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FL Day 5: Sea Cow Soiree

Five a.m. arrived before we knew it and we were up and ready to snorkel with the manatees. We drove over to Bird's Underwater, one of the only tour companies to offer the early morning tour in Kings Bay at Crystal River. The West Indian manatees migrate to this protected area every winter. Some of the manatees do hang around year-round, however, so even though we were visiting in May, we still had a chance to see them. We suited up in our rented wetsuits and boarded our assigned pontoon boat. There was supposed to be donuts and coffee for breakfast for everyone but apparently they had been a little stingy with the goods this morning. I think I got a donut hole. Our first manatee sighting was actually right by the dock. We all jumped in the water and slowly made our way over to the groups. There were two different groups of manatees there. The gentle giants allowed us to hover in the water while they twisted and turned all around us. With your ears in the water you could actually hear them munching on the sea grass below. We stayed with the two groups for as long as the manatees allowed and then we headed off to try and find another group. We managed to find a few more that morning and each one of us on tour had ample time to spend with these magnificent creatures. Because we had taken the early tour, no other tour boats were crowding us and we were able to take our time. Unfortunately, the water was pretty murky so I don't have any manatee pictures but Bird's Underwater did make a DVD compilation of our manatee snorkels available for purchase.

After snorkeling with the manatees, we went to an area called Three Sisters' Springs for some additional snorkeling. This area of natural springs is completely clear. During the winter, the manatees are also in this area but not today. We were able to see some other freshwater fish as well as a turtle.

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The springs were ridiculously cold and I couldn't snorkel there very long, even in a wetsuit. Brenda and I used the extra time to change into some dry clothes so we could warm up.

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Once we made it back to the dive shop, we did a little manatee souvenir shopping then got on the road to Orlando to catch our flights home. We parted ways at the airport with a list of new experiences and memories that we can laugh about and reminisce about for years to come.

Posted by zihuatcat 21:20 Archived in USA Tagged keys florida brenda Comments (0)

FL Day 4: Leaving Key West...Twice

It was Sunday morning and time to leave sunny Key West. We packed up and hit the road fairly early for a leisurely but long trip to Crystal River. We took some pics of the scenery along the way.

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In Islamorada, we stopped at a souvenir shop and this is where the course of the day changed. I paid for my souvenirs but when Brenda went to pay for hers, she realized she did not have her wallet. The last time she remembered having it was at dinner the night before at Alonzo's. So we gave them a call and unbelievably, our waiter had retrieved it from under the table and put it somewhere safe. This of course meant that we had to drive two hours back to Key West (four hours round trip) to pick it up. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper and didn't talk much on the way back.

After the long interruption we finally made it to Key Largo where we had reserved a boat tour through the mangroves with Captain Sterling's Eco Tours. Our ride was waiting for us.

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We took some tasty beverages with us on the tour.

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I thought we were taking an airboat tour but in this part of the everglades, airboats are not allowed. So we putt-putted around in our pontoon boat and made our way through the mangroves.

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A couple of birds were hanging around.

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And some iguanas which are not endemic to Florida. Our guide told us that the iguanas in Florida came from personal aquariums.

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We made our way to the canals to see if we could find any manatees.

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A couple of guys were cleaning their boat and a manatee came up to drink the clean water.

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Just outside of Key Largo, we stopped for a quick dinner at Alabama Jack's. I had read about this hole-in-the-wall place on Trip Advisor. It was supposed to be a must-stop. I wasn't impressed. There was a decent band playing but the food was nothing special (and I don't usually complain about anything fried). There was one old lady out there dancing by herself in some kind of square dance outfit. She seemed to be pretty well-known. There were pictures on the wall of Kathie Lee Gifford dancing there with her husband a billion years ago. I guess that's their claim to fame. It's one of the few times Trip Advisor has let me down.

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We left there after dinner with a long drive still to go to Crystal River. Almost immediately after crossing onto the mainland we got stuck in a major traffic jam on the Florida Turnpike. This delayed us another hour. By now, we're a good five hours behind schedule and I'm pretty tired of driving. And what the hell is the deal with the lack of places to go to the bathroom on the Turnpike? In Texas, there are gas stations and bathrooms every few miles in most places. But not in Florida. I had to pee on the side of the road at one point. We pulled into Crystal River about 2 a.m. and set our alarms for 5 a.m. We had to be up early to swim with the manatees.

Posted by zihuatcat 21:12 Archived in USA Tagged keys florida brenda Comments (0)

FL Day 3: Tourist Town Bar

The plan today was to spend the day walking around and exploring Key West. We started with breakfast at Camille's, a funky little pink place serving up yummy breakfasts. I had delicious crab cakes benedict and Brenda had a crab and asparagus omelet, both washed down with mimosas.

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We walked down to south Key West and took the obligatory picture at the Southernmost Point. There was a long line to take your pic with no one else in it and by now it was starting to get pretty hot so we cheated and took our pics from across the street.

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Our next stop was the Ernest Hemingway house. There was some kind of event going on there but we were still allowed to walk around and check things out. We passed on the guided tour.

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The grounds were nicely landscaped and there was some sort of life-sized checkerboard in the yard.

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Several six-toed cats still live here, apparently all descendants of Hemingway's cats. Kittens are in cages but the adults have the run of the house.

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By now I am just one big sweatbucket (geez, it's so humid) and am in need of a large, cold drink. We decide to make the required appearance at Margaritaville. After all, it did start here. We drank a couple of overpriced, watered down margaritas, I bought Mike a fluorescent green t-shirt, and we watched a video on loop of Jimmy Buffett fans/parties. At least there was a/c involved. After a cool down, we did some shopping and found one of my most favorite sea-themed stores ever--Fantasea. They have some beautiful household items. I bought my mother a bowl made of sea stars. We stopped in a few other stores and decided it was time again for another cold drink. This time we made our way to Schooner Wharf Bar. Michael McCloud was performing on stage. We ordered a couple of rum and cokes and hung out for a while with the chickens.

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By now we needed some food to go with all of these drinks so we walked over to the marina to find a place for dinner. We decided on Alonzo's. They have great happy hour specials. All of their appetizers are half price so we ordered up a few and watched the high society arrive on their yachts.

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We shared crab and avocado salad, steamed clams, and mussels diablo.

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We called it an early night and drove back to the hotel. Tonight was supposed to be the "super" moon so we walked across to Smathers Beach for a quick moonlight gaze before bedtime.

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Posted by zihuatcat 21:08 Archived in USA Tagged keys florida brenda Comments (0)

FL Day 2: Murphy's Law on Looe Key Reef

Today we had a snorkel trip lined up with Looe Key Dive Center on Ramrod Key, about a 30 minute drive from Key West. The trip was to stop at two different places on Looe Key reef for about an hour each. The dive shop has a nice, large catamaran that comfortably held 20 people or so, both divers and snorkelers. Each passenger is assigned a number and before leaving each snorkel/dive site, they do a count-off to make sure no one is left behind. In between the two stops on the reef, hamburgers and hot dogs are served for a small fee. Snacks and drinks can also be purchased, with beer allowed once you're done in the water.

Brenda and I took our place on the boat to wait for the other passengers and that's when they arrived. This couple got on the boat, a man and woman, probably in their early 50s. They could have been younger, I don't know; they were pretty rough looking. It was his birthday and they, like everyone else, were wearing bathing suits with t-shirts as cover ups. Except that the woman's t-shirt had a life-sized picture on the front of her boobs. Her naked boobs. In all their glory. In all their old, sagging glory. I was astounded. The woman said that she couldn't arrive topless on the boat so for her man's birthday she gave him the next best thing. OK, what about the rest of us? So yes, for the rest of the day, we all had the pleasure of staring at her old, saggy boobs. Unfortunately I wasn't brave enough to take a picture.

We set out for Looe Key reef through the canals.

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We passed some really nice houses.

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We stopped and anchored on the reef. They did require us to wear snorkel vests and had noodles available for those who wanted some extra flotation. I've got plenty of that, thank you.

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Visibility was not all that great since for several days prior there had been storms. From what I understand though, visibility here in general is not as good as other areas of the Keys. It was also pretty rough. And by rough I mean several people on the morning cruise had gotten sea sick. One diver on our boat never got in the water because he was sea sick. Even underwater, you could see the reef fans swaying and the fish moving in the waves. The fish life here was not as abundant as other places I've been but chances of seeing barracuda, turtle, and reef shark are high. I would love to come back here and dive.

School of blue tang

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Filefish

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Black-tip reef shark

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Yellowtail snapper

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French angelfish

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Stoplight parrotfish

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Barracuda

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I saw five black-tip reef sharks and several barracuda. They were all below me on the sandy bottom so most of the pictures did not turn out well. Towards the end of the stop, I noticed my camera battery getting low. Then just at the very end, it shut off completely. Brenda made a comment that now that the camera was out of juice, we'd probably see a huge turtle or something. Not one minute later a huge, loggerhead turtle comes lumbering by right in front of us. In perfect camera-ready vision, not below us. Of course it was following immediately by another large, black-tip reef shark. Also in perfect camera-ready vision. Only my camera wasn't ready. Very frustrating but we laughed about it.

On the way back to the dive shop, several people on the boat drank beer, including the woman in the boob t-shirt. I couldn't help but think of the previous night's catchphrase, "Titties and beer are the reasons we're here." Perfectly fitting for a past middle-aged woman in a boob shirt with a Budweiser.

We picked up some wine on the way back to the hotel and decided we would have a beach picnic for dinner at Smathers Beach, just across the street from the Sheraton.

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We ordered coconut shrimp, a blackened mahi mahi sandwich, and a softshell crab sandwich from the hotel to go with our wine.

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Of course, the seagulls wouldn't leave us alone. This guy was particularly bold. People, stop feeding the seagulls!

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We watched the sunset and drank our wine, listening to the sounds of the ocean.

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After dark, we closed the evening with cheesecake and key lime pie at the hotel restaurant.

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Posted by zihuatcat 21:03 Archived in USA Tagged keys florida brenda Comments (0)

FL Day 1: Thelma and Louise Head for the Keys

Ok so our names aren't really Thelma and Louise. They're Brenda and Denise. And we didn't have a convertible. We had a 4-door Toyota Corolla. We didn't blow up any eighteen wheelers, shoot a guy at a bar, drive off a cliff into a canyon, or pick up any cute cowboy hitchhikers (though that last one is not totally off limits). Just kidding, Mike. Oh, yes, and I'm not a slightly uptight, neat freak and Brenda's not a carefree, get-into-trouble kind of girl. Well, maybe that part is a little bit true after all. But we were two best friends on a road trip to the Keys and Louise rhymes with Keys so bam...a title was born.

This was a last minute trip planned about two weeks beforehand. That's last minute for slightly, uptight neat freaks like me. Brenda had a work conference in Orlando and invited me to join her for a girls' road trip. I flew into Orlando on Wednesday night, grabbed the rental car, and headed to her hotel for the night, the Gaylord Palms. After spending forever trudging around the hotel grounds with all my luggage in tow, I finally made it to her room. We had a nice dinner at the Key West sailboat restaurant, a couple of drinks, and hit the sack excited about our adventure to begin the following morning.

I insisted we get up fairly early so that we could make it to Key West by sunset. GPS said it was a 7-hour drive so we made our way to the Florida Turnpike and set off. Right on schedule, we pulled into Key Largo about four hours later hungry and ready for a break. We decided to have some lunch at the Fish House. The Fish House is a cute little restaurant right off the Highway with bright blue shutters.

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Inside, rows and rows of sea-themed Christmas lights hang from the ceiling.

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I ordered my first (and I think only) frozen fru-fru drink of the trip, a creamsicle, which tasted almost exactly like an orange push-up pop from my younger days.

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To go with it, I had the Fish House's specialty--yellowtail snapper matecumbe.

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Brenda went with the lobster reuben.

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The finale was homemade, coconut ice cream served in a real coconut shell and topped with roasted coconut shavings. YUM!

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Bellies full, we set off for Key West.

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I'm not sure what I envisioned this drive to be like but I think I imagined dramatic bridges with beautiful seascapes. Not so much. There was some of that towards the end but mostly it was a 2-lane highway framed in scrub bushes. And if you got stuck behind Farmer Ted, well, you were just screwed. Brenda amused herself by spotting the different manatee mailboxes. This one had a hula skirt.

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Others had babies and even others had nursing babies (which I found particularly gross).

Upon reaching Islamorada, we made another pit stop, this time at Robbie's Marina.

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The fishermen were cleaning fish on the dock and threw the scraps into the water for the pelicans.

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These two guys had their own tug-of-war going on. I'm not sure who eventually won.

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For $3, you get a bucket of dead fish to hand feed the tarpon that congregate just off the dock. What they don't tell you is that the pelicans have figured out this little tourist scheme and darn near commit assault and battery to get the fish from you first.

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We managed to save some for the tarpon.

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Of course, some macho guys thought it would be extra cool to risk losing a hand.

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Tarpon bellies full, we again set off for Key West and arrived around 6 p.m. to the Sheraton Suites. Normally, we would have booked a cute little cottage in town but our last minute options were limited. The Sheraton was pretty nice. It was a bit of a distance from town but was right across the street from Smathers Beach.

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We freshened up real quick and then tried to figure out the best way to get to Mallory Square for the nightly sunset celebration. Our hotel ran a shuttle into town but it only took 12 people and you had to make a reservation (how stupid is that?). I had driven far enough during the day so we decided to call a cab. We were dropped off at Mallory Square just in time. The square was pretty packed with people and all of the performers were just getting started. Brenda wanted to sit down and have a drink somewhere to watch the goings-on. I didn't think we'd find a place but finally, at the end of the boardwalk we saw a few seats in an upstairs bar overlooking the square. I think it was part of the Westin hotel. We ordered a couple of rum and cokes (the bartender tried to rip us off TWICE) and found some barstools right on the railing. The sunset was nice but it was a bit cloudy and the view was constantly interrupted by the annoying biplane flying by every few minutes advertising rides and the overpacked booze cruises floating by.

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One of the nightly acts is this guy, known as the "Catman." His cats do all kinds of circus-type tricks like walking a "tightrope" and jumping thru hoops of fire. True to cat form, they weren't all that cooperative.

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Tourist thing done, we walked down Duval Street to get our bearings and look for a place to eat dinner. We passed by the Red Garter Saloon where a nice, unassuming man standing out front gave us a friendly nod. Just as we walked by, he yelled "Titties and beer are the reasons we're here." We couldn't stop laughing at that one.

For dinner we decided to try Red Fish Blue Fish. It wasn't crowded or loud and they had a pleasant patio. We started off splitting the stone crab claws.

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Brenda ordered the conch ceviche, served with some tasty stale crackers.

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I ordered a pound of peel-and-eat Key West shrimp.

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We were pretty tired after a long day so we caught a cab back to the hotel and called it a night.

Posted by zihuatcat 20:56 Archived in USA Tagged keys florida brenda Comments (0)

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