Soon I came upon some cannons that had been put there from a shipwreck for people to explore. There were some fish swimming in and out of these objects. I was following one fish trying to get a nice photo of it when all of a sudden it took off. I didn’t move enough to cause it to disappear so what scared it. Immediately I looked behind me and saw what it was. A larger school of fish coming right at me. These fish were about 18 inches long or so and there were hundreds of them. At first I wasn’t sure if I should try and swim away quickly or if it was to late and they were going to hit me. After considering the situation for a few seconds I calmed down and just watched as I became a part of their school and they swam all around me. Above me, below, and on both sides. What an amazing experience something of which I have never been a part of before.
Once the school had vanished out of sight I quickly looked around for Karen who was snorkeling with me and could not find her. Popping my head above the surface I saw she was closer to shore and swam to talk to her. Excitedly I asked if she had seen the school of fish which see hadn’t however she did see one or two of them and wasn’t overly thrilled by it. She continued to explain that while she was watching a fish swim around a larger one came from behind and ate it. I realized at that point those fish had seeked us out because we were disturbing fish as we swam making them easier prey. I began to laugh at the circle of life and shared the experience of being engulfed in hundreds of fish. After a few minutes we continued swimming to see what else there may be to find and also search for a stingray if it was near.
There were some really interesting looking fish hiding out around the shipwreck pieces and around the ledge of the drop-off. I did build up the courage to go a little distance beyond this wall into the unknown but wasn’t really able to see much so returned to exploring shallower areas. After continuing on this little underwater adventure for awhile the school of fish returned and this time Karen also became part of the school. At first she was startled but then took it all in like I had the first time around. This time I was able to just enjoy the experience and take a few photographs. Once they had left Karen and I shared our experiences with each other for a few minutes and decided we have been shivering long enough that it was time to get out of the water and warm up.
While swimming back towards shore I was feeling extremely satisfied with the decision to enter the water in spite of the cold and potential disappointment of the area reserved for this. I also felt a little disappointed for those who were in the water before us and did not get to see the giant school of fish. We did mention it to another couple that had just entered the water in hopes they would get to experience becoming a part of a school if only for a few brief moments. We washed off and cleaned our gear allowing it to dry for a few minutes before walking saying good bye to the Florida Keys. In the end our decision to take to the water came down to one thing – would we regret it if we never tried to snorkel in this beautiful place? Without a doubt the answer would have been YES! Who knows if we will ever make it back to do it again and look at all the things we would have missed out on.
Out in the middle of this designated swimming/snorkeling area a stingray came flying above the surface and splashed down back into the water. I’ve read about this and heard about it but never actually saw it myself. Now the decision to stay dry didn’t seem as important. There was the possibility of swimming with stingrays again. After a few minutes of conversation and thought it was decided that we came all this way, we have the gear with us, let’s use it and warm up later. It’s not like the water was cold enough to produce hyperthermia … was it? So off to the car to fetch our equipment and change into swimming attire.
After getting set up to go into the water we got to the waters edge and then the cold hit. Motivation was waning. Another step in and stop to acclimate. Another step. And then another. Now I was in water almost to my waist and I wasn’t sure I could go any further. It had taken about 10 minutes just to get this far into the water. Knowing the afternoon was speeding by and time to leave would come faster than we wanted I was trying to push on and acclimate a little faster but my shivering was increasing in intensity pushing me to get out of the water. Finally I took another step into deeper water and stood there for a a minute or two more. The water kept moving higher on me taking my breath away with each wave. After deciding enough time had been wasted by slowly moving into the water along knowing there were sights under water that I was missing I took the plunge and dived in. It was painful and I couldn’t get above the surface fast enough to take in the warmth of the sun. Standing again for a minute or two I dove in again and this time took off swimming while looking for creatures of the deep (or at least underwater).
At first there were several small fish without much color but not a lot to view as had been mentioned other snorkelers. Swimming further out from shore I came upon a huge drop-off where the ground gave away and I could barely see a bottom. This caught me by surprise as a drop-off of this magnitude was not expected this close to shore. I couldn’t bring myself to go over the edge of this underwater wall because I couldn’t see the bottom. What if another stingray made its’ way to the surface and smacked into me? Or worse, what if something scared the stingray to the surface and that was still down there? No, I’m definitely staying where I can see what’s going on.
Continue on to the next post to read about the most spectacular experience of this afternoon….
This park first came up while researching things to do in the Florida Keys a couple of years ago but we ran out of time so were never able to visit. There is a trail or two to hike and a visitors center to explore but John Pennekamp State Park is all about the water. One trail meandering through the mangroves needs some maintenance with broken and rotting boards and an entire section of the trail closed. Unfortunately the section that is closed includes an observation tower where you could look over the mangroves out towards the ocean reefs. Once your focus turns to the water though this park shines.
While exploring Pennekamp we kept trying to decide if we wanted to go snorkeling and if so where. The water in Dry Tortugas National Park was cold and that was further south indicating that the water in Key Largo must be even colder. Enjoying the reefs is something we rarely get to do so when the opportunity arrives we try to take advantage. There was still plenty of hesitation do to a couple of factors. First, the water was cold as people continued to remind us as they were coming out of it. Secondly, in order to snorkel the reefs you need to purchase a snorkeling or scuba tour and we had already spent what is a lot of money to do this already on this trip. So if we weren’t going to snorkel why did we go to Pennekamp State Park?
There was never really the intention to go snorkeling with a paid tour however through researching this place there were reports of designated snorkeling areas right from the shore. Our hope was find some of the colorful reefs near shore however after arriving we found that the designated swimming/snorkeling areas where sea grass beds which tend not to be as colorful thus reducing the motivation even further to enter the water. Back to trying to justify spending more money on a snorkeling tour. While exploring the park and discussing our options to spend our last afternoon in the keys we went into the visitor center. This is a nice building with several aquariums to display the ocean habitats around this part of Florida. Yes, the motivation to go snorkeling increased while looking at these reef aquariums but not yet enough to get our gear.
Walking around the visitor center and exploring the park on foot seeing the swimming areas and mangrove trail was a nice way to spend the day. Fortunately it was sunny and warm and we were content just enjoying the scenery and weather without getting our gear wet which would require us to wash and dry it so it could be packed for our flight home the next morning. After strolling around John Pennekamp for an hour or two we sat down on one of the beaches taking in the views and talking with a few people who had braved the cold water to snorkel. They mentioned seeing some fish but nothing really extraordinary and getting use to the water took some time. That about seals it, we’ll enjoy this place from the land for today.
And then we witnessed something I have never seen before…. Check out the next post for more on this story.
On our last voyage to Southern Florida the main goal was to visit Everglades National Park. When planning a park trip we look at nearby national parks as well and in the process explored Biscayne National Park which we would never have gone to due to lack of knowledge about it. Another park that came up was Dry Tortugas National Park. This requires a boat ride or seaplane ride to get there as it is 70 miles off the coast of Key West . Due to the difficulty and expense in getting there we took it off the list. Having another opportunity this past winter we decided to plan a trip to Dry Tortugas if the weather was going to cooperate. This means warm, sunny, and low winds.
I was in Ft. Lauderdale for a convention and decided to extend the trip for a couple more days. Near the end of the convention I started watching the weather forecasts a little closer and saw expected highs in the upper 70’s with minimal wind. It couldn’t possible get any better so off to Key West to catch the Yankee Freedom II for a 2 1/2 hour boat ride to Fort Jefferson. The morning starts early with boarding at 7:30 am in order to get to the island and back before sunset. We had a beautiful trip with plenty of sun although it was a touch cool requiring sweatshirts. During our voyage out to Dry Tortugas National Park we saw a ship with a long trail of white debris behind it. Turns out this was a crew working to recover items off a Spanish shipwreck. They were out on a weekend because of the calm water from lack of wind. It was certainly interesting to see an actual shipwreck recovery in process.
Finally we arrived in the Dry Tortugas! These are a chain of very small islands but extremely beautiful. Docking at Fort Jefferson we quickly got off the boat as there were only 4 hours to explore this place. First we wanted to snorkel for an hour or so in these tropical waters. For being tropical waters it sure took some time to get use to the cool water. There were some great things to see such as a conch slowly moving along the sandy bottom and some squid in the sea grass but very little coral. After swimming for some time we heading in a different direction and discovered the coral. While enjoying the fish swimming in amongst the coral I noticed we were being watched by a barracuda. I get a little nervous around these fish as they have a reputation for being a little aggressive and seeing the rows of teeth covering their mouth just adds to that reputation. Fortunately this fish just continued to move ahead of us. After this short time in the cool water we dried off and got something to eat before touring Fort Jefferson.
Fort Jefferson was constructed around the civil war and was one of the few southern locations aligned with the Union armies. This fort takes up almost the entire island and was built to house up to 2,000 soldiers however it was never completed. As the construction continued the island began to settle (sink) under the weight of all the bricks and other construction materials used. Prisoners were kept here and the most famous of those were 4 men convicted of helping in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. There is some fascinating history being preserved at Dry Tortugas National Park. I understand why this was placed under the national park system.
After learning about this fort and it’s history and exploring under the surface of the ocean it was time for the journey back to Key West. I would have liked to stay longer and take more time to explore but we did not plan for it on this trip. Camping is possible and would give more time for snorkeling and exploring the fort along with experiencing the peacefulness and solitude of the Dry Tortugas. This is one of the least visited national parks for obvious reasons. If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend this opportunity!
Ft. Lauderdale is often thought of as a place with great beaches and yachts meandering the waterways in sunny South Florida however there is more there than just fun and sun. After a great day playing at the beach or enjoying a water taxi or two, a visit to a piece of history may be in order. Cap’s Place is a spot in history (especially since it is now designated as a historical place) This was a restaurant recommended to us as a nostalgic place showcasing a pieces of history and great food. We were not disappointed!
Our evening (Karen and myself – that’s right, a night out without the kids) began with a short drive to Lighthouse Point where we pulled into a parking lot with a few other cars and only houses around. There’s a dock which we walked onto and waited a few minutes enjoying the scenery all the while quietly wondering if we were at the right place. A boat pulls up to the dock and announces Cap’s Place. We stepped onto the boat, found our seats, and the boat began heading towards the restaurant. We were the only ones on this trip so a short private boat ride it was. During the 5 minute trip or so the captain explains some of the history of Cap’s Place. First off, it gets its name from the founder Captain Knight. He created a place for gambling and drinking when this was illegal. Cap brought rum in from the Bahamas and had slots along with card games to be enjoyed by its patrons. In order to keep these activities hidden, shades were used on the windows.
Our boat arrived as the sun was setting to our backs and it was on to the restaurant. There are tow buildings so it took a few moments to figure out which way we wanted to go. One houses a bar and the other is the restaurant. Finding our way into the correct building we were seating and the next portion of this historic but functioning place began. Our waitress explained that the food is still prepared as it was almost a century ago and that Cap’s Place is currently owned by his children who work hard to maintain its authenticity. Part of that authenticity involves the tables, chairs, and floor. The floor creaks as each person passes over it and the tables and chairs are cozy. Looking over the menu highlights many of the seafood entrees available. Many prepared with unique sauces of one kind or another. I had fish broiled and served with an amazing salsa created from a nice blend of peppers, pineapple, and spices. What a great compliment to the fish.
While enjoying this wonderful meal we had the privilege of witnessing the sky turn from various shades of red, pink, and purples to the darkness of night. After finishing our dinner, irresistible deserts where offered. How could we possible resist desert after that fantastic meal. Neither of us were hungry but the curiosity of the taste of their deserts prompted us to order more. We were not disappointed however after only a few bites we had to stop. I would love to tell you what we sampled but I have since forgotten – sorry. We did take the rest with us and enjoyed it a second time while driving to Key West the following day. As we were leaving this great place in history, we took some time to look at all of the memorabilia hanging on the walls teaching us of a time long before and realizing many well known people have enjoyed a meal here as well.
The night was going quickly and we wanted to return to our hotel and prepare for our next journey out to the keys the next morning. Otherwise, we could have meandered into the bar and continue to enjoy and learn more about this place and a time many years before us. Cap’s Place is not suited to everyone but if you are interested in stepping back in history with great food it is something you will not likely forget.
Our arrival in Key West was in plenty of time to check in at the hotel, find a place to park, and even look for a few souvenirs all before the sunset experience in Mallory Square. I will do a complete post on Mallory Square later so not many details will be shared here. While at Mallory Square we witnessed a couple miss their cruise ship requiring them to chase the ship down in a small boat and climb aboard using a rope ladder all while the ship was backing out of the harbor and a gorgeous sunset. While on a past cruise I had the pleasure of catching the last tender boat out to the ship as I tend to want to explore as long as possible (my father-in-law has more stories of that). While watching the couple chase the ship I was asked how much of a chance I would take on another cruise if that is a possible result of being too late. To me, this would be a fun experience which I may try on the next cruise so this show had the opposite effect on me than desired by my wife. In her defense, she thought I missed the ship so has already had a taste of what that feels like and would prefer not to experience that again. Only time will tell I guess. I may try to take her with me while missing the ship. This photo of the sunset reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean.
The next morning there was the pleasure of an alarm clock. This was never intended however the noise coming from this chicken made it a little difficult to sleep. Being awakened at sunrise was not in the plans but apparently was necessary. While laying there wanting to go back to sleep I couldn’t decide whether I had the desire to go out and feed the animals or have chicken for lunch. A word of caution, chickens are quite common on Key West so there is a greater chance that this will happen. After getting up and deciding to eat breakfast there was still a crowing close by. I decided to find this chicken so intent on waking us up. Once it was spotted all I could do was smile as I showed it to Karen who was equally irritated with this chicken. I smiled because I knew once she caught sight of the little baby chicks with the hen this rooster was protecting she would instantly forget about her irritations. How can you stay made at the cute little baby chickens?
By the way, we did end up eating chicken later that day!
During our journey to Key West we enjoyed a number of activities along the way. A year ago while driving out to Key West for the first time I had read about this place called Robbie’s Marina. If you’re interested you can read the post describing potential activities in the keys here. On that trip we never found Robbie’s. As it turns out, it was dark by the time we got to Islamorada which is why I never saw it. This time, however, we made the trip during the middle of the day in order to enjoy more of the sights along US 1 and just as we crossed the bridge to Islamorada, there it was – a sign for Robbie’s. I quickly slammed on the breaks and made the turn into the marina. It was never our intention to stop but there it was so we at least had to check it out.
I was amazed at how busy it was. There were some open air shops along with a restaurant and the marina. It costs $1.00 per person to enter the docks for the famous tarpon feeding. We paid our fee along with purchasing some food for the fish and on to the designated spot we went. There are some hazards you encounter before getting to the fish. These “hazards” are the pelicans. Not only do the fish like an easy meal but so do these feathered friends. They are not shy about chasing you and trying to steal your bucket of fish food (bait fish). Once getting past the gauntlet of birds we moved quickly to the feeding area set up to keep them out. I was advised not to get to close to the water as the fish take whatever appears and smells like food. All in all we spent about an hour at Robbie’s and enjoyed the sights. At their website they have webcams available to view the tarpon and pelicans. It’s a good reminder for us of our short time there.
After this fun experience we continued onward toward Key West. Fortunately along the way there are several places you can pull off and enjoy the scenery or go fishing. We decided it was time to eat so we happened by this great park right by US 1. There was cold pizza and fruit in the trunk from previous meals and we each had a drink with us so a nice spot with a little shade to eat and then enjoy some sun was in order. We could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon here as the temperatures were near 80 0F with a slight breeze but our ultimate goal was to get to Key West in time to experience the sunset there so back on the road for the remainder of the trip. Looking at the photo below can you blame us for wanting to stay longer?
There are a lot of great memories from our recent adventure to Miami and the Caribbean. Here are the top 5:
#5: The Beautiful Florida Keys. Whenever travel to southern Florida is mentioned, the keys are often talked about or written about and have been a destination that has intrigued me for several years. This seemed like a good time to see why they are mentioned. Our first official key was visited in Biscayne National Park however during our driving adventure we arrived in Key Largo first. I never knew how close Miami was to Key Largo. It seemed a lot further on the maps I was looking at. There was a lot of activity and traffic heading back towards Miami. It was Sunday night so we thought it was just people who were returning home after a weekend in the keys. As it turns out, there was a Seafood Festival taking place and we arrived just as it was ending. Continuing south I was amazed at how many islands actually make up the Florida Keys. It was great to experience all of these keys and the number of bridges with people fishing from them. Driving on the seven mile bridge was interesting as this is a well known expanse of road. We finally arrived in Key West just after sunset. While in Key West we drove around the key, watched people get off of a cruise ship (so many people it was difficult to drive), took our pictures at the Southern Most Point Monument, and found lunch on the beach. One other memorable part of Key West was standing on a pier getting our last views of the water on this island when a stingray swam right next to the pier, stopped, and covered itself with sand waiting for its next meal. We all had a great time on our visit to the Florida Keys.
One of the Many American Alligators We Saw
#4: Alligators, Crocodiles, and Manatees Ohh My! While we were in Everglades National Park, our main goal was to see a manatee. Not really knowing much about alligators and crocodiles, I was a little nervous about running into one. In an effort to face this nervousness, we participated in an alligator talk to learn more and possibly see one. Not only did we see one, we saw over 20 of them in one afternoon. During our time in the Everglades we also were able to see crocodiles and witness firsthand the subtle differences between the American alligator and the American crocodile. Our mission to see a manatee began to appear as though we wouldn’t accomplish this goal as time was running short and we needed to leave to get to our next destination. The last opportunity was to join a ranger program on manatees and hope the park ranger had better luck than we did. During the program, the ranger was looking for a manatee in the spot one was last observed but with no success. Finally, a manatee was spotted and gave us several opportunities for pictures although we had to be quick as it only surfaced long enough to exchange oxygen and then quickly re-submerged. Having met our goals of seeing some of the local wildlife, there was a sense of satisfaction as we left the park. I certainly could have spent several more days exploring but the time there was fulfilling.
#3: A stingray massage takes this spot. For the short time we were in Grand Turk we enjoyed a snorkeling excursion. This was Kristy’s first time snorkeling and Lysa’s first time going off of a boat. It was a lot of fun watching them swim around the reef and watch the corals and fish in a natural setting. Once our time at the reef was complete, our excursion took us to an island to play with the local stingrays. After watching them swim in and out of our feet, one of the stingrays was caught to allow us to take pictures with it and then get a stingray massage. It was an interesting adventure.
#2: Our greatest experience was swimming with the dolphins. I absolutely believe this was a once in a lifetime experience. Just remembering the dolphin swim puts a smile on my face. Personally being able to touch dolphins and go dolphin skiing was amazing. The only way an adventure such as this could get better is to be able to watch your spouse and children do it also. Seeing the exhilaration on their faces as the dolphins swam right next to them and popped their heads out of the water to say hello was remarkable. The huge smiles we all had after skiing with the dolphins is a memory all of its’ own. This experience is one that has been talked about over and over again since we did it. The kids love to share videos with friends and watching their expressions helps to realize what a lifetime event it was.
#1: This may seem a little cliché but the number one part of our travels was being able to share this adventure with family. We were fortunate to be able to go on this trip with four other family members in addition to the four of us. There are experiences that we can share and talk about for the rest of our lives. There were certainly some challenges in trying to see and do as much as possible with a larger group as each person has their own interests. I believe all of us got a lot of enjoyment out of our travels together if at the very least we escaped winter for ten days. What great memories for Kristy and Lysa to be able to share as they get older and remember this adventure.
The Last part of our trip had arrived. I have seen US 1 on several movies and have been intrigued by the length of bridges connecting the different keys. Also, I wanted to see Key Largo and Key West. Like much of our vacation, we only had a short time to experience the keys. In order to see where we were going we left Everglades National Park mid-afternoon. Entering Key Largo the Seafood Festival was just wrapping up so there were a lot of people heading back towards their cars to return home giving us the opportunity to look around as we drove slowly through the key. As the drive continued, I was surprised at how much of this highway was built on ground instead of over the water. The other thing that surprised me was how shallow the water was all around us.
As we continued towards Key West there were more bridges with some impressive stretches over water including the famous seven mile bridge. It could not have been a nicer day with warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine. The timing of this drive could also not have been better because as we neared Key West the sun was setting giving us a beautiful view of some of the keys surrounded by the ocean. We arrived at Key West right as the darkness overtook the island so there wasn’t much for to see on this day. Anticipation for exploring the island in the morning was building however it was a long day and rest was much needed. This was our second to last night in the warm Florida weather so I took a few moments to step outside our hotel room and feel the ocean breeze and gaze up at the stars shining brightly. The night sky was the most beautiful star lit sky we witnessed during our entire trip and there were some nice nights to star gaze from our cruise ship.
A Watching Beautiful Starfish While on a Leisurely Stroll
The next morning started with breakfast outside on the hotel patio while taking care of a few things on the computer. A reminder of what summer is like and how much I enjoy it. Following breakfast, we took a stroll by the ocean smelling the ocean air and watching the ebb and flow of the water as it crashed against the shore. Upon returning to the hotel we packed up and got ready to leave when something to one of our cars was noticed as being out of place. Further inspection showed that some trim around a passenger door window was bent out indicating that someone had tried to break into the car overnight. This was disappointing and delayed our leaving the hotel as we examined for anything missing even though there wasn’t much left in the car to take and notified both the hotel and local police. We certainly weren’t going to let this ruin our adventures in the keys.
The Southern Most Point Monument
One highlight of Key West that was on the top of our priority was to see the Southern Most Point of the continental U.S. We had a fun experience to be at this monument and share this moment with the entire group traveling together. Once the pictures were taken (we did have to wait in line a few minutes to get these pictures) it was off to find a souvenir or two. Irony hit us in this quest as we neared a number of stores we couldn’t find a place to park and even had difficulty navigating the streets as there were so many people crowding Key West due to a cruise ship that was docked for the day. A great perspective of how much of an impact a cruise ship can have on a port and what impact we had at each of our destinations on our recent cruise experience. The decision was made to abort the souvenir portion and head to the beach in search of a restaurant. Success was had in this objective as we enjoyed our food in an open air restaurant watching the people stroll on the beach with the ocean in the background.
After lunch we had time for a stroll along the beach and on to one of the piers allowing the opportunity to smell the ocean and hear the waves as they crash into the sandy shore. On our way out to the end of the pier we spotted several fish and a sailboat or two. Now for the toughest part of the day, the return to the car knowing it was time to head back to Miami to get ready to leave the Florida sun in exchange for ice and snow. As we walked back towards shore like condemned souls we noticed a stingray swimming by. The stingray slowed and eventually stopped and began burying itself in the sand waiting for its next prey. As we watched, it was evident that the stingray was also watching us because the longer we observed the more sand it buried itself in. This completed our experience on Key West and gave me a sense of satisfaction and completion of our adventure along the keys. Now back towards Key Largo and on to Miami.
After visiting the Everglades National Park, we are going to begin our journey to the southernmost point in the continental United States – Key West. Driving the U.S. 1 through the Florida Keys is something that I have wanted to experience for a long time. During our excursion to Southern Florida we have decided to finally do just that – Drive the almost 160 miles from Miami to Key West. This highway has been highlighted in such movies as True Lies and Licence to Kill which began my interest in wanting to drive this long span of bridges that connect many of the Florida Keys. We will be staying in Key West for one night before returning to the mainland for our trip back home.
The plan currently is to leave right from the Everglades about mid-afternoon and drive the 4 hours straight for Key West where we will enjoy the rest of the night. One of our games right now is to figure out where we’ll be for the sunset on this drive. The next day we plan to take in some of the sights and attractions as we meander back towards Miami. Since time will be limited we will have to stick to some shorter excursions. Some of the places in Key West that may be interesting see are the southernmost point marker, beaches, the Butterfly Conservatory, the aquarium, and the Hemingway House. I’m sure there is much more than this but these are some attractions the caught my attention.
As we drive back through the Florida Keys some of the other places that might be of interest in our short time are Bahia Honda State Park, feeding the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada or visiting Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park. Continuing on to Key Largo could bring a stop at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park where there is snorkeling, hiking, or kayaking to enjoy. I have read many positive reviews of this state park which moves it a little higher on our list of places to see while driving the Florida Keys. Of course snorkeling is abundant in any of these areas and there is always the option of sitting back and taking in our surroundings.
While researching the drive on U.S. 1 through the keys, I discovered that we could easily spend our entire 10 days in Southern Florida playing in the keys so to only take a day is a great teaser for future endeavors to this area. I am eager to experience driving on a highway that has the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. It’s hard for me to imagine driving on such a long span of bridges connecting so many islands together.