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USA D16: Exploring the Florida Keys

In real time we’ve been home a couple of days and I for one have been knocked around quite a bit by those 24 hours it took to get back here. Now that I’m starting to leave my zombie state I need to finish off the trip blogs before work takes over again. So enough blah-ing and back to last Friday…

A day trip was planned down to the Florida Keys. I had wanted to see what Key West was like right at the end, but it’s too far to tackle in one (enjoyable) day. The original idea was to fly from New Orleans to Key West but due to some festival thing sucking up flights and accommodation that didn’t happen.

It was an early start to get as far as Key Largo for the first activity. Sleep had been a bit sucky so the Starbucks around the corner became a kind of ER on our way to the parking building.

We’d just navigated out of Miami Beach when Mike swore, realising we’d left behind our humble underwater camera. We’d bought it in Rarotonga a couple of years back and this very day was its next outing. It was too far to turn back so we swore some more and continued.

As we drove I tried to remember the tune to the song ‘Key Largo’. Probably not a bad thing that I couldn’t.

As we drove I tried to remember the tune to the song ‘Key Largo’. Probably not a bad thing that I couldn’t.

About an hour later we arrived at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in good time for our 9am snorkelling tour. This was the country’s first undersea park, created in 1963 to help protect a portion of the only living coral reef in the continental US.

We forked out the entrance fee and proceeded to the visitor centre to organise our gear and purchase a disposable camera. Then there was nothing else to do but wait with a dozen or so others in the balmy Florida morning.

Several ibis were scooting around, trying to avoid the gravel being thrown at them by a horrid child

Several ibis were scooting around, trying to avoid the gravel being thrown at them by a horrid child

On this day the conditions were a bit choppy. “Not great for beginners” was the sentiment echoed by the visitor centre and the boat crew. Given that I’m not hugely confident about being in open seas and had snorked only once before, these messages were successful in putting the wind up me.

Still, I didn’t want to wuss out.

We arrived at the Grecian Rocks and had a fast lesson in snorkelling and the area we were to snork around in. Some people were fairly quick about getting in the water, Mike included. I on the other hand got as far as sitting on the back of the boat with fins in the water and then met my stumbling block. Big girl’s blouse that I am, I was afraid to hop in. We were actually in only a few feet of clear(ish) water but in my mind it was ‘open seas’ and who knew what was in there.

After a couple of minutes of pure unadulterated faffing, I realised I was holding up the works so I took the literal plunge.

It took a few minutes to calm down and breath normally, the conditions, while only mild choppy, not making it easy. We only had about an hour in the water so went off to explore, chasing fish down for photos. Then we realised we’d must’ve mucked something up with the camera as it wasn’t working. Damn!!!

They said we might see moray eels, turtles and stingrays but only fish came our way, and I’m not one for looking under ledges (in the same way that you’ll never see me in the crawlspace under our house). The fish though were great – biggies and littlies and all sorts of colours. The prolific photo-taker that I am, it was a shame we couldn’t record what we were seeing but I accepted that this was one of those experiences to simply be present in without trying to capture it.

Eventually those of us remaining in the water got the signal to come back in. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Rarotonga, though the conditions were mostly to blame there and I’m glad I did it.

Working that special snorkelling look

Working that special snorkelling look

Creatures from the deep

Creatures from the deep

Damp and salty, we continued down to Islamorada – ‘Village of Islands’. Here at Robbie’s, which turned out to be a marina with an adjacent colourful collection of market stalls and a restaurant, we had planned to hire a kayak and paddle out to the small island of Indian Key. I was really looking forward to this on account of the island being a ghost town. But the chop out on the water meant we had to flag it (overshooting the island and ending up in Cuba wasn’t an impossibility). Drat.

Instead we stayed for lunch in the very popular Hungry Tarpon Restaurant, choosing seats that looked out onto the dock. This was a fascinating place as we watched big white birds jockey for position around the pier as a constant stream of people walked out to feed the fish.

More white birds, egrets this time

More white birds, egrets this time

great egret, florida keys

The fish turned out to be huge tarpon. I could have watched them for ages.

For $3 you could take food out to feed the tarpon - or like us, you could pay $1 to watch others risk their fingers

For $3 you could take food out to feed the tarpon – or like us, you could pay $1 to watch others risk their fingers

There were masses of them. A school of 50-100 tarpon go there each day

There were masses of them. A school of 50-100 tarpon go there each day

Those brave enough held out the food and the fish would jump to snatch it. One woman had a fish bite her well up past her wrist

Those brave enough held out the food and the fish would jump to snatch it. One woman had a fish bite her well up past her wrist

This pelican hung around ever hopeful there would be tourists who ignored the signs imploring people to not feed the pelicans (and there were)

This pelican hung around ever hopeful there would be tourists who ignored the signs imploring people to not feed the pelicans (and there were)

But we had more stuff to see and continued our journey south. The road down to Key West is called the Overseas Highway and another element of interest for us was the history behind it.

By the end of the 19th century the railroad had reached Miami and the roads did not extend south beyond the mainland. Between 1905-1912 the railroad out to Key West was built, suffering setbacks and loss of life from hurricanes along the way. It operated for about 20 years until a massive hurricane in 1935 took out over 60km of track and the repair cost was too much to bear.

Meanwhile, construction of the vehicle highway was underway. It too suffered a massive setback from that hurricane, after which time the abandoned railroad was purchased to help with its completion.

Today there are numerous memorials to this history and the hurricane.

Those foundations indicate where the highway was originally intended to go. After the hurricane in 1935 the railroad bridge was instead used for vehicle traffic and the pier remains were left as a memorial

Those foundations indicate where the highway was originally intended to go. After the hurricane in 1935 the railroad bridge was instead used for vehicle traffic and the pier remains were left as a memorial

We also found one of the old railroad/highway bridges, closed to vehicle traffic but open to dawdlers on foot and very popular fishing spots.

On the first short section of the old bridge, facing south

On the first short section of the old bridge, facing south

Walking up the southern section

Walking up the southern section

Obscuring a view of where a big section of the old bridge was removed to enable boats to pass through (matching grey t-shirts, isn't that nice)

Obscuring a view of where a big section of the old bridge was removed to enable boats to pass through (matching grey t-shirts, isn’t that nice)

We carried on south, choosing a random place to turn around. This place was Duck Key, a fancy looking seaside community. Importantly, they had a marina with restrooms and ice cream.

duck key, florida

On the way back north we stopped at the formal hurricane memorial which we overshot on the way down.

The memorial to those lost in the 1935 Labour Day hurricane

The memorial to those lost in the 1935 Labour Day hurricane

hurricane memorial, florida keys

Mike drove and I observed what I could before succumbing to tiredness.

Many people along the highway had letterboxes incorporating sea mammals, such as this manatee (featuring suckling baby no less)

Many people along the highway had letterboxes incorporating sea mammals, such as this manatee (featuring suckling baby no less)

In 2000, helmet-wearing by motorcyclists in Florida became optional and on this day we didn't see any

In 2000, helmet-wearing by motorcyclists in Florida became optional and on this day we didn’t see any being worn

The highways around Miami were proving to be loathsome as TomTom hadn’t been informed about some changes. This added on another 20 minutes but we made it back in time to get to the Art Deco souvenir shop on Ocean Drive before it closed.

Then we mustered enough staying power to change and go back out for dinner.

miami beach sunset

We found tea along the buzzing Espanola Way

We found tea along the buzzing Espanola Way

Mike window-shopping for that Miami-style white suit

Mike window-shopping for that Miami-style white suit

Daily stats:

  • People taking their pet rabbit to lunch: 1
  • Tarpon eyeing me up for lunch: 50
  • Palm trees inconveniently in the way when reversing our car resulting in some removal of paint: 1
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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I enjoyed “visiting” the Keys again. Shame about your camera but the photos you took were excellent. Sometimes I feel relief at not having my camera to hand. I can see things properly instead of from behind a viewfinder.

    8 November 2013
    • Yes, you do miss the fullness of the experience when you’re peering through a viewfinder. Thanks very much for the comment!

      8 November 2013

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