Florida Keys Trip Report April 11-19, 2008
One night at Marriott Courtyard in South Beach
We flew with United frequent flier miles on US Air and had no glitches! We took only carry on luggage and mailed our snorkel gear ahead. We arrived in Miami at 8pm Friday and took a quick cab to the Marriott Courtyard on Washington Ave. We ate at Tapas & Tintos on Espanola Way, a charming pedestrian street near the hotel. The grilled calamari dish and grilled portabella mushroom smothered with melted goat cheese were the best tapas ever! Had gelato right nearby on Washington Ave. Enjoyed the rest of the evening on the quiet hotel rooftop (5th floor) where there is a pool and great city watching.
It is difficult to find a reasonably priced hotel in SoBe without a minimum 2-night stay on weekends, so we turned to Marriott and used 55,000 points. Our room faced away from the busy street and it was nice opening the windows in the morning. The room was spotless and the bed comfortable. I had a hot shower Fri night but there was only tepid water for my husband at 8 am. The hotel had posted a letter about working on plumbing maintenance between 1 and 4am. They allowed us a late check out.
From South Beach to Everglades to Key Largo
First of Two nights at Dove Creek Lodge, Key Largo
My husband brought up fresh fruit sald and bread from the Courtyard’s breakfast spread, but we ate brunch with a good friend at Balans on Lincoln Ave (Lincoln Ave is fun to walk). Very pleasant eating outdoors at Balans in the shade. If you go there, order the fruit plate with extra yogurt. Yum. We walked along the ocean boardwalk north to Avis to rent our car. Traffic going out of SoBe at 1pm on Sat was heavy but manageable.
We drove to the Everglades and hoped to make the 3:30 boat ride from Flamingo. I called them from our cell phone, and they encouraged us to give it a try, but we finally gave up because we would have had to speed like crazy through the park. It’s supposed to take about 50 minutes to reach Flamingo from the Anhinga Trail. Anyway, we enjoyed the Anhinga Trail a lot. It was 3pm and HOT but not one mosquito! This trail is not to be missed in mosquito free weather, but I can imagine how awesome it would be to walk this boardwalk in very early day or very late afternoon. We walked the additional trail (Gimbo Limbo) but recommend passing on this one.
Stopped at Robert is Here and had great milkshakes. I had the papaya key lime. I didn’t see the option of having a non-dairy fruit and ice smoothie instead of a milkshake until later and would do that next time. Not so fattening! If I were renting a place with a kitchen in the keys, I would fill my cart up here. The variety and freshness of fruit here is amazing.
Drove on Card Sound Rd to Key Largo. Passed by Alabama Jack’s just as they were closing at 5pm. Easy drive and no traffic. We stopped at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock State Park in north Key Largo and walked around a bit. The interesting trails are presently closed so I wouldn’t recommend this stop.
Checked into Dove Creek Lodge. We chose room 203 so it wasn’t as close to Snapper’s Restaurant. (I was concerned about noise.) Our room had a partial view of the water from our bed and balcony and felt private. Very comfortable room and bed with nice furnishings. I noticed that the carpeting is stained and needs replacing in that room. The lodge’s hosts were very nice. Our snorkel gear that we shipped was waiting for us in the room.
We had dinner at the Key Largo Conch House Restaurant and Coffee Bar. Service was genuinely attentive. My husband liked his fish and I enjoyed the dinner salad with a crab cake and grilled shrimp. We ate on their outdoor veranda.
Key Largo, Molasses Reef, Long Key State Park, Rib Daddy’s
Weather was perfect for snorkeling and we went out with Captain Rick (Morning Star Charters) on his sailboat. I’m glad he didn’t cancel because it was only my husband and myself and there was no wind on the way out. We went to Molasses Reef where there were several other boats. The water was cool but OK with our polyolefin dive skins. The elkhorn coral was great to see but the rest of the coral is bleached out and quite disappointing. However, near the end of my snorkeling time, I was amidst a huge school of very large midnight blue parrotfish. Wow! The wind picked up and we had a beautiful sail back. Captain Rick is an interesting man and we enjoyed his company on the sail. He doesn’t usually eat fish but when he does he eats the Bellybuster sandwich at Tugboat Restaurant (MM100) in Key Largo. The restaurant was finishing up brunch there when we arrived. We sat outside under the trees and really enjoyed our lunch. The fish sandwich is HUGE so eating the bread is pure nonsense!
After cleaning up at Dove Creek, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at Long Key State Park south of Islamadora. There is a shady boardwalk there among the mangroves, which also leads to the Orb nature trail. It was hot but well worth the walk. We came upon many beautiful birds along this trail. Next time I would turn around about half way (when the trail leaves the water) and just walk back the way we came. We talked to a couple that was camping there and asked some questions about swimming (and snakes etc). These are mud flats and the water goes out forever it seems at about 2 feet. There are outdoor showers right there so we cooled off and walked on all fours through the silt to observe lots of birds in the late afternoon.
After cleaning up (again) we drove all the way north to Rib Daddy’s in Key Largo. After seeing several state patrol cars there we figured the food must be good. It’s a family place and friendly, even at 9 o’clock on a Sunday evening. We split the full rack of baby back ribs, which were tasty. The beans are not to be missed, not too sugary and have yummy pulled pork in them.
Keys Fisheries Restaurant, Layton Trail, Curry Hammock State Park, Sparky’s Landing
First of three nights at Deer Run Bed & Breakfast in Big Pine Key
We talked with the folks at A Blue Dive in Key Colony Beach and also Spirit Snorkeling in Marathon and everyone was concerned about the wind. (For your information, A Blue Dive goes to Coffins Patch and Spirit Snorkeling goes to Sombrero Reef) It really was iffy for snorkeling, and I was afraid of getting seasick so we passed on it. Knowing now how much windier and colder the week was to progress, I might have jumped at this last chance.
We found the tiny sign for the Layton Trail (MM 68-69 bay side) just north of Long Key State Park that we could not find the day before. Not being in the State Park, there is no fee. It’s a beautiful, shady little trail with lots of palms. We saw 2 volunteers maintaining the trail on this day. This would be a good walking trail for families with little kids except for the busy road at the trailhead and perhaps lots of mosquitoes, but not the day we were there!
We ate lunch at Keys Fisheries in Marathon and ate their signature lobster reuben sandwich. It was delicious and so large and rich that sharing it was a good idea. The people there are fun; they asked my husband for the name of a celebrity so Johnny Dep was called when our order was ready. We ate out in the sun on the deck because the air was so cool that day. Very relaxing looking out at the water view.
We drove on towards Curry Hammock State Park to kayak and arrived a little early (low tide) so we walked the nature trail in this park, which actually is across Route 1. Kayaks are first come first served here and luckily on this beautiful Monday afternoon, it was not crowded. The kayaking among the mangroves is spectacular here. We had a great time for 2 hours and saw many, many birds when we kayaked around a small island here.
We stopped at Sparky’s Landing in Key Colony Beach for an early dinner before going on to Big Pine Key. It was happy hour so we enjoyed 25-cent shrimp as an appetizer. We shared a large dinner salad (that I can now say was the very best we had all week) and fish tacos. The fish tacos are authentic Baja/San Diego style with a delicious lime cream sauce, tomatilla sauce, shredded cabbage and pickled onions. Wow they were good. Very friendly place.
Checked into Deer Run Bed & Breakfast. I cannot describe well enough what a peaceful, serene place this is on the water. Little deer visit every morning and evening. We reserved the Atlantis room. What a dream. Every detail including bed linens and towels are extra comfortable. We enjoyed the outdoor hot tub every evening. The full vegetarian, organic breakfast served on the upper veranda was really delicious and beautifully presented. If we return to the keys, this will be the place. Harry & Jen are really fine hosts.
Blue Hole, No Name Pub, Bahia Honda State Park
We find that no one is going out snorkeling. Too cold and windy, especially for Looe Key Reef. We visit the Blue Hole in Big Pine Key. It’s picturesque but its one alligator (that we saw this morning) can’t compare to the Anhinga Trail in the Everglades. We explore a trail nearby and find the hard to find No Name Pub and stop for a pizza lunch. This is a fun place off the beaten path.
We visit Bahia Honda, walk the beach and hang out. Very beautiful here. My husband swims for awhile with his dive skin on. I’m wearing a jacket! The cool weather is breaking an all time record today for the Florida Keys.
Day visit to Key West
It’s still too cool and windy for snorkeling, so we head for Key West, my first time here. We easily park at a meter after stopping at a nearby bank for a roll of quarters. We walk right into a free tour of the oldest building in Key West at 322 Duval Street where we learn some interesting stories about wreckers. The house has some original furniture as well as two art pieces by Mario Sanchez. What a wonderful way to start our day here. Enjoyed delicious grilled fish sandwiches and ice tea for lunch at Bo’s Fish Wagon. We walk all over the place including a stop at the Museum of Art & History at the Custom House where there is a fantastic sculpture right in front of the museum. The weather is perfect for strolling so we don’t pay the admission to go into the art museum. Worked up a thirst and stopped by Bo’s again for take out lime aides. Visited Fort Zachary State Park and the eco-marine center (it’s free!) right next door. We had an early dinner at El Siboney on the corner of Margaret and Catherine. We split the grilled chicken breast (a LARGE portion) and ordered a tamale as well. My husband says they have the best sangria he has tasted on the keys. We wish that we could be here this weekend to eat ox tails that they serve only on Saturday night.
Snorkeling at Looe Key Reef, on to Key West
First of two nights on The Conch House Heritage Inn
Check out of Deer Run…sad, sad, sad, it’s hard to leave this heaven on earth place!
Our morning trip reserved with Strike Zone Charters has been cancelled due to the chilly morning. We decide to snorkel with Bahia Honda State Park at 11am instead of waiting until 1:30 with Strike Zone. It’s the first day the park has gone out since Sunday due to the wind. There are only 8 of us on this snorkel boat that can take 50 people in addition to Captain Joe and Dave (the dive master). I’m surprised…the trip out to Looe Key is fine, very pleasant on this stable boat. We get really clear instructions from Captain Joe and Dave and we’re on our way snorkeling. Well, the water is cold. My husband & I are the only ones with a dive skin on. It’s very difficult to enjoy when the water feels so cold. The problem here is the wind, blowing on me all the time while floating and snorkeling. I swim up to the boat and ask how much longer will we be out? At least 40 minutes. Oh. I don’t think I can get back on the boat or I’ll get sick swaying for that long. But several minutes later I am back on the boat, having lost core warmth and shaking hard for at least 30 minutes. The Captain lends me a pair of his insulated pants and tells me these conditions are too cold for him to snorkel. But all the other snorkelers (3 from Austria) have no trouble and stay out much longer in the 2-3 foot seas. I wish I had said yes to Dave’s offer for a wetsuit before we went out. It would have helped a lot over my polyolefin dive skin. As for the snorkeling, visibility at the reef today is 40 ft, has much more color than Molasses Reef and a lot more marine life too. For me, though, it doesn’t compare to snorkeling in The Caymans. Maybe on a warmer, calmer day…
We warm up sitting on the back patio at The Good Food Conspiracy in Big Pine Key. We choose one of the three hearty vegetarian soups available. Very friendly people here and good selection of whole foods and beverages.
We drive on to Key West and check into The Conch House Heritage Inn. I like our quiet room (Heritage) upstairs, which looks out onto the pool. It has a private detached bathroom right next door which is spacious with a bathtub (I can’t get warm enough), which is convenient enough because they give us bathrobes to use. I am beginning to feel awful, sort of like the flu probably because my body was so stressed in the cold water. After resting, I rally for some tapas at Santiago’s Bodega. (We made reservations the day before.) We have a very good meal here but in hindsight, I would not order the salad, which is large enough for SIX people (we were advised of the size). The lamb chops were memorable with a crust of thyme, mustard and pecans. Next time I eat tapas, I’ll be more adventurous. My husband said their port wine list is the best he has ever seen and enjoyed a glass with our dessert chocolate crepes. (Oh, they were grand.)
Day 8 Last full day in Key West
We had reservations with Seaplanes of Key West to go to the Dry Tortugas at noon. My body was feeling AWFUL so I called at 8 am to see if they could help us out with our non-refundable tickets. Peter was very helpful. He told me that he had already turned down quite a few people but would try to resell our tickets and asked me to call him back, which I did at 9:30 am. He had just resold them and so on this warmer day someone else enjoyed the beautiful island. I was so sick I did not go out all day except to lounge on the back veranda overlooking the pool. The maid service doesn’t usually change bed linens every day but did so gladly at our request. My husband went to Lobo’s Mixed Grill for a grouper wrap for lunch and liked it a lot. Nearby Lobo’s he picked up a mango smoothie for me, which tasted delicious. I couldn’t eat dinner, so my husband walked to Ambrosia and order sushi to go and had sake there while waiting for his order. He said it was the best sushi he has eaten outside of Japan! He also said the restaurant is beautiful. Sorry I missed it!
We had a great time in the keys and I am grateful to all of you on this forum for your suggestions and inspirations that positively affected our planning. We enjoyed all of the accommodations and restaurants we chose based on trip advisor forum advice. Thank you!!!