Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Sue and Mo at Harris Beach
Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Monday, March 29, 2010

03-29-2010 Truly Relaxing in the Keys

There are several major sports in the Keys. Sunset, Water, Drinking, Eating, and Relaxing: not necessarily in that order. For the past five days we have partaken of most of these activities, except the relaxing part. Today is about relaxing. I am sitting at an old picnic table on the golden sandy beach at the Lime Tree Bay Resort. We are in the town of Layton, on Long Key, really just a narrow spit of limestone and sand stretched along the Overseas Highway. There is a QuickStop across the street, a water sports rental shop down the road, and Long Key State park a mile away, but with the exception of a place next door called “Little Italy”, the closest restaurants and stores are 12 miles south or 10 miles north. 

We woke this morning to warm sultry breezes with barely a touch of coolness on the edges, and a prediction for rain and thunderstorms. Our plans for the day include sitting by the water, maybe walking to the park, maybe swimming, maybe kayaking. The only item on the agenda we are sure to do is relax. Of course, writing about it all is relaxing for me at a place like this. The only sounds around me are the rustle of the palm thatched shelter, the palm trees, water lapping the limey shore, a few birds making morning sounds, and the gentle drone of traffic on Highway 1.

The Lime Tree is a fine little place to stay if you don’t care about access to amenities. The room is spacious, and clean, with bright lime yellow walls, pure white linens, and our own bathroom. The bathroom is tiny, and one must sit sideways on the toilet to keep from bumping knees on the wall in front of it, but it is our own. No running down the hall and hoping someone isn’t already locked up in the bathroom!

There is a feeling to Florida, in some places, referred to as “Old Florida”. I have felt it in the north central part of the state, around Ocala, in Citra, out on the Emerald Coast near the Gulf, and now here. There are low buildings, things are just a tiny bit tacky in ways that are hard to define, and something about it settles me down inside in a way that doesn’t happen often. It’s the part of Florida that I love, and I didn’t really expect to find it in the Keys.

Today we will relax, tomorrow we will head back to Miami in the morning for our flight to Sacramento, and another round of moving things back home to Klamath Falls. But today, right now, here in front of the Lime Tree Inn, everything is still and perfect.


Later: The morning was nicer than we expected, so by eleven we were on the water in the sit-on-top kayaks provided by the resort for a spin around the bay. They had rules; not too far off shore, and only an hour out. It turned out to be good enough for us because by the time we went out and back the winds were up and we got a good workout getting back to the dock against the waves. We finished up with a nice swim before the thunderstorm hit. Our timing was perfect.


By late afternoon, the weather had cleared enough for us to travel back toward Marathon and Milepost 49 for a watercolor art show and then we found a great beach to explore, complete with dolphins.

Dinner at the Island Tiki Restaurant with a seafood quesadilla and some key lime pie rounded out the evening. Our flight doesn’t leave Miami until 3 in the afternoon tomorrow so we should have plenty of time to pack and amble up the Overseas Highway one last time as we leave Florida and head back west.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

03-28-2010 Key Largo and Pennenkamp Coral Reef

Our first night at the Lime Tree wasn’t exactly restful, with a very noisy air conditioner blasting on and off repeatedly. With night temperatures in the mid 70’s, and high humidity, it takes a bit to adjust. We woke up happy about the day to come with plans to travel back north to Key Largo to see the famous coral reef.

The skies were a bit murky and overcast, but the temperatures were still comfortable. Driving along the highway is interesting, with different kinds of establishments than what we are used to seeing out west. Many dive shops, seafood eateries, kitschy souvenir stores, resorts, gardens, then miles of nothing but low key trees and then suddenly water on both sides.

Key Largo has a completely different feel than Key West, in my opinion, not nearly as charming, but still somewhat tacky. We laughed about all the pastel colors everywhere that fit right in here in this island environment that would have been horrid in our green and brown northwest. We also laughed about how boring the northwest “earth tones” would look in the keys! We arrived at Pennenkamp State Park by 10:30, in time to sign up for the noon glass bottom boat tour. The wind was up and the water looked a bit rough, so we both decided that a boat tour was better for us than bobbing around out on the reef with our snorkels. After we saw just what was under the surface out there, we were really glad we had decided to boat instead of snorkel!

The boat was shiny clean and white and the staff was knowledgeable. It was well worth the $24. per person that we paid to see the reef. After my queasy experience on the return from the Dry Tortugas, I was a bit nervous about the “choppy” seas, with 4 foot waves that the captain warned us about. At the concession, I bought some wrist bands, with a knob that applies pressure to a meridian that prevents sea sickness. In spite of the waves, and even with the descent to the viewing deck, I managed to get through the 2.5 hour trip without getting sick! Although I did go up on the top deck and watch the horizon intently for part of the time.

The reef was beautiful, and we were treated to a great view of two nurse sharks, a very large grouper, and many colorful fish and corals. Did I mention how glad I was to have glass between me and all the “stuff” down there? My son, a certified diving instructor, would be ashamed of me, but I do love gentle beach snorkeling, where I can swim away from whatever big scary things are down there! ... The ride back was not as rough, and the skies were not as cloudy as earlier in the day. I really enjoyed George, a young man who has lived in the Keys his entire life, with a family going back in Key history for 7 generations. He told us stories about the birds and a bit of history of the islands while we motored along. I now will finally remember that the egrets have black legs and the herons have orange legs. George showed us one old heron, however, with partially gray legs, caused by long years of standing in the water creating water marks.

After our return, we checked out the rest of the park, including the swimming and snorkeling beaches, and the RV campground. The beaches were great, but the campground was nothing to write home about. The sites were narrow and rather ugly, although some of the larger ones did have cement pads. The campground was nestled into the low mangrove trees, without much shade or anything to make the place look pretty. We didn’t check the price, but probably wouldn’t plan a stay there for our MoHo in the future.

We originally planned to stop for dinner at Robbies of Islamorada for supper. The writeup in the Florida Keys brochure made it sound like a great place, with shopping, food of all sorts, beaches, and accessibility to boats and entertainment. The reality was far less interesting, with only one tacky looking restaurant and a few closed up shelters for cheap stuff. We decided to backtrack to a place recommended earlier to us by the Lime Tree staff.

Our dinner at the Lazy Daze restaurant right on the ocean side of the water was worth the effort. Here we participated in the Keys major sport of eating with great success. I had crab stuffed shrimp with Key Lime butter and red rice, and of course, Key Lime pie for dessert. The fact that I took home half my meal for the next day was just another benefit. It was probably our spendiest meal so far, but the view, food, and service made it all worth while.

Home to a quiet evening catching up on the news, and enjoying the cooling breezes of the evening. We saw the full moon rising through our east facing windows while the sun set outside the west facing windows of our room. Perfect.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

03-27-2010 Shifting Gears Key West to Long Key

When we drove the Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West, the air wasn’t as clear as I might have liked, the skies were a bit murky. However, this Saturday morning we had gorgeous blue skies, warm temperatures, and balmy soft air. We took our time leaving the guest house, enjoying a leisurely morning walk to Camille’s, a little cafe that had received great reviews, especially for breakfast. As we walked toward the Southernmost Point on Simonton Street, we found more charming little conch houses (a term for any small frame wooden house in the keys) and another guest house completely hidden by gardens. I later read in Budget Travel that this guest house was one of a special few in the world. Breakfast at Camille's was excellent, with banana walnut pancakes, real maple syrup, and fresh orange juice. yum again.

Back to the guest house, I took some photos of the house and grounds and we packed our belongings into the car (not touched in three days) and headed back north on the highway. With the car, we found parts of Key West that hadn’t been as easily reached on foot. We found Higgs Beach, Rest Beach, and the long and lovely Smathers Beach. I would have loved to have found these beaches earlier in our vacation, but there wasn’t enough time to really explore Key West any more than we did. If we can find a place for the motorhome, I can see us driving south in the winter and spending some quality time here kayaking, walking, and just relaxing.

On the way back north, we did see a couple of large state parks, and tried to check them out. Both parks charged $2.50 per person to enter, and neither would let us just ride through to check them out. From the outside, Bahia Honda State Park at MM37 looked wonderful, with a few large RV sites with some shade, and others without shade but with a waterfront view. Farther north, on Long Key, while parked along the entrance, we used the internet to check out Long Key State Park, also with wide spaces and beach front locations for several RV sites. We will definitely need to plan ahead, however, since they recommend getting reservations when they are first available, 11 months prior to your visit. It also isn’t cheap, with full hookup sites at $40 or more and no senior discount except for Florida residents. Still, I can see us planning this trip sometime in the next few years.

 Crossing the famous “Seven Mile Bridge” was beautiful with such clear skies to brighten the day. Stopping at the wayside to walk the bridge a bit, I was again mesmerized by all the colors of turquoise. Pigeon Key, just a tiny spit of land in the middle of the bridge, was only accessible via a 4 mile walk across the bridge. A new home base waited in Long Key, so we opted for a short walk instead.

Arriving at the tiny village of Layton, on Long Key, we were a bit disconcerted to see that we were somewhat isolated. The delight of our nice room made up for everything, and we unpacked our belongings and enjoyed the space. It was great to have our own bathroom again!

After settling in, and realizing that the pace of this part of the trip would be a bit slower, we decided to drive to the rest of Islamorada and check out the villages. Islamorada is a collection of islands, separated by bridges, and all considered part of the community.

Checking out the reviews, we decided to try out the Island Grille. Voted Islamorada’s best waterfront dining, it didn’t disappoint. The ambiance was loud and festive, our table right on the waterfront, with a big fancy boat parked just a few feet from our table. The menu was crazy, and it took a long time to decide what to eat. Again, things weren’t cheap, so I decided to have an appetizer. I chose the “Tater Fondue”, a crazy mixture of crisp home-made potato chips made tantalizing with a balsamic drizzle, blue cheese and a hot blue cheese sauce, fresh finely chopped tomatoes, and scallions. It was the strangest combination I ever saw, and it was delicious!

Ambling back to our comfy lodge just in time for the sunset, it was the end of a perfectly lovely day.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

03-25-2010 Visit Dry Tortugas NP

We were excited about our planned ferry ride out to the Dry Tortugas National Park today. The tiny key, sometimes called the “Guardian of the Gulf” is about 70 miles west of Key West and only accessible by boat or sea plane. The group of tiny islands are famous for their bird life, but we were most excited about the clear waters and reportedly good snorkeling.

We booked our tickets on the Yankee Freedom when we first arrived in Key West, and even though the weather forecast called for clouds and rain, it was the only chance to go. The alarm rang at 6, time enough to walk to the docks in time for the 7:30 AM check in.

Walking in the early morning darkness, we encountered a crew of workers cleaning up the street mess of the previous evening’s revels.  The young man said that first a crew blows the debris into the streets, then another crew hoses down the sidewalks with disinfectant, and finally the street sweepers scoop it all up into trucks to be hauled away to the landfill. Comparing the evening party on Duval street to this early morning clean-up was eye-opening.

Once on board the Yankee Freedom we settled in to a table on the upper decks and enjoyed the included breakfast while we motored out of the harbor. It was a pretty morning, but as we continued west the haze and fog over the seas were a bit of a disappointment.

After almost three hours at sea, we arrived at Fort Jefferson. From a distance, it is apparent that the fort encompasses almost the entire island, with just a few spits of sand and coral around the edges. Built in the mid-1800’s , the historic fort was constructed to protect the Gulf of Mexico shipping lanes, and was used as a prison during the Civil War. Constructed from more than 16 million bricks, with walls that are 8 feet thick, the fort was never actually completed. One of the most well known prisoners was Dr Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of participating in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln.

The islands were first discovered by Ponce De Leon in 1513 and named Las Tortugas because of the many turtles. It was called “Dry” because there was no fresh water on the islands. Our excursion included a tour of the fort and the guide told some great stories about the life of the more than 2000 people who lived there at one time. With the invention of the rifled cannon, the fort became obsolete because the thick walls could be penetrated. The Army abandoned the fort officially in 1974 and in 1908 Teddy Roosevelt established a wildlife refuge there to protect the many birds that used the tiny islands as a migratory resting place. It wasn’t until 1992 that Dry Tortugas became a National Park, one of the newest parks and one of the most remote.


The fort is an imposing structure, and is surrounded by a large moat. It seems a bit strange to have a moat surrounding a fort in the middle of the ocean, but it made for great photo opportunities, with lovely reflections of the bricks and the sea in the background. Originally the moat was planned as an outlet for sewage from inside the fort, but the design didn’t take into account the lack of high enough tides to carry the effluent out to sea. In this area, the tides are less than a foot. One of the many difficulties of living in the fort was the stench, and the salt that found it’s way into all the drinking water because of the poor design.

After our tour of the fort grounds, we went to one of the tiny beaches to snorkel along the moat wall and around some pilings. The reef was shallow and the water was moderately clear, but there were few fish to be seen. After some time we finally did see a few barracudas and some tiny silver fish in huge schools darting through the sandy channels among the corals. The water was cold as well, and after an hour or so, we had enough. We have our own snorkel gear, except for fins, and today we used the fins that were supplied along with the tour gear. The fins wore me out, and I don’t like using them at all, but Mo might decide to use them again. The biggest fish of the day was a giant grouper, estimated at more than 400 pounds, that we saw just lazing around near the pilings under the boat.

Lunch was provided with the trip as well, and it was really very good. As the boat left for Key West we found our upstairs table and settled in for the ride. This time our companions were an interesting family from the Midwest. I remember the woman most of all because she provided some crackers to me when I needed them most. I was sick, really uncomfortable with the rough ride home, and was freezing as well. I thought the trip back would never end. So much for me not getting sea sick anymore!

Once on shore, however, I recuperated quickly and enjoyed the walk home through town. We walked east on Simonton Street, another main road that we hadn’t managed to find previously. I saw a sign that said “Pelican Poop Shoppe” and couldn’t resist. What a magical find! Once inside the shop there were walls and walls of colorful metal sculptures, flags, flowers, fish, kitschy stuff but also quite lovely. A tiny sign led to the garden where a whole new world opened up before our eyes. The shop proprietor told the story of his father’s purchase of the building as a burned out, run down warehouse, and how he gutted it and rebuilt it. After 15 years of magic, the interior gardens have tropical plants that reach to the open sky, the old cistern is a deep reflecting pool, and the 21,000 square feet of living space around the garden houses 4 family members. It was a great example of the kind of artsy goofy people and places that can be hiding in Key West.


After that treat we ambled down to Whiteside Street, and feeling very hungry and tired, started looking for a place to eat. Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West is an icon, and we had passed it a couple of times on our previous walks. This time, however, we decided to brave the noise and crowds and go in for our supper. It was great, if a bit raunchy, bawdy, and very loud. I ordered the Sloppy Joe made famous in this very bar and it tasted just like a good sloppy joe should taste. We had a drink and listened to the very loud band singing a bit in between very dirty jokes and waved at the webcam. It was fun to do once, but we surely don’t have to do it again, and probably wouldn’t recommend the place to anyone.

Our day ended happily with a stroll back to our soft little blue and yellow room up the narrow staircase.  Once again we were too tired to take advantage of the delightful little pool in the gardens below our window.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

03-24-2010 The Overseas Highway and Key West

The drive south to Key West from Miami is one of the most famous in the world. Along with Highway 1 on the California coast, Highway 1 in Florida is a road trip worth doing at least once in a lifetime. It is mostly a two-lane road that stretches more than 125 miles over dozens of islands strung together by bridges. The Atlantic is on the west, the Gulf of Mexico is on the east, and there are some spectacular vistas of turquoise seas and emerald vegetation all along the way. Taking photos of these vistas is challenging, since on the highest points of the bridges, there isn’t any place to stop, so as hard as I tried, many photos have sky, a sliver of sea, and a barrier dominating the foreground. It was still breathtaking, and I so love the magical shades of turquoise, blue and sea green. In places where the limestone and coral was very near the surface, the colors were an incredible shade of pale blue-green, almost like an opal in the sunlight.

The accepted form of marking your way is by mile marker, with Key West at mile marker zero. Restaurants and attractions advertise their position by that notation. “Best Seafood in the Keys, at MM 73.5” This drive between the ocean and the gulf was a part of this trip I had especially anticipated, and it didn’t disappoint me.

We took our time, and arrived in Key West just in time to check in to our historic guest house at 3 PM. Angelina’s Guest House was charming, and considering the prices for lodging in Key West, was very reasonable at around $111. per night. We did have to share a bathroom with other guests, and our room was tiny, but I loved it. The owners were helpful with suggestions about where to go for happy hour, and where to eat, and everything was handled well. The location was nearly perfect as well, being only 2 blocks from the famous Duval Street, on the edge of the historic area called Bahama Village. While some folks warned about the neighborhood, we found it charming.

By the time we checked in, we were ready for supper and walked down Whitehead street to the recommended happy hour at Kelly’s Caribbean Bar, Grill, and Brewery. The Key Lime Marguerita was a special at $4.50 each and one was more than enough for me. Kelly’s is a brewery as well, and had a great wheat beer included in the happy hour menu. The chicken wings were truly fabulous, so large and meaty that Mo said, “Didn’t we order wings? These look like drumsticks.” They were perfectly done, crispy on the outside and the jerked sauce served on the side was the perfect touch of Caribbean flavor so famous in Key West. It was our first taste of what was to be a vacation of eating great food. While we sat there watching everyone laughing and having a good time, we discovered that the couple next to us was staying at our same guest house. It wasn’t the first time we would have a delightful conversation with someone we didn’t know. People are in Key West to have fun, and everyone, both locals and visitors, seems especially conversational. We decided the wings were a perfect dinner, and with a happy glow, (the one marguerita was as much fun as a glass of champagne for me) walked down to Mallory Square for the famous sunset.

I have read about this sunset celebration often, and while it is a very touristy thing to do, it is also a lot of fun. The square is filled with happy people, and the locals performing throughout are a kick. We wandered about a bit, watching the acrobats, and strange musicians playing combo instruments before we happened on Dominique and his Circus House Cats. Needless to say, being a cat person, I was entranced by his ability to encourage his amazing cats to leap and play and do whatever he asked them to do. Dominique himself was a small Cajun man, with a crazy accent, a mop of wild graying hair, and some very strange mannerisms. He was hysterical. We watched him until the sun set, and even though it was less than spectacular, the sails against the sky made for some great photos.

We walked home along Duval Street, marveling at the galleries, and the bars, and most of all the people. I had expected this, bars and shops full of kitschy souvenirs, but I hadn’t expected Key West to be so entrancing, so pretty. We finally arrived home to our little room and a great night’s sleep listening to the winds in the palm fronds just outside our open window. Another surprise, there were no bugs! Our window didn’t even have a screen. Who knows if that would be different in another season, but for us it was perfect. Not a fly, not a mosquito, nothing.

Thursday morning dawned warm and gorgeous, and we took advantage of the relatively quiet streets to walk the rest of Duval and shop. Key West people are fascinating, and so willing to tell their stories. Stopping at the GreenWorld Gallery, we found an interesting man, Stephen, “Koz” Kozlowski, with an amazing story and the willingness to share it. Of course, I bought a tee shirt. Koz exemplified the sensibility I found throughout Key West, artisitic, creative people, who are willing to live outside the box.

We continued our walk to the Southernmost Point and on the way stopped at a little French bistro called the “Banana Cafe” where I had the most amazing Key Lime crepes and a real cappuccino. Once we arrived at the “Southernmost Point” with it’s bright colored marker, we laughed at the long lines of people waiting for their chance at a photo op. It was more fun watching all the people than taking the actual photo, so we didn’t bother to stand in line.

Walking back west toward our guest house on Whitehead street, we came upon the Lighthouse and Museum, just across the street from the Hemingway House. We climbed to the top of the lighthouse for the great 360 degree view of Key West and a chance to work out our thighs. The museum is small but done extremely well, and we especially enjoyed listening to the recorded voices telling the stories of the women who were the light keepers for so many years. I hadn’t realized that Key West had such a long, illustrious history, and was significant in the Civil War. Most of Key West residents were southerners, but the city itself was held by the Union. It made for some interesting stories.

After enjoying the lighthouse, we paid another $12.00 fee to enter the famous Hemingway House. I realize that these attractions are considered touristy, but they are touristy for a reason. Both were great. We learned some details of Hemingway’s life in Key West and in Cuba and some stories about his wives. Pauline lived with him in the Key West house for 8 years and her mark is everywhere. She took out all the ceiling fans and installed some gorgeous European chandeliers. The museum guide says they all curse Pauline in the hot summers. The famous Hemingway 6 toed cats were everywhere, of course. What I loved most about this house were the lime painted shutters against the white walls. The color isn’t really lime green, but more of a key lime yellow green that catches light in a way that enhances the lush tropical greenery from the gardens surrounding the house.

Back home, we napped in the afternoon breezes and then headed back to Kelly’s for another amazing marguerita and more interesting conversations. On this evening, we chose to have dinner. The freshly caught Mahi Mahi was encrusted with macadamia nuts, the pineapple rice was fragrant, and the coconut shrimp appetizer was perfect. I could get used to eating in Key West very easily if I didn’t have to think about money. Eating there isn’t an inexpensive thing, with almost all entrees at most of the restaurants around $23 to $30 at a minimum. But oh, such fresh, succulent seafood! Yum!

After dinner we walked through the the very upscale and spotless Truman Annex to Zachary Taylor State Park to enjoy another Key West sunset in a bit more natural environment. The fort was closed, but the park was still filled with people along the beach waiting for the sun to descend.

Again, the skies were a bit cloudy and the colors subtle rather than brilliant, but it was still lovely. As the night darkened, we again walked Duval Street, enjoying the people watching and window shopping. I am not sure how long it would take to tire of the street scene, but we certainly weren’t in Key West long enough to do so.

I would have wished for some more time to walk more of the side streets, to find hidden galleries and guest houses, and to just marvel at the tiny “conch cottages” that are covered with flowers and painted in pastel colors. In the part of town where we stayed, many of these cottages are more than 100 years old, and most of them are cared for lovingly by theirs owners. We saw evidence of repair and remodeling going on throughout the area. I think these tiny cottages no doubt cost a small fortune.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

03-23-2010 Traveling to the Florida Keys

I have traveled to Florida many times in the last 10 years, since my friend Bel moved there in 2000. I immediately fell in love with Florida, even though it isn’t cool to love Florida if you are from the western part of the country. Westerners don’t know what they are missing. There is a gentleness in Florida, reflected in velvet air, soft gulf waters, fluffy white clouds amid blue skies and soft winds that send the treetops swirling. Sometimes too much swirling, of course, but not when I have been there. In spite of my many Florida excursions to the northern part of the state, I could never manage to get past the human crowds of Miami to get to the the Keys.

We planned this trip for the MoHo, with long stays in lovely state parks, but that one will have to wait a bit. Instead of waiting for that day to come, we scheduled a quick flight to Miami, rented a car, and drove the magical drive via the Overseas Highway 1 to Key west. My goal is turquoise water, white sand, warm velvet air, and tropical plants. I also plan to market test as many offerings of Key Lime pie as I can manage and drink a few margueritas.

We have traveled to Miami twice in the last year, both times as a destination for embarking on a cruise. This time, however, we flew from Sacramento, with a short stopover in Houston, and arrived Miami at 10:30 pm. Once there, however, things were a bit messy after we picked up our little Chevy compact. Leaving the rental facility, with simple directions to downtown, everything seemed just fine. We entered the toll booth, paid our fare, and continued another few hundred feet before red signs warned us that I-95 South was closed all lanes ahead. Hmmm. As we drove north, with no clue how to get where we were going, I attempted to give Mo an on-the-fly lesson on how to work the iPhone mapping system since I was the one doing the driving. It made for some very funny moments, and eventually we pulled up in front of the Roadway Inn, Miami Airport. Ha! Accommodations in Miami run the gamut, but inexpensive isn’t on that list. The place was the least expensive, at a clean 90 bucks, we got a bed. Period. With a stay of one short night we didn’t mind, but I surely wouldn’t want to have to spend any more time there.

Next morning, wakened early by the lovely sounds of Miami traffic, we ate the complimentary breakfast in the little café next door (not much to speak of there) and headed for the Keys. The drive through the southern parts of Miami-Dade county was interesting to see once. Traffic was steady, but I was amazed at how smoothly it flowed. Within an hour we were in the southern glades and approaching Key Largo. Surrounded by water and leaves on all sides, we knew at last we were beginning the adventure part of this trip.