our time in the Keys came to an end, Mitch and Lauren headed home to Arizona, and we are headed north. But our adventures are continuing so stay tuned for more soon!

One Week in the Keys

We are beyond lucky to have landed in the Florida Keys with two weeks of sunshine, water, and holidays ahead of us. After two months of travel, ten states, and twenty different campsites we’ve stationed ourselves at the beautiful BlueWater Key RV Resort just outside of Key West. We booked this stay nearly a year ago, pre-COVID, and were fortunate to get a site at that time. 

Our site is kind of like a condo in that it is individually owned and designed. Our particular site is not on the water, though many of them are.

We have a large, private area with a tiki hut. In our tiki we have a nice dining table, comfy chairs, a bar, TV, and full refrigerator. The tiki is a great extension to our living space, which is nice after the last two months on the road. 

For our first week here, which was Christmas, we were on our own. However, during the second week my cousin Mitch and his daughter Lauren will be joining us for New Years celebrations. We are excited to have the company!

Bluewater Key is located about 15 miles north of Key West. We’ve gone into “town” almost every day for some reason or another. Twice we took the bikes in and toured Key West in the most efficient way possible. The town is compact and very congested, so bikes are a great way to see the sites.  We also followed a small portion of the 90-mile Florida Overseas Heritage Trail, which is right outside of our resort and links Key West to Key Largo.

One day we rode the length of Duval Street (the main drag with all the bars and shops). Another day we used the bikes to get to Truman’s Little White House, the 1890s house President Truman used for 175 days during his administration of 1945-1953.

While in Key West you can’t miss the landmark sites we were introduced to in Jimmy Buffett songs so long ago. Captain Tony’s, Sloppy Joe’s, and the Blue Heaven are all must-see haunts that we haunted a few times! 

The other must-do in Key West is sunset at Mallory Square. We spent our Christmas Eve here watching a parade of boats say farewell to the day with a beautiful sunset.

Entertainers and vendors set up around the large public area every evening. We were lucky that the crowds were not very large on Christmas Eve, which allowed us to also get into the nearby El Meson de Pepe for Cuban food immediately following the sunset. 

We’ve also explored a few of the other Keys. One day we headed for Big Pine Key to search for the little Key deer and to hike the nearby trails of the National Key Deer Refuge. The trails were short and flat and nothing too strenuous but we enjoyed getting out into a habitat that is so different than what we are used to in Arizona.

We didn’t see the deer in the refuge but we did see one right outside of Walgreens! They are the smallest subspecies of white-tailed deer and stand between 24” to 28” at the shoulder. Super cute!

On another day we headed to Marathon to hit the beach for a little while and to have lunch at Keys Fisheries.  Keys Fisheries is known for its lobster rueben so Steve had to partake. We also left the marina-side restaurant/fish market with a Florida spiny lobster and some incredible fish dip.  

Marathon has a lot going on. We actually visited there on a second day to take a tour of the Turtle Hospital. The old motel/nightclub turned rescue takes in injured or distressed turtles from all over and rehabilitates them with the goal of returning them to the sea.

We saw five species of turtles and witnessed the incredible work they do here to treat various illnesses and injuries. Some turtles come here with boat strikes and others have a type of tumor that is caused by pollution. The on-site veterinary staff performs surgeries and rehabilitates each individual to the extent possible so they can have a full and long life. This place is doing some really great work!

Mitch and Lauren are here now, so we’ll have more news and photos in the coming days. Believe me, there’s plenty to report.

In the meantime we hope everyone has a safe and happy New Years! 

To The Everglades and Beyond

Our Florida exploration continues southward and we’ve now gone top to bottom. This week we left the beautiful beaches of the panhandle and made our way across the state with one night stops at Ochlockonee River State Park, at a Boondocker’s Welcome site, and at a county park in St. Lucie

Wait, what’s a Boondocker’s Welcome? Well, it’s a membership program where people offer their driveways or land to travelers. We lucked out with our first stay! We “boondocked” with our new friends Steve and Paul at their Leesburg, FL home, which is located within the beautiful retirement community of Arlington Ridge. Their gorgeous new home has an attached RV garage that houses their 45 ft motorhome. They were able to offer us a power and water hook up in addition to a tour of their community and a great dinner at the clubhouse. Steve and Paul have traveled in their RV to all 49 states (guess which one they haven’t visited?) and were a wealth of knowledge. What a great experience!

Along our route we stopped at Biscayne National Park, which is just south of Miami. The park itself is 95% underwater and is best explored with a boat. We checked out the visitor center and took a quick little walk around the area. Next time we’ll have to plan more time here to get out on the water.

We also stopped at the legendary fruit stand Robert is Here. Since the 50s Robert has been selling produce, much of it exotic, and delicious fruit shakes. We bought the largest avocado we’ve ever seen, along with other goodies. Robert rang us up at the register by calculating our bill by hand on the back of a paper sack. Fun stop!

After our one night stands we landed at Long Pine Key Campground inside Everglades National Park and spent three nights experiencing this wild area. On the first day we did two short little walks and immediately saw alligators—like right there!

Our campground was smack-dab in the middle of beautiful wetlands which gave us the “real Everglades” experience. The best part was that there was hardly anyone there, so we had the landscape to ourselves. 

At the Flamingo area, about 30 miles from our campground, our intent was to get on the water. Immediately upon walking into the marina area we saw a giant crocodile swim right next to the docks. Minutes later we were in a kayak in the same area. Luckily by then the croc had moved along! 

During our two hour paddle we enjoyed a cool day in the mangroves with no other crocodile sightings. However, we did spot a baby manatee feeding along the side of the waterway. We followed this cutie for awhile, amazed at how peaceful and gentle he/she was. The orange color is the brackish water filled with organic material. The manatees, also known as sea cows, are actually grey as you can see when they peek out of the water with their cow-like nose. 

Luckily Steve turned around and looked the other direction just in time to see a larger manatee right next to our kayak. Again, peaceful and curious, the big manatee came right up to check us out.  We think we may have unknowingly come between mama and baby but we did our best to keep our distance and respect that this was their home. Check out our video!

My foot is now ready to be back on the bike so we tested it out on the Everglades trails. We didn’t get too far in the mud, but the roads around the campground provided a good surface for a spin.

From the Everglades we proceeded even further south—as far south as you can go in the USA. Stay tuned for our next blog from the Florida Keys and Key West.