Departing from Miami Beach, we headed down further south into the Florida Keys (low islands formed on coral reefs) on US Highway 1. The portion of US 1 through the Florida Keys is known as one of the most scenic drives in the US, as parts of the route are on long bridges where the beautiful turquoise sea can be viewed on both sides. While Miami and Miami Beach feel like a big seaside city, the Keys have more of a tropical Caribbean island feel to them. There are many interesting communities and stops along the Keys, and we made a few stops along our drive. Our first stop was at the Rain Barrel Artisan Village to see the giant anatomically correct statue of a spiny lobster. The place also has a lot of local artwork and souvenirs at reasonable prices.
The next stop was at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada in order to feed the tarpons. This was listed as a must-do in a couple of Florida Key road trip publications I’ve read, and it was pretty fun. Basically, the marina has a lot of tarpons (big 4-5 feet long fishes) rounded up near the docks, and people can pay a little bit of money for buckets of fish to feed these big fishes. People lie down on the dock and extend their hand with the fishes down to the water so the tarpons can reach them. The tarpons are voracious predators, but they don’t have sharp teeth so it’s relatively safe. Probably more danger comes from the big hungry pelicans that are around that are trying to steal the bait fishes. Feeding the tarpons was certainly a new experience, and it took a bit of patience since there were a lot of people feeding them, so sometimes it takes a little while for a tarpon to grab the fish out of your hand. But it’s fun when it happens.
We then stopped at the beginning of the Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon. The Seven Mile Bridge is the longest bridge along the route. There are actually two Seven Mile Bridges: the new one where all the vehicle traffic is on, and the old bridge which is now used as a walkway to Pigeon Key. We didn’t do the walk, but we certainly did enjoy the views of the two bridges over the water.
At the end of US 1 lies Key West, the southernmost city of Florida and the “continental” United States. Of course, there is the Southernmost Point marker at the end of Whitehead Street, and we went there to take a picture of that. There is a line-up tourists trying to take pictures, and it’s nice that all the tourists are forming a queue on their own.
We didn’t have a lot of time to spend in Key West unfortunately, so mostly we just walked around. Other than the Southernmost Point, we walked up and down Duval Street which was the main commercial street in the old town, and visited Mallory Square (but didn’t quite catch the sunset). It seemed like a nice, relaxing city with a the laid-back tropical island vibe. I wished we had more time, but my vacation days were limited and hotels in the Keys were very expensive.
On our way back to the mainland, we stopped by the Blond Giraffe in Tavernier to have some Key Lime Pie. We couldn’t exactly go into the Florida Keys and not have the signature food of the region. We got several different varieties including key lime pie dipped in chocolate and on a stick, giving us a last little sweet reminder of the Florida Keys.
Upon returning to the mainland, we headed into Everglades National Park which protects the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. The Everglades is home to many rare animals, and also a lot of alligators, and that’s what we mainly wanted to see. We entered through the main park entrance at Royal Palm and drove down State Route 9336 into the park, stopping by to take walks at all of the elevated boardwalks. The Anhinga trail is the most famous boardwalk in the park and shows the classic Everglades landscape. During the walk, we saw four gators, and two of them were relaxing right next to the trail. The gators we saw weren’t big, about 6 feet long. But they were certainly big enough to be dangerous and there are park rangers around telling people not to get too close.
The different boardwalks inside the park show a variety of ecosystems, ranging from the flooded tropical wetlands, to hardwood forests and to mangroves along the coast. On one of our stops along a small lake, we saw a big 10-foot-long American crocodile basking on the ground. American crocodiles are found along the Florida coast near brackish water, and they are easier to tell apart from the more common American alligators by their lighter coloration and V-shaped snout. This guy was probably big enough to eat a person, and so we kept a respectful distance.
At the end of Route 9336 we arrived in Flamingo along the coast of Florida Bay. There is a visitor center, campgrounds, and boat ramps for people to launch their watercraft into the bay. We stopped to enjoy the views of the water, especially the flock of seabirds that were flying around, and headed back the same way we drove in.
We left Everglades National Park, but we had one more stop in the Everglades at Gator Park. Gator Park is one of the several private alligator parks in the region that offer airboat rides and alligator shows, and we picked them mainly because they have a couple of coupons that made for a better deal. The airboat ride was very fun, especially when the boat was moving fast. The feeling of the wind and the mist of water driven up by the boat was great especially when it was hot under sun. We also saw a few small gators swimming, and a couple of birds along the ride. In comparison, the gator wildlife show wasn’t as fun, but it wasn’t bad. I even got to hold a 3-year old gator after the show for some photos.
St. Augustine Beach
On the drive back to North Carolina, we stayed a night in St. Augustine Beach in northern Florida. In the morning before starting our drive, we went for a little walk on the beach. St. Augustine Beach has a very nice beach, but there weren’t many people around as the weather in northern Florida wasn’t quite warm enough yet. I’m sure there will be plenty of vacationers once we head into Spring.
… and that was all of the highlights of our family road trip down to Florida. It’s always great to be able to spend time with family, and now that I’m working these moments are not easy to come by. We had a great time down in Florida, but given the somewhat tight schedule and the amount of driving involved, we were all pretty tired by the end. We drove over 2000 miles and covered a lot of the major attractions along the eastern Florida coast, but there is still a lot of Florida (and Georgia for that matter) that we didn’t get to visit this time. The Tampa/Clearwater area, Tallahassee, Pensacola… these places are all on my radar. And I certainly would like to have spent more time in Key West to do some snorkeling and other water sports. There’s an idea for the next trip :wink: .