Snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Park – Know Before You Go!

As part of our ambitious desire to visit every state park, we thought a snorkeling adventure at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park would be an easy and fun addition to our list. We called the snorkeling crew down in Key Largo and made a reservation over the phone a day before. The next morning, we made the drive to Key Largo.

The park is easy to find with plenty of signs directing you. Like any other state park, it’s a $6 entrance fee to the park for a car with 2-8 people. With your receipt you’re given a map of the park and some history of the area.

After you park your vehicle you’ll see an education center with some wildlife and conservation information. A little further and you’ll see the area where you’ll check in, which is the gift shop and activities check-in desk together..

The conditions for the water are listed on a whiteboard when you go to check in which details the level of choppiness and visibility in the water.

They have mask, snorkel and fin rentals available in case you don’t bring your own, but I definitely suggest you find your closest WINGS store and pick up a set there. Buying a mask/ snorkel set at Pennekamp will cost a hefty $30.

Fortunately, the people at John Pennekamp don’t make you pay in advance. Unfortunately, we and two other people signed up for the snorkeling adventure and drove about two hours to get to the park. We got to the counter, big-eyed and bushy tailed, ready to snorkel to our hearts’ content when we were told…

The water is too choppy. We might not be running the tour today. If we do run the tour, you will need to be an experienced snorkeler and a strong swimmer.

FYI: I’m not the world’s strongest swimmer. Mark’s never snorkeled. The couple we were with had both snorkeled and swam, but they weren’t keen on bobbing about in choppy waters. We decided to have lunch and see how we felt about going. When we went back inside, we were told that the waters were still really choppy (the wind was gusting at about 15-20 miles per hour) and good visibility wasn’t guaranteed.

Translation: The current is kicking up a bunch of sand and you might not actually see shit.

With the tour being about $40-50 a person including the gear rental, we decided that going snorkeling on a super windy, super choppy day wouldn’t be the best idea for first-time snorkelers.

Alternative plan: We asked about the glass-bottom boat tour, but were told the choppy waters were churning up the sand and reducing visibility on the boats as well.

So, what’s a group to do in John Pennekamp if you’re not snorkeling/ glass-bottom-boating?

It turns out… not a whole lot.

There are three small beaches where you can put your towel down or post up some chairs, but the sand is packed hard and it’s really uncomfortable to lay on. There’s a few boardwalks, and there’s kayaking, but we went kayaking at Oleta River State Park the day before, so our upper bodies were sore.

We wound up leaving about an hour after lunch and headed to Crandon Park, near downtown Miami, for a classic cityscape photo shoot before driving home.

Pro-tip #1: Make a reservation a day before, then call before you leave and ask about “if the conditions are clear, the waters are smooth, and if we can see the statue.”

Pro-tip #2: Buy your own mask and snorkel, even at a drugstore. It’ll be cheaper and function just the same. And you can keep it.

Ciao!

Hontoon Island State Park – Minutes from Orlando, Worlds Away

We’re a bit off-beat. We like off the beaten path adventures, off the tourist trail destinations, and off the major highway eats and treats. For New Years weekend, we decided to celebrate by camping in the wilderness, north of Orlando in Hontoon Island State Park.

The name by itself had me wondering an island exists in the middle of the state. Is it a hidden, lesser known version of Alcatraz? Is it the setting for a new series of horror novels? Is this Stephen King’s vacation residence?

Unfortunately (or fortunately), none of the above are true. I was delightfully surprised to find a hidden gem kind of place.

First of all, it’s only an island by about two hundred feet. That’s the span from the “mainland” to the “island”. This lovely little taxi (with room for only six!) schleps people to and from the parking lot (mainland) as needed from 8am to 5pm.

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There is no charge to park. Wheelbarrows are provided to unload camping gear into while waiting for this taxi. Hontoon Island staff make it very easy to move things about. A complimentary van ride will take you and your stuff to your campsite. When you are packed up, simply give them a buzz and that same van will pick you and your things up. Bear in mind that even though the website says a 2 tent maximum per campsite it’s not really enforced so long as you don’t cause a ruckus.

Wildlife:

There are bears. Yes. Bears on an island. Deer. Armadillos. Lots of ‘Coons running around. Poisonous snakes. And the most aggressive mosquitoes I have ever experienced. You’ve got to douse yourself in bug spray if you are camping from November to February because the mosquitoes will eat you alive.

Facilities:

There are public (hot) showers and public bathrooms. There’s a coke machine also. One of my friends remarked that, because of this, we weren’t actually camping (though I beg to differ). Everything was well equipped. We had a first time camper with us and she had a great time; moreover, the campgrounds are family friendly. A lot of people bring kids over for a day trip and everyone seems to have a ball.

There’s a small general store with postcards, bug spray, sunscreen, toiletry items and some snacks all at fair prices. This is also where you buy firewood, fire-starters and Duralogs.

Each campsite is outfitted with a firepit and griddle to cook on. There are trash cans by the public washrooms (and that nefarious Coke machine), so at the end of the night (due to the bears and other animals) it’s best to walk the trash to the bear-proof trash bins.

Things to do:

Fish. You can catch an assortment of freshwater fish. If you’re a Florida resident, it’s worth the $20 to get a fishing license which is valid for a year.

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Hiking is another great option, recommended earlier in the day as the air seems to stagnate until you get close to the water. Cypress trees are abundant here, and when you see a group of them together, create a feeling within that this is not that place to be once the sun goes down.

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A lot of people canoe and kayak around this area. In fact, Blue Springs is an hour away by kayak (without wind) or two hours with the wind blowing against you. To travel from Hontoon to Blue Springs, you have to traverse the St. John’s River, which has a very fast moving northbound current.  Blue Springs is a bit south of Hontoon, so you will be rowing against the current to Blue Springs, and with the current coming back. Even though it’s a hell of an upper body workout, Blue Springs is worth the trip because of some amazing emerald waters and the chance to see the manatee’s winter home.

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Believe it or not, the water is truly that green. Remarkably, you can see down into the bubbling spring from the boardwalk. (Blue Springs is swimmable when it’s not busy being the manatee winter home from October to April).

Finally, it wouldn’t be a spectacular Florida destination without a riveting sunset. This was taken right as we arrived back from Blue Spring, without any photo editing or filters.

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Cheers!

MarkandMelody