September 05, 2020

Biscayne National Park & the Florida Keys - The End of the Road

This post represents the final installment in The Big Switcheroo series – tales from last spring’s epic journey from the northeast to the Florida Keys and back – involving family, friends and an extraordinary range of adventures.

A quick recap for those of you who might be wondering why this three week, whirlwind tour was called The Big Switcheroo:  In 2018, we had planned a spring 2019 loop tour of the southern states in the eastern half of the country.  Alan and I were hoping to add a decent number of states to the map (in the column at the right) that indicates in which states we’ve camped.  On Christmas Day, 2018, we found out that our vacation plans ensured we would be out of town when our son Ryan’s longtime girlfriend, Anya, graduated with her Master’s Degree in mid-May of 2019.  In January of 2019, we decided to switch our 2019 vacation plans with those we had scheduled for spring of 2020 and it was off to Florida we went, visiting friends and family all along the way.  With Everglades National Park in our rear view mirror, we pointed the truck toward the Florida Keys.  Luckily, the travel trailer followed behind.

Prior to our stay at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground on this very trip, Alan and I had never actually camped in Florida.  From more than one trustworthy source, I had picked up the frightening piece of information that campsites in popular Florida State Parks sold out on a regular basis within minutes of becoming available eleven months out.  Now, here I was, just four months away from our travel dates, looking for a site at one of several State Parks in, of all places, the Florida Keys.  Plus, our 32’ trailer puts us just over the 30’ limit that seems to be common in many public campgrounds.  Visions of a site in a private RV park, with rigs crammed in nearly on top of each other like sardines in a can, danced before my eyes.  If we had to go that route, so be it.  But I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.  Exhausting possibilities is one of the things I do best.

Spectacular location, but not exactly our cup of tea

Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key was my first choice.  Knowing how popular this Park is, I had very little hope of finding anything, but I was disappointed nonetheless when ReserveAmerica indicated, “You’ve got to be kidding.”  Well, it wasn’t those exact words, but I knew what they meant.  Next up, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo.  I’m not sure what phrase would be more condescending than, “You’ve got to be kidding” but, whatever it is, that’s what I was envisioning.  Sure enough, nothing.  No, wait!  Look at that - ONE lonely site available for four nights right smack in the middle of the time period in which we planned to visit the Keys, and we would even fit in it!  I actually backed out and plugged my dates in again thinking that I had most certainly done something wrong.  But, to my joy and amazement, the site was, indeed, available.  Normally, after identifying an appealing site, I'd check with Alan to be sure he was in agreement with booking it.  In this case, however, I immediately snagged Site #17 quicker than you can say, “Done!”  Proof positive that miracles do happen to those who believe in them.  Honestly, my heart went out to the poor soul whose plans fell through because I knew I had happened upon someone’s cancellation.  I can only hope that our unknown campsite donor had better luck in the future and was able to enjoy John Pennekamp State Park at a later date.

The Florida Keys had been on our bucket list for a long time, so it was with excited anticipation that we settled ourselves into our campsite.  The sites were a little too close together for our taste but, for this stop, we didn’t mind a bit.  I still marvel at the fact that we managed to get a campsite at all.  It could have been the ugliest one we ever camped in, and we still would have enjoyed it and remained immensely grateful.

Site 17 ~ John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is the first undersea Park in the United States, and it encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles.  While the beach, picnic area and campground are popular with visitors, in this Florida State Park it’s all about the water.

I hope that person on the beach saw the warning sign about the crocodiles!

Canoeing, kayaking and fishing are go-to activities here, and the Park provides intriguing opportunities in the form of glass bottom boat, snorkeling and scuba diving tours out to the reefs - located between three and eight miles off the coast of the Florida Keys.

This is one of the State Park's tour boats . . .

Additionally, dock space with electric and water hook ups is available for private boats, as are moorings, with restrooms and showers readily at hand.  Park offerings also include the rental of power boats and an Environmental Education and Visitor Center featuring a 30,000 gallon aquarium.  John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is an amazing place that provides an abundance of outdoor adventures.

and this is another.

An excellent find for us in Key Largo was Harriette’s Restaurant where Alan managed to wedge us into one of the last remaining parking places, and we enjoyed a breakfast of epic proportions.  The restaurant is known for its humongous biscuits, and it offers nearly two dozen varieties of freshly baked muffins including Key Lime Coconut, Bacon Maple and Oreo Cream.  I can assure you that the Pineapple Upside Down muffin earned a double YUM!  At the time I was drafting this post, Harriette’s was holding a 4.5 star rating on TripAdvisor – well deserved, I might add, going by our meal and the packed parking lot.

The parking area in the back was jammed, and Harriette's did not disappoint!

One day during our stay at John Pennekamp, we traveled nearly 100 miles on the Overseas Highway to Key West, the southernmost point in Florida.  The Overseas Highway, which includes the famous Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, was named an All American Road in 2009 by the National Scenic Byways program, and it was definitely a marvelous drive with gorgeous scenery and intriguing sights.  As boaters ourselves, we were delighted to pass so many trucks towing boats of all types on the highway, and plenty of marinas along the way filled to overflowing with everything from tiny watercraft to mega-yachts.


As for Key West itself, to be truthful, I have mixed feelings.  We visited toward the end of May, and it was actually more crowded than we anticipated which tamped down the enthusiasm of these two social hermits.  Finding parking was excruciating painful, and the overuse of the word “southernmost” quickly became annoying.  The iconic buoy marking the southernmost point on the continental United States was impressive (and crowded!), but the “southernmost smoothie” – really?


Despite choosing the top-rated restaurant for Key Lime Pie, we were appalled at the price and disappointed with both the size and (believe it or not) the taste.  Actually, I think the Key Lime doughnut I bought at Krispy Kreme a couple of days later was much better.  Go figure.

Call me cynical, but I'm thinking that parrot is more Babe Bait than a beloved pet.

On the plus side, there were tons of cute eateries and quaint beach cottages, lots of charming architecture and intriguing sights, and the entire town had an inviting and captivating vibe.      

Loved all of the adorable caf├ęs and coffee houses!

Would we go back?  Probably not.  (Despite the miles between us, I can already hear Joe over at Easin' Along disagreeing with me.  Sorry, Joe!  Shall we agree to disagree agreeably?)  We loved exploring Key West, locating all of the iconic attractions and enjoying the festive atmosphere, but our adventures there satisfied our curiosity.  We’ll leave Key West to the locals and the tourists, and return to some of the state’s gorgeous beaches and enticing State Parks that hold a greater appeal for us.

Several of Key West's famous Conch Train Tour trams

While in Key Largo, we took a day trip to see the Art Deco architecture in Miami Beach, check off yet another National Park on our list, and visit an interesting little fruit stand by the name of Robert Is Here.

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that Alan and I are not aficionados of big city dwelling.  While a variety of cities are intriguing to us, you’ll probably never find us living in one since we prefer the peacefulness of rural life.  That being said, we certainly can (and do!) appreciate the architecture of certain cities, along with their seemingly countless educational and cultural opportunities.  Then, of course, there are all those fine dining establishments and fun-filled activities.  Yup, we love to visit, just wouldn’t want to live there.

Lots of gorgeous architecture in Miami Beach.

The Art Deco section of Miami Beach was a real treat, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that we had gone back in time, driving through town during another era entirely.  If our ride had been a breezy little Thunderbird convertible, the experience would have been complete.

Reflections of another era

Next stop:  Biscayne National Park.  The small, but exceptionally enjoyable, Visitor Center is located in Homestead, Florida, and is named for Dante Fascell, a member of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1955 to 1993, a Floridian who championed the creation of the National Park.


We watched a short movie about Biscayne National Park in the Visitor Center’s small theater, and truly enjoyed poking around the nifty, well-stocked “Touch Me” box.  Also available for hands-on exploration were a variety of turtle shells and sponges.  I couldn't help but think that our kids would have loved this experience when they were younger.  The Visitor Center was nicely designed and overlooked the water, a picnic area and the docks.

The "Please Touch" box was tons of fun for two big kids!

Biscayne National Park preserves Biscayne Bay and its offshore coral reefs.  Just like at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, it’s all about the water here.  Activities include sightseeing tours on various types of boats, as well as snorkeling and scuba adventures available through the Biscayne National Park Institute and numerous other Park-authorized vendors.

Picnic area and boat docks as seen from the Visitor Center

Canoeing, kayaking and fishing are also big draws here at Biscayne.  Sadly, unless we’re traveling with both our boat and our tent, you won’t find us camping at Biscayne National Park even though there are two campgrounds within the Park’s nearly 173,000 acres.  Both are located on islands – one on Elliot Key and one on Boca Chita Key – with boat-only access.  Sigh.  It would have been a fun adventure; although, I’m thinking that I’d feel much more comfortable navigating the Florida Keys on a boat a bit larger than the 21.5' Chaparral we have now.  Call me a coward, but I’m not up for any Gilligan-type adventures.  For additional information on Biscayne National Park, meander on over to the National Park Service website (link HERE).

Kayaking on quiet water in Biscayne National Park

Our last stop of the day was at a fruit stand in Homestead that goes by the unusual name of “Robert Is Here.”  While the fruit stand itself was well stocked with all sorts of tropical fruits and vegetables, it was the story behind the fruit stand that captured my heart.


Back in 1959, when Robert was six years old, his dad set him up at the very corner where the fruit stand now exists.  He gave Robert the extra cucumbers from their family farm and the task of selling them.  Robert didn’t sell a single cuke.  His dad figured that he needed to do something to make little Robert more visible, so he fashioned a sign that led to the creation of what would eventually become an incredibly popular fruit stand and iconic tourist attraction:  Robert Is Here.  The first day the sign was up, Robert sold every single one of his cucumbers, and he never looked back. 
According to the Florida Back Roads Travel website Robert is still there, and his experience as a young entrepreneur exemplifies both ingenuity and perseverance.  If you’d like to read more about the story of Robert and his fruit stand, or explore other intriguing day trips, road trips and cool things to do in the state of Florida, feel free to wander on over to that website (link HERE).  Florida Back Roads Travel is an armchair travel guide to old Florida and an excellent resource for off the beaten path places, history and culture.

A photo of the original sign Robert's dad made for him

Robert Is Here was a fun stop for us, and it warms my heart to know that young Robert’s perseverance was ultimately responsible for the creation of a successful small business that remains a notable part of the community so many decades later.  Robert Is Here – and we were there, too.

Well, it’s time to cue the sad, closing strains of the goodbye music.  Our stay in Key Largo was the southernmost last stop on the Big Switcheroo trip.  As we pulled out of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park one morning in early June of last year, we headed north toward our family favorite - Northampton Beach Campground on Great Lake Sacandaga in central New York.  As it turned out, because we had to juggle the dates of our spring travel, the Big Switcheroo ended up colliding with reservations we already had in place at Northampton Beach.  We were on the road again, leaving behind a trip chock full of new and excellent experiences, heading toward a place of favored familiarity.  Life is good.  And don’t think we don’t know it.  We do – and we appreciate it accordingly.

Thanks so much for following along on this lengthy series!  As many of you know, I’m working to document our three cross-country National Parks trips, as well a bunch of other travels for which I have photos and a calendar, but no other written record.  I really do need to get back to our second National Parks trip, but there are still a couple of other posts I’d like to squeeze in – including one about our fun-filled gathering of Outdoors RV owners and one about my Great Toilet Paper Experiment.  No, I’m not kidding, and I hope you'll stick around! 

 

10 comments:

  1. While I had several of the same reactions that you did to Key West, I still love visiting the end of the road. The main drag is all T-shirt shops and bars. But, a few blocks away are hidden gems like the Blue Heaven Cafe, with roosters roaming the grounds. Jimmy Buffett has a song about it that is quite accurate. The Hemingway House was not all that interesting; I am not a cat person so the famous six-toed cats were no big deal.

    I did like visiting the Truman Winter White House, and we did some diving around the reefs at Pennekamp State Park. The back streets are definitely "Old Florida" and many of the residents are characters. We stayed in a beautiful B & B within walking distance of beaches and fascinating neighborhoods.

    Oh, Miami? No thanks.

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    1. Your comments, Bob, speak to the essence of why we love to travel. First, there's the experience of exploration which, for us, is always a thrill; then there are the memories that we take home with us. Some are quickly forgotten, some are remembered by one of us but not the other, and then there are some (the best kind) that we bring out again and again to savor in conversation, and maybe even incorporate into our family stories. Whether or not we actually like a particular destination is incidental to the journey. It's really the joy of travel and discovery that we relish. Thanks for sharing your perspective. The experience you and Betty enjoyed in Key West has obviously remained with you.

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  2. Well, that was a well-crafted series that no one would have guessed was an alternative to your original plans. You wouldn't even have had to mention it. Our impression of Key West was similar to yours. I wanted to check it off the list, but my overall feeling was, well, "meh..." But then, we are not beach people; we don't even like the thought of grains of sand falling onto the steps leading into Phannie's cockpit. Oh yes, the toilet paper thing...can't wait for that. It will probably rank right up there with perhaps my most ignominious post--a taste test of canned chili. No, I take that back; toilet paper will surely trump canned chili!

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    1. I remember your canned chili post! I'm just not sure what that says about it. I guess I shouldn't tell you that I'm pretty sure there's still some Daytona Beach sand on the floor of the truck from that trip last year, huh? None in the travel trailer though - I promise. You and Sandy would have enjoyed Harriette's - small local place, lots of character, great food - it was right up your alley.

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  3. Hi Mary...Loved your Big Switcheroo trip series, and we were so glad to have been part of it - at our "Campground!" I can see you have found some little gems on your trip here, that we have missed - time to take a ride again perhaps. Meanwhile, I agree with Bob regarding Key West...love to visit, but some areas I want to leave behind. The back streets are more fun to see, the Winter White House was very interesting, and some of the back street restaurants, shops, and art galleries are my favorites. There is also a cool little aquarium that is worth seeing. Once, we stayed at a campground out there...that resembled a sardine can, but our bikes took us everywhere, and we put A LOT of miles on, just wandering around. Other than the homeless camps down in the mangroves, (so sad) the sights were beautiful. When we take cruises, I am always happy if there is a stop in Key West...although they leave too early for the nightly Sunset Party...a favorite of mine. We once stayed at a B & B as well - they are wonderful down there! AND, we once went for New Year's Eve - I'm sure you can imagine how crazy that was! (The crowds would have freaked you out - it did me...but I did still enjoy!) It truly is a unique place. Looking forward to more travel stories! Best wishes from the Sunshine State!

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    1. Joan, you know Alan and I love to explore but, really, the best parts of this trip were the week we spent with the kids at Disney, our could-have-been-so-much-longer visit with you and Tom, and our get-togethers with our grade school, high school and church friends along the way. The Big Switcheroo was a great combination of family, friends and new to us destinations. I've heard of the Sunset Party in Key West and it sounds like a magical celebration; the New Year's Eve shindig, not so much. You know me too well!

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  4. My husband and I visited Key West when we traveled to Florida on our way to Cuba. We had a similar reaction to yours but I'm glad we went. We enjoyed the Hemingway museum (especially since we then got to visit Hemingway's house in Cuba) and the gorgeous sunset we saw off Mallory Square (along with hundreds of our closest friends). Also, with regards to the "southernmost" claims... of course, that's just for the continental U.S. Later that very same year (2015), we had the pleasure of visiting the actual southernmost part of the U.S. which is found on Hawaii's Big Island. Many, many fewer people and way more beautiful :).

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    1. Yikes! If the Sunset Parties involve "hundreds of your closest friends," then I don't think I'd even be up for that - pandemic or not. Maybe Key West is one of those places where real life clashes with the romanticized ideal. Despite my complaints, I really am happy we had the opportunity to visit but, I must admit, your description of the Big Island of Hawaii is much more to my liking.

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  5. Those areas that you've mentioned used to be our stomping grounds! Life was SO much fun back in the late 70's to early 80's. Eating and just hanging around the keys was such a wonderful time. I know it's all changed & I'm so glad we got to experience the best of the Keys/Key West in the "old days"!! We lived in Miami for 13 yrs. and left just as Hurricane Andrew hit. Not good for our old n'hood. Now we're in San Diego & enjoying all it has to offer and all the way up the coast.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Priscilla, and for taking the time to comment! I think I might have enjoyed the Key West you loved "back in the day;" last year, there was just a little too much hustle and bustle going on for my taste. So, you swapped coasts and ended up with a lovely, temperate climate, a gorgeous coastline - and no hurricanes. Good for you!

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