Being part 3 of the Florida Roadtrip.
I made it to Key Largo, where I camped at the state park. I stopped here because Key Largo is a great Bogart film, and it’s also the cheapest place to stay in the Keys. I planned to continue to Key West, the most Southerly part of the continental US (though it is actually an island), and the start of Route 1. I pulled into the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park with a one-night reservation. They were super nice at the ranger’s office. One of them had a baby duckling! Of course I said, “What is this, bring your duck to work week?” He had been orphaned 4 weeks ago, and she was taking care of him. He liked to have his chest stroked, and was almost getting grown-up feathers. I got to pet him. Super cute!
I pitched my tent and scoped out the scene. Most people had RVs, but there were a few other tents, including a couple who bicycled in (I was jealous! Except cycling in hot, humid Florida seems horrible). Only one Airstream, though, and no other vintage trailers.
I Googled things to do in Key Largo, and shortly found myself taking a (not inexpensive) harbor tour on the fabled African Queen! I saw The African Queen (1951) as a kid in the 80s at the public library, a 16mm print, probably faded pink, which immediately sparked my love of Kate Hepburn and Bogey. The other passengers on the boat were also ladies, one older than me, plus her daughter her and pal, both younger than me. We older ladies were fans of the film. I thought of it as a love story about Bogart and Hepburn when I first saw it, but when I watched it again a few years ago, I realized it’s a movie about the boat, The African Queen! So taking a trip on the boat was a dream come true. As close as I could hope to get to chillin’ with Bogart and Hepburn.
The history of this boat is storied and unexpected. The ladies and I chit chatted and I talked up our captain, too. How did you wind up captain of a steam boat in Key Largo? Who fixes it? How does it work? blah blah blah.
I decided Key Largo was cool and I wanted to spend a second relaxing day, so I worked it out with the parks department to camp a second night.
I headed back to the park and went for a swim. I took off my sandals and walked into the water, which was a big mistake because this was a white coral beach, where the sand is made of coral, and there’s tons of pieces of dead coral littering the shore. Very painful to walk on – should have left on my saltwater sandals. This was my first swim in the Florida Atlantic, and it was disturbingly warm. I grew up on the North Shore in Massachusetts, where the ocean is always cold, or at least cold-ish. I learned to swim there. Warm water at home means someone has peed there a second before, or it’s so warm you should watch out for jellyfish. This is what they call bath water temperatures, and that is weird for someone used to the cold ocean.
There was a sign in the swimming area marking a shipwreck, but I couldn’t see anything. A guy with snorkeling gear swam by and I asked him what he could see. Not much, he admitted.
I settled in at my campsite as it got dark. I ate a picnic dinner with some wine. A stray cat wandered by and I gave it some water. The campground was quiet & I slept well.
I woke up fairly early (for me) and went to the shore to check the scene. I was interested in either snorkeling at the coral reef, or taking a glass-bottomed boat tour to look at the coral reefs. The ocean was choppy. The weather peeps had been predicting a major storm, but it was merely windy and sunny. The tour people talked me out of the snorkeling – not for beginners with these waves! So I signed up for the day’s first boat tour, even though I was completely unprepared, and this was a spur of the moment decision. I had just enough time to go get a coffee at Starbucks (I know! but I didn’t have time to research a better place!), and pick up sunblock and anti-nausea pills back at my tent.
At 9am, three couples, plus me, plus our tour guide, plus the captain, headed out. The water was calm until we hit the open sea. We were so lucky to have a small amount of people on this boat – no worries about it being crowded! There were four windows looking down at the ocean floor, framed in black to cut any glare. The older two couples were into bird watching, and that was cool since I was also there to see birds and had binocs.
Once we got to the reefs, the boat slowed down, but was never weighing anchor (for obvious reasons, I hope), so we drifted along. Our guide told us what we were looking at, as quickly as she could. There weren’t any special lights under the boat, so it was all natural lighting, not what we are used to seeing in a fish tank. The fish and corals went by fast. They were surprisingly colorful, but in a subtle way. Our guide did a nice job of telling us what we were seeing.
Coral and sea sponges are in the animal kingdom. I feel bad every time I see a shell shop like the one we stepped into in St Augustine, imagining the mass slaughter of sea creatures for tourists to buy (and then forget about). The stiff sea fans you see at these shops are, when alive, flexible and moving in the current like leaves in the wind. Just beautiful.
We made it back to shore without anyone puking. I just barely made it. It turned out to be the only boat trip of the day, so I was extra happy to have done the tour.
I hit the thrift shops and picked up a hot water cooker so I could make tea in the morning, and a beach chair so I could have some place to sit besides the car. I also got a typewriter, because I can’t say no to them if they’re under $20. The grocery store provided some kombucha, breakfast, dinner, and cat food for the camp site strays.
I took a walk through the campground trails and found this magnificent spider, the second one I’d seen this trip.
Back at the campground, I met some neighbors and had drinks with them. One was South African. These were fairly young for RV retirement people.
I went back to the tent to figure out the next day’s plans. I had moved campsites, and the new one was very stinky, right next to the mangrove swamp. I fed the stray cat and weighed down the tent with my cooler and typewriter – it was very windy, and I had to pitch the tent on hard ground where I couldn’t use pegs.
At 4am, I had a classic amateur camper issue when an adorable racoon woke me up breaking into the cooler I’d been using to weigh down part of my tent. I chased it off, but it had gotten into my cheese and bread. As I was cleaning up, it wandered back, seeming to say, “I seem to have left behind some delicious bread. I hope you don’t mind if I just grab this piece, oh, and thanks for the light! I’ll be on my way now.”
I decided not to head south to Key West. It had been among my main goals on this trip, but it was going to add 4 hours from Key Largo (2 up, 2 back), and Key Largo was giving me a lot I wasn’t sure Key West was going to beat! So I decided to head over to the Everglades.