Not sure how many couples or families have a family motto these days, but we like to walk to the beat of a different drum…so we recently finished our own family motto. We are pretty proud of it and think it describes who we strive to be amidst the craziness of everyday life.
“We value turning off the TV, putting down the cell phone and diving headfirst into the beauty of the world in which we live. To experience the places and people in real-time. We are explorers, who never see family as a limit to adventure but only as the greatest adventure. We run, hike, climb, bike, snorkel, paddle, and dive hand in hand into the world. And while we haven’t been everywhere yet, it’s on our list. We believe that we cannot lay claim to the best of life until we have chased every adventure and turned over every rock.”
Our October 2015 trip to the Florida Keys & Dry Tortugas lived up to this motto. We were celebrating our first year of marriage and it ended up being an incredibly fun trip. It was so refreshing to disconnect from work, social media, and all the other everyday junk. Here is the breakdown of our week in paradise:
We hit the road just after 8am for a week-long trip to the Florida Keys for our 1 year wedding anniversary. After about 6 hours of driving, we arrived at John Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo in the afternoon. We have stayed at the park before in 2012 and loved it, so we were happy to come back for a few days of camping. Once we set up the tent and unloaded the car, we did the unconventional thing and went to the movie theater. I know what you’re saying. “Who goes to see a movie while they are on a camping trip?” We don’t go to the movie theater often, so this was a small splurge for us. So we had our little movie date night to kick off our trip.
We saw The Martian by the way, and loved it!
Dive day! Since we are both Scuba certified, we couldn’t come to the FL Keys and NOT spend some time under the waterline. JPSP runs boats daily to take people out to dive or snorkel and they can provide whatever gear you need. You can also rent kayaks or paddleboards to check out the mangroves nearby. We signed up for the 1pm dive boat and made sure to get to the dive shop a little early to pick up the gear we needed. Our trip included two dive locations, each about an hour in length at 15-30ft to check out the coral reefs and wildlife.
Our first dive location was at North Dry Rocks, followed by the reefs at Double North Dry Rocks.
Here is just a sample of what we saw: Hogfish, Yellowtail snapper, Grunts, Christmas tree worms, Lobster, Conch, Trumpet fish, sergeant majors, Parrotfish (stoplight and midnight), Porkfish, Angelfish, Skates, Goatfish, Surgeonfish, and a Scrawled Filefish.
Later that night we had dinner at The Fish House, which was recommended by the dive boat crew. I think they need to stick to diving. Unfortunately, the extremely overpriced food was extremely underwhelming…but everything in the FL Keys is expensive. Also, the mosquitoes were terrible in the Upper Keys due to the recent heavy rain, but survived for the few days we were there since we were prepared with natural bug repellent.
Bahia Honda State Park is located between Marathon and Big Pine Key, which means we got to drive over Seven Mile Bridge (pretty cool!). The park is the entire island and has a limited number of RV and tent campsites, so if you decide to camp here we recommend booking way in advance (at least 6 months). Lots of cool history here on the first railroad through the FL Keys for all you history buffs. The tent campsites are primitive (so no electric or water) but they had nice, clean bathroom amenities which was enough for us for a few days. We loved it here, tucked away in our own little alcove which made it quite peaceful. There was a small thunderstorm that blew through while we were here, but felt quite protected in our little campsite. No mosquitoes here thankfully, but the no-see-ums were out en mass. For non-Floridians, think tiny biting gnats. Yeah, not sure why God created these little buggers.
Snorkeling in the morning, we saw “herds” of grazing sea urchins, sponges, barracuda, and tons of baby conchs (about the size of your hand). Later in the afternoon we drove over to Big Pine Key to see if we could spot any of the local Key Deer. We went to the north end of the island to the refuge area and actually saw a few deer. They are TINY! Key Deer only grow to 55-75lbs, so no bigger than the large family dog. These miniature deer are endangered, so they are fiercely protected by local law enforcement from harassment from tourists. That night at the campsite, the resident raccoons tried to break into our food stash at the campsite, so we did not get much sleep.
Packed up early to head to Key West! It’s about a 90 min drive from Bahia Honda State Park. The special treat waiting for us on Key West was an actual bed and hot shower at the Double Tree. We stayed here for free with reward points off our credit card…loving it! We needed to do some laundry at this point in our trip too and their laundry facility was greatly appreciated. Double Tree also has a free shuttle service to different parts of Key West, so we didn’t have to drive or worry about finding parking.
Wherever you stay on vacation, always ask if your hotel offers any kind of shuttle service. It could save you a headache and a few bucks!
While on Key West, we explored the entire length of Duval Street, from the tourist traps and ship port all the way down to the southernmost point and the butterfly conservatory. Needless to say, we slept well that night after exploring all day and enjoying a hot shower. And it’s a good thing too because the next day we were heading out super early for the Dry Tortugas!
Day 6 & 7
Dry Tortugas National Park. Mark this on your bucket list right now…seriously, do it. So many great things to say about this place. Relaxing ocean views, fascinating history, breathtaking wildlife, sleeping under millions of stars. There are a few different ways you can visit Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas State Park. It is 70 miles west of Key West and the only way to get to the park is by 2.5 hours ferry boat ride…unless you charter your own private boat or seaplane of course. The ferry boat arrives at the park at 10:30am every day and doesn’t depart until 3pm.
Many people take advantage of the one day visit ($175 per person) since this gives them ample time to check out Fort Jefferson (with option of free guided tour), do some snorkeling, relax on the beach and enjoy a free lunch provided by the boat crew. Another way to check out the island is to camp ($195 per person).
Just a heads up, if you are thinking about camping on the island, it is as primitive as you can get. Think composting toilets, no running water, no electric. There is an EMT National Park Ranger who lives on the island in case anything goes wrong. If you plan on camping, you need to bring enough food and water for each person for the length of your stay.
We camped 3 days and 2 nights and brought plenty of water, food, and only the necessary gear. The rest we left in our car back on Key West. Each day that the ferry docked, we could use their bathrooms and freshwater showers to rinse off. By day 3 we were definitely feeling a little funky, but not full on hippie.
Fort Jefferson is a 19th century fort built to be used in the Civil War, but never actually saw battle. At one point the fort even served as a prison for Samuel Mudd. Don’t worry if you are a little rusty on your historical figures….he was involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The fort has undergone some repairs and renovations over the years due to hurricane damage. Overall, it was a cool experience to camp right outside a historical landmark.
We saw tons of cool sea life while snorkeling…too much to list on here so you will just have to check it out for yourself one day. A few creatures we saw included moon jellies, a huge hogfish, and the biggest monster lobster we have ever seen. Another group of snorkelers had seen it and pointed us in the right direction. The big fella was hiding out in a large metal box and at first all you could see was his antennae sticking out. Upon further inspection, we saw how big this thing was…ginormous. We saw him again the next day and estimated that just his body was 3 feet long. Not exaggerating. Since all the park’s 100 square miles of water is protected, it’s no surprise we saw some big fish! One of our favorite aspects of staying on the island was all the hermit crabs who lived there. We seriously had around 30 hermit crabs scurrying around our campsite, especially around meal time.
We may or may not have had hermit crab races while passing the time 😉
This trip was packed full of adventure on land and sea, and was the best way to celebrate our first year of marriage. We love going on these kind of trips together, no matter how big or small, near or far. Our next week-long camping trip this summer will be to the Florida Caverns and Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine in June. Should be a good opportunity for us to put our new DSLR camera to work and share the results with you!
Thanks for reading!