Sunday, October 17

The Florida National Parks – Perfect Trifecta !

Everglades National Park

Staying indoors has us reminiscing constantly about our most recent vacation that we had. It is the most perfect vacation we have had till date. It also opened our eyes to benefits of early retirement. Below is a guide (sort of), if you decide to visit the National Parks of Florida.

The first week of January presented us with an interesting present. J’s team had a budget mix up and he was forced to take 10 day no-pay vacation in January. I decided to tag along. We had a great debate on the destination – I wanted to head to Las Vegas and do the Grand Canyon circuit while he was adamant on driving to Florida. Luckily for him – we had 1 week to plan the whole thing and Vegas weather wasn’t looking great so we ended up with Florida.

He snuck up on us.

Day 01: Everglades National Park – South Entrance Ernest F Coe Visitor Center: We headed there in the morning and did the Passport Cancellation. We then drove to the Royal Palm Visitor Center. (Tip: Do not take your own vehicle. If you do, make sure the Tarp Covers the top entirely. The vultures in this place are vicious and they damage the vehicles – specifically the ones with sun\moon roof). We did the Anhinga trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail. We then drove to the Nike Missile Base where a volunteer ranger did a guided tour for us. It was amazing and interesting. We then headed to Long Pine Key. We sat by the water basking in sunlight eating our snacks. (Tip: Use the restrooms. The next ones are in Flamingo). We went to Pinelands trailhead, PaHayOkee Lookout Tower, Mahagony Hammock Trail, Paurotis pond and finally to Flamingo. We saw 1 or 2 Anhingas, 1 – 2 aligators, 1 crocodile, couple manatee snouts a lot of Spanish moss and the highlight of the day – vultures destroying cars.
Author Recommendation: Skip this side of the park.

If you are a fan of Jamaican food – Author highly recommends: ‘Yardie Spice

Boca Chita Island

Day 02: Biscayne National Park:
Go Early – Take a walk to the beach, go on a snorkel tour if you like. Definitely visit the Boca Chita Island. It is a wonderful island – developed as a party hotspot for the richest men in the US in the early 1900s. With the tour from Visitor Center – one doesn’t get more than a couple hours on the Island. However, we got lucky and our boat had some problems due to which they had to get in another boat from the visitor center that gave us 2 additional hours on the island. We saw a baby shark (3 feet) in the clear blue waters, while standing atop the ornamental lighthouse.
Recommendation: Go early – Do a Snorkel Tour in Morning, an Island Tour in Afternoon and walk along the shore lines in evening.

Birds of Everglades

Day 03: Everglades National Park: Shark Valley
Be at the visitor center at 8am. Carry a small backpack with packed Lunch, some chocolates for instant energy, maybe bananas and a Water Bottle. (I did not see coffee at this visitor center). If you have a bicycle, bring it – else rent one out at the visitor center for 9$ an hour. (The rental bikes run out quickly) . The 15mile cycling trail is worth it. It takes 2 – 3hours. The trail is full of alligators and beautiful birds of different kinds. There is a lookout spot at halfway that has restrooms, water refill and beautiful overlook. If biking for 15 miles is not your thing – there are tram rides with a ranger guide and you get to experience the same thing at the pace of the tram.Once back – watch the video at the visitor center as I found it very informational. We stayed and walked around the paths till sunset. Lot of people head out around afternoon and do the Air Boat Rides.
Recommendation: If you are healthy -Do not Miss the 15 mile bicycle loop.

Birds of Everglades

Day 04: Drive to Key West from Miami
This drive is 3 hours but is lined with such beautiful spots on both sides that we ended up taking the entire day for this.
Stop 01 – John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: We hit bad luck on this day as due to high winds, all snorkel\scuba trips were cancelled. However this place comes highly recommended. Call ahead for reservations.
Stop 02: Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory: Must visit place when you are in The Keys. They had the best Key Lime Pie and coffee (they have vegan creamer options for coffee). The garden out back is extremely inviting and you will not know the pie disappearing or the time passing. We highly
recommend this place.
Stop 03 – Rain Barrel Village: It is a funky touristy village where one can pick up nice souvenirs and gifts. Once cannot drive past without noticing the giant Lobster statue at the entrance.

Lobster Outside Rain Barrel Village

Stop 04 – Theater of the Sea: Recommended for people travelling with kids. However, we did not stop at this place as it was too touristy for our taste.
Stop 05: History of Diving Museum: All exhibits in this museum was once part of 1 man’s personal collection. It is beautiful and highly informational. We spent a couple hours here looking at all the exhibits and experiencing how far diving has come in the last few decades.
Stop 06: Marathon Bagel Co. : highly recommend their quirky little shop. The food was far better than what I expected. Do not be fooled by the name, they have a lot more to offer than just Bagels. I had a egg wrap and my husband had an omelet. We each loved what we got.
Stop 07: Turtle Hospital: It is highly recommended for those with kids. Again, we skipped it as we do not have kids + the number of vehicles at the place scared us off.
Stop 08: Seven Mile Bridge: We walked along the old bridge that runs parallel to the new bridge. It is now used as fishing pier and is closed in certain places. The weather was just right and the seas looked beautiful. We could see the fishes and the aquatic life right from the bridge.

An Evening in Key West: We spent an amazing evening in Key West. Since we were there entirely for the National Park and seeing as we do not intake alcohol – we had a lot of fun without bar hopping. We were at ‘Mallory Square’ for sunset celebrations, we walked along Duvall Street (the crowds are very entertaining) , we snapped photos at the ‘US Mile Marker 0’, we walked past Ernest Hemingway’s house, we snapped up photos at the ‘Southernmost Point in Continental USA’, we shopped in the many touristy shops. We missed a lot of daytime activity, mainly the: Truman Whitehouse, USCGC Ingham Maritime Museum and Hemingway House. The highlight of our amazing evening was the dinner that we ate at ‘Caroline’s Café’ – we had the Dolphin Fingers (Mahi Mahi fry) as appetizer along with Caroline’s Famous Fish Sandwich and Portobello Sandwich. It was sooo good that we made time to visit this place the next day even though we had hardly any time in our schedule.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Day 05: Dry Tortugas national Park.
The biggest fort that the USA ever built is in the middle of nowhere. We had fun finding out the whys, whats and the hows on this amazing day. We had to report by 7am at the Ferry Point. The folks there were very efficient and extremely helpful. We had an option of ‘reschedule or refund’ as the seas were very rough on that day. We boarded and set sail by 8am, had a short quick breakfast, loitered on outside deck for a few minutes and I fell asleep for next 1 hour. We decided to attend the 20 minutes ranger talk about the fort and then explore by ourselves for another 30 minutes. We had an amazing guide named Hollywood who pointed out a lot of interesting things about the island and fort. The photos do not do justice to the island. There are a lot of things to do on the island and you have around 4 hours to do them all. After eating Lunch on the boat, we went snorkeling (Snorkel gear provided on the ferry for free). This place is a heaven on earth and we still regret not going for the ‘camp’ option on this wonderful island. We were back in Key West by 5:30 pm and super tired and all we could manage was get back to our hotel and crash for the night.

Author Recommendation: Skip Day 01 and do Days 02 – 05. You can fly in to Fort Lauderdale or Miami and Fly out of Key West or Vice-versa.

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