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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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?
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.
Bonus: In true Florida fashion, apparently my entire body is cold except for my toes. Because wearing close toed shoes isn’t a thing.
We’re aware that, per TSA recommendations, we are supposed to arrive at an airport about a year before the plane takes off. Last I was told, it was two hours for a domestic flight and three hours for an international flight. This is nothing more than a nefarious plot to get innocent air travel patrons to pay obscene prices for food, drink, and entertainment pieces. If you arrived at the terminal five minutes before boarding, you would have no time to shop!
My theory regarding this silliness proved true when I received a text from my beloved stating his wallet was missing. He was driving a newly purchased car from New Jersey to Florida, and was driving somewhere around Maryland; he reaches for his wallet to find it’s not there.
Big problem. No plastic money. No driver license. Limited cash. He couldn’t stay in a hotel even if he wanted to, because hotels require ID now… It’s Saturday afternoon. Banks don’t open until Monday, and even then, have you ever tried to prove you’re you at a bank with no ID or any evidence of it?
Cue text to me. I’m headed to tutor another student; he has enough gas to travel another hour and a half.
Solution? I whip the quickest U-turn and head straight for the airport. No going home to pack. No changing clothes. No time to bring a charger. Nothing. Everything in my purse is what I could bring. As I’m waiting feverishly at a light, I’m using the hotels.com app to determine whether to fly out of Fort Lauderdale or Miami. The chosen flight was departing exactly one hour from the time I whipped the U-turn. I had about 25-30 minutes travel time to the airport. I couldn’t book a ticket online or over the phone; I had to take a shot with the Jetblue reservationist at the airport.
I’m pretty sure, in this afternoon, I clocked the fastest speed for a Toyota Corolla. I made it to the airport; the flight departed in 30 minutes, which means the gates closed in 20 minutes. I had to park. No time for economy parking – it’s a ten minute bus ride. Can’t risk it. $36/ a day parking? That will have to do. I park my car. I run to the Jetblue reservation desk. A woman calls me over; completely out of breath I say, “I need to be on the flight that’s leaving in 20 minutes.” She gives me a “Are you $% kidding me?” I say, “Can you do it or not?” She makes the reservation. I’m dancing around like a cat on a hot tin roof.
What is taking SO long?
Finally she hands me a ticket. She asks, “Do you know where you need to go?” Before I can answer, she says, “Make a left here.” And I say, “Then what?” And she says, “Then you run.”
And you know what? I ran like hell. Fort Lauderdale airport is not small. There’s a distance to traverse. My lungs were on fire. But it was the most movie-like scene I have ever been a part of. This was an exceptional moment. I’m running, I’m sweating, my lungs are burning. People are letting me skip them in the security line.
I get to the gate, completely winded, feeling victorious, like I had just crossed a finish line.
All of that running, and for what? Did I miss anything? I didn’t miss anything. The plane was boarding on time, but not one person felt compelled enough to form a line. No Mosaic members had boarded. No priority. No parents and children. Nobody.
With my spare minutes, I had enough time to go buy a $12 pack of Twizzlers and text my beloved that I was at the gate, ready to go.
Everyone boards. It was as if I had been there the entire 2-hour pre-board window of time. The only difference in my experience and everyone else’s is that I got a damn good cardio session from it.
What was supposed to be a trip to Miami to Dallas and back turned into Miami to North Dakota.
I’m tired just thinking about running this trip again, but it is one of our craziest adventures to date.
The fourth of July holiday lent us a four day weekend. Considering we covered nearly 2,000 miles in less than 72 hours, we were excited to see what mess we could uncover with four whole days.
We took off early afternoon on Wednesday July 3rd. The trip leaving Miami to get up to Tallyho (Tallahassee area aka Seminole Nation) was relatively smooth. However, anyone that has driven any length of Interstate 10 knows it’s the most boring but difficult road to drive. It’s like driving on a cooked spaghetti noodle. There is no part of the road where you set cruise control and just coast. It’s treacherous. It was raining. And in Mark-like fashion, the wheel got turned over to me at 2am, but not without snapping these gems first.
It was raining. It rained for awhile. We were dodging rain drops like they were bullets.
Once the sun came up, I was anxious to get some shut eye. I wanted to doze, but we were so close to Arkansas! Once the Mark has slept, he becomes quite vibrant and alive. Everything outside the car becomes positively awesome. I’ve reclined my seat back, a shirt over my face to block out the sun I so desperately wished for, and I’m just about asleepwhen I hear..
OH MY GOD! Look at that! That is cool.
Moments pass. I think to myself, that was probably something neat to see. Not a minute later does Mark go, “Wow! Those are gorgeous!” OK. Now I can’t sleep. How can anyone sleep with that much enthusiasm balled up in the driver’s seat?
Coffee, I’m thinking. Anything. But now the sun is up, and honestly the fact that I was in the car in a different state made me so excited that sleeping now became impossible. The seat back gets propped up and we make our way through Texarkana. By the way, an interesting place. We spent about an hour trying to figure out whether it’s TexarCONa or TexarCANa. Goodness.
It’s about this time where we begin to discuss driving to NORTH DAKOTA. It’s only another thousand miles or whatever, right? What’s the difference. We’d already driven that. I’m on the phone with Hertz trying to determine if it’s even remotely possible to drop the car off in a different state and fly home.
Improvising at its best.
Finally a nap. We go to explore Dallas. Where’s all the fireworks? Where’s the drunken debauchery? Nowhere to be found.Dear Dallas, your Independence Day festivities are lacking. Sincerely, ME. We wound up rubbing shoulders with some young Marine friends and some woman that was very interested in my man. Which made me very interested in her. Until I saw this gem.
That’s about all I remember about Dallas.
The next thing I remember is leaving Dallas and heading up to the Dakotas. So close, but yet so far.
We zigzagged across state lines which is pretty easy to do; there’s really only one interstate that takes you straight up the country.
By the time we got to Iowa, it was time to eat. We were chugging along with the help of Monsters and an assortment of candy ranging from Twizzlers to sour gummy worms to chocolate . It was time to eat real food.
Interestingly enough, we got welcomed to Omaha before the state of Nebraska.
We’re getting into the wee hours of the morning again, so that means it’s my turn to drive.
The road from Nebraska to North Dakota is lonely. The speed limit is 75. There was construction. It was dark. The sky was truly a blanket of stars. Had I been camping, I would have loved it.
But I wasn’t camping. So I didn’t love it. It was in fact a very stressful drive. There were warning signs for all kinds of wildlife that may be bouncing around in the bushes. I feared every reflector post on the road was a pair of beady little deer eyes. From about 10pm to 4am, (Mark will disagree with this to no avail. He calls this an exaggeration) I carried the tremendous burden of transporting us safely to the Dakotas, waking him gently once we finally arrived.
Finally we get to North Dakota. I’m gently awoken that we’ve arrived at the North Dakota sign. I sleepily open the passenger door and these MOSQUITOES THE SIZE OF SOFTBALLS get themselves knotted up in my hair. Rude awakening. What’s more is that we got a crap shot of the North Dakota sign. The iphone did the best it could.
By the time we leave Chicago (after failing at obtaining Chicago pizza, that story soon to come), it’s nearing 9pm. We’ve decided at this point to drop the rental car off at the Louisville International Airport and fly back to Miami from there. There are five more states to go. Ready?
It’s well past midnight. We make Michigan.
It’s raining. We’re both exhausted. We need to sleep. We pull off on the side of the road to take a quick nap. A highway officer knocks on our window, tells us, You can’t sleep here, but there’s a rest stop a mile up the road.Mark drives us to the rest stop. We get some shut eye, and wake up with the sun and begin our drive again.
In a year and a half, we’ve logged over 12,000 miles traveling by car.
…WOW. That’s about the distance from Anchorage, Alaska to the Panama Canal and back. To answer the question that’s bugging you, yes we’ve talked about it and yes: driving the entirety of the PanAm is on the agenda.
Here’s PART I of our tour of the 48 contiguous United States via the state welcome signs. This was a personal goal of Mark’s we completed in just over six months. Most of our drives we spent the first day and night (upon landing at an airport) driving. About half of the pictures are in the daytime; the other half are at night. Without further adieu, our tour!
Southeast Trip – February 2013.
Next up! The Northeast! We flew in to Baltimore (BWI) and after getting stuck in DC for about 2 (Mark will probably say 5) hours, we finally made it out and got on our way.
Last but not least, the sun setting over Maine. To head back toward Baltimore or stay in Portland and feast on lobster? Silly question. We feasted.
Northeast Trip, April 2013.
Stay tuned! The Central Trip will be coming up momentarily.