Ever since I heard that Key West was just bars, restaurants, and laid back people enjoying the lack of an open container law, I knew it was a place I had to visit. Having lived in Las Vegas and being a frequent traveler to New Orleans I know how rowdy the streets can get when people are allowed to drink outside. And I love it. 28 years old and I still hadn't been to Key West. It was time to go.
I chose President's Day weekend in February of 2013 for a short extended weekend trip. I was off work President's Day Monday and decided to take the following Tuesday off as well. I originally wanted to fly down Friday night, but since I was planning on flying into Miami and driving Highway 1 down 160 miles to Key West, I decided it would be better (and cheaper) to fly out Saturday afternoon instead so I could make the drive in the daylight. I invited all my friends but nobody wanted to go so I went by myself. Sometimes it's just easier to travel alone. You don't have to wait on anybody. You can do anything you want to do.
not including Hawaii of course
The only thing missing is a drinking buddy, but if you're friendly enough you'll find some people to drink with.
So I headed off to DCA late that Saturday morning. Remember what I said about wanting to make the drive in daylight? Well of course my flight was delayed. It was only about an hour late, but just enough to annoy me. When I got to MIA it took me a while to figure out how to get to the rental care center. You have to walk a mile and half and get on a train and all sorts of other stuff. Quite the journey, but I made it there around 5:00. I rented from Advantage Rental Car, whose rate was less than half of the next cheapest company. Apparently the bad reviews on Yelp scared everyone else off because I was the only one there. It was fine. The people weren't friendly, but I figure I probably wouldn't be too friendly either if I worked the desk at Advantage Rental Car. I got a Ford Focus or something like that for $109 and I was on my way, driving as far south as you can drive in the
continental United States.
The drive wasn't a nice as I thought it would be but it wasn't too bad. My gripe was the traffic. It's a two lane highway with tons of cars on it each way, making passing almost impossible. So get stuck behind some idiot doing 45 and you're SOL. Darkness set in somewhere near Islamorada, and I missed the view of driving over the 13 mile bridge, the one that blows up in True Lies ("Get to da choppa!"). It was mid February so the sun set pretty early. I rolled into the parking lot of the Key West Hostel at about 8:30, just in time to make last check in at 9. If I would have got there after 9 I would not have been able to check in and would have been sleeping in the car. Good thing I made it.
The Key West Hostel is a total dump, but it's the only place a normal person traveling alone can afford to stay. At $60 per night, I'm pretty sure it's the most expensive hostel in the country, if not the world. Definitely the most overpriced. It was probably worth about $5 per
night. But all accommodations in Key West are overpriced. They charge $60 because they can. It's the only hostel on the island. They have no competition. Even the campsite is $65 for a lousy tent site.
I didn't dwell on the POS hostel too long though. I had to get some dinner and drinks. I was a few blocks of Duval Street, the main tourist drag in Key West. After walking the whole length of the street I decided it would be better to get off Duval for dinner, since I was stone cold sober, which is a pretty foreign concept to Duval Street. After a crab cake dinner and some Key West Lagers I was ready to hit Duval. I went into a few bars and ended up settling on Rick's (http://ricksbarkeywest.com/
), where a cover band was playing Metallica and Guns n Roses. Added bonus: it was attached to The Red Garner Saloon, the finest strip club on the island. Before I could even enter the strip club I was greeted by a woman flashing on the stage where the band was rocking out to some Poison (or one of those 80s hair bands). But this woman shouldn't
have been exposing herself to the public. She must have been in her 60s. Retired people do some crazy things in Key West, but I could have gone without seeing her bare chest.
I ended up meeting some people from Coral Gables at the bar. One of the guys had lived in DC and was a frequent patron at Public Bar, one of my favorite bars in DC. We did shots, then more shots, and ended the night at a depressed Coyote Ugly. Next thing I knew it was 2 AM and I was pretty drunk. Late night pizza was needed. I said goodbye to my new friends and made headed over to Mr. Z's, the best place for late night pizza on the island (http://www.mrzskeywest.com/
). I needed something greasy. I had to be at the pier at 7:00 in the morning. That meant less than 5 hours of sleep. Damn.
One of my goals in life is to visit every US National Park. This sounds easier than it actually is, as some of them are so remote and hard to get to that most people never bother. One of these is Dry Tortugus National Park, a small
At Dry Tortugus National Park
park about 70 miles off the coast of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. There are three options for getting there: take a water plane, take a boat, or swim. Not being the best swimmer and turned off by the price tag on the plane, I decided to take the boat, the most common way to get there. At $169 for the day it wasn't cheap. But I had no other options. I booked the Sunday tour on the Yankee Freedom (http://www.yankeefreedom.com/
), the only boat service to the island.
Check in time for the 8:00 AM departure was 7:15, no later. With about a 20 minute walk to the pier I awoke at about 6:30 that morning and threw on some clothes, still pretty drunk. At least we had a two hour ride on the boat that I could sleep through. I made my way over to the pier and was all ready to check in when they announced that the trip was being cancelled due to high winds. Refunds were available. Crap.
When was I going to get another chance to go to Dry Tortugus? I'd have to make another trip down to Key West. I
guess that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. But luckily, they were also offering a re-booking option. I had planned to spend Monday in the Everglades, but having already been there once I knew I would have to skip that and reschedule the tour for Monday. They booked me for the Monday tour and I headed back to the hostel and proceeded to sleep until about noon. When I woke up I was finally sober. Maybe the tour being cancelled was a blessing in disguise.
Since I now had a full day to explore Key West that I hadn't planned on having I took the opportunity to walk around the island. I didn't wait in line to get a photo with the "90 Miles to Cuba" buoy but I did snap a few pictures of it on my walk. After that I stopped at the Hemmingway House, where Ernest Hemmingway lived for a while when he was writing some of his books. Hemmingway really had a thing for cats, and there are dozens of cats on the premises that are direct decedents of Hemmingway's cats. It's a nice house with some cool landscaping and a pool. But
At Evergaldes Alligator Park
other than that it wasn't really anything to dwell on I thought. Maybe if I was more into literature I would have been more interested in it, but having never read a Hemmingway novel I really saw no reason to stay for more than a few minutes. I checked out a few more places on the island, including a beach at Fort Zachery Taylor State Park and the fort itself. Then I "hopped on" the hop-on-hop-off bus and rode around the island for a while getting a tour from the driver. It was pretty informative and only took about 45 minutes, so definitely worth the time and money. At one of the hop-off points I bought chocolate covered frozen key lime pie on a stick from a place that is apparently famous for its key lime pies (http://www.keylimeshop.com/
Dinner that night was bacon wrapped stuffed shrimp at Conch Republic Seafood (http://www.conchrepublicseafood.com/
). It was pricey but excellent, and you pay for the environment right on the water, live band playing, etc. The rest of the night I wandered around Duval street going in and out of multiple bars. It was a Sunday night, but I expected Key West to be
a bit livelier. It was kind of dead so I didn't stay out too long. I had to get up early again. Hopefully this time for a non-cancelled tour.
Monday morning at 8:00 the boat sets off from the dock on our way west to Dry Tortugus National Park. I'm able to sleep just about the entire way and we arrive at the park around 10. You've probably never even heard of Dry Tortugus. It is very little visited. Most of it is underwater and there are only seven islands, most of them tiny. The main island is Garden Key, which holds Fort Jefferson, and old Civil War fort and former prison. The fort was a "key" location for trade in the Caribbean in the 1800s. It took almost 30 years to complete and was actually left partially unfinished. It's in good shape today and we had about 4 hours to explore the island, while also taking a guided tour of the fort. One interesting thing I learned was that Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who helped John Wilkes Booth escape, was imprisoned there for four years, mainly during a yellow fever pandemic, when his expertise was sought out
to save the lives of the prisoners dying from the strange disease.
If it was warmer that day I might have gone snorkeling but it was barely above 60 (that weekend had been one of the coldest Key West had ever had) so I opted out of anything that involved going in the water. I did find some time to relax on one of the beaches though. Dry Tortugus National Park was checked off the list and we were back on the boat heading back to Key West. My time in the Keys had come to an end. But my trip wasn't over just yet. We got back to Key West around 5 and I got in the car and headed back up Highway 1. I was staying in Homestead that night. You might remember Homestead from Hurricane Andrew, which devastated the area back in the early 90s. Still not the greatest area, I checked into my sketchy hotel and locked the doors before the criminals staying at the hotel could rob me.
The only reason I chose to stay in Homestead was because Tuesday morning I was up early to head to Key Biscayne National Park, another
one I had never been to. One more off the list (in case you're wondering I've been to 30 of the 56 US national parks). I have a 10 AM glass bottom boat tour reserved for Key Biscayne, another park that is mostly under water. But, as was the theme of the trip, the boat tour was cancelled. Not enough people had booked it. So the three of us that had were screwed. They said I could do the 1:00 tour but I had to get back to the airport at like 4:00 so that wasn't gonna work. They gave me my money back and said that I could get a complimentary kayak so I said OK. I had actually never kayaked before. And once I got out on the water, I realized why: because I don't find it exciting at all. I paddled out to a little island and turned around. I had been out there maybe 10 minutes when I decided that if I left now I could make it to the everglades before heading back to the airport, which seemed like a much better use of my time.
I gave back the kayak and sped off
towards the everglades. I had been to the glades before, but in the middle of summer, when apparently no gators come out. I had also managed to go on a swamp tour in Louisiana and not see a single alligator. I had seen two small gators in Hilton Head, South Carolina, but just for a moment before they ducked under the water. The moral of the story is I wanted to see some damn wild gators! But first off, I needed to assure myself that I would in fact see some gators that day, wild or domestic, so I made a stop at the Everglades Alligator Farm right outside the park boundary (http://www.everglades.com/
). They had tons of gators there, from newborns to elders. I watched one of the gator shows as well. Nobody puts their head in a gator's mouth anymore, the guy explained. But he did wrestle a gator and afterwards everybody got to hold a baby gator, so it was pretty cool.
I didn't stay too long there, though, as I was more interested in finding the wild ones. But a 45 mile drive down the main park road to the southern tip of Florida yielded no
gators. And I was running out of time! I stopped into a visitors center real quick to ask the park rangers where to see the gators. Royal Palm visitors center, she said. That's where they were hanging out today. This happened to be the visitors center at the entrance of the park, from where I just came from. Damn! Back on the road again, I spot a huge gator on the left side of the road, just basking in the sun. I pull over to take a few pictures then continue on my way to Royal Palm. When I get there I dart out of the car and onto a trail that seems to be loaded with people. And I soon see why. Gators everywhere! They're just hanging out on the side of the path, getting a tan. They don't bother you, you don't bother them. It's a mutual understanding. I walk about 10 minutes down the path snapping pictures of gators and turkey vultures before I head back to the car. I've got to get going. But my day's not over yet. I have one more stop.
Coral Castle is a small outdoor site in Homestead, built from excavated coral rock by a single man over a course of 28 years from 1923 to 1951 with nothing but his hands and homemade tools (http://coralcastle.com/
). The mystery around coral castle is in the size of the coral monoliths used to create the castle. Ed Leedskalnin stood only 5 feet tall and weighed barely over 100 pounds. Yet he was able to construct this magnificent castle all by himself. He only worked at night, and no one ever saw him in action, as Homestead was covered in forest at the time. During the day he would welcome people to his castle and charge a nickle to enter. The whole thing isn't very big, but when you consider how it was constructed it's simply amazing. Some people said that Ed had supernatural powers. One photograph exists of a tripod crane that he might have used to lift the monoliths. But with no solid evidence, nobody really know how he built it. It's in great shape today and a tour costs $15 and doesn't take too long. Definitely worth a stop if you're in Homestead.
After a busy 4 days in south Florida it was time to head home. I actually had a hockey game that night and my friend picked me up from the airport with by sticks and bag ready to go. I don't know when I'll be back in South Florida. I've been to South Beach twice, Ft. Lauderdale once, and now Key West and all three national parks. I do love the vibe down there and look forward to a return someday.
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