Some of you know that every year, I go on an adventure trip with my best friend Leanne (and often a few other friends). We were excited that this summer a lot of places have opened up after the COVID 19 pandemic and that, being vaccinated, we would be able to travel pretty freely domestically. After much deliberation, we spent the past three months planning a week getaway in Sedona, Arizona. But then...five days before our hiking trip was set to start, we got news that the national forests all around the town were suffering horrible fires and then entire hiking region was shut down indefinitely.
We had to regroup and pivot to something new. The Florida Keys had been on our short list of possible destinations but concerned about the possibility of hurricanes, had decided not to book there. Now, with only 5 days to plan and a 10 day weather forecast we felt safe make the trip. Even though our trips are usually adventure-based, I realized that many of the adventure activities we'd want would be full and I might be just reading a book by the pool. I couldn't have been more wrong! We were booked solid with adventure the entire week.
I'm proud that we were able to pull this trip together in the last minute. Here's our itinerary:
Monday, June 28: Arrive in Miami
Leanne and I flew into Miami International Airport around 7 pm. We got the rental car and drove to Miami Beach. After we checked into the Palihouse Miami Beach Hotel, we walked to dinner at The Tavern in Miami Beach. Our hotel was super cute boutique hotel a short walk from the beach. It had a serene pool area, hip bar in the lobby, rental bikes, beach equipment, and even cooler lunches to go. I wish we could have taken more advantage of these, but since we arrived so late, we really didn't. The Tavern was lively and had good pub food. Draft and bottle beer/cider choice was limited. It was a fine first night in the city!
|Miami lifeguard towers are all colorful!|
Tuesday, June 29: Miami Beach, Wynwood Murals, and Travel to Key West
The first thing we did was walk down to the beach. I really enjoyed walking the Miami Beach Boardwalk and seeing the colorful and diverse lifeguard towers. It was also exciting to see lizards and iguanas along the path. After a leisurely walk and quick toe dip in the ocean, we went back up to town and grabbed coffee and breakfast at Starbucks. We checked out of our hotel around 11 am and drove to the Wynwood area of Miami. This portion of the city is known for the Wynwood murals - diverse and large artwork painted on the exterior walls of the many buildings. For $10 each, we were able to enter the exhibition of the Wynwood Walls - "a unique outdoor museum featuring huge, colorful street murals from artists around the globe". I really enjoyed this exhibit and would highly recommend! As we had a long drive to Key West that day, we decided to leave Miami and get on the road.
|The Wynwood area is worth visiting to see these large pieces of art!|
The Keys are a long string of islands coming off the southern tip of Florida. We decided start our trip at the very end - Key West - and then make our way back up. On the way to Key West, we stopped at Morada Bay Beach Cafe in Islamorada for (a very late) lunch and drinks. This open air restaurant on the sand had that perfect "Keys vibe" I was looking for - colorful tables, white sand, palm trees and fruity drinks. We enjoyed the fish and chips and got our first glimpses of the wild/free range chickens/roosters that call the Keys their home. After lunch, we booked it to Key West - enjoying the water views on the seven mile bridge as we traveled between islands.
|Tropical drinks at Morada Bay Beach Cafe|
Once in Key West, we checked into our hotel - the Seascape Tropical Inn Bed and Breakfast. We really loved this little inn. Open the double doors of your small, but updated room to a central patio and hot tub. The location is wedged between the historic Hemingway house and the lively Duval Street. Once we parked our car, we never took out again, as Key West is really easy to maneuver on foot or by bicycle. By the time we checked in, it was getting late so we walked Duval street - bustling with restaurants, bars, and shops. We walked to the end and caught last light at Sunset Pier then grabbed giant cookies and ice cream (our dinner) at Mattheessen's Candy Kitchen. We also found the Mile 0 marker!
Wednesday, June 30: Fort, Pool, Hemingway House, and Sunset Cocktail Cruise
We knew it was a long shot, but we decided to try to get on the ferry to the Dry Tortugas National Park on standby. This US national park is located 70 miles west of Key West and is only accessible by boat or sea plane. Unfortunately for us, the ferry and planes are completely booked months in advance. However, visitors are welcome to get to the ferry terminal early and wait to see if anyone doesn't show. This is a first come, first served basis. We got there at 6 am and much to our surprise, there were already multiple groups ahead of us on the list. At 8 am we learned we weren't getting on standby (only 7 people did). One of the groups that got on told us they go there at 4 am. We decided we'd try the next day. Before going back to the hotel, we walked over to the popular photo spot of the "Southern Most Point in the Continental US".
We returned to our hotel for our complimentary breakfast, then packed up our beach bags and went for a walk to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. This is both a historic park with a walk-able fort and also a beach and picnic area. Fee was $6 a car (or for us $2.50 a person). The fort was really cool! I loved walking the walls and reading the interpretive signs. As we made our way down to the beach, the sky opened up in a torrential downpour. We sought shelter under an interpretive sign (we also had umbrellas and jackets) and waited out the storm.
|Fort Zachary Taylor has the fort as well as beach and picnic area.|
After the fort, we walked to the historic seaport and enjoyed fried conch and fish sandwiches at Conch Republic Seafood Company. I loved the open air atmosphere and marina views! After lunch we walked across the street to Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe for a chocolate dipped key lime pie (on a stick) for dessert.
After lunch, we returned to our hotel, soaked in the hot tub and relaxed, then headed back out to visit our neighbor, The Hemingway Home and Museum. Admission is $17 per adults and is well worth it, especially if you take advantage of one of the included 20 minute walking tours. I personally am not any sort of Hemingway fan, but I really enjoyed the house and history. Plus, it was pretty adorable meeting some of the 60 six-toed cats that reside on the property.
The weather had improved so we decided to skip dinner our and jump onto a last minute Sunset booze cruise! For $42 a person we got a cruise and unlimited beer and wine (more for cocktails). It was awesome seeing the sunset this way!
Thursday, July 1: Dry Tortugas National Park and Little Deer
I got up at 3 am and raced to the docks - getting to the ferry terminal at 3:20 am. I was shocked to see someone had beaten me to the front of the standby line (he later told me he got there at 2:45 am). As we waited (and chatted) other groups slowly showed up until by 6 am there were over seven. While the day before, they had put out a clipboard at 6 am to sign up for standby, this morning they waited until 7 am to record the list (boy did I have to pee by then). Leanne was left to pack up our car (since we would have to check out that morning) and meet me at the dock at 7:30. WE GOT ON!!! The ferry to the national park is $190 a person. It includes the 2.5 hour ride each way to the island as well as breakfast, lunch, and snorkel rental. We were OVERJOYED (and also a little sleep deprived). We hopped on the ferry with water, towel, change of clothes, and a lot of sunscreen.
|Dry Tortugas National Park Sign|
We lucked out with a great day to ride out there. Calm seas and beautiful weather - pretty grateful now it wasn't the day before. Only 1% of this national park is above water - the small island holding Fort Jefferson. Once we arrived, visitors were free to take a guided tour (either 20 min or hour), hike and explore the fort and island, and snorkel. Lunch was available for pick up at the boat. We had a little over four hours on the island.
Leanne and I chose to start with the 20 minute talk/tour which gave us historic background about the fort. After that, we walked the top rim and explored the grounds. Afterwards, we got our included bag lunch (sandwich, cookies, chips, and drink) from the boat and enjoyed it at one of the many picnic tables. We got suited for snorkel gear and walked to one of the swim beaches which was an entry point to explore the coral.
|Awesome snorkeling right from the beach!|
The snorkeling was so cool! Pretty good visibility with beautiful coral and diversity of fish. It was magical stepping out on a beach of white coral sand and into the warm sub-tropical water to explore. **Advice: even slathered with reef-safe sunscreen, our bums and backs of our legs got sunburned from floating on our stomachs in the water for two hours. I'd suggest reapplying or wearing covering swimwear. I was wearing a rash-guard on top and it saved my arms and back from the same fate.
At 3 pm we returned to the boat and took the 2.5 hour ride return. One the way, we saw a sea turtle! We returned to Key West at 5:15 pm, still needing to do the two hour drive to our next hotel in Key Largo.
On the way to Key Largo, we took a detour at No Name Key. This was special for two reasons: we had multiple sightings of Key deer - a native (and endangered) species of small deer that live on the island, and a fun pub dinner at No Name Pub - famous for the thousands of one dollar bills on the ceilings and walls. The nachos were delicious!
We got to Key Largo and our next hotel exhausted but fulfilled from a truly amazing day. We both agreed, we could leave happy!
Friday, July 2: The Everglades
We got some bad news Thursday night that the all-day kayak trip we had booked in the Everglades National Park was canceled. Similar excursions at that time were already booked and it looked like we wouldn't be kayaking this trip. No worries, we could see much of the park on foot and we still had an airboat ride booked for the morning.
We got up early and drove up near Shark Valley to catch our airboat expedition with Everglades Airboat Expeditions. We booked the one hour semi-private tour for $60 a person. We loved it! Not only was it super fun to whiz around on the boat at high speeds, but we also saw awesome wildlife and got some natural history about the everglades. We saw diverse waterfowl and multiple alligators.
|Our airboat in the Everglades|
After our tour, we drove down to the main entrance to Everglades National Park at the Ernest F Coe Visitor Center. It's $30 a vehicle to enter the park. The ranger gave us suggestions for trails to stop for the rest of our day there.
|Alligator in the water right next to the airboat|
Our first trail was at Royal Palm stop. We walked the Ahinga Trail - a short boardwalk loop. We saw beautiful birds, fish, and multiple alligators! Next we drove further into the park and hiked the Pa-hay-okee Trail - another short boardwalk loop where we witness expansive grasslands, diverse trees, and more birds. Lastly, we drove all the way to the final spot on the road called Flamingo (about an hour drive from the original visitor center). This part of the park is a salt water ecosystem. The ranger at the visitor center pointed us to where we could see manatees and crocodiles in the marina. And we saw both! What a trip!
|Boardwalk trails in the Everglades National Park|
|Manatee sightings in Flamingo|
Fulfilled, we drove back out of the park and returned to Key Largo for a delicious seafood dinner platter at Mrs Mac's Kitchen and sunset on the hotel beach at Marriot Key Largo resort.
Saturday, July 3: Reef Snorkel and Biscayne National Park
Our final full day in Florida was dedicated to snorkel and the third (and final) national park of Florida. We had a 9 am snorkel set up at Sundiver Snorkel Tours in Key Largo. We had a great experience with them, although were annoyed that on their confirmation noted we'd have to bring our own snorkel (or buy one of theirs). This seemed a little fishy since our other snorkel tour provided them. Either way, we LOVED this snorkel. We went out to the "Christ of the Abyss" statue which is surrounded by a coral reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This overlaps with the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
|Boat that took us snorkeling|
After our snorkel, we grabbed lunch overlooking the marina at the Pilot House (yummy shrimp tacos) followed by homemade ice cream at Mrs C's Homemade Ice Cream. She even made our waffle cone to order. Yum!
We got in the car and said goodbye to the Keys. When our kayak had been canceled in the Everglades, we decided to sign up for a paddle in Biscayne National Park instead. This park is mostly underwater and best explored by boat or snorkel. This national park is also free to enter and is only 30 miles from Miami. We snagged an 1.5 hour partially guided kayak with the Biscayne National Park Institute for $39 each which included the kayaks, safety equipment and a naturalist to point us in the right direction and answer questions. It was oppressively hot but this kept any mosquitoes away and left for calm water a great visibility. We got to kayak in an aggregation of manatees and weave through a maze of mangroves. It was perfection!
|Kayaking the mangroves in Biscayne National Park|
It was bittersweet ending our kayak at 5 pm because we knew our vacation was almost over. Our kayak guide/naturalist gave us a recommendation to visit Black Point Ocean Grill in Homestead for dinner. It was another great place to get outdoor seating with views of the marina. I enjoyed my dolphin reuben (dolphin fish - not marine mammal) and margarita.
|Kayaking with manatees in Biscayne National Park|
From Homestead, we drove the half hour back to the Miami airport where we returned out rental car and spent the night in the Miami International Airport Hotel. I had no idea that airports had hotels in them but this was super convenient since both our flights were before 7 am and the nearby hotels didn't offer shuttles that early. We simply checked out and were already in our concourse E!