It turns out we finally finished our ‘winter break’ in the most glamorous of style, by camping for a week in our friend Ryan’s driveway. There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a total hobo than living in your bus in someone else’s driveway I can tell you.
But after the Bluebird Rally, Loops decided the very last of the maintenance needed to be completed, and Ryan kindly offered us the concrete space we needed to change out the coolant hoses, do a final engine compartment sealing (to try and keep the engine smell that developed last year from permeating into the bus), and to get the towing braking system for The Beast properly fitted.
With our overall travel plan resting on the decision not to leave the state until the end of February, plus still needing to visit our friends Bunny and Phil down in Miami, Loops and I decided that we would start our 2017 travels of by heading are far south as you can go in the continental US, we are off to see Key West!
For those who like a little background information, Key West is just one of over 1,000 islands which make up the Florida Keys, stretching around 120 miles out to sea off the tip of mainland Florida. Most of the islands are in fact uninhabited; some are set aside as part of a wildlife refuge and one of the islands, Dry Tortugas, is actually a National Park containing Fort Jefferson.
The travel options for reaching the Keys are a little limited in terms of roads, as most of the southern portion of Florida is either made up of Big Cypress National Preserve or the Everglades National Park. This means you only have one or two major roads heading down to where the Keys begin and only a single stretch of road – US Highway 1 – which goes all the way to Key West (and ending at Mile Marker 0).
Loops and I opt to head down the west coast of Florida on the I-75, the fastest route south. As we reach the outskirts of Big Cypress though, we decide not to stick on the newer Alligator Alley, but opt to turn off and travel the older and less used tarmac of the Tamiami Trail, so called as it used to be the main traffic route between Tampa and Miami (thank you Loops for that fun fact!).
This gives us the chance to grab a couple glimpses of the preserve as well as the excitement of hoping we might see black bears or even a Florida panther! Of course we didn’t, and the chances of either happening were beyond remote anyway, but the fact that there were many signs specifically telling us when we were passing through ‘Panther Habitat’ made it feel like maybe we had a shot.
To break up the ride, we overnighted at Midway Campground (aptly named I felt), part of the Big Cypress Preserve, a very pretty little site set as a horseshoe around a small lake (almost a pond really). It was here I was delighted to find two RV’s with ‘Book Swap’ boxes outside and promptly set about swapping out four of my already read books, with new ones. Score! I can’t wait to find more of these as we go.
The drive the following day was scenic, with a channel of water beside us and the large swamp like preserve on both sides; alternating between reed grassland and shrub like forest interspersed with the occasional tall pine. I kept a close look out this time for birds and alligators and was rewarded when we passed by the visitor centre and picked out about ten gators within a two or three minute period. Mostly though, I just spotted people fishing off the side of the road. If fact, I’ve noticed that fishing is a huge hobby over here in the states. Rarely have we visited somewhere with a body of water and not found someone with a line cast.
We break for our overnight stop, this time at the Miccosukee Casino on the outskirts of Miami. Now usually I have pretty good things to say regarding casinos for they stood us in good stead last year as places to stay, especially up through Michigan. This one however was just OK, my enthusiasm for it considerably dampened by the continuous cacophony of car alarms throughout the night; 3am to 6am seems to be the popular casino exit time, by which point I think people have been so brainwashed by gambling that they forget where they parked and set off the alarm to locate their car. This does not result in a good night’s sleep in case you are wondering, especially when you have to keep the windows open all night to prevent from being cooked alive in the Floridian evening heat.
We officially make it to the Keys the following day, well, actually just over the bridge and onto Key Largo, the entrance to the long string of islands. Loops has managed (with great difficulty) to secure us a single night’s campsite at the extremely popular John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. And yes, you read that correctly, Florida is actually the only continental US state with coral reef formations near its coast. You don’t generally associate coral with America, do you? Certainly the Maldives, Australia, those types of places; but there you have it, there are coral reefs in America. Now you know.
Needless to say, there is a thriving snorkelling, diving, kayaking, boating and fishing industry here in the Keys. We plan to take full advantage of premier camping spot at the first undersea park in the United States and check out the water. Only…..
Yeah. This happened.
Guess what happens when a storm comes through the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park? No boats. No snorkelling. No water activity of any kind.
Just our luck.
Still, not to be deterred, we head over to the small aquarium located in the state park to boggle some fish, while being sheltered from the storm outside. And you know what? It’s a pleasant little aquarium. Totally worth the visit.
The exhibits are all based on local wildlife, with examples of coral, sponges, urchins and fish that you will find nearby. The educational displays help you name what is in the tanks and to learn about the plant life you will come across in the mangrove forest areas. They even have a small theatre inside where they show wildlife and underwater videos which are well worth viewing. And best of all….you guessed it….it’s free to go into!
It takes us about three hours to drive from Key Largo down to Key West the next day.
Now I‘m going to state something here that will either help with your experience of driving through the Keys, or totally ruin it; but I feel it’s important for you to know. Here it is…if you are expecting for your journey to be an idyllic and picturesque drive, with tropical plants swaying in the breeze and a constant view of the glorious crystal clear blue waters of the ocean with pelicans skimming over the glittering waves; you’re in for a shock.
I certainly had one.
The majority of your drive time will look much like the rest of America, towns with concrete buildings, roads leading off to housing estates, many shops touting tourist type attractions or supplies and plenty of cars. That is because the road you are travelling goes through the centre of each island, you are not near the coastline of it and therefore you are seeing the main working interior of each Key; the places where people work and live.
Your dream version of driving the Keys only takes place as you cross the water between each island. In the north part of the Keys where the channels are very small, you’ll skip over the bridge in 30 seconds; blink and you’ll miss it. The further south you go the channels seem to become wider, you will pass over much larger bodies of water and the vegetation seems to become more verdant.
Let me be clear, I’m not to dissing the drive completely, because there are many beautiful sections (including the seven mile bridge and the areas where you can see the old railway bridging – check out my YouTube video for this), but I did experience quite a tangible feeling of upset that what I had envisioned in my imagination, didn’t come to fruition. Better prepared for what lay ahead, I had a much more pleasant drive back knowing what to expect and enjoying the water views when I knew they were approaching. Just sayin’.
So then, Key West, what’s it like?
Well, it’s different.
And that was exactly the description given to me by a number of people I asked before we went, which I found very frustrating because no-one seemed to be able to elaborate any further on that point, so let me try.
For me, Key West’s ‘difference’ is atmospheric. There is a complete air of relaxation about the place. No-one is in a hurry. No-one is out to feel uptight about anything. The name of the game is to take things slow and to drink in the calm; which is the complete opposite of pretty much every other place I’ve ever been to in America.
The backdrop is a tropical, leafy waterfront bohemian town. The houses are wooden clapboard in a variety of styles and colours and most have a worn air to them, not rundown, but worn, like they’ve been softly caressed over time by the ocean breeze.
There are plenty of people around to be sure, but somehow the town avoids the feeling of being crowded. Again, I think this is simply from the fact that no-one is rushing from place to place, so you are not constantly being bumped into or having to side step people every couple of paces.
The only part of the town that feels slightly hectic would be the roads. There is a constant stream of traffic, but it’s not traffic really, because it’s moving all the time. I should say a constant flow of vehicles, and honestly the majority of them are bicycles, they are everywhere; which again lend themselves to the pace of the town, leisurely and lackadaisical.
And perhaps most delightful, for me anyway, is the constant delicious breeze that blows gently through the streets. It might be 85 degrees out in the bright sun, but stand in the shade with the cool wind and even I could spend all day outside.
Bring all of these elements together and you have an extremely pleasant place to hang out and kick back for a while; which is exactly what we did.
I will say that I can see why Key West may be for some people and not others. If you like a busy, hip and happenin’, keep you entertained 24/7 type of town, this place is not for you. Likewise, you really have to enjoy the laid back flow of this place to fully justify the expense of staying down here at the height of the winter season (though I’m pretty sure it’s fairly expensive year round).
Personally, we lucked out being able to stay for just over a week, and we were only able to afford that because we had access to the military bases in the area. If you are able to stay at one of the Naval bases in the area (we camped over at Sigsbee), do so. Our site cost us $14 per day to dry camp, but with access to the dump station, water, showers and laundry on site. We were within a 10 minute bike ride of the main town area and there are plenty of activities on the base that run weekly due to the large number of campers (over 200), general military personnel and their families on site.
If we had had to stay at a privately run campground, we personally wouldn’t have been able to afford more than a night or two. We passed one campground in the Keys that Loops had looked into and he told me they were already fully booked for 2017 at $36 per night, so space is definitely at a premium down here.
So how did we spend our week?
Well, we loitered a fair amount in the campground. Our fellow campers it turns out were extremely chatty and outgoing, which Loops informs me is down to them all being military and having to make new acquaintances all the time when they get stationed somewhere new.
Our nearest neighbours, no-nonsense Pat and Pete, promptly invited us over for a cookout with some other campers, and we spent a jolly evening listening to travel stories, thoughts on the upcoming Super bowl and complaints about why only two of the five washing machines were currently working in the laundry room.
We also spent time with an older couple from Washington, who gave us ideas on places to camp in the state when we visit, chatted about their overseas European military postings and discussed gardening ideas, because they are the first people who I have discovered with a proper English-type formal garden!
Much to our delight, there were also two Bluebirds in the camp with us – one belonging to a lovely older gentleman named John (who lives with his Beagle), who has a smooth, quiet wicked sense of humour and I discover I very much enjoy listening to him talk; the other bus belonging to a couple named Mark and Donna from Maine, whom we enjoyed a good number of hours talking to about their trips to Alaska and the need to change out eight windscreens on the four bus convoy they were in due to stone damage!
So we certainly didn’t hurt for company during our stay.
On our trips into town we cycled down and locked up our bikes before taking to the streets on foot. You cannot want for things to look at in Key West. There are a number of paying attractions of course, the main ones being the Ernest Hemingway house, President Truman’s Little White House, Dry Tortugas, The Butterfly and Nature Conservatory and any number of museums, guided bus tours and boat tours.
We paid to enjoy the delights of the butterflies and would recommend giving it a try.
However there are plenty of free activities too. We stopped in at the Eco Centre which has numerous displays about the marine and land wildlife in the area, giving us about an hour’s worth of entertainment, we walked a fair few miles up and down the streets of the town window shopping (the most famous being Duval Street) and spent a large proportion of time enjoying cycling up and down the outer streets taking in the housing. If nothing else, you can spend your time counting the many chickens and cockerels roaming the street of Key West…they are an attraction in themselves and feature on every tourist postcard and fridge magnet that you come across.
Obviously we had to put our tourist hats on at some point at so made at stop here….
And what trip to the Keys would be complete without trying some Key Lime Pie?
I toyed with the idea of a trip out to the Dry Tortugas, after all I spent so much time last year trying to fill my NPS Passport with as many stamps as I could, and this would be an unusual one. However, in order to get the most out of the experience, you have to be willing to snorkel and spend time in the water around the island, and for this time of year we couldn’t find any definitive information on the water conditions – the bouy that was supposed to be nearest the island was offline and the for the cost of the trip I’d want to be sure it was as close to perfect as can be.
Unusually for me, I didn’t fuss too much about missing out on this chance, but I think that’s because Loops and I have already both agreed that we’ve liked our time down here so much, we will be making a return trip at the end of this year for sure.
However, I didn’t miss out totally and did get to try my hand at snorkelling in the Keys. Luckily for me, here at Sigsbee on Friday mornings, there are two snorkelling instructors who give a free small training session for about 2 hours to people on the base. Loops vetoed the idea for him on account of the water being ‘too cold’, but hey, I learned to dive at Horsea Island in Portsmouth during February in a wetsuit, so I reckon I can just about hack anything. And I was right. The water for me was pretty pleasantly warm once you got in and flippering.
The two instructors (Bob and Sally) provided a comprehensive talk before we got wet, discussing snorkelling technique and etiquette, as well as showing us pictures of what we were likely to see in the water. We were entering the water from the small beach just a two minute walk from where our bus was parked, but even here in the right weather conditions you can find nurse sharks and barracuda on the small reef drop off about 50 feet from the shore.
The water was slightly choppy and murky because of the wind, but I still spent a very merry 40 minutes looking at the different types of sponges and coral on the reef, as well as two different types of fish and a ray which skittered off of the floor and disappeared in a cloud of sand.
Now don’t expect anything too brightly coloured here; the coral I saw were varying shades of white and grey, I glimpsed something that was a light pink and something oddly cactus looking that was green. For the really impressive vivid reds, greens, blues, yellows and everything in between, I highly recommend the Indian Ocean.
On our final evening before leaving the Keys, we headed into town with a couple of our new friends for dinner and ice cream. This is my final piece of advice to you regarding Key West – if you are planning on eating at a restaurant, go eat early in the evening between 4pm and 6pm – this is Happy Hour. Never mind the drinks; you will get very decent sized appetisers that are basically a meal for reasonable price (between $6-8) at this time.
I highly recommend visiting the Turtle Kralls and ordering the Bucket o’ Bones (BBQ ribs) and/or the Deep Dish Nachos. They also make a decent virgin Pina Colada. On the other hand, I wouldn’t waste your money on Kelly’s. The appetisers were so-so and the buggers felt it necessary to charge me $7 for a virgin PC vs the $3.50 at the Turtle Kralls. There was absolutely no need for that – it doesn’t even contain any alcohol for goodness sake!
Also, the entertainment value of the Turtle Kralls is way higher if you dine outside facing the harbour. This is where the little dinghies come in to moor and it’s like a bumper boat show when people try to leave but can’t get out due to there being way too many boats tied up. It was also here that I spotted the quintessential Key West boho beach bum; he was just picture perfect, a face that could tell a thousand stories. He must have been in his 60’s, with almost shoulder length sun bleached, platinum blond hair, craggy dark sun tanned face, wearing no shirt or shoes, just a pair of faded denim jean cut-offs. He could have been an extra on the set of Robinson Crusoe. He was out on the dock loading up his ancient and weather worn, wooden dinghy with a water barrel. I can’t believe he didn’t tip over as the barrel fell into the boat (Loops and I were waiting for it), but he made it safely aboard, started his motor and puttered off into the sunset and out to sea.
Speaking of sunsets, no, we didn’t do the whole clapping as the sun went down at Mallory Square. Mostly we just ran out of time and were too busy enjoying the other activities we had chosen to do instead. We’ll just add it to the list for next time.
And there definitely will be a next time….