Gators, Squitors, and Keys


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June 19th 2014
Published: June 20th 2014
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I am the most hot natured person I know and why I thought visiting the southern most part of the US in the middle of summer was a good idea, I am not sure. Well, I do know why - but the timing could have been better. The reason? A business trip for Donald that we tagged along with for a few days. He has a conference in Miami, so we decided to take the kids to Key West. We have never been before and it is one of those bucket list places, so we are here.

We arrived in Homestead, FL on Wednesday night so that we could begin our trek from a good central location. Our first stop - breakfast. Everyone knows that people are the happiest when they are no longer hungry. Our real first stop is Everglades National Park. Of course the Everglades are not Key West, but I could not pass up a visit to a national park when we are only minutes from it, not to mention I am a huge national park fan. So a slight detour was definitely on the agenda.

The entrance to Everglades National Park is only 15 minutes from Homestead. The road into the park reminded me of an old country road that receives little traffic and little attention. We knew going into this trip that we would not have long to visit the park for we had a lot of miles to cover before reaching Key West. So we decided to only go part way into the park. The road into the park is also the road out of the park. Only one way in and only one way out. We stopped at the visitor center for a map, a suggested stops and hikes, and a glimpse into the swampy water. Only the water was more like a pond than a swamp that one envisions when thinking of the Everglades.

When you envision wildlife in the Everglades, you immediately think of alligators. So we expected to see a gator or two. When looking up information about the Everglades, for every picture of gators I saw, I saw two with snakes-mostly pythons. I absolutely hate snakes, so praying the whole time that we would not see one of those. The one animal I really wanted to see was a panther. But the odds were not in our favor. Apparently only 6 or so panthers live in the Everglades and with the Everglades spending 1.5 million acres, I didn't really get my hopes up.

We drove about 1/3 of the way in the park and stopped at an overlook. We saw about 3 cars since we started so we had that section of the park to ourselves. There was a short hike out on a boardwalk to see the overlook which we embarked on. The overlook gave a good sense of the lay of the land. It is a thick grass and brush growth - growing in about 6 inches of standing water. Not really swampy, but wet. You don't really realize how wet it is until you get out and hike through it. At this point the only wildlife we saw were a turtle and a few crows, so a little disappointing. We finished the short hike and on the approach to our car, the wildlife came alive! Suddenly thousands of mosquitoes (aka Squitors) were attacking us. We got in the car as fast as we could and a full war broke out inside the car. In the end, we won that battle but not before the mosquitoes had badly damaged our troops. We decided it was best to head back out at this point. We briefly considered venturing further, for we really expected to see some alligators, but knowing we had to backtrack every single step and then drive down the keys, we decided it best to turn around then. On our way out we saw 3 more cars. Not sure where everyone was at - perhaps they were smarter than us and knew of the war fighting mosquitoes and knew where they should avoid them at or perhaps the mosquitoes had won the war against them and carried them all off to the deeper parts of the park.

We stopped at one final area before existing the park - Royal Palm. The park ranger said it was a good stop, so we put our brave faces on (that was the only armor we had) to warn the mosquitoes they could not win and got out again. It was a nice area with a gift shop, restrooms, info boards and a paved and boarded walking area around ponds, wet areas, swampy areas. We reached the first water area and saw a large alligator swimming away from us (better than swimming toward us). Woohoo - saw a gator right before leaving the park. We ventured on around and walked the whole trail against the wishes of Shelby, but it was worth it. We saw many more alligators, all sorts of fish, birds, lily pads and the whole area was filled with sounds and life of the swamp. It was definitely a hopping place for nature. The mosquitoes must have known we meant business for they pretty much stayed away from us during that hike. Either that or the fact that the hike was in the full hot blazing sun instead of the dark shadow wetter areas.

So after plenty of alligator photos, we proceeded out of the park. Sad to say, we saw no panthers. We headed back to Homestead and then turned on Highway 1 - our highway of the day. Before leaving for this trip, I read that there were 42 bridges on Highway 1 before reaching Key West and dozens of quirky stops along the way. I highlighted a few of them thinking they would help break up the riding a bit. There are about 130 miles between Homestead and Key West. Though not that far, the riding was slow and it seemed to take such a long time to travel just a few miles.

The first major island and probably one of the biggest was Key Largo. It is a bustling beach town full of touristy places. I read about a rock castle in Key Largo that was built in the 1920s out of coral. I thought that sounded interesting, so we searched for it. It took a few u-turns, but we found it - only to realize that it was gated and private property. So to avoid a trespassing charge, we didn't venture onto the grounds and left a bit disappointed. We also stopped at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. It is well known for the snorkeling and kayak tours. We did not have a tour scheduled. I had read that it was also a good place to wade out a bit and see many ocean creatures so thought that would be a nice stopping place. It cost $10 to get in and we traveled to end of the park - about 1/2 mile. The place was packed - mostly with booked tours and boats. Not sure what source I had gathered my information from, but it was not accurate. There were a couple of small beaches, but not really good sea life areas. The main hiking trail, visitor center and aquarium were all closed for renovations. So after about 10 minutes, we left. $10 for 10 minutes. I thought about asking for my money back, but then thought if all the main areas needed renovations, then they needed that $10 more than me. We then stopped for lunch at Hobos and hit the highway again.

Our next stop was the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. It is a volunteer-run facility and it was free. They had some interesting birds and a boardwalk through the mangroves leading you to the gulf. It was not spectacular, but worth a stop. We passed by the giant lobster, but didn't stop. We were all tired and sleepy and still had some 80 miles to go. We bypassed many other interesting stops, but knew we couldn't see everything. We did stop on the island of Islamorada at Robbie's Marina. I had read about Robbie's and a friend told me that it is a "must stop". We stopped along with everyone else traveling this famous highway, paid our money to go out on the dock and bought a bucket of fish. We were going to feed the tarpon. I saw pictures of these huge fish coming out of the water and eating the fish out of your hand. That did not happen. We did feed them, but none of the fish were coming out of the water - not for any one. Perhaps they knew how hot it was above the water and chose to stay in the cooler areas beneath. And right about the time we were ready to leave a huge manatee came swimming under the dock and out to sea. It was cool to see and glad we were there. We purchased some shaved ice before getting back in the car and were once again on the highway. We made no other stops and after crossing the 42nd bridge in the keys, we had made it to Key West.

Our accommodations were at 'The Inn at Key West'. It was a small resort feel hotel and met all of our needs. Not too plain, not too plush. We checked in and relaxed for a bit. Then decided to head into the busy area for some food and shopping. Duvall Street is where it is all at so that was our destination. We found a parking area about a block away, paid our parking fee ($20!) and started walking. The whole area was filled with people, touristy shops and bars. A little much for our taste. We are not 'bar' people and certainly do not like the atmosphere that comes with those types of areas. It was our intent to eat at Sloppy Joes (apparently "the place" you have to eat at in Key West), but after walking by and hearing how loud the place was, we knew I would not be able to stay there, so we kept walking. I cannot tolerate loud places nor crowded places, so my patience is wearing thin. Yes, I realize that one having these attributes should not linger for long in Key West. I will not linger.

We stopped at Froggertys for our meal. It was an outdoor restaurant and the food was pretty good. We then continued on our walk visiting many of the tourist and souvenir shops. We ended up on Mallory Square (another one of the 'must do' items) and down to sunset pier. We sat for a while next to the pier waiting for the sun to set, but it was taking too long and the air was getting hotter and the crowd of people thicker. So we left prior to the sun setting. We had convinced ourselves that it would not be that spectacular anyway. There were no clouds and it likely would have set behind the trees from that vantage point. We attempted to find our way back out of the area without use of the GPS but ended up on other side roads. We did find a couple of my own 'must do' areas' - the end of US Highway 1 and the Southernmost Point in the US. We grabbed pictures of both areas and made our way back to the hotel. We were exhausted and ready to call it a day.


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