Don’t tell anyone, but my husband is an aspiring travel blogger. Unfortunately, his actual job as an engineer already keeps him a bit busy. But lucky for him, his work takes him to some pretty cool destinations, often from the unique perspective of the locals. And lucky for me, he loves writing about his experiences. Earlier this year, he wrote about his trip to a tiny little island that you’ve probably never heard of. This time he’s sharing some highlights of his recent trip to the Florida Keys. Enjoy! – Sharon
Prior to my business trip, I’d only been to the Florida Keys one time – to Key West during my honeymoon with Sharon. Our cruise ship made a stop, and we got off and spent a few hours walking around, being tourists.
This visit to the Florida Keys was for ten days and nothing at all like the first. My job takes me into the field, and sometimes I get to go to interesting places and interact with interesting people. This particular trip focused on an assignment in Florida Bay; our operations were based out of Key Largo. For reference, Key Largo is about 100 miles from Key West on US1 (confirm). I was working with some marine biologists attempting to document seagrass die-off in Florida Bay.
First, a quick bit of science. While tourists were doing all the “touristy” stuff, I was learning how record low rainfall and high heat caused chemical changes in the substrate where the seagrasses grow. This kills the roots and causes seagrass to die. It’s a completely natural phenomena – not, as I previously assumed, caused by agricultural pollution. I learned from the marine biologists that seagrasses are crucial for the ecosystem. They provide food for manatees and turtles, and they also provide food for the fish that sharks, dolphins, and birds feed on. As the seagrasses die and turn into soluble nutrients, algae blooms occur. This creates a high demand on the dissolved oxygen, which then suffocates fish. It’s really nasty stuff.
That’s enough science.
Without getting into too much detail, I spent a lot of time riding a boat through Florida Bay from Key Largo to Flamingo Visitor Center in the Everglades, with one stop in Islamorada. It was basically ten days of driving around on a boat to get a good impression of the area. Most of that time was in the more desolate “flat” areas of shallow water where the seagrasses are. You can spend all day there without seeing anyone; however, I did see many recreational boaters, fishermen, canoers, and kayakers closer to the shores of the keys.
PRO-TIP: If you’re going offshore, let someone know where you are going and when they should expect to hear back from you. You don’t want to get stuck out there with boating problems without someone knowing it!
In the “flats” I saw some dolphins playing near our boat. These are amazing creatures to see in real life and a real treasure for children. Fortunately you don’t have to go into these desolate areas to see marine mammals. I saw a manatee outside the waterfront Hampton Inn that I was staying in. The flats are also home to many different birds which are attracted by the fish. The only ones I could identify were Ospreys (nearly every one of them with a large fish in its beak) and pelicans.
My colleague tells me that there’s phenomenal snorkeling and diving in the area, with lots of reefs and shipwrecks filled with colorful marine life to explore. He brought his scuba gear and I was hoping to do some snorkeling myself; however, we didn’t have any energy at the end of our 13-hour day on the water to do anything except eat, shower, and sleep in preparation for the next day.
The best part of the trip was seeing the sunsets behind the hotel at night. Key Largo is just naturally beautiful. At the end of a long day of work when I was dragging my butt into the hotel, I would get to see a postcard perfect sunset on the water.
A close second to the scenery was the food. Expect to find great Cuban food at reasonable prices. The Pinecrest Bakery (open 24 hours) and Denny’s (not the one in your town) have great breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Skip the Starbucks and get a cortadito (Cuban espresso). There’re less than $2 at Pinecrest and still a bargain at $3 at Denny’s. People who want something less stiff from their morning java should get a café-con-leche (coffee with milk) which actually turns out to be more like leche-con-café (milk with coffee).
PRO-TIP: Make sure you specifically tell them no sugar (NO AZUCAR POR FAVOR) if you take your morning java fix without it.
Everglades National Park
I had never been to the Everglades before this trip and I’ll save you some time if you haven’t either – DON’T COME HERE IN WARM WEATHER. The mosquitoes, yellow flies, and horseflies will make you regret every moment that you’re not in your car.
PRO TIP: ONLY CONSIDER THE EVERGLADES DURING WINTER.
There is lots of camping, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, tours, etc. but you won’t be able to enjoy any of this during the warmer months. You can see alligators on the freshwater side and crocodiles on the saltwater side, which is pretty cool.
PRO TIP: Whatever you dropped in the water isn’t worth your life…
Fortunately I had VIP access to an air conditioned and (mostly) insect-free portion of a building in the Flamingo Visitor Center where I watched hapless tourists in tank tops and shorts start exploration from their cars in the parking lot. Minutes later I could see them waving their arms and swatting their legs, undoubtedly cursing their decision in various foreign tongues.
The Flamingo Visitor Center was a sad vestige of its glorious days. The entire complex is painted flamingo pink, apparently an old Army Pink from the cold war when there used to be a Nike missile battery at the Everglades. More than half of the building is closed off, including the Buttonwood Café, which is only open for limited hours. The only place for food is the nearby marina. If you’re a fan of microwave gas station food, you’ll enjoy the dining in the marina. (Don’t make that mistake.)
PRO TIP: Pack a lunch…
As part of my “VIP” access, I did get to look at a fairly large collection of artifacts used by the “interpreters” who basically tell people about the Everglades. It was like a natural history museum stuffed in a closet. I think with a minimal investment, this place could be turned into a real gem with a place to display all these artifacts. What did make an impression on me was the incredible knowledge of the park service employees and the belief in their mission.
Technically, large portions of Florida Bay are contained within the Everglades National Park. The southwest perimeter is easily distinguished by a line of lobster traps. During our boat trips, we had to stop for about four hours in the middle of the day for technical reasons. Flamingo was the closet location and despite the dilapidated appearance and attacking insects, the opportunity for fuel and food made it a welcome site after many endless hours on a boat that was a little too small to enjoy.
If you drive into the Everglades, be prepared for a long trip. On your way, you’re going to pass “Robert is Here” which is sort of this weird produce market with exotic tropical fruits that you have never seen before. They have the most amazing fruit smoothies and the $8 is worth the experience. On my last stop there I picked up some Jackfruit, Sugar Apple, Guanabana, and Dragon Fruit to bring home to my family. If you make it there, bring something back for someone special to give them a memorable experience.
Overall the Everglades is an amazing and scenic place. If you time your trip carefully, it’s sure to be a rewarding experience for your family filled with amazing views and lots of wildlife. The size of the place alone is overwhelming. But please remember that you are in a part of the world that is still a wilderness. If you forget that, you imperil yourself and those around you. If even Disney World is vulnerable to alligators, then you certainly can’t let your guard down in the wild.
Victor is a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Florida. He is an avid reader, a lifelong learner, a fitness enthusiast, and a coffee snob. He also has two beautiful daughters and a lovely wife, and he’s not just saying that because his wife is writing his bio.