After months of staring at my desk calendar watching the days count down, March 24th finally arrived. We left our house at 10am and traveled to Columbus International Airport. Our flight took us from Columbus to Baltimore, Maryland. There we had a layover for nearly 2 hours. I knew it would be a while before we were able to eat again so I encouraged everyone to fill up in the food court before the next flight.
From Baltimore we landed in Fort Lauderdale, FL nearly 20 minutes early. The FLL airport was jam packed with tan-faced spring breakers heading back north. We waded the crowd and found our way to baggage claim. The nice thing about the Fort Lauderdale airport is the fact that the rental car center is located within the confines of the airport. We didn’t have to hassle with piling on a shuttle van and being whisked away to some remote rental lot to wait in line for a while longer. The Enterprise staff were quite efficient given the number of people being processed. I had rented a midsized car for the 4 of us which turned out to be a Hundai Sonata.
Be prepared for horrendous Fort Lauderdale / Miami traffic heading south on the Turnpike. Don’t worry, the tolls are collected via license plate picture and then added to your credit card 2 – 3 weeks later by the rental car company. Lucky you..
I had booked our hotel for the first night in Florida City, FL. I’ll going to say more about the Florida City area in a later post but this was a great place for us to stay the first night. FC is the last outpost on highway 1 before heading into the keys. Since we had not eaten very healthily most of the day, we stopped at a Wal-Mart near our hotel and stocked up on containers of fresh fruit, Gatorade and other snacks.
The Fairway Inn is a 3-star hotel by any standard. It’s relatively clean and functional especially for an overnight stay. Breakfast the next morning was really crowded because so many people use this hotel on their way to or from the keys. There were two waffle makers (which made the kids happy), fruit, dry cereal, powdered eggs, coffee, juice, etc. Think simple lodging when staying here. Due to it being spring break, I think we paid $110 per night. There aren’t too many choices in the Florida City / Homestead area.
The next morning we all showered, ate breakfast and repacked the car for the 3 hour drive to Key West, FL. It’s only about 122 mile to KW from here but Highway 1 crosses many bridges and alternates between 4 lane and 2 lane highway. You are forced to slow down as you enter the commercial area of each one of the keys. The views out the car window easily distract you as you drive. For those of us who don’t live near the ocean, seeing the ocean is like visiting an old fried you haven’t see in years.
We arrived in Key West around Noon. I had called the hotel ahead of time and they let us check in early. We stayed at the Best Western Key Ambassador Resort. Once again, Spring Break rates were extremely high so we only stayed one night. We dumped our suitcases, changed into our bathing suits and headed out with our snorkeling gear in tow. We drove to the southern tip of the island to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. It cost us $9 to enter the park but in Key West, beaches are in short supply.
The beach at FZT are small, coral/rocky and crowded. I highly recommend wearing water shoes and renting beach chairs if you stay any length of time. The water was a chilly 71 degrees and was stirred up too much to snorkel. When I return to Key West, I will skip FZT and just park along the street and swim at Smather’s Beach. (No entry fee)
Key West is bustling during the day. The streets are clogged with people walking, biking, riding scooters and being toured via pedal-cab. This made driving very slooow. It took us 25 minutes to drive 4 miles back to our hotel. We later discovered that most of those people are on excursions from one of the many cruise ships. Our return visit in the evening proved much less crowded. No visit to Key West would be complete without the obligatory picture with the southern most point marker. The lighting happened to be perfect when we were there. Be prepared to stand in line to get your picture. I heard that during the day, the line was 100 people deep.
We all slept well after a full day but had to be up early the next morning. The boat trip to Dry Tortugas requires you to check in at the marina by 7:30am. There are two parking garages across the street from the marina. The one directly across is $14 per day. The farther one of the two costs $19 per day. Reguarguy tip: Park in the closer of the two and save the money (unlike me). All of the boat passengers cram into an airport terminal like seating area and await instructions from the deck hand that will serve as tour guide and general information guy for the day. You could feel the energy level in the room. I was trying to keep my excitement in check but the kids could tell and said, “I can tell Dad’s in a mode.” That our family speak for Dad is super excited about visiting another National Park.
The breakfast buffet on board the ship during the ride was really well done. Herding 175 people through the line went pretty smooth. Some people slept, read, watched movies on their electronic devices or talked with other passengers. Not us, we were out on deck watching the azure colored water pass hoping to catch glimpses of sea turtles.
The Dry Tortugas Island chain was discovered in 1513 by Ponce de Leon. He noted that turtles were plentiful in the surrounding water but the island itself lacked any fresh water. It’s totally amazing to me this 14 million brick fort was built prior to the Civil War and housed 2,000 people at one time with no fresh water supply.
The boat ride was very smooth. After passing the 2 hour mark, more and more people poured outside onto the deck scanning the horizon for the first sight of land. The anticipation level was palpable. My heartbeat quickened as the lighthouse transformed from a speck to the discernible brick fort I have read so much about.
After exiting the boat, we asked a fellow passenger to take our picture with the sign that you see at the top. The quandary I had was touring the fascinating fort and learning more about its rich history versus getting right to the water to snorkel. We agreed to skip the ranger led walking tour that lasts an hour in favor of doing our own self-guided tour. Here is a small sample of the highlights.
After our self guided tour, we staked out a picnic table and dropped most of our non-essentials so we could get to the business of snorkeling. There are designated area at the north and south end of the island. We tried both and found the North to be less crowded and better quality. We saw Barricudas, Conch, sea fans, brain coral and every color fish.
The water was a little cloudy due to the fact the wind was blowing and stirring up the sand around the reef.
Lunch is served on the boat between 11am and 1pm. It’s a nice lunchmeat, fruit, soft drink and cookie option offered buffet style. We were ravenous after 2 hours of snorkeling. We snorkeled for a while longer but 2:45PM arrived quicker than I wanted it to. The boat leaves at 3pm sharp.
As the boat left the dock, I kept my gaze fixed on the turquoise water, the fort, the flag flapping in the breeze, the salt smell in my nostrils and every detail I could absorb. I may never make it back again so I wanted to emblaze these images into my mind. I felt a great sense of satisfaction that we visited such a remote park that only 73,000 people a year get to see (#52 of total park visitors).