A Little Slice of Paradise ~ The Florida Keys

The Florida Keys, land of 1700 islands…

Grassy Key is one of the northernmost islands that form the Middle Keys and is to be our home for the next week.  When we decided to spend our winter in Florida, we quickly learned that it is no easy feat to book the RV park of your choosing in the Keys without planning many months or even a year ahead of your visit.

Although wishing for a state park stay but feeling lucky to have gotten a reservation here at all, we are thinking that Grassy Key RV Resort may be the little slice of paradise we were looking for, a tiny gem.   She may be small and not as plush as some parks, but we cannot resist her charms when sitting on the dock each morning, enjoying our coffee, as the sun casts its first colors of the day across the glassy waters.  Having the ability to walk our kayak down to the dock and cast off into the Gulf is an added bonus.

Colorful chairs on the dock begging us to come sit and relax.
Colorful chairs on the dock begging us to come sit and relax.

Exercise has been high on the agenda during our Keys visit, and we are fortunate to have a section of the Overseas Heritage Trail just outside our RV park.  When completed this bike trail will connect Key Largo to Key West and will span 106 miles, crossing over 37 bridges – the “Tour to Land’s End”.  This trail parallels US 1 and currently 70 miles of this aggressive project is complete. Love, love, love seeing this type of work unfold.

South of Grassy Key is where we planned the bulk of our exploits for the week, which meant crossing over a bridge connecting the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys, the famous Seven Mile Bridge.   It is part of US 1 known as the Overseas Highway, famous for being one of the longest bridges in the world at time of construction but now sits at a paltry 54th in the world and 9th in the US.  Size is impressive in this case but celebrity boasts as well, as scenes from Mission Impossible III and James Bond’s License to Kill showcased her breadth.

A lone fisherman at the base of Seven Mile Bridge
A lone fisherman at the base of Seven Mile Bridge

After reading MonaLiza’s wonderful post on the Lower Keys, a good part of our agenda was set.  Sometimes it is best to be the follower instead of the leader. 😉

Bahia Honda State Park is a fabulous way to while away a day, and with the park’s generous admittance fee, we were able to leave for a few hours to explore further south, and come back to enjoy the sunset, at no additional cost.

Coconut palms, sea grape & turquoise waters frame a glimpse of the new Bahia Honda Bridge.
Coconut palms, sea grape & turquoise waters frame a glimpse of the new Bahia Honda Bridge.

This park boasts an award-winning beach, a historic bridge, roads to bike or walk, short trails to traverse, and snorkeling and kayaking activities.  After biking the 3.5 miles, we slowed down and took time to soak in the park’s beauty and history.

The defining landmark at Bahia Honda is the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, a reminder of the industrious dream of Henry Flagler that still rises like a phoenix from the deep waters of the channel, albeit a bit worn.

Still quite photogenic!
Still quite photogenic!

This part of Flagler’s East Coast Railway, a rail system that ran down to Key West, was completed in 1912.  Its “day in the sun” was short-lived, destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the strongest cyclone of that Atlantic hurricane season, and the most powerful to make landfall in US recorded history.

Walking up a short trail to the section of the old bridge that remains open affords you a great vista of the park and award-winning beach.

Breathtaking views from above
Breathtaking views from above

As I stayed atop the bridge admiring the views, Terry decided to continue his exploration below.  It seems the expression “right place at the right time” fit his wandering, as he was rewarded with a close-up visit from a great white heron, only found in the Florida Keys.  This white cousin to the great blue is endangered and is a bird we thought we might not see unless we traveled to the wildlife refuge established in its name.  Isn’t she a beauty?   Her light-colored legs (resembling my very own in color!) lets you know she’s a heron, not an egret.  As I take a closer look, her legs may be a bit shapelier than mine however. 😦

Great White Heron
Great White Heron

We took a break from the park and headed south to the National Key Deer Refuge, where we hoped to catch a glimpse of the petite Key deer, the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white-tailed deer, standing no taller than two feet. They are listed as endangered due to past human interaction.  Thankfully today the residents here on the 25 islands in the Lower Keys where they reside take their safety seriously.  I find it quite interesting that these little cuties can easily swim between the islands.

Too busy eating to pose or to be spooked by me either.
Too busy eating to pose or to be spooked by me either.

By now we had built up a thirst so went in search of the No Name Pub, on the tiny little island known as No Name Key.   If your eyes weren’t wide-open searching for the pub, you might blink and miss this Key, sparsely populated with only 43 homes.

Terry heading into the No Name Pub to quench his thirst!
Terry heading into the No Name Pub to quench his thirst!

What I found most interesting about the No Name was not its pub but the fact that, due to a county ordinance prohibiting it, the residents of this pint-sized island have been off the commercial power grid until recently, relying on solar or generators instead for electric needs.  After a decades-long fight, these steadfast residents won their suit and were plugged into the grid in May 2013.

Back at Bahia Honda State Park, I was praying for a lovely end to the day, by way of a spectacular sunset.  The weather was turning hazy so I had my doubts.

Will the sunset disappear behind the clouds?
Will the sunset disappear behind the clouds?

What do you think?

After a long wait, the sun made one last appearance.
After a long wait, the sun made one last appearance.

But I think the best show may have been seen not above on the bridge, but down below on the beach.

Key West here we come!

Marking Time at Markham Park and a Long Awaited Visit

Bordering the Everglades, in the city of Sunrise sits Markham County Park, a sprawling oasis where we were fortunate to stay on our trek south.  This was to be our restocking stop before heading to the Keys and we hoped it would be a location where walking and biking trails could be found. Much to our surprise and delight, it far exceeded our expectations, even though at registration we learned the annual Boy Scout Camporee, where thousands of Scouts converge, was to be that weekend at Markham.  Other than a few fireworks on their last night, we heard not a peep from any of them.

Besides camping, this 600+ acre park has something for almost everyone, to include the following:

  • Barkham at Markham (3.5 acre dog park)
  • Radio-controlled airfield (50 acres for model airplanes)
  • Personal watercraft lake (26 acres)
  • Mountain-bike trails (11 miles)
  • Disc golf course
  • Shooting range
  • New River Canal – used by fishermen, boaters and jet-skiers
  • Biking, walking and nature trails throughout the park and along the canal bordering the Everglades
  • Tennis and racquetball courts
  • Swimming pool
  • Fox Observatory (open Saturday nights)

If all of this isn’t enough, you can get your retail fix by visiting Sawgrass Mills, the largest outlet mall in the United Sates, boasting 350+ stores.  I dared to venture into this retail maze to pick up a few items during our stay in Sunrise. Shopper beware – keep directory map close at hand to navigate through and back out to the parking lot or you could be lost for days.  And if you can’t find what you are looking for here, I don’t believe it exists or you are just way too picky!

So, we got our walking and biking fix, a quiet campground to chill in, and some retail therapy to boot.   But the very best part of our stay in Sunrise, hands-down, was finally meeting up with MonaLiza and Steve of The Lowe’s RV Adventures.   After having decided that no restaurants in the area jumped out at either of us, MonaLiza extended an invitation to dine at their lovely home and I whipped up a little dark chocolate treat as  our contribution to their yummy meal.

To say I have looked forward to meeting them is an understatement and with a short window of opportunity to get together, I had my fingers crossed that nothing would prevent our paths from crossing.   Meeting them was everything I knew it would be and more.

Joy is the word that best describes this petite island girl.  MonaLiza exudes it, whether she is speaking of family, their past travels, plans for the future, or even eating.   And although Steve’s personality may be tempered somewhat from that of MonaLiza, we felt that here was someone we could visit with for hours, very warm and engaging.  We can’t thank them enough for taking the time to get together and for writing such a wonderful blog that has been like a virtual tour guide for us as we winter in Florida.  Given the roads we RVers travel, we feel certain there will be other visits with the Lowe’s in our future. 🙂

What? No Sharks! ~ Shark Valley, Everglades National Park

On what was to be our first glimpse into this intriguing land known as the Everglades, we loaded up our bikes before the light of day and were on our way to Shark Valley, an interesting name for a valley whose watery depths average 3-4 feet, with not a shark to be seen.  The Shark Valley Slough runs through this terrain, supplying much of the water to the Everglades, and feeding into the Shark River.  It was at this river where early settlers saw the fins of bull sharks, hence the name.

Shark Valley can be experienced in several ways, a two-hour tram ride, on bikes, or a leisurely stroll.  We opted to bike, allowing us to traverse the 15-mile loop at our leisure, making plenty of stops to see yet another bird species or an alligator lazing upon the canal bank.

An observation tower at mile seven provides a 360º view of nothing but Glades.

Observation tower
Observation tower

Visiting Shark Valley at first light gave us the chance to share its quiet beauty with just a few avid birding photographers (at least for a short time).   As the sun welcomed the day, the mist rose off the marshlands, the air refreshingly cool.  The bellows of unseen alligators mingled with the calls of wading birds, a lyrical yet eerie chorus.

Don't get any closer!
Don’t get any closer!

Nicknamed the “River of Grass” for the sawgrass prairies that tower six feet above the land, the Everglades stretch 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico.  Woven throughout her vast watery plains lies a symbiotic mosaic of nine distinct ecosystems.  It is home to 36 protected animal species, has the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere and boasts the most meaningful breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America.  Shark Valley is a beautiful embodiment of this montage.

Prior to visiting the Glades, my mind conjured up images of swampy bug and reptile-infested waters but the Everglades is ever so much more.   This National Park was created, not for its unique topographical features, but rather to protect a fragile ecosystem, one that has suffered greatly by human hands in our never-ending quest for development.  This region’s only source of water is the rain that falls on it and the extensive canal systems that have been put into place to support the explosive population growth in South Florida have redirected these crucial life-giving waters away from the Everglades.  The natural habitats of many species are being threatened to the point of extinction. We can only hope that the 30-year Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) put into plan in 2000 will revive a dying ecosystem and allow this natural wonder to heal.

We have just scratched the surface of the Everglades and have a future stop planned later this month in Flamingo, at the southern end of the park, where we hear the mosquitoes are as large as some of the wading birds and quite the voracious little eaters too!

Just a few pics from a pole-boat tour taken in Big Cypress National Preserve:

Rubbing Elbows with the Mega-Wealthy and a “Darling” of an Island

We are settled into the lovely Neopolitan Cove RV Resort in a city that has been called the “crown jewel” of southwest Florida, “well-known for its high-end shopping, world-class culture and sophisticated dining”.  This city has the 6th highest per capita income in America, the second highest proportion of millionaires in the US, and showcases some of the most expensive real estate around.  This is Naples, Florida and no, not where you would normally find us, rubbing elbows with the mega-wealthy, out on the town for a night of elegant dining.  My silk suits and fashionable pumps have gone the way of my stressful corporate job as have Terry’s suits.  We much prefer hiking boots, walking shoes or bouncing about on our bikes these days.

I was not going to be quieted until I knew I would be within striking distance of a day-trip to the darling of an island I had heard so much about, and Naples offered us this springboard when other locations were already booked.  Florida is snow-bird haven so if you hesitate, you lose, when it comes to making winter RV reservations.

There is no denying the striking beauty found in Naples.  We have oohed and aahed our way through the charming historic district, both on foot and bikes while on our way to the Naples Fishing Pier, one of the city’s better-known landmarks, tucked away in a residential neighborhood.  It is where we have spent much of our time, walking the white-sand beach and enjoying picnics, while waiting with the locals and tourists alike to take in the spectacular sunsets, and there have been a few of those.

Even in the lap of luxury, white-sand beaches and stunning sunsets to entice, there was nothing I wanted more than to head to Sanibel Island and breathe in the symbiotic essence of J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the most visited wildlife refuge and one of the hottest birding spots in the country, with ~ one million visitors yearly.

The story of how this sanctuary came to be is one built on passion and a reverence for the world’s natural resources.  The man, Ding Darling, was best known for what paid his bills, a career as an esteemed editorial cartoonist, appearing in 150 newspapers nationwide, which earned him two Pulitzer Prizes. But it was his passion for nature and wildlife that breathed life into this most precious of refuges.

In the early 1940’s, Ding was distressed by news that the State of Florida was ready to strike an agreement with developers to sell off over 2200 acres of Sanibel Island’s virginal mangrove wetlands.  He sprang into action and with the help of a few friends, convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lease the land, protecting this important wildlife habitat.

When Ding passed away in 1962, admirers and friends came together to form the J. N. “Ding” Darling Foundation.  Their 5-year struggle to take these leased lands, acquire them, and place them under the Federal ownership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service secured these pristine wetlands for an abundance of wildlife, our enjoyment, and secured the profound legacy of this very special man – J. N. “Ding” Darling.

Land meets sea, saltwater melds into freshwater, and temperate climate kisses tropical warmth as you step inside this wildlife preserve.  The 4-mile drive takes you through sea grass meadows, tidal flats, and mangrove forests, with birders and photographers waiting around every curve to share their knowledge and love of this precious refuge.

We arrived as the gates opened at 7am.  The quiet beauty of this place greeted us and we knew we had come at the perfect time.   We meandered along the drive, stopping when yet another unique bird made her appearance.   We then walked four miles of trails in the hopes of finding a few other hidden treasures. Neither alligators nor the resident crocodile greeted us, although we are assured of seeing plenty of both during our stay later this month in the Everglades.

I could not entice some of the birds to get within my lens’ reach, particularly the roseate spoonbill, who is on the top of my “up-close and personal” to see list.  For that treat, I urge you to check out Raven and Chickadee’s (better known as Eric and Laurel) post on Sanibel Island, or Ingrid of Live, Laugh, RV, who didn’t have to trek to Sanibel to see this “pretty in pink” beauty.

Sanibel Island is best seen on bike, sporting 22 miles of paved trails and is the ultimate way to afford stress-free travel, as the roadways onto and off the island get pretty congested.  Some of the best shelling beaches in the world can be found here at Sanibel, although we could not attest to the variety of shells we had seen in photos.   That might be because I didn’t practice my “Sanibel Stoop”, digging with a net along the shoreline for these little treasures.

Artistry on Sanibel Beach
Artistry on Sanibel Beach

From Naples we head to Midway Campground in Big Cypress National Preserve, where we venture into the swamplands of the Everglades.  I am told we may be without both cell phone and internet coverage so until we return to civilization once again, have a wonderful week! 🙂

Clearwater’s Chemistry

Clearwater, a beautiful Florida coastal city, has much to offer and has a chemistry all its own but the chemistry I speak of in this post is that which we humans find with others.

Joyful children delight visitors at cultural center.
Joyful children delight visitors at cultural center.

We have spent the past ten days in Clearwater being quite the social butterflies, so much more than normal that this little introvert is going to need some alone time to decompress (lol)!  Don’t get me wrong, our time spent here catching up with old friends and meeting new ones has been fabulous!    It seems that many of Terry’s former high-school friends have settled around the Clearwater area so there has been many a get-together, with good food and drink, thanks to the efforts of high-school chum Norm.   Our waistlines have suffered a bit from all this fun but we have been rewarded with many pleasant memories.  Good friends Doug and Donna  migrated south for a vacation to escape the frigid temps of Ohio and their daughter Kelley joined them, getting a break from the Windy City winter.  And we caught up with two couples we shared many laughs with at Amazon.

Terry's high school buds & spouses - Dawn, Rick, Terry, Jim, Doug, Donna, Joyce & Norm
Terry’s high school buds & spouses – Dawn, Rick, Terry, Jim, Doug, Donna, Joyce & Norm
Amazon buddies - Jim, Sharon, Rich, me, and Pat
Amazon buddies – Jim, Sharon, Rich, me, and Pat

For those in the RVing community, there is always a level of excitement at the prospect of meeting someone whose blog you have followed for some time. We were very pleased to have met a couple who have been on my “must meet” list for a long time.  As time passed I thought we were going to be two ships passing in the night and I was feeling a bit sad but the stars aligned properly and a brief window of opportunity presented itself.  Emails were exchanged; plans made; and we found ourselves heading over to Cortez to have lunch with John and Pam Wright of Oh, The Places They Go.  They were as delightful as I knew they would be and we walked away feeling like we were catching up with old friends instead of meeting for the first time.  With the hopes of meeting up again near DC later this year and discussion of hiking out west together, the day ended on a perfect note.

Me, Pam, and John
Me, Pam, and John
John & Terry on the beach at Anna Maria Island
John & Terry on the beach at Anna Maria Island

I had a similar experience several days earlier with another blogger friend, someone I have followed for quite a while, a brilliant landscape photographer who took time out of his busy schedule (in Clearwater on assignment) to have coffee.  What started as a quick cup of coffee ended 2.5 hours later, having covered quite a bit of territory outside the photography realm, as I promised myself I would not harass him for tips.  Ok, since photography is his passion, he generously shared a few tidbits with me, for which I am most grateful. 🙂  For those who haven’t guessed by now, I met up with none other than the talented Rick Braveheart.   If you have yet to see his work, I urge you to go here and check it out.  I promise you will not be disappointed.   As we were saying our goodbyes, I asked for a photo and a quick selfie was taken with Rick’s iPhone.  I avoid close-ups of myself at all costs so sadly Rick’s arm just wasn’t long enough for me to proudly display a photo!   You are just going to have to trust me that there was a chance meeting. 😉

All of this socializing has got me wondering about why we connect so strongly with some?  Common ground is one reason that brings us together initially, which seems to be obvious in the RVing world.  Those who have a wanderlust for travel, a love of nature, enjoy the same recreational activities; i.e. hiking, biking, kayaking, photography, seem to gravitate toward one another.  But there is that certain something that transcends the similar interests after you meet, the comfortable silence in-between the conversation when you know you have met someone special.

As many of us do, I have a diverse group of bloggers I follow.  Writers, artists, photographers, international travelers…the list goes on.   What draws us together, satisfying that desire to learn more about the person behind the computer screen, half a world away?  Since we will most likely never meet face-to-face, yet we are drawn to one another, I believe that the chemistry between others cannot be explained by science alone.  It feels more like a spiritual connection to me, familial, déjà vu, a sense you have known that person before.  Experiencing this kind of chemistry with others rejuvenates me and as I get to know them better, whether virtually or in person, I feel I discover another little piece of me. 🙂

Just a few of our fine feathered friends we saw while in Clearwater: