Just a Start in the Florida Keys

When we say we are in “the Keys” most people assume we are partying in Key West. In fact, we are over 100 miles away from the party town and have spent a busy two weeks exploring the “upper keys.” The Florida Keys are made up of 1,700 little islands beginning about 15 miles south of Miami and extending westward beyond Key West. The word “key” is derived from the Spanish “cayo.” With so many little islands, we have a lot of territory to explore! We started with Key Largo.

Luckily, we snagged a two-week reservation at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park campground, which made this a more affordable stay than other options in the Keys. Our next-door neighbors in the campground, Dave and Cinda, were from Arizona, and we had a lot in common. The four of us enjoyed excursions, happy hours, and dinners together, which really made our stay here even more special. 

The park itself is mostly underwater. We took the snorkeling excursion to the reef twice and were amazed with the clarity of the water and the health of the reef. The water temperature is about 76 degrees, so it’s possible to swim and snorkel with just a swimsuit. We have our wetsuits with us, so we used those just for a little extra comfort. Lots of colorful fish, calm blue waters, and plenty of sunshine made for two perfect afternoons, one of which we shared with Dave and Cinda.

The park is also known for its kayaking trails through the mangroves. We took the Botē kayaks out several times to paddle around and look for cool things in the water.

Steve also set out on a few mornings to fish from the kayak. He caught a tree and a small pinfish, but that was about it. He had better luck fishing from a nearby bridge.

The Wild Bird Sanctuary is a small, local refuge for a variety of birds. We checked it out one afternoon while we were out poking around. There are a number of these little environmentally focused organizations through the Keys and we always try to stop and support these important organizations. 

One day we had the opportunity to travel back to the Miami International Airport to meet up with our dear friend Lucia Idarraga and her nephew Alvaro who were passing through on their way back to Colombia. There weren’t many options for breakfast in the very crowded airport terminal so we set up our own breakfast cafe curbside. It was a beautiful morning and we were thankful to spend some time with our special friends. 

A highlight of every day here in the Keys is sunset. Many of the area bars and restaurants have a sunset celebration so we checked out as many as we could! That means we’ve got A LOT of sunset pictures! We’re only two weeks into our six week Keys tour, so you can expect a few more sunset photos coming your way!

Key Largo has a warm, community feel. Steve got a haircut, I got a pedicure, we went to the library, and even gave blood one day in typical Keys fashion—there were chickens!

We met a number of locals along the way who were happy to recommend sunset watching locations and favorite restaurants. The Holiday Lighted Boat Parade was a fun local event we shared with our friends Dave and Cinda.

We’ve got a lot more Keys to check out. Soon we are heading to the southernmost point in the USA. 

Gulf State Park – One of the Best!

In our travels over the past few years we’ve made a point of staying at state parks. We’ve found them to have more interesting features (trails, lakes, views) while being less expensive than private campgrounds. Most state parks are great but we think we’ve found the very best!

Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama impressed us from the first minute and we were sorry when the time came to move on.

Located on the Gulf of Mexico along the relatively small swatch of land that is the Alabama coastline, Gulf State Park encompasses two miles of white sand beach and over 28 miles of paved trails and boardwalks. Oh, and they have one of the best campgrounds we’ve seen, with nearly 500 full hook up sites.

During our 11 days at the park we checked out just about every trail (some multiple times) and met some of the local wildlife along the way. The park is home to deer, armadillos, snakes (including one that visited our campsite), alligators, bald eagles, gopher tortoises, and much more.

It was easy to just head out and cover 10-15 miles on the bike, something we haven’t found at other parks we’ve visited. With no traffic to deal with, biking was a blast! Along the way there are benches that offer encouragement, pay respects, or recognize those who have contributed to the park.

Steve got in some long runs in preparation for the Space Coast Marathon next week and I even got in some runs. Paths like this made it easy to just keep going!

On a few days we took our Bote kayaks out to the nearby protected bay and paddled the bayous and waterways. The weather was a perfect 68-75 degrees the entire time we were there.

Gulf State Park also has plenty of amenities, many of which we never got around to using. There’s a long fishing pier, a swimming pool, a nature center, restaurant, and lots more. This is the kind of place you could just keep coming back to.

We also used the time take care of business like getting an oil change, buying a hoist for the generator, and getting a pedicure. Our days here were full but leisure-filled with no rush to get anywhere or do anything in particular.

Several times we ventured east to the Florida/Alabama border and one of our favorite bars, the Florabama. We visited this legendary watering hole and music venue last year and loved it. Gulf State Park is just about seven miles away, so we had to stop in for some music a few times while in the area.

Mostly we just enjoyed being in a beautiful place, doing the things we love to do.

We’re now in Destin, FL to pay a visit to the headquarters of Bote. We love these kayaks so much we had to see where they came from and pick up a few accessories. The sunsets here are pretty spectacular too!

We’ll post another update once Steve’s next race is over. Cape Canaveral, here we come!

Vicksburg and Natchez

There’s a mystery about this part of our country…the Great River Road, Civil War battlefields, Antebellum mansions. It’s a new world to us but the history of the area dates back to the 1700s and before.

During the Civil War, Vicksburg’s strategic location on the Mississippi River made it critical for both the Union and the Confederacy. After the 47 day siege, the Confederacy surrendered and the defeat marked a major turning point in the war.

The Vicksburg National Military Park covers over 2,500 acres and features over 1300 monuments honoring those who fought. On our first day we drove the Union Avenue portion of the park and explored the Union lines (marked by blue signs) and key strategic positions. On the next day we focused on Confederate Avenue and the highlights of the defense (marked by red signs). The National Parks Service offers an audio guide that narrates details about the battle as you drive through the large expanse. 

In the north portion of the park is the National Cemetery which holds the remains of 17,000 Union soldiers, more than any other national cemetery. 

The U.S.S. Cairo Museum is also on the site and features the recovered ironclad ship that sank in the Yazoo River in 1862. The Cairo (pronounced KAY-row, unlike Cairo in Egypt) was found in 1952 and was salvaged and restored, creating an interesting display. The adjacent museum includes many artifacts that were recovered from the ship, indicating what life was like for the soldiers of the time.

Besides the military park, we checked out historic Vicksburg and soaked in the history. One mandatory stop in Vicksburg is Solly’s Hot Tamales. Tamales in these parts are not like the tamales we are used to in Arizona. These tasty little things are filled with a mix of ground beef and meal and are served in portions of three or six. We easily polished off six plus some fries. This isn’t the kind of meal we eat regularly…but boy was it good!

From Vicksburg we traveled about 70 miles south along the Mississippi River to Natchez. Another city with a deep history, Natchez was mostly spared destruction during the Civil War and has more Antebellum homes, over 300, than any other city in the south. We enjoyed our stay at an RV park right along the river, visiting a historic home, and trying out a few of the area’s great restaurants and bars. 

We took a tour of the historic Longwood Mansion, which was built in 1860. The construction of the eight-sided mansion was interrupted by the Civil War and the structure was never completed, yet generations of the Nutt family lived in the first floor until the 1960s. From the unfinished second floor you can see up six levels to the unfinished cupola. 

Natchez is a pretty city, situated alongside the Mississippi River. We enjoyed strolling around the town, reading interpretive signs about the town’s rich history.

On our way to the Gulf Coast we spent one night at a Harvest Host. This time we stopped in Stringer, Mississippi and A-Stroka-Genus Alpaca Farm. The small family farm has 35 alpacas, one llama, four Great White Pyrenees dogs, 30+ chickens, ducks, guinea hens, and a pair of very loud miniature donkeys.

Mary Ann gave us a tour of the farm and allowed us to feed the animals. She then demonstrated how she spins the alpaca wool into the skeins of yarn she sells in the small, onsite store. Bob got a new alpaca hide toy out of the deal too! As always, Harvest Host delivered a great experience. 

We’re on to the beach next!