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!

Going Airbnb? Check Your Assumptions First

Airbnb is a great tool to find authentic places in the city, in the suburbs, up in trees, down by the ocean, hosted by locals that affords you a more genuine experience. Prices range dramatically across 190 countries, from $10 a bed to several hundred. You can rent out entire villas, mansions, downtown flats, or rent out a single room or even a futon.

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This variation is great. I must advise you, on behalf of those variations, to be aware of some assumptions. Here’s a 5-count list of the things that surprised me at my first AirBnb.

1. The hosts might not be there to greet you, or meet with you period.

One of the things I looked forward to was meeting new people in my new location as soon as possible. I was surprised that the hosts weren’t there and that they wouldn’t be around. It’s not their primary residence. This was one of several places they owned. I assumed the hosts wanted to at least put a face to the person staying in their house. Nope. Apparently not bothered by this at all.

Pro tip: If this will bother you, most listings on Airbnb will note whether the hosts are there to greet you.

I’ll be sure to look for this when booking my next listing.

2. Not the hosts’ fault, but sometimes the neighbors wake up really early. And sometimes the neighbors’ dogs wake up early too.

Ah, the bane of urban living. In Chicago you can hardly sneeze without being on someone else’s property. That being said, the unit below us had a tiny yippy dog that decided to start its yipping rounds about 7am. The dog would yip on and off for a couple of hours, which are precious hours after a long flight on a plane, or at a bar…

3. You may have housemates that you don’t interact with…at all.

Another cool thing I assumed (and was totally wrong about) is that fellow house mates want to hang out with you. We were lucky that the housemates at least greeted us as we walked out. We only saw them once, and never engaged in witticisms over travel and bonded over whiskey. Nope. A quick hello, goodbye and they were off.

4. You may be sharing a house with someone who balls up wet towels in the bathroom or leaves dishes in the sink.

College, 2.0. I don’t know why this bothers me (it’s not a catastrophe in my own house) when I travel, but I was a little peeved by a balled up wet towel in the bathroom. It’s kind of like leaving the cork off of the wine; you know someone else wants to enjoy it, so why leave those good things to spoil? Especially in a place where it’s like 21 degrees outside and everything with water on it suddenly freezes.

Also not a problem in my house, but I hate cups in the sink. Cups are really the most annoying thing to wash. Second only to Tupperware.

5. Not every shower in the universe has water as hot as you like it or pressure as high as you need it. 

Apparently I like my shower water temperature: skin-burning hot. Old buildings simply can’t deliver. Also, I need more than a light poof of water. Who doesn’t like waterfall shower heads? Please comment if you don’t.

Ciao.

xx

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:

deer

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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#5: Depart, Connect or Land at 10 New International Airports

The Day Zero Project is a platform where people everywhere create a list of 101 things they would like to do in 1001 days. It’s just shy of three years and can be anything from learning a skill to completing an old goal or something like finishing the Krispy Kreme Challenge (eating a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts and then running a mile!)

One of the things on my list is the title and purpose of this blog: depart, connect or land at 10 international airports that I have never been to. As of today, 10/15/2014, I have been to the following:

Louisville: 07/07/2013
Denver: 09/02/2013
Baltimore: 09/22/2013
Houston Hobby: 01/31/2014
Austin: 01/31/2014
Nashville: 02/02/2014
Seattle: 05/21/2014
Chicago O’Hare: 09/06/2014

There is something very magical that happens at airports; I frequently get odd looks when I mention this to someone as, for the average Joe, an airport brings about a lot of stress: waiting in line after line, sitting in uncomfortable airport seats, paying $12 for a pack of Twizzlers, sick people everywhere, and the jostling and general annoyance when people begin to board the plane and insist on sitting in their designated seat even though it makes absolutely no difference where you sit. This is why I like Southwest’s style of “sit wherever the hell you want. We just have to get this plane in the air.”

I digress. A life of a person reads much like a chapter book. Some chapters are better than others, but an airport is a platform for a serendipitous moment, an exchange, an opportunity to meet someone who resides thousands of miles away from you but is a kindred spirit. It’s a platform where sharing the armrest and asking someone “Are you visiting or going home?” establishes a long-forgotten human connection. It’s almost liberating. The odds of seeing that person again are slim. Something is weighing heavily on your conscience, and here you are in a plane with infinite non-biased third party perspectives. Each story a person tells me is akin to ripping out a page from his or her book and handing it to me.

Here you are. I won’t see you again. Here’s where I am right now. Here’s what I’m thinking. What I’m worried about.

How beautiful that is. You’re now in that person’s book. A guest star. 5 minutes. 5 seconds.

So many things happen before you get to an airport. You pack. There’s feelings of enormous intensity both good and bad. Some people are leaving home; some people are in search of it. Some people are reuniting with their beloved. Some are running away. Some are pursuing an opportunity. Others are leaving one behind. Some are moving away. Some are moving back. Some are ending relationships. Others are trying to fix them.

All beautiful stories. All honest scripts of the human condition. Together in a stew that is an airport.

I wanted to depart, connect or land at 10 international airports for this reason. Seattle passengers were more outdoorsy, down to earth, and more liberal than the people in Miami. People in Austin were fun-loving, food-loving, beer-loving people. Nashville was rife with that famous southern hospitality and amazing sweet tea.

A follow up to this blog, Airport Moments, will be crafted shortly after I post this.

Maybe this makes sense. Maybe it’s poetic. Maybe it’s far out and I’m seeing a disaster area through rose colored glasses. I won’t deny any of these sentiments. But an airport is one of the places that excites me: a raw hive of half-written stories.

MM.

State Signs Tour: Part III – The West in a Weekend

The west has some undeniably beautiful landscape – from Colorado to California to Yellowstone National Park. As a duo coming from Florida we witness no seasons (unless you count VERY rainy and LESS rainy seasons) and no real topographic change. This is the foundation for the dash to drive the entire west in a weekend.

Remember that we are your corporate employed 9-5 day jobbers. We gave ourselves three days to drive through America’s largest states. We dropped ourselves into Denver at 11pm straight from Miami. Landing at a new airport always gives me such a rush (see blog post: #5: Depart, Land or Connect at 10 International Airports) and Denver was new to me. We walked straight to the rental car kiosk, picked up the car and drove straight through the night from Denver to the Four Corners Monument.

The timing couldn’t have been better. We pulled up the Four Corners Monument right as the sun was coming up. It’s a beautiful, humbling sight to see this giant orb of light awaken a desert where no concrete jungle resides for hundreds of miles.

FRIDAY:

Good Morning Colorado!
Good Morning Colorado!

At this point we had been up for more than 24 hours. After visiting the monument, we head to each of the states that make up the four corners and collect those signs like Mario collected gold coins on Super Nintendo.

The sign says it all

Apparently someone was not fond of the slogan, "Land of Enchantment."
Apparently someone was not fond of the slogan, “Land of Enchantment.”

BONUS: Navajo Nation!

A land of artists, it seems. We stopped in a grocery store in New Mexico and found that most other shoppers were speaking Navajo or other dialect.
A land of artists, it seems. We stopped in a grocery store in New Mexico and found that most other shoppers were speaking Navajo or other dialect.
Arizona's humble greeting, considering it houses one of the most iconic destinations in the US.
Arizona’s humble greeting, considering it houses one of the most iconic destinations in the US.

And last but not least, Utah!

Nearly a mile up, we made sure to drive across the state border so we can honestly say we drove in Utah.
Nearly a mile up, we made sure to drive across the state border so we can honestly say we drove in Utah.

We had a limited amount of daylight hours, so we wanted to be sure to get to the Grand Canyon before the sun set. It was an afternoon well spent, and Mark spent a considerable amount of time off the park trails.

Hint: You're not supposed to be over there! But we've never been the type to stick only to the trail.
Hint: You’re not supposed to be over there! But we’ve never been the type to stick only to the trail.

The sun began sinking into the horizon shortly after we left the Grand Canyon, bound for Nevada. It’s now Saturday evening, and we’ve been up for nearly 36 hours without shut eye. I’m starting to get tired – seems reasonable, right?
We make Nevada, and every time we cross a state line I get another surge of energy.

Arriving in Nevada atop the Hoover Dam
Arriving in Nevada atop the Hoover Dam

We decide to stop in Vegas.

Incredible sunset as we make our way to Nevada.
Captivating sunset greets us in Vegas

We grab In-n-Out (a must do, right?) and set up camp at Bellagio (more on that experience later). We decide to lay on the bed and give our bodies a well deserved stretch and…
That’s all I remember of Vegas.

SATURDAY:

We woke up and left Vegas at 11am. A quick 45 minute loop west welcomed us to San Bernandino, CA.

Good Morning California! Wish we could have stayed longer.
Good Morning California! Wish we could have stayed longer.

At this point we plugged in the GPS our destination for the night: Walla Walla, WA. What did the GPS say? Continue straight for 500 miles. US-93 is dubbed the Great Basin Highway and is the lonely two-lane road that gets people from Vegas to Idaho.

Cutting straight into the Rocky Mountains, the drive from California/ Nevada border to Idaho took about 10 hours to complete.
Cutting straight into the Rocky Mountains, the drive from California/ Nevada border to Idaho took about 10 hours to complete.

By the time we reach Idaho, it’s just about midnight. Mind you, we did this drive in September, when it’s still blistering hot in Miami, so I did not pack jackets or close-toed shoes or really anything to keep warm. But when I stepped out of the car to get a snapshot of Idaho at midnight, I surely wish I had packed differently.

Sometime around midnight, we reach the beautiful Glacier country of Idaho.
Sometime around midnight, we reach the beautiful Glacier country of Idaho.

We cut over to Oregon because there was no stopping now. We were armed with energy drinks and super unhealthy snacks. I lamented driving through Oregon at night ( and I’m sure most Oregonians would agree with this sentiment) as the countryside in the Pacific Northwest is some of the most beautiful (in my completely biased opinion). However, the goal was to collect state signs like gold coins in Super Mario, so that we did do:

We will return, I promise!
We will return, I promise!

Our intended destination was Walla Walla, but we’re overachievers and we drove the extra couple of hours to Spokane. This is where my energy exploded everywhere because I absolutely love Washington. It’s probably my favorite state. I’ll probably write an entire piece decided to Melody’s love of Washington state. For right now though, we’ll stick to just the state welcome sign.

SUNDAY:

OK, so maybe there's two things I love about this picture. Washington and that handsome man. OK, maybe three, because I do love sunrises too...
OK, so maybe there’s two things I love about this picture. Washington and that handsome man. OK, maybe three, because I do love sunrises too…

Mark also decided that a night picture of the Idaho wasn’t good enough, so he took a beautiful capture of the sun peeking through the Idaho sign at the Washington border.

This sign began a chapter of unbelievable glacier crafted scenery.
This sign began a chapter of unbelievable glacier crafted scenery.
Good Morning Idaho! Lovely mountain range you have here.
Good Morning Idaho! Lovely mountain range you have here.

Not an hour later do we cross into Montana. At this point we begin wondering how far it is to Glacier National Park.
… It was too far. We wanted to do Yellowstone slightly more.

Such a tiny little sign for such a large state!
Such a tiny little sign for such a large state! =)
Beautiful glacier cut mountains, beautiful water.
Beautiful glacier cut mountains, beautiful water.

When we arrived to Yellowstone, we had just a few hours to explore the park. This is easily a place to spend a week but we managed to see Old Faithful, which is incredibly timely, several mineral springs, bacteria pools, and a buffalo.

BONUS: Yellowstone National Park sign.
BONUS: Yellowstone National Park sign.

We did find a little gem of a waterfall, Lewis Falls, upon exiting the park (headed south toward Colorado).

Tucked away as you leave Yellowstone with paved trails that allow for a much closer viewing.
Tucked away as you leave Yellowstone with paved trails that allow for a much closer viewing.

It’s about 8 hours from Yellowstone National Park to Denver, CO where our flight was scheduled to depart the following night.

MONDAY:

We departed Yellowstone just as the sun was going down and drove through Wyoming. We collected our last sign, our last gold coin, at the Wyoming/ Colorado border.

Our final state, our final sign! Our state sign collection is complete!
Our final state, our final sign! Our state sign collection is complete!

MONDAY NIGHT: We took the redeye from Denver to Miami, arrived in Miami at 5am and were back to work by 8.

Our whirlwind trip can be summed up like this:

West Map

New US Customs Procedure for International Flights: 2014

The customs procedure when landing at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has changed quite a bit. Our experience was unpleasant because five or six international flights landed at FLL at the same time. This increased a typical 5-10 minute wait at customs to over an hour.

There are two lines for customs: one for visitors to the USA and one for residents. So far, pretty standard. There are two rooms where lines form. The line for the visitors goes much faster but that’s likely because there are well, a lot less visitors than US citizens.

The most surprising advent in the customs procedure is the passport check is completely automated via a kiosk. The customs agents are of no help, but this is to be expected. The prompts on the kiosk are less than clear, also. To pass the kiosk, you must put your passport over a scanner. The machine scans the document page of your passport (document page has your name, picture, birthday, issue date, et al) and shows a picture of the scanned page to you. You verify the information and then…

You look directly into a camera on the kiosk and take a picture. If you do not look straight into the camera, the picture will not take. Once the kiosk takes a picture of you, a receipt prints out with your picture and the same information that’s on your passport plus your arriving flight information.

Once you get to the customs agent, the agent compares the photo you just took at the kiosk and the photo on your passport. I did not see anyone get pulled aside for discrepancies, but I imagine it’s a more…investigative look into why the two pictures do not match to the liking of the customs agent. The agent then finishes the routine questions: “What countries did you visit?” “Are you bringing any fruit, firearms, tobacco, etc?”, stamps your passport and you go to baggage claim to collect checked bags.

People were very confused by this entire process. I imagine once an agent or two comes in that actually assists first time international travelers with the kiosk, the procedure will go a lot smoother. People who travel frequently will find that this procedure more closely matches the customs process of say, China.

Have you traveled internationally and experienced a similar customs process? Or was yours completely different? We’d love to hear from you!

#MarkandMelody