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!

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Our Most Oft Asked Question: Travel – on the Cheap!

One of the questions that we get most often is, “How can you afford to travel? You must be rich / rolling in the dough / get money from your parents.” While all of these things would make traveling long-term much easier…it just isn’t the case for Melody and I.

Knowing that we would need to find a way to do it a little cheaper, and also knowing the type of trip that we both mutually enjoy, we set out to discover some cheaper ways to travel.

In general, the two largest cost items while traveling will be lodging and food – these are inescapable truths. While it is certainly possible to eat ramen noodles and camp in a tent, sometimes the weather and local culture may just not let that be a possibility (not to mention that would likely become old, very quickly). Striking a little bit of the middle ground, the following are a couple of other options:

  1. House-sit!We would first like to say a big thank you to Hecktic Travels for their amazing blogs and advice, as well as informing us and many others about house sitting as a travel option. Cheers, guys!Anyone with pets that loves to travel knows that bringing their animals along can make for…less than ideal trips. Traveling with a pet is expensive, and depending on your breed of dog / cat / bird / other exotic animal, may not be possible at all. For the longer trips, it is also not possible to leave your animals unattended (you wouldn’t do that, right?).

    Boarding your animals is another option – but again expensive.

    Some are lucky that they have close family or friends to watch after their furry / feathered babies – but again, not always possible for longer stays.

    For people who fall outside of these lovely conveniences, consider having someone come sit your house!

    In exchange for lodging, you can have a trusted and verified traveler stay at your house and care for your animals / property. The requirements for the stays are clearly stated (expectations and duration), and there are even some that are paid – though not very many – your mileage may vary.

    For our uses, we used Mind My House and Trusted House Sitters, but there are many others out there. Not only will you get to visit some unique and interesting destinations, but in most cases your only costs will be transit expense, food and some time commitment. A secondary bonus for people like us who live in a place that having animals is forbidden – you even get to enjoy the company of the resident animals.

  2. Help ExchangeMelody and I both enjoy staying active. We also love to meet new people and immerse ourselves in new cultures – out of the city and away from the tourist areas. Don’t get me wrong, we love to see the sights too, but there is something powerful about the countryside and the people that live outside of the hustle and bustle of the city.Keeping these things in mind, we set out to find a way to immerse ourselves into the everyday life of a local – and save some money doing it along the route. When we came across Help Exchanges, we knew we had found a winner.

    For our uses, we use HelpX – although there are many more sites out there that do the same thing.

    Simplified, a help exchange is an exchange of your time and labor for lodging and food.

    This exchange comes in many shapes and sizes, but the postings usually detail exactly what the expectations are in advance. The number of hours you are expected to work will vary, but most that we have seen are between 20-25 hours per week.

    Some examples of what you might expect to find:

    Hostel Operator looking for help in maintaining hostel. 20 hours per week to include: Admitting guests, making beds, dusting lobby, preparing food, general cleaning. In exchange you will receive private lodging with bathroom. Minimum 30 day stay.

    or

    Looking for helpers to work in the garden with some experience of gardening and growing vegetables to get the spring work done. Four hours work per each nights stay in return for 3 meals per day and accommodation. Double en-suite bedroom and single bed. Fresh food from the garden where possible and all home cooked meals prepared for you.

  3. AirBNBIf neither of the above sound overly interesting, or you are not really interested in working for your lodging / food, fear not! There are other options for you.AirBNB is, in effect, a house / room / couch sharing site designed to allow homeowners the opportunity to earn a little extra income on empty or unoccupied rooms within their home. These rooms are usually priced substantially below what you might find at a hotel in the same area.

    For smaller groups 2-3, this might actually be cheaper than if you were to individually stay at a hostel.

    The site itself is very simple to navigate, and rooms are available in 190+ countries.Capture

    With an available mobile application, the ability to instantly book rooms, and read reviews from others who have stayed, Airbnb is a viable option for those planning far in advance, or on the fly.

For our purposes, we will be using a combination of the three, in addition to some other creative maneuvering to create the most memorable and dynamic trip that we can.

We have almost finalized our rough travel itinerary, so keep an eye out for that soon. In the meantime, keep thinking about that trip you would like to take, and… don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

Cheers!

Mark & Melody

Bucket List in Progress: Every Country in the World

A VERY rough draft of our course in Europe, subject to change based on places we may fall in love with or where we house-sit (more on that in an upcoming post!)
Arriving into London

Starting with Europe!

We have finally decided to take the trip we have talked about for a long while.

To get away.

Explore.

While this has been a thought of ours for a while, it is only through a bit of luck, and a bit of misfortune that we are being given the opportunity. Until February, I was nose to the grindstone – 70+ hours a week devoted to a company. While I learned a great deal in the position that I was filling, there was just something missing. The freedom to travel!

At the end of February, I was laid off due to company cut-backs. While at first this was very upsetting – and certainly a huge shift in the way I lived my life – I am now relieved that it happened then instead of later.

For both Melody and I, few things are more exciting than travel – both planning and executing (see State Signs Tour: III, and III). With this newfound freedom we plan to live out, plan and execute a mutual goal to step foot on every country in the world, together – beginning with every country in Europe over the Summer.

While I do not regularly post on here, I encourage you to follow our Facebook Page for more regular announcements from myself and Melody. Once we get a little further into the planning stages, you can expect to see more regular posts both here and on our Facebook where you can follow our progress to see how we are doing with our goal.

Until then, stay well and don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite you too!

3/161: Lover’s Key State Park

I’m pretty sure we’re list freaks.. We find a list of places  and decide to do it. (48 contiguous states? Check. Every country in the world? Wellll, that will take a little longer, but we’ll get there eventually…)  Thinking a little bit closer to home, we decided to go visit every state park in Florida. Good news! There’s 161 of them. 

Living in Miami wed never known there’s that much land to make state parks OUT of. Here we are, though, at #3: Lover’s Key State Park. It’s about two hours to drive across the state to Ft. Myers, and it’s well worth a visit. A $2 donation will get you in (honor’s system!). Park your car, no fees, no frills, just a really good beach.

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Let’s describe the sand. Oh, the sand is like baby powder. So gentle and fine and so beautiful you don’t mind it creeping in your shoes or between your toes. Even when it’s hot the sand remains cool. (This is not so on the East Coast, where the sand from the Atlantic Ocean will burn your toes right off!). OK. Enough about the sand. The water. Crystal clear. Even after a storm it’s clear. It’s got this turquoise almost island tint to it. It’s beautiful. Refreshing and clear. You can see every speck of baby powder sand.

Then there’s the things to look at. Seashells. Sand dollars. Sponges. Real live sponges. Coral. Crabs (not the bad kind, the scurrying across the sand kind). Most importantly, the beautiful lack of people. Though the parking is right off the main road, it really  feels like you have the place to yourself.

Close up of a sponge
Close up of a sponge
Sponges vary from a beige to orange to a bright red
Sponges vary from a beige to orange to a bright red
We wandered to the back of the park to have the sun right in front of us. No matter where you are on the Gulf Coast of Florida, you can’t go wrong with the sunset. This is a great place if you are the kind of person that likes long walks on the beach. Here’s our favorite sunset shots: Let us know which view you like more! 
 
To the west, a big orange ball sinks quickly into the Gulf.
To the west, a big orange ball sinks quickly into the Gulf.
To the east, cotton candy clouds  of pink, blue and purple cover the sky.
To the east, cotton candy clouds of pink, blue and purple cover the sky.

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

Late Night Inspiration Post

When I think about my life, I don’t see a big house. I see myself doing exactly what I’m doing now. Blogging sometime around midnight. Thinking about the last 7 years of international travel. My running shoes are still on. They’re damn comfortable. Where I live, I have a balcony and I have Mark, but instead of overlooking the intracoastal, I am in a studio overlooking Hong Kong, or house-sitting in Tuscany. Right now I’m drinking water, but elsewhere it’ll be tea. In Latin America, espresso. I may have dinner with a different group of people every night. Sometimes I will eat alone. Sometimes I will have to try the homemade wine, and I will likely overindulge. I’ll learn Zulu from little kids and take a timelapse of the Milky Way. I’ll be a staff photographer for Costa Rica Tourism and Mark will find those hidden gems he is so good at finding. This is what I must have. It’s an intense, non-traditional, unpredictable lifestyle. It’s not for everyone. It’s not meant to be understood. But there’s only one person that needs to, and I’m pretty sure he does

A Floridian Discovers the U.S.

I’m a native Floridian. Never lived anywhere else. This may be fueling my need to trade the beach for the mountains. I live a mile away from the beach and haven’t been there to go get a tan or swim in over two years. This probably sounds pretentious.

The Mr. and I have driven through the 48 contiguous states here in America, which has forced me to come to grips with the fact that I live in a sunny, winter-free bubble devoid of the work and pleasantries that come from living somewhere with actual life to it. The following is a series of moments from the road trips where I felt my true Floridian showed its bright, naive colors:

1) Driving through Wyoming in the middle of the night. A road construction sign blinked “Caution: Elk ahead.” I wondered to myself, What does an elk look like? This highway had a speed limit of 70, but I slowed to a crawl of 25. Just as I go to pass the sign, multiple giant deer-looking animals with huge antlers start traipsing across this lonely (read: pitch black) road. I pull over the side and give Mark a sideways glance that means, You’re driving.

2) Driving through South Dakota on another night mission and I see this sign:

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I spend the next two hours convinced that reflectors on the side of the road are beady little eyes belonging to an animal just waiting to jump out in front of the car. (Squirrels do this all the time in Florida; why would deer be any different?)

3) Losing my mind because there was snow in Georgia in February. February is basically summer, no? It was also hot in Georgia. Hotter than Jacksonville. Why in the world was there snow still on the ground?

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4) Traveling to Connecticut in April, excited to see the fresh green of spring and instead seeing dull, brown trees everywhere. Isn’t April spring? Where is all the foliage?

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5) Taking a picture of cracked dirt. A novelty. There is no dirt in Florida. It’s limestone. And coral. And some ground up seashells. Also, it rains almost every day in South Florida so why would there be any cracks like this? True Texas style.

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Bonus: In true Florida fashion, apparently my entire body is cold except for my toes. Because wearing close toed shoes isn’t a thing.

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