Wednesday, February 10, 2016

December 2014: Florida Keys, Baby!

 Let's talk about getting reservations at Florida state parks.  You may reserve a campsite as many as 11 months in advance. The Keys are a pretty desirable snowbird destination, so snagging a spot during the colder months can be quite arduous.  I have one friend (a FL resident) who says she uses more than one computer to grab a site at midnight on the first day it's available.

So, when I found a site at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo for the weekdays following our Ocala reservations I was ecstatic!  It was easy to hit the "reserve site" button and get the details figured out later.  (Just little details like: we'll be gone for 11 days in December.  We have to be completely ready for Christmas before we leave.  We're having 30 people to our house for a dinner party 2 days after we get home.) Chores be damned.  We're going to the Keys, Baby!

We made our Silver Springs reservations 7 months in advance. It's a little easier to get in given its inland location. Ms. Rivets has a nice get together there.  We love going.

Ocala, FL has a night parade that attracts 60,000 people. We discovered this quite by accident.  On a venture into to town scaring up (AMAZING!) grub, gawking at Christmas lights, and eyeing Ocala's hand-painted windows, we noticed rows of lawn chairs lining the road.  Why?  In some places, no chairs but large sections of the roadside taped off, then bleachers.  A kind fellow in an antique shop told us the chairs were set up for Saturday's night parade. Night parade? It must be something to see if folks were putting their chairs out at least 3 days before the parade!  We had to go.

The outside temperature at parade time was low 60s. Super cold, right?  We saw hats, gloves, and coats; everyone was bundled up!  I was reminded of the Clarion, PA parade we attended in October 2012.  Both crowds were bundled up about the same in spite of vastly different temperatures.  Also, almost everyone sat down for the parade in Ocala. I really can't say what was more entertaining, the crowd or the parade.

This float is from Silver Springs State Park, it looks like a glass bottom boat: 

Some serious hometown effort on this one.  Impressive!

See what I mean about windows.  Ocala does them.

Even lights for your horn.

Night parade, you did not disappoint.

The temperatures on departure morning were near freezing. 

Ms. Rivets sent us all away with a hearty breakfast. She is the perfect host.

With one night to spare between our Silver Springs and John Pennekamp reservations, we headed 330 miles south to the Everglades.  We've been hearing about the Shark Valley tram/bike loop for years and had to go see what it was about.

Shark Valley has a 15 mile loop accessible by foot, tram tour, or bicycle.  There aren't any sharks to look out for, but there are plenty of gators! There's also a menacing gate that closes shortly after sunset.

Did you ever play the "don't step in the lava" game when you were a kid?  You jump from pillow to pillow and try not to fall in the "lava."  The Shark Valley tram road has a bit of that feel to me.  Don't fall of your bike or you'll get eaten by a gator.

Wow.  This was one big boy!  

It feels funny to say we had to leave "the safety of our bicycles"  to tour the observation tower.  We all felt more vulnerable though.

The gators you see are scary, but it was thinking about the granddaddies hiding in the bushes that gave me the willies.

Only half of our journey was complete so we had just a short time at the observation tower.

Back on our bikes, now in a bit of a hurry.  What a sunset. It was hard not to dawdle.

 Are you counting bikes?  Mine is a tripod.

Toward the end we were really feeling a time crunch.  Brian, Samuel and Annabelle rode ahead to start loading their bikes on top of the car. Sabrina and I arrived just in time to to have our bikes loaded. We pulled out of the gate with only 5 minutes to spare! Whew.
Settled at our Long Pine Key campground, it was time to celebrated a birthday!

In the morning it was just a short drive south to John Pennekamp and 72 degrees. John Pennekamp has a reef that's great for snorkeling. It can only be reached by boat. There's a small beach.

The highlight of the John Pennekamp State Park for Sabrina?  Coconuts! She is the coconut queen. In the mornings she would get on her bike and race to the bath house in search of fallen coconuts.  She had competition, too.  The camp hosts were saving coconuts for their grandkids.

What's Sabrina doing?  Looking for a screwdriver.  "I'm going to open a coconut!"

...and open a coconut she did! 

After a day of rest (and laundry) we all hopped in the car and headed toward Key West.
First, a stop at Bahia Honda State Park. We've heard it's a good place for shore snorkeling.

Snorkeling from the shore at Bahia Honda was kind of a bust.
It was cold (for swimming.)
I love to snorkel but it frightens me.
Brian had to work and therefore could not literally hold my hand.
One kid freaked about the wet suit.  Oh well.

No Name Pub for a late lunch. 
A beach pace, indeed.  

High marks for atmosphere. Dollars with people's names and vacation date litter the walls.

Then on to Key West where "southernmost" silliness ensues...

In case you were wondering, the southernmost menorah and the southernmost coconut disposal are right behind the southernmost buoy and the southernmost Christmas tree.

I am pretty sure this is the southernmost chicken crossing the road.

Not far away, we watched the southernmost sunset with many southernmost tourists.

Maybe if I had planned it correctly then we could have done all of the Key West things in one day. We didn't.  There were too many things to do and not enough day.

So, the kids and I drove back to Key West the very next day.

Let me explain.  John Pennekamp State Park is at mile marker 102 on the Overseas Highway.  Key West is mile marker 0.  That means we took a 204 mile car ride (at 45 miles per hour) two days in a row.  My kids are troopers!

Not everybody is hoarding coconuts.  This roadside stand was practically giving them away.  Fifty cents a piece.  Our coconut queen was delighted.

Why go back to Key West?  Because Hemingway.  Because Harry Truman.

By Hemingway's extravagant pool.  It has quite a story.

Hemingway's wiring studio/office. Ironically, no cats allowed.

 Let's face it though, we really came here to see kitties.

Shortly before our arrival at Harry Truman's Little White House, President Barack Obama announced, "Today the United States of American is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba."  The docents were practically giddy. What a historic day to be in Key West.

On the way back to Key Largo...
Not stopping to see the sunset should be illegal.

Breakfast at Harriett's the next morning.

The key lime muffins were delicious but I think my favorite part was the way they made us feel. It was like going to grandma's house.  They were happy to have us.

Great minds think alike, I guess.  This cutie was parked out back:

Our last afternoon in the Keys we took a boat to the reef at John Pennekamp.  

At the reef, Sabrina and Samuel stayed on the boat.

Annabelle is crushing my hand. Or maybe it was me crushing her hand? 
Either way, we're glad she joined us.

The brave one, who steers us away from Barracuda and enormous jellyfish.

Annabelle. Middle child.  Adventurer extraordinaire.

Time to leave our cushy spot in the Keys to make room for someone else.  As a matter of fact, some of our Atlanta peeps were headed this way.  How lucky that we would be crossing paths exactly at lunch time.  Rendezvous: Melbourne, FL.

One last stop before home, to visit our friends in New Smyrna Beach.

Their house really is the best campground ever!  Full hookups! Delicious seafood! It's a five minute walk to the beach.  We love our New Smyrna friends and their SAWEEET "campground."

On the beach with our host's well behaved puppies.

Bye, Florida.  Hope to see you again real soon.