Sunday, August 20, 2017

#21 Take A Road Trip Through The Florida Keys

So, unlike my blog about driving the Overseas Highway, this blog is dedicated to all the Keys we visited during our adventure. This is my final post in the Florida Keys Chronicles. It was pretty awesome to have crossed so many things off my Bucket List on this trip. Unfortunately I was not able to cross snorkeling off my list this trip, but I will accomplish this feat one day. Hopefully, it will be accomplished in the Keys.

The Mystical Mermaid. Beautiful shop!

This trip also inspired me to add a few more goals to my Bucket List. We were in Florida for 5 days. Our first day was dedicated mostly to flying, being delayed and driving. So, we really only had 4 days to explore. It was not nearly enough time to see and do everything. I also wanted to make sure we had genuine relaxation time on this vacation. I have found that to be important.

My daughter had just graduated Penn State. My son was coming off another tough and hectic semester at Penn State. Me, well I work full time, I'm a single parent and I am a grown up. LOL! Do I need any other excuse for wanting to step away from a stressful, hectic life full of bills, curve balls and responsibilities? No. I do not.

Besides, what I did learn on this trip is that the visiting the Florida Keys is a reasonable trip I can take again. When we visit places like Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa, even Hawaii and Alaska, of course we are going to want to jam pack as much as possible into these trips. Most trips of these type are once in a lifetime trips to many people. Why? It's more difficult to venture to a foreign country or far away place. There are different laws, customs and requirements involved in visiting another country. Not to mention, a lot of these places are rather expensive to visit.

Flying between European countries is affordable. Actually it is ridiculously cheap. However, flying from the US to a starting point on another continent, yea, not so cheap. It's not impossible to find a cheap flight but you also cannot be picky about the time of year you are visiting. Can you tell a trip to Europe is weighing heavily in my mind? Actually two trips to Europe are weighing heavily on my mind. Anyways, when on a once in a lifetime vacation, we do want to see and experience as much as possible because for a lot of us, that will be our only trip there. So, relaxation often times takes a back seat on these trips. It's understandable though.

Enough talk of Europe though, let's get back to the 1700 islands archipelago that is the Florida Keys. Granted, most of the islands are not habitable. Some of them used to be habitable, like the Dry Tortugas Islands, but storms and tide shifts submerged some of the islands back under water like Southwest Key and Bird Key. Also, some of the islands are private such as Shark Key and some are only accessible by boat or plane such as Sunset Key. Some Keys are available for purchase as private islands.

Dolphin Jump Key near Marathon was recently purchased by some lucky person with a few mil to spare. Pumpkin Key near Big Pine Key is on the market. For a mere $95 million you could buy your own private island. Not all islands are that pricey though. On the lower end of the scale, Quiet Cove Key, off the coast of Marathon, is available for just under a million smackers.  This is good info to know for that day when I hit the Powerball. I will nickname my island Chrissy Key. I will also have to invest in some boating lessons as well.

Enough dreaming though. Let's get on to the Keys my kiddos and I visited.

My son chillin'. The Queen in the background.
KEY LARGO
I wrote about Key Largo in a separate blog since it was a stand alone Bucket List goal for me. You can read about Key Largo here. I will share my favorite picture from my adventures on Key Largo.

TAVERNIER
We stopped at a McDonald's in Tavernier. Hahahaha. Fancy I know. Not gonna lie, I am usually anti fast food on vacation unless it is a fast food joint we have never tried before or do not get the chance to enjoy very often. Like if there was a Bojangles chicken joint down there, we would have so much stopped. I love their chicken. There was not though. The reason I stopped at this McDonald's was because I was thirsty and did not want to pay $3.00 for a bottle of soda out of a vending machine or at a quick mart.

I was so happy to see they were offering all Large drinks for $1 here like they were back home. Sometimes the McDonald's in touristy spots, like the Wildwood boards, have higher prices and do not follow franchise specials. It was nice to know I could get cheap drinks in the Keys. I felt a little relieved because I had a go to place if necessary. LOL!

ISLAMORADA KEYS - These keys are part of Islamorada, Village of Islands.

Creekside Inn
The Creekside Inn. Lovely place.  
PLANTATION KEY
We stayed at the Creekside Inn, which is situated in Islamorada between Tavernier and Plantation Key. This hotel was very pretty and very clean. They had two pools, a restaurant and docking for fishing boats. We were fortunate to stay in a room facing the canal. My daughter and I spotted a momma and baby manatee swimming along the canal. We also got to watch schools of fish swirling around in weird circles in the water as well as a large iguana exploring the patio of a house across the canal.

A few guys that must have been fishing all day had their boat docked at the hotel along the canal. They were cleaning and filleting their daily catch at one of the bait and cleaning stations the hotel provided. ( I think that is very awesome.) I was sitting on the Adirondack chairs near the bait station observing the sites along the canal. Much to my amusement, a very persistent egret kept trying to sneak up on the guys cleaning their fish a few feet away. I think this egret was looking to steal one of their fish. It was hilarious. He thought he was being so sneaky.

I went back later that night to sit and watch a gorgeous sunset over the canal of Tavernier Creek. It was the forth sunset in a row where I was able to relax and witness the sun going to sleep. My first was while flying in the plane over North Carolina. My second was the sunset at Mallory Square in Key West. My third sunset was on the beach while enjoying a drink from the tiki bar on Sugarloaf Key. It is small moments like this that make it all good in my world.

This sneaky egret trying to steal fish. It was hilarious watching him try to sneak around. 


Creekside Inn
The pools were so nice!

Creekside Inn
Gorgeous clean room. 

A creek side mansion. 

This big guy was exploring the mansion grounds. 

Manatees swimming in the canal. So amazing. That scar is from the propeller of a boat. :(


A really cool attraction we visited on Plantation Key in Islamorada was the Rain Barrel Artisan Village. You can't miss this colorful Art Village when driving down the Overseas Highway. Mostly you can't miss it because there is a 30ft high, 40ft long lobster named Betsey in front of the Village. She is ginormous! She is also very friendly. Not once did she try to pinch us with her giant lobster claws. I must say, she is also pretty photogenic too. She just stood their letting everyone snap hundreds of pictures of her. Not once did she complain.

Rain Barrel Artisan Village
Betsey guarding the Overseas Highway
And after the initial shock and amusement of seeing the world's largest lobster sculpture wears off, you can walk inside the weathered, wooden shingled main store to check out vibrant metal sculptures of geckos, crabs, fish, turtles and seahorses. The sculpture garden next to the main building was so cool and colorful.

There were hundreds upon hundreds of metal sculptures, lawn ornaments and mosaic planters scattered about. We experienced our first lizard "in the wild" sighting in this garden. A salamander was posing on a ceramic pot. I think it was a salamander. Maybe it was a gecko. I am not very versed in the lizard species but I seriously could not get over how photogenic all the creatures were here.

After exploring the main building and garden, you could journey out back to a shaded courtyard where more stores offered crafts such as clay pottery, sea glass artwork, wooden wind chimes, beaded jewelry, watercolor paintings, Caribbean clothing and just about every other craft know to man. The village also had a tropical food shack that offered quintessential Florida Keys cuisine such as key lime pie, lobster rolls and Cuban Cafe con Leche. We made a special trip back to this shanty on our last day for a delicious, smooth Cuban coffee.

I definitely enjoyed The Rain Barrel Artisan Village. It was very quaint, quirky and pretty. It is a very good example of Florida Keys culture and a nice spot to pick up a few souvenirs to bring home. The inspiration for creating my own beach garden came from visiting the Rain Barrel. I wanted to bring the Florida Keys back to Pennsylvania, and the Rain Barrel was, in my opinion, the perfect blend of Florida Keys life. In fact, the little green metal gecko chillin in my yard was purchased at the Rain Barrel.

Scenes from The Rain Barrel. This place captured the personality of the Keys wonderfully. 







This little lizard was modeling for me. Strike a pose. 


Theater of the Seas
Theater of the Seas. 
WINDLEY KEY
Windley Key is home to Theater of The Seas. We visited Theater of the Seas on our last day in the Keys. All I can say is it was an unexpected wonderful experience. Theater of the Seas is a rescue and sea life conservatory that has interactive shows and experiences for the guests to enjoy. And while it is not a huge park, and the snack bar in the park is horribly over priced, it is an amazing experience that I highly recommend.

You need three hours to enjoy the entire park and all it offers in the general admission. The shows are timed in a way that if you miss one, you can work your way around the park and catch it later. I really liked that. So many parks offer shows either once or twice a day and they space them out so far apart that it is hard to catch either one. They also tend to have different shows occurring at the same time. I especially see this in larger parks. You miss the first show. The next one is in three hours but in three hours you are a mile away in a different part of the park.

Do you make the hike all the way back to catch the show? Do you hang around the area where the show is located and miss out on other parts of the park due to timing? Do you not get to see any shows? It shouldn't be this stressful right? My family has had issues with this happening at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Hershey Park, Historic Philly and the Baltimore Aquarium to name a few.

Because Theater of the Seas is a smaller park that did not have competing venues, we were able to catch every single event the park offered. And while the park is mainly shows and experiences, there are a few ponds and observation areas where you can check out extraordinary, huge sea turtles, barracudas, nurse sharks and exotic birds. Below are photos of everything we got to enjoy at Theater of the Seas.

This was one of our most favorite parts of our trip. Theater of the Seas did not disappoint. 














LOWER MATACUMBE KEY 
Robbie's Marina is a must if you are driving by Lower Matacumbe Key. They have fishing charters, snorkeling and huge ass tarpons! I am talking HUGE. And, for a ridiculously small fee, you can feed the fish. It was under $10 for the kiddos and I to each get a bucket of feeder fish and access to the docks. That was the best deal yet in our Keys adventure.

We each grabbed our bucket of fish and made our way to the beginning of the dock. My mouth dropped when I saw these long, giant fish floating around the crystal blue waters. They were amazing. I then noticed a sign saying to watch for the pelicans because they bite. I glimpsed down the dock and noticed several huge brown birds with really long beaks quickly making their way towards us.

I wanted to stay near the beginning of the docks because the water was not deep. It was maybe a foot or two in depth. My son can't swim and the mom in me did not want him getting spooked by a pelican and falling into the water. Staying on this end to feed the fish would be best. In the five seconds that thought went through my head we found ourselves almost completely surrounded by pelicans. One of the dock workers walked up and shooed the pelicans away but informed us we would be better off at the end of the dock.

Nervously, we made our way down the dock to where a charter boat was parked. I glanced at the water again. I could no longer see the sand beneath the turquoise water. I told my son to stand near the boat. The pelicans were now approaching us again. There were other people on the dock laughing and throwing fish in the water, trying to dodge the pelicans. The pelicans were brazen though. They gave zero f@cks.

We began tossing our fish into the water. Sometimes a tarpon got the fish, sometimes the pelican intercepted it. Then there was a battle royale. Tarpon vs. Pelican. It was like slow motion. All I saw was a fish flying through the air, a bunch of pelicans flying off the dock towards the flying fish, then 3 huge tarpons exploding out of the water. One of the tarpon literally stole the fish in mid air just as the pelican's mouth was clamping down to capture it. You could literally hear the snap of both the tarpon's mouth and the pelican's beak.

It was fricken' wicked.

After all of our buckets were empty, we called it a draw. Half the fish made it to the tarpon, the other half were captured by the asshole pelicans. No wonder they are so huge. They are vultures of the sea. Can't say I blame them though. They know where the food is so they might as well partake in the wealth. I mean if someone was throwing perfectly good slices of fresh, hot, pizza at a bunch of pigeons, I would not hesitate to swoop in there and intercept a few for myself. I'm not above doing something like that.

We walked back down the dock and turned our buckets in. We began roaming the grounds. Just like the Rain Barrel, Robbie's had artisan tents set up along the grounds. We did some window shopping, admiring all the beach life themes. There was a really cute wooden seahorse garland I was eyeing up, but I could not bring myself to pay $30 for it. $15 yes, I would pay that, but not $30. I knew it was not handcrafted. Some of the sellers need to make sure they remove the made in Taiwan and made in the Philippines stickers off their wares. Not only is it deceiving to the customer, but it looks bad on the genuine crafters present on site.

If you are going to sell that type of stuff, so be it, but do not charge hand crafted prices for it. With the exception of that little downside, we all had an awesome time at Robbie's.

Crazy birds and Big Ass Fish! All part of the Robbie's experience! So much fun!







MARATHON
We only really stopped in Marathon to visit one of the several Sandal Outlets advertised on billboards all over the Keys. It was a nice store with all things name brand from Uggs to Adidas. The heavily advertised 4 for $10 T-shirt deal is limited to one rack in the back of the store. It's a draw to get you in the store. The products were high quality yes, but do not go in there expecting to find cheap t-shirts and souvenirs.

The old Seven Mile Bridge from the new Seven Mile Bridge. 

Sandal Outlets up and down the Keys. 




No Name Pub. 
BIG PINE KEY & NO NAME KEY
Big Pine Key and No Name Key are home to the endangered Key Deer. My kids and I went seeking them out. We saw a few on the sides of the road or in front yards. They are a little smaller than your average deer. I don't know why but I was expecting the Key Deer to be these teeny, tiny deer. They were not. The Key Deer are also not really phased by people. They just keep going about their business rummaging for food or strolling along the street. They are also wildly protected by not only law enforcement but the locals as well.

I did notice that these two particular keys had a lot of scrub. Especially as you drove further into the keys and along the waterlines. It was kind of creepy but also really cool. I do know that I would certainly not get out of the car and explore unless I was with someone familiar with the area because this is definitely terrain I am not at all familiar with. It's great to be adventurous and all but you also have to be smart. My most favorite part about these keys was visiting the brothel turned restaurant called No Name Pub. I gush all about it here. It was definitely worth going off the beaten path and I have no doubt I will visit there again one day.

Wildlife of Big Pine Key and No Name Key

Key Deer wondering around a residential yard. 

Roosters galore!

RAMROD KEY/SUMMERLAND KEY 
Ramrod Key is named for a ship that wrecked not far from the coast of this key. It is a small, residential key but is very pretty. They have a wonderful Cuban bodega which I rave about here. My first experiences with conch and the heavenly Cafe Con Leche occurred on this key. There is also a very pretty, thatched roof, open air restaurant on this key called Boondocks. Live bands play every night in this restaurant. And while the atmosphere was wonderful and the service super friendly, I found the food to be less than stellar for the the prices they charge.

Boondocks in Ramrod Key.









Sugarloaf Lodge
SUGARLOAF KEY
I absolutely fell in love with Sugarloaf Key. Sugarloaf Key is actually separated into two sections. Upper Sugarloaf Key and Lower Sugarloaf Key. Both parts of Sugarloaf Key have this laid back, tropical feel to them. The vibe of this key is more like working class paradise. It's quieter here, but not at all boring. I thought it was a perfect retreat from the more bustling Keys.

And, it was only 15 minutes from Key West. You could enjoy all the fun and excitement of Key West for as long as you wanted, and then when you had enough, you could retreat to Sugarloaf Key to enjoy the more rustic nature of the Keys. I was so thrilled at this unintentional balance I had created on our vacation. It was so perfect.

We stayed at the Sugarloaf Lodge in Lower Sugarloaf Key. It is the only hotel on the Key. It was a nice property situated along a canal. Every room had a view of the water. The first floor had sliding glass doors with patios and the second floor had sliding glass doors with balconies. We stayed on the second floor. I am not gonna lie, I got my money's worth out of that balcony. I spent a good deal of time out there just enjoying Sugarloaf Key's nature.

The lodge itself is not the most fancy. However, it is very clean. The beds are very comfortable. There was a large flat screen TV, fridge and free wifi. The grounds had an outdoor pool across the parking lot. 24 hour swimming was permitted. There was a creek with mangroves growing abundantly along the water and a sitting area next to the lodge. There was a hammock perched near the canal for guests to enjoy. I immediately fell out of it.

Two people sitting out on their patio got a good look at my ass since I tried very hard to fight rolling out of the hammock and falling to the ground completely. In that process, not only did I still fall out, I also landed awkwardly on my ass with my dress up to my waist and one of my sandals laying in the dirt a few feet away. I like to call this piece of work, "Godzilla in a dress trying to lay on a hammock."

Chrissy and hammocks do not mesh well obviously but I do love them. That was also the only attempt I made to lay in that hammock during my stay. I'm lucky I fell out on the lodge side and not the canal side otherwise I would have rolled right down the slope into the canal. And that canal was deep near the lodge. The drop off was at least 1000 feet.  ( I have no idea how deep it was to be honest. All I know was you could not see the bottom.)

The lodge was also home to a thatched roof Tiki Bar with great drinks. It was open to the public so a lot of locals would come hang there. They were all very nice people. The lodge had docks to park boats and jet skis. People would ride up, visit the Tiki Bar, then go on their merry way again. There was also a private beach. Now granted, you could not walk into the ocean from this beach. The beach lead to the concrete barrier of the canal and swimming was not permitted, but it was awesome to be able to chill on the beach nonetheless. The mosquitoes also liked chilling on the beach, and my neck, and my legs, and my arms, and my face.

I truly enjoyed Sugarloaf Key and would love to stay at the Sugarloaf lodge again.

The grounds of Sugarloaf Lodge on Lower Sugarloaf Key. Old Florida at it's finest which is exactly what I wanted! What an experience! 











The famous buoy of Key West. 
KEY WEST
The creme de la creme of Keys. It was so beautiful and so fun. I know I will visit here again and again. This was a huge dream come true for me and it was everything I thought it would be and more. I gush about Key West here since it was #100 on my Bucket List.


I have many other Keys I would like to explore on future visits to paradise. I will be sure to add them to this blog as well. For now, however, this is the end of a what was a wonderful adventure. A dream come true! This trip helped me in more ways than you could even imagine. When you realize one of your dreams coming true, it is one of the most beautifully emotional experiences one could have. To all the dreamers out there, keep at it!


Until next time Florida Keys..........

Creekside Inn
Rain Barrel Artisan Village
Theater Of the Sea
Robbie's
Sugarloaf Lodge
Sandal Factory Outlet
National Key Deer Refuge
Sugarloaf Pizza
The Mystical Mermaid
Five Brothers Grocery Two

Chrissy



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Ciao!