Saturday, November 1, 2008

Florida Keys

After our day in the Everglades, we drove down to Key Largo, where we would camp at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for two nights. When we arrived, we found that the sites were almost as close together as those at Myakka River, but fortunately, none of our neighbors watched TV all night long.

On Tuesday morning, our campsite was teeming with ibises! Unfortunately, we didn’t take any pictures. That afternoon, we went to the Key Largo Conch House for key lime pie, which was deliciously tart. Apparently, the way to tell real key lime pie is by the color. Pale yellow indicates authenticity, while green indicates that food coloring has been added to enhance tourist appeal.

Back at the campsite, we found a large – probably five or six feet long – iguana! It was extremely colorful, too – what an odd mix of ugly features and gorgeous coloring.

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The next day, we packed up and headed further south along the keys. We stopped at Robbie’s of Islamorada, where visitors can go out on the docks and look at the tarpon for a dollar, or buy a bucket of fish to feed them for three dollars more. We bought two admissions and a bucket of fish and headed out to the dock.

We were promptly greeted by pelicans, who were clearly quite interested in the bucket of fish we were carrying.

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When we looked over the edge of the dock, we could see that the tarpon were practically on top of each other, swarming the dock. They were impressive fish, up to five feet long and averaging about 80 pounds!

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We’d bought our bucket of fish, so now it was time to feed the tarpon.

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When one of us would hold a fish above the water, it was clear that the tarpon could see it or at least sense it. They would swim right to where the fish was. Then when we’d throw it into the water, the tarpon would attack it, splashing the water in a vicious race for food.

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At one point, Sarah held a fish just two feet above the water, and a tarpon came shooting out of the water, mouth gaping open, pointy teeth glistening. If Sarah hadn’t jumped back, that tarpon might have gotten both the fish and her hand! She thought that holding the fish two feet above the water was safe, but apparently not – those tarpon can jump!

Eventually, we exhausted our supply of fish. The disappointed pelicans had to go hungry, at least until the next group of tarpon-feeding tourists arrived.

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We continued driving south along the keys and stopped at Sombrero Beach, near Marathon. It turned out to be a pretty, relatively wild-looking beach, and we had it all to ourselves. We walked the length of the small beach, enjoying the views.

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The highway that connects the keys is an engineering marvel. In one place, there is a seven-mile long bridge. In many places, sections of bridge had been rebuilt and the old bridge was left and is now used by fisherman. Here is one small section of bridge connecting the keys.

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By the time we arrived at Bahia Honda State Park, where we would be staying for the night, it was raining, so rather than setting up camp, we continued to Coco’s Kitchen for lunch. Our guidebook recommended it as a good place to get authentic Cuban food, and we ordered yellow rice and beans, Cuban break, and conch fritters, along with a shot of espresso. The conch fritters weren’t quite what we were expecting, but it was all quite good. While we were eating, the rain outside became a deluge, and we were glad we hadn’t set up our tent yet.

After eating lunch, we reluctantly went back outside into the rain and struggled to figure out what to do next. We hung out at the library for a while, went to the National Key Deer Refuge visitors center, and eventually set up our tent during what turned out to be a very brief dry period. We huddled in the tent and played a game of Scrabble while the rain pounded down on our tent, and we realized that water was soaking through our floor. We grabbed some plastic garbage bags and laid our Therm-a-rests on top of those in the hopes of staying relatively dry and went to bed.

It poured for much of the night, but the garbage bags did their job – we didn’t wind up swimming inside the tent during the night. It wasn’t raining when we woke up, so we did what we could to dry out the tent and the stuff inside before heading to Key West.

Along the way, we stopped at the National Key Deer Refuge to see if we could get a look at the elusive key deer. The key deer is a subspecies of white-tailed deer that only lives in the Florida Keys. They’re the smallest of the white-tailed deer – a full-grown adult male only stands 2.5 feet tall at the shoulder. And they’re endangered, numbering only a few hundred animals, so they’re not easy to find.

We drove to Blue Hole, supposedly a good place to see them. Well, we didn’t find any deer, but we did see a small gator.

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Then, as we drove further, we saw a deer right at the side of the road! Based on his size and the size of his antlers, he looked young, but he was probably a full-grown deer.

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He wasn’t at all shy. He looked right at us and then came up closer to the car.

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Our key deer-sighting quest complete, we continued on toward Key West. There, we first visited a cemetery, which was notable for its elaborate above-ground structures, probably partially a reflection of the relative wealth of Key West residents but more so an adaptation to the environment – bury a body underground, and it might wash away in the next major flood, but put it in a massive concrete box above ground and it will stay put.

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An area of the cemetery was devoted to sailors who died in the 1898 sinking of the battleship USS Maine, which triggered the Spanish-American War.

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Next we headed to the Eco-Discovery Center, a small but fascinating free museum. Immediately west of Key West, the ocean and small islands are protected as the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, and this museum seemed to act as a visitors center for that wildlife refuge. It seemed quite new and did a nice job of explaining the different habitats of southern Florida, from hardwood hammock and mangrove to patch reef and deep shelf.

After that, we went to the southernmost point in the U.S., marked by a large block of concrete resembling a buoy. It turns out that Hawaii is further south, so the point can only claim to be the southernmost point in the continental U.S., and even then, there are points further south. A Wikipedia entry does a nice job of cataloging the U.S.’s extreme points, and according to that entry, Key West can only claim to be the southernmost city in the contiguous states.

Nevertheless, there was a large crowd of tourists around the marker, and we got our picture taken like everyone else.

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As it turned out, we were in Key West during Fantasy Fest, a weeklong Halloween celebration. As we heard one person say, Fantasy Fest is the week when people come to Key West to go crazy, and the local Key West crazies seem normal. First and foremost, it’s a week of debauchery, with public drinking and nudity the norm. But it’s also a non-stop costume party, with many different dress-up events held throughout the week, from a Pirate’s Bash to a Toga Party to a Pajama & Lingerie Party. There’s even a Pet Parade, where people dress up their dogs, cats, iguanas, etc. Local stores sell elaborate costumes and for those who don’t want to be free of fabric, body painters will paint amazing costumes right on your naked body.

We went to a pool party at Dante’s, a local bar and restaurant.

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Around sunset, we walked to Mallory Square, which was full of street performers. We’ve never seen such competition among performers – as soon as one show finished, five performers would start shouting, trying to draw crowds over to their areas of the square. After a few minutes of this, it would become clear that one performer had gained the majority of the audience, and the other performers would accept defeat this time, only to try again the next time there was a break in the action.

We watched a gymnast’s street show. He did handstand push-ups as his opening trick. Then he set up some soda cans with crumpled dollar bills on top and did flips, grabbing the dollar bills while flying over the cans, upside down. For his final trick, he jumped through a hoop barely wider than his body and held at about his eye level. He dove headfirst through the hoop, landing on the concrete in a somersault. He was quite amazing.

Walking back through downtown Key West after dark, the costumed revelers were out in force, including a vulgar version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and a fantastic Egyptian pharaoh and his queen.

After a fun day in Key West, we headed back to our soggy campsite at Bahia Honda. Thankfully, our tent was still there and not as wet as it had been the night before.

In the morning, the sky was briefly clearer then quickly clouded up again. We drove back to the Bahia Honda beaches to get a few photos before leaving. First we stopped at Calusa Beach. From there, two sections of bridge were visible. This is the new bridge.

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This is the old bridge.

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Then we drove to the other end of the park to the Sandspur beach. The Keys are not known for their beaches. Bahia Honda is considered to have the nicest beaches in the Keys. However, it was near high tide and there wasn’t a lot of beach. The vistas were still pleasant though.

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The stormy clouds were quickly rolling back in so we took a few more pictures than continued on our way.

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Next stop, the southern part of the Everglades.

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