Spring Break Scramble – Part Three! Back to the Keys!

This is the third and final installment chronicling our 7 day romp through the bottom half of Florida. Part One is HERE, and Part Two is HERE.

The lynch-pin of our entire change in plans was the fortuitous booking of an elusive cabin in Bahia Honda State Park in the lower Florida Keys. We camped there in some chilly weather in January and vowed to be back. Somehow Monica managed to hack into the reservation system, cancel the booking of a nice family from Michigan, and reserve three nights in March for ourselves. I’m just kidding! We didn’t hack the system. We hacked up the family and fed them to the barracuda. Still legal in Florida.

We got an early start out of Jonathan Dickinson State Park and had an easy drive through the metropolis of South Florida, into the Keys. Old Timers will be relieved to know that there’s still a section of the Florida Turnpike where they hand you a little yellow ticket, which you return when you exit and pay according your distance on the highway. When I was in college in Tallahassee I’d drive all the way to Jacksonville to catch I-95 to avoid approximately $14 in tolls in order to get to Miami where I had a free place to stay. Man, I was cheap. Or broke.

There’s something special about climbing the bridge over Jewfish Creek and Lake Surprise heading into Key Largo. The dark water suddenly gives way to the bright blues and greens of an American Caribbean. The drive to Key West ranks with other iconic journeys like PCH in California and the Columbia River Gorge. Everyone should drive the Overseas Highway once – just not the same weekend I’m going.

Pictures don’t do justice to the views on the Overseas Highway. The water is stunning.

I have to admit, I have complicated feelings about the Keys. It’s a remarkable environment. Beautiful and harsh. Each town is a narrow collection of tourism essentials settled precariously on rough coral a few feet above sea level, and it’s all connected by a two-lane road, with short sections for passing. A decade as a salesman has made me a patient driver, and driving a big slow van makes it even easier to relax. Having Monica drive was even better. With the Keys, getting there is half the fun. My mixed feelings come from the fact that the popularity of the Keys has made the slow “island way of life” elusive.

A few days before our trip, we happened to watch the 1951 Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn film The African Queen. Lo and behold, the boat from the film is located in Key Largo. And this isn’t some Hollywood fake. This boat was built for the British East African Railway in 1912. After the film, it went through a series of owners until it lay rotting in a cow pasture in Ocala, Florida (pretty much all you need to know about Ocala). It has been restored and now runs tours out of the Holiday Inn in Key Largo. The captain is a really sweet guy, and the kids were super excited to see the famous boat.

As we made our way through the chain of islands, it became clear that most of the roadside debris from Hurricane Irma had been picked up. The difference was significant from just two months earlier. There is still a lot of rebuilding going on, but more businesses were open. I noticed that the locals we ran into downplayed the effect that Irma had. I suspect they don’t want negative word-of-mouth to affect the number of visitors.

This is the part where I should regale you with a detailed description of the cabins at Bahia Honda State Park. But I won’t, because frankly I wish no one knew about these cabins so they’d be easier to book.

Nothing to see here. Just a lousy cabin with a lousy view of the lousy Keys.

The keys are coral islands, so beaches are few and far between. Bahia Honda has a rocky little beach nestled between the highway and one of the bridges that was part of Henry Flagler’s original rail bridges, aka Flagler’s Folly. The larger beach on the ocean side of the park has been closed since Irma.

That section of bridge in the background was used until 1972. It’s barely wide enough for two-way traffic. The trickiest part was the jump over that gap.

After a lazy morning of fishing, we spent a day in Key West and found it (surprisingly) less crowded than it had been after New Year’s. I can’t be sure whether to attribute this to Spring Break winding down, better weather (so people were out on the water, not crowding Duval Street), or the fact that there were no cruise ships in town. I have to think that not having 5-6,000 people dumped on land for 12 hours had to help. And I have to confess, I was once one of those cruise ship passengers, trying to squeeze in an experience (Sloppy Joes! Capt. Tony’s! Margaritaville!), meandering the streets with a Royal Caribbean lanyard hanging out of my pocket in search of a mojito and a t-shirt. I felt guilty about it then, but I suppose there’s nothing noble about rolling down in a van that gets 15 mpg into a parking garage either. Is there a difference? Maybe. If only my wife were an expert in Cultural Tourism, she would tell me that a study showed that cultural tourists spend 38% more per day and stay 22% longer than the average traveler. Oh wait, she is.

We had a great dinner at Bagatelle. Our kids managed to behave through the meal due to its proximity to a candy shop with a simple name: “It’s Sugar.” I’m pretty sure we spent 38% more than a typical cruise ship passenger who eats their shrimp cocktail on the ship.

On our last trip we didn’t see much wildlife. This was different. My biggest hope was to spot some endangered Key Deer on Big Pine Key. Without getting out of the car we saw no less than six of the animals that once numbered just 55, and now have a population over 500. I expected little tiny deer, but they look like medium sized, regular deer (and I suppose those were as large as they get). Alas, we didn’t get pictures. Also not pictured were a few invasive iguanas, which are running around all over the place. And we got in a little snorkeling, although some windy weather left the water churned up and murky.

On our return trip I learned that we can get from Big Pine Key to our home in St. Pete on one tank of gas. We also learned not to load our kids up on sugar for a week. After 168 consecutive hours in their companionship, patience becomes frayed, the big van starts to feel very small, and I find myself searching for masseuses for my wife in strategic locations across the country.

If you go:

  1. Tall vehicles can’t access the cabins. About 1/4 mile before you reach them a low bridge states a height limit of 6’8″. Our van is 6’6″ and the radio antennae nicked the span.
  2. If conditions aren’t ideal, skip the snorkeling and book a sunset sail.
  3. You can find out when cruise ships will be in Key West at http://www.cityofkeywest-fl.gov/department/calendar.php.
  4. Crane Point Hammock is a gem of a site on Marathon Key. It’s a privately owned preserve with programs, walking trails, and an old settlement. It’ll give you a totally different perspective on the Keys and their history.
  5. Be good to your servers down there. Most of them work multiple jobs. We met a group of marine scientists who had to work nights and weekends in restaurants in order to make ends meet.
  6. If you find yourself on the west coast of Florida (between Tampa and Naples) and you don’t have a kick-ass van like we do, I highly recommend catching the Key West Express ferry out of Ft. Myers. It’ll have you in Key West in about 4 hours, you don’t have to worry about traffic, and you can eat and drink along the way.
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“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Check out Jon’s periodic column, “So How’s That New Book Coming?” at Creative Loafing – Tampa. His 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at jkilewrites@gmail.com. Monica is a freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and connoisseur of 70s rock lyrics.



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