One of my most favorite vacations my parents took me on as a kid was the Big Pine Key Campground week-long Keys visit. Snorkeling at Bahia Honda, swimming in a school of HUGE tarpon under the Big Pine bridge, visiting Key West… I loved it all. Tammy was fortunate enough to go on a sailing trip in Key Largo when she was younger too, having many of same feelings towards the Keys as I have. But she had never been south of Key Largo, and the kids had never been south of Miami. When I first met Tammy, we tried planning a trip to the Keys, but never made it happen. After I graduated FSU and took the position I have now, summer vacations were not doable, so the Key West trip sat on the back burner for a few years. This year, though, my wonderful boss let me have a week off in June so I could take my family on our first family summer vacation! Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done so many cool things over the past few years, and the kids’ summer schedules are packed constantly, but we’ve never taken an extended trip with just us during the summer. And I must say that our trip lived up to every expectation that we had, and SO much more!
Jacob and Brie got out of school at noon on June 4, 2010. We picked them up from school, van packed to the roof, and left to spend the night in St. Pete. Mom and Dad agreed to watch the dogs for a week, and we wanted to break up the trip as much as possible (not to mention, I love being in St. Pete with the fam, and it’s always nice to spend some time with the ‘rents and for them to get to see the grandchildren!). We, or at least I, went to bed fairly early since I wanted to get on the road early. Like 5am early. I woke everyone up on Saturday morning, put them in the car and started driving. I’ve driven to the Keys several times, most of which were in college, and I can say that I honestly didn’t remember a thing about getting down there. Maybe it was the construction, maybe it was me… Anyways, I thought it would take 7 hours or so. To my surprise, as the sun crept up at 7:45, I was already on Alligator Alley, past the Miccosukee Indian Reservation exit and well on the way to Miami, everyone but Tammy still sleeping!
Day 1: Islamorada and Marathon
Day 1’s destination was the Kingsail Resort in Marathon, but there was a lot on the agenda before we’d see Marathon! Our first stop was the World Wide Sportsman (Bass Pro Shops) in Islamorada. A little smaller than most Bass Pro’s, but it was the perfect way to kick off our Keys adventure! They have a marina so you can get to the shop by water. Before we went inside we headed to see the crystal clear water on the docks. Not 5 minutes into the first stop and we got to see our first monster tarpon circling the docks! This would be a theme we’d come to love by Day 7! As would the wild chicken running around out in front of the store! We went inside for a little while, saw the tank, bought some fishing stuff, like the barracuda tube that we never got to use, a shirt for Jacob and a Mahi Mahi pillow for Gavin, and relaxed in the A/C. When in the Keys, A/C is heaven. It is hot. Extremely hot. Wicked, melt your skin off hot.
After looking around, it was about lunchtime, Gavin was hungry (as were the rest of us), so we headed down the road a few miles to our next stop, the Hungry Tarpon at Robbie’s Marina. A nice little diner type restaurant that advertized “award-winning” Cubans. The kids got Cubans, Tam and I split some fish tacos and a salad. The Cubans were ok, the fish tacos were out of this world! Loved ‘em! After lunch we went to the docks to see the commotion, the reason for stopping at Robbie’s. For a few bucks, you got a bucket of baitfish to feed the HUGE tarpon right off the dock! It was Jacob and Brie’s (and Tammy’s) first time feeding fish like this and it was AWESOME! Some of tarpon were as big as me, some much smaller, all with equally voracious appetites! We bought a bucket, then another, then another. We spent a good 30 minutes out there feeding the tarpon, laying on the dock and reaching down to the water until they blasted out of the water to grab the fish! What a great time! Brie was the bravest of the three, though Tammy did get down there once or twice herself! Gavin loved watching everyone. We walked around the open market for a while, until we were too hot to think! We loaded up and headed to Marathon. Kingsail Resort, baby!
For those of you who have never been to the Keys, most hotels/motels (with the exception of the Hilton’s and Hyatt’s) are more or less mom and pop places. Nothing was too lavish, especially in the middle Keys. Pulling in to the Kingsail, Tammy and I looked at each other like, “Really?” It would come to be the best place we stayed, hands down. Our room had a kitchenette, it was clean, all tile, near the pool. It was everything we asked for. We had a little screened in porch which kept Gavin from running around the place, which was nice. Laid back for sure. After getting settled in, we drove around to see Marathon. We rode the 7 Mile Bridge to a little park where we got in the water for a minute. We saw the research facility (I think that’s what it is, halfway down the bridge) and loved the clear water! We stopped at some little shops, tourist places, and then headed back to the Kingsail. We had a cooler dinner (sandwiches and fruit) and relaxed for our big day at Bahia Honda!
Day 2: Bahia Honda State Park
I remember Bahia Honda being the coolest place I’ve ever been. I was a little disappointed that we couldn’t swim under the bridge like I had when I was younger, but it was a great place to start the underwater adventure! We went to the _____ beach first, on the gulf side, north of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. It was our first snorkeling destination, and although it wasn’t the reef like I remember, it was pretty cool. We tested the new Canon Powershot D10 here for the first time, and thank god it worked! We snorkeled the rocks and saw some snapper, grunts, lobster and some little colorful fish and got some great underwater pics of all of it! We found a crazy little sea robin, a funky crab (a leopard crab, maybe?) and some little Sergeant Majors. Pretty good for the first site. We took a walk around the park, ate some lunch and went to the south side of the island for round 2 of snorkeling. Tammy and I switched between sitting in the car with sleeping Gavin and hangin’ with Jacob and Brie in the water. It worked out great. Again, more great pictures underwater. Couldn’t have been happier with the camera (until last week, but that’s another story).
We left late afternoon, went back to the hotel to get cleaned up and find a place to eat. We checked out several places. We wanted to go to the Island Fish Company, but all seating was outside, and it was hot. We drove back into Marathon. One of the places I looked up before we went down was closed down, another wasn’t open on Sundays. We ended up at Fat Buoys Bar & Grille. It was, hot. And not very good for a seafood restaurant on the water in the Keys. Tammy’s grouper sandwich looked like a piece of ham, so thin and tiny. Sad looking, with a slice of yellow American cheese. Very disappointed. After eating, we drove down to Sombrero Beach to check it out for the next morning. We were leaving Monday to head to Key West, so we wanted to do something small in the morning. Tammy tried to do laundry Sunday night, but laundry was a DISASTER! Hotel washing machine was broken, laundry mat wasn’t open, and when we finally got to it when it was open, they wanted $20.00 a load it seemed. Laundry was an issue that went way beyond the two or three sentences here, but just know that it really bothered Tammy NOT to do laundry. Withdrawals! It rained that night, so we were packing up in the morning, wet, but ready to head on down to the fun!
Day 3: Big Pine Key and Key West
We woke up and tried to do some fishing at Sombrero Beach before we departed for the Lower Keys. No luck. Saw some tarpon not too far off of where we were, but they were out of casting distance. We tooled around for a little bit (Tammy took Brie and Gavin up to a shop they wanted to go to) and then packed up the poles and headed out!
We didn’t make it very far from the park when Tammy said she thought she saw an iguana in the road. Thought she was crazy. She most definitely wasn’t! We turned around and sure enough, there was a big iguana, ridges and all, sitting in the middle of a side road. We turned down the road to see him and found a little iguana invasion! There were 5 or 6 iguanas on the sea wall, jumping in the water, running. It definitely had our attention for a few minutes. We got our iguana fix and returned to the mission.
So, Big Pine is famous for its Key Deer, a little species of deer native to the one key. They are about the size of dogs and are protected since there aren’t very many of them. Large fences line the Overseas Highway throughout Big Pine Key to keep the deer away from motorists. We drove by the Big Pine Key Campground where I stayed with my family 10 years ago… how nostalgic! We caught a glimpse of one of the deer, but I wanted everyone to get a close-up. We kept driving and got to a small residential area where there were Key Deer in the yards! We stopped and watched for a minute. Cute little animals, but Daddy was ready for some Key Lime Pie from the original Key West Key Lime Pie Company on Big Pine Key! We actually passed the KWKLPC to go to Blue Hole, the only freshwater pond in the entire Keys! It was only a minute or two walk to get to the pond. We didn’t see any of the alligators, but we did get to see some rather large fish swimming in the hole. Apparently, tidal floods a few years back brought some fish into the pond where they became locked. Most died, but several learned how to survive in fresh water. Blue Hole is now home to freshwater tarpon, and we got to see them! They were crashing the top of the water like big bass, eating bugs that were landing on the water. It was really cool to see. On the way back to the KWKLPC, we pulled over and took some pictures of the fire station down there. It had a really great mural on the side. Thought dad would like to see it!
We got to the Winn Dixie shopping center, home of my Key Lime Pie heaven! Oh, there was a chicken running around the parking lot that Jacob swears he touched… It was really fast, and Jacob was a little chicken himself! Tammy and Brie went in and got us all a slice of the good stuff while I stayed in the car with Gavin. We ate our pie and after looking for another laundry mat (this was the point where we gave up looking) we continued our journey to MM0.
Lots of beautiful water, and beautiful houses as we got closer to Key West. The Keys themselves were getting smaller. There were several that were as wide as the road and not an inch wider! We stopped in Stock Island to eat some BK (authentic Key West cuisine, I know), and ventured to the city to find our hotel. We finally made it to the beginning of the Southernmost city in the U.S.! Roosevelt splits at the beginning of Key West, so went right, as I’ve always done. The GPS was losing signal, and obviously MapQuest had never been to our hotel either. Needless to say, we drove around, taking in the sights for a little while until we got GPS service. We drove down to Duval, took a quick driving tour of some of the more traveled streets like Simonton and White, and headed back to our luxury pad!
The Days Inn Key West. Well, it was a Days Inn. With a Waffle House. The people were really friendly, which was more than I expected. The non-smoking room sign was obviously too inconspicuous, because it reeked. No fridge, small, but with a pool view… YEAY! As much as I disliked the place, it was what it was, a place to crash. We didn’t spend very much time there, and although it would’ve been nice to have nicer accommodations, it suited us for the next 3 days. We unpacked, got dressed and cruised right back down to Duval!
It wasn’t as crazy as I remember, which was a good thing. There were quite a few strollers out other than ours, which was nice to see. We stopped at art galleries, t-shirt stores and souvenir stands. We shopped until we were hungry, and then we found one of the must-do’s while in Key West, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Restaurant! I must say that Jacob was the most excited about it, with the rest of us coming a close second. I ordered a frozen strawberry margarita (yes, yes I did). Tammy got a margarita on the rocks, Brie got a frozen pina colada (sin rum) and Jacob got a coke. Typical Jacob style! Tammy’s Calypso Snapper was great, and I think mine and Jacob’s Cheeseburgers in Paradise were the best hamburgers ever made. Ever. Even had the Heinz 57. Whoa. Brie got a Cuban and G got some shrimp… I think. It was a delicious meal! We went into the Margaritaville store and got some goodies, and then made our way to Mallory Square for the famous sunset. The sunset was a disappointment at Mallory Square because we couldn’t see it! There’s an island off the tip that blocks the sunset from the docks. We would search for a better place (which we found on the last night!), but it was to the room for some sleep after the sunset. We had a busy day ahead of us on Tuesday.
Day 4: Key West- Attractions!
Jacob had asked numerous times before we started if we were going to see the Southernmost Point. I guess there’s a story on his dad’s side of the family that he loves. It was a beautiful morning, and it was in the area we were heading, so we decided to go to it first. We parked in front of the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory (that’s where we were headed next!) and walked down to South and Whitehead to get our famous “Southernmost Point Photo!” Conch Tour trains passed us, people were everywhere, smiling and snapping pictures. We passed all sorts of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts on the walk, which were really neat. We stayed a few minutes, took in the area, and headed back to Duval for the Grand Opening of our day!
As many times as I’d looked at the website, you’d think I’d have a pretty good idea about what we were going to see at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. Wrong again, my friend! Walking into the entrance/gift shop was amazing! Butterfly stuff everywhere! Post Cards, jewelry, mobiles, bells, toys, books, stuffed animals… You name it. There was a room dedicated to these absolutely beautiful glass display cases that were designs made out of butterflies (Sounds cruel, but it isn’t. Did you know that the adult lifespan of a butterfly is 10 days? They farm these butterflies to live in the gardens somewhere else and they use them once they die to create the displays.).
Note to self: Christmas comes in December. Tammy loved the butterfly displays.
We all loved the garden. Tammy the most. There were all sorts of butterflies, big and small, colored, dull. And there were birds! Finches and canaries, and these little Chinese Dwarf Quail. Gavin LOVED them! A coi pond, brick walkways, running water. Really well done. The humidity killed me, I must say. I could’ve just hopped out of the shower and you wouldn’t have known the difference. Gavin was a little grumpy, so he and I sat down and watched people pass and watched the little quail while Tammy and the kids wandered. It’s good luck for a butterfly to land on you, and Brie had one land on her leg! We found a baby quail that was the size of a half dollar, maybe. Tiny little thing. It was cute. I haven’t seen Tammy smile that much for that long in quite some time. I love seeing my family happy, and they were. Tammy got a snow globe to add to her collection and Brie got a necklace. Both very nice choices!
We spent nearly 2 hours at the KWB&NC. We left around noon, found our trusty metered parking spot on the 300 block of Whitehead Street, and headed down Duval towards Mallory Square. We stopped and ate lunch at Big ‘Uns, an open air bar connected to a pizza place and… fully equipped with A/C! The pizza was great, the rum runners were cold, and we were out of the sun for a little bit. What a great place! Gavin got a few minutes of sleep in before we left sanctuary for the brutal sun. Next stop, FuryCat Glassbottom boat tour!
Our tour started at 2:00, and we were there early, waiting. The Cat was a pretty cool boat, and it held a ton of people. Gavin was super grouchy from the beginning, so we did what we could to make the best of the situation. Jacob wasn’t feeling well either. I think we were all pushing ourselves pretty hard. Cramming all that Key West has to offer in a few days is hard work! We rode on the bow of the boat out 6 miles or so to the reef. Tammy, Jacob and Brie went up top to get a better view at one point. We passed the Royal Caribbean cruise ship… It was rather large! The viewing area was in the bottom of the catamarans, so it was like 10 feet below where we could stand. We got to listen to the narrator tell us about the Queen Angels, Parrotfish and all sorts of other reef fish for about an hour. The other side saw a sea turtle. We didn’t. I ended up having to take Gavin outside during the viewing. He wasn’t havin’ it. We went out on the bow, by ourselves, which ended up being a great thing. I got to see a shark, 2 Tripletails, a ‘cuda, and lots of other fish as we passed over shallow parts of reefs. Another successful activity! I’m glad the kids got to see the reef. I think we’ll do a snorkeling trip to the reef next time we come down!
The boat returned exactly when it said it would. Guess they had a schedule to keep! We took a different route back to the car, passing by the Aquarium (which we were visiting the next day) and the mall. It was time to head back to hotel for naps. The kids got to swim in the pool, Tammy and I got to relax… No, wait. I got to relax while Gavin slept. Tammy did laundry! We had another busy day on Wednesday, so we opted to eat at the Waffle House at the lobby. The downtime was nice. The kids went back in the pool. Tammy and I walked Gavin around the hotel grounds. There were rocks, and Gavin loves rocks, so we sat and played with rocks for a little bit. This was the extent of our relaxing vacation! We went to bed with thoughts of another full day ahead of us.
Day 5: Key West- More Attractions!
Just a t-shirt didn’t help. I think naked with a fan wouldn’t have helped either. It was hot. We found our trusty Whitehead parking spot (where I ended up getting a ticket at on Day 4, but I really did pay and sent the proof to the Traffic Division who rescinded the fine, I guess, because I haven’t heard from them since), kicked it down Duval, did some early morning shopping at Ron Jon’s and Guy Harvey’s Restaurant and Gift Shop (AWESOME!), and then made it to the Conch Train Depot for our Key West Conch Train Tour!
It was another rough morning with Gavin, who was obviously starting to wish for home. We boarded the train at Mallory Square. Tammy, Brie and Gavin sat in a forward facing seat and Jacob and I sat in the rear facing seat in front of them so we could see each other. The tour was very informative, and if I wasn’t worried about Tammy the whole time (who was worried about Gavin being in the sun and dealing with the temper tantrums and screaming), then I think we would’ve all enjoyed it much more. We made it through most of the tour (the first hour out of the hour and a half), getting to ride by Hemmingway’s house, The Pelican Poop Bar (I think that was the name… It definitely had “poop” in the name.), and the Southernmost Point and learning all sorts of cool historical and architectural facts about Key West. I finally heard the entire “Conch Republic” story, which I had only heard bits and pieces of in the past. I get it now! The train made one stop after an hour, back at the depot, before departing for the remainder of the tour. We thanked the conductor and high-tailed it to the Key West Aquarium, looking forward to the indoors, and most of all, our friend, A/C!
It was a sick joke, building an aquarium without air conditioning. How do the fish survive? The aquarium was small, but for what it was, there was a lot to see, and it was very entertaining. There’s a touch tank as soon as you walk in the door which the kids loved. Sea turtles and nurse sharks were in the next two tanks in the center of the room. Small aquariums lined the walls and had all sorts of cool stuff. Loved the Goggle Eye! There were 2 outside exhibits, one with sharks and one that was a mangrove estuary with tarpon and reds. Gavin ran around, back and forth from the center tanks to the wall tanks. Tammy and I took turns chasing him and walking with Jacob and Brie. We sat outside at the estuary bench and planned our afternoon.
We wanted to visit the Toy Shop in the mall for Jacob and then we were planning on grilling out at a state park we heard about when we were on the Glassbottom boat. We left the Aquarium and walked to the next door (which was great) into the mall. The Key West Toy Factory reminded me of The Rainforest Café. There were trees making an entrance way that led into a ship that had huge animals hanging from the ceiling! It was designed really well, and the kids loved it. There was a kiddo play area for little ones, an area for bigger kids, a magic room, a boy section and a girl section. If you want to kill some time, it was worth seeing!
We got in the van and headed to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, which was the nearest place with a grill. I’d had the hotdogs in the cooler since Day 1 and was determined to eat them! We had a picnic in the sun, which was actually very nice. We checked out the beach and noticed some huge rock piles off the beach (And because I haven’t mentioned it yet, here you go: Beaches in Key West are not beaches as you think of beaches in Florida. They are rocks. Very misleading to use the term “beach.” There was nothing wonderful about having to say “ouch!” every step just to get in the water. Sharp, big rocks,) that people were swimming at. We decided to check it out. BINGO! We had found the coolest place to snorkel yet! Tammy took the first Gavin watch, driving him around until he fell asleep, while I went with the kids (Yeah, I know. I won that time. It was awesome! But Tammy got to snorkel too, so we were both happy.). We got lots and lots of great underwater pictures here too!
It was amazing. We saw Grouper, Angelfish, Parrotfish, lobster and tons of little reef fish. We were swimming in a huge bait pod that surrounded the rocks, and it looked like one of the Discovery Channel shows where there are tons of fish that get spooked and all dart the same direction… So cool. We even saw a huge Starfish off the second rock pile! I set up the sun shade for Gavin when he woke up and we played on the beach (Rocks, remember? Gavin loves rocks.). Tammy and Brie found this little fish that was protecting his territory. They would swim up to it and it would attack the mask. Little napoleon fish! We all had a great time. Someone (maybe the guard at the entrance?) told us that this was the best place for a sunset in Key West. We stayed. It did not disappoint. Some of the most memorable pictures from the trip came that night when we watched the sunset. Tarpon were rolling, a few sailboats were cruising by, the sun was perfect. Jacob and Brie played on the rocks, Tammy and I watched them and Gavin. It was beautiful. The perfect end to a wonderful night, and a wonderful Key West adventure!
We ate at Outback and went back to hotel to pack up. We were still debating what we were doing on Thursday (driving home or trying to find a spot to stay in Key Largo), but we tabled the discussions until the morning. We had a lot of work to do to get ready to come back to reality.
Day 6: Key Largo
We got up, happily checked out of the Days Inn, and began the drive east, back towards Miami. We decided not to stay in Key Largo, but that we’d stop at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for a short visit to break up the trip. Glad we did! We went on a nature boardwalk when we got in the park, then headed for Canon Beach. The park sunk some canons and anchors to make a wreck that people could snorkel around. Not impressive. The water was really murky and the “reef” was covered in silt. It wasn’t a very pretty “beach” either. Tammy kept telling me that she saw stuff on the top of the water, but I was too busy trying to find the wreck that I didn’t notice. Right out off the beach the water dropped off to somewhere around 30 feet. There were scuba divers under us (I knew because I went down to find out where the bubbles were coming from, and they were really far down!). I swam out into the hole after seeing the fin that Tammy kept seeing. TARPON! A whole school of tarpon. Sitting in the hole, chillin’. I grabbed Jacob and Tammy first after I made a few rounds to make sure there weren’t any other big swimming creatures around me and brought them out to swim in the school! It was AWESOME!!! It was still murky, so I don’t think Jacob saw the ones I was pointing out until a huge one swam right in front of his face. Inches. They must’ve felt like centimeters because before I could say, “WHOA!” he was back at the surface. He did great though, and I’m so glad we got to experience that. Swimming with the tarpon with my dad in Big Pine Key is one of my favorite outdoor memories. I hope Jacob will remember it forever! Tammy and Brie came out too, and both did excellent. Swimming with fish that big is intimidating, but everyone did it. It was a great way to end the trip!
We started on Saturday. Six days and 1,258 pictures later, we ended our vacation on a great note. I wish there was a road sign that said, “If you want to avoid freakin’ Miami at all costs, drive this way.” I would’ve taken it. After a slight detour and some zig-zagging through Homestead, we were put on Krome Ave. by the GPS. N-I-G-H-T-M-A-R-E! We eventually made it back to a real road thanks to my wife’s navigation (seriously, she did awesome). The trip back to St. Pete felt twice as long as it did coming down! We stopped at Cracker Barrel for some down home cookin’ that we’d missed over the past week. We made it back to Mom and Dad’s around 10pm. Not terrible, but definitely ready to get out the van!
This might have been the best trip we've been on as a family. We're still talking about the things we did, and I have a feeling we will be for a long time to come. Thank you to everyone who helped make it possible for us (Mom and Dad, that's you two! Thanks for taking care of the dogs, letting us crash and everything in between!). Maybe next year we'll be coming back in August... with a cooler full of lobster!
(Written by TD)