Florida: The Keys & Everglades

After a couple of days of poor weather in Miami, we made our way south to The Keys.

We rented a car at Miami airport; Key Largo was our first stop. The weather that day was once again pretty rubbish, but luckily it stayed dry in the morning which allowed us to go around the John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park. We walked around the mangrove trees on a couple of very short walks, and after enjoyed a picnic lunch by the water.

The area there wasn’t the beautiful blue and clear water you’d expect from The Keys, but it was a pleasant enough stop to break up the drive.

For our stay in The Keys we decided to stay in Marathon, a small town about half way between Key West and the mainland. This was due to its central location, as well as price. Key West prices were pretty crazy, so we preferred to stay a little out. Not an issue with a car.

Our accommodation was a nice studio with a view over the 7 mile bridge. It was spacious and clean, but with a ridiculous price tag for what it was (nearly $200AUD a night, that exchange rate is killing us!). One of our most expensive hotels in the US.

By the time we arrived, rain started to fall pretty heavily so we decided to let it go for the day, grab some dinner and relax for the rest of the afternoon/evening instead.

The next morning, the sun was finally out! Woohoo! When you are at a beach destination and it’s raining it can get pretty sad. Luckily it was sunny on the day we had planned to go to Key West.

Key West was about a 1 hour drive south from where we based ourselves, and is the final stop on The Keys (making it the most south-eastern point in continental USA).

The drive was painless, and we arrived at Fort Zachary Beach for a little dip.

Fort Zachary Beach is another small park where you can swim, have a picnic, and enjoy some relaxing time. Annoyingly though, you need to pay an entrance fee for each park that you visit in The Keys. The first one we visited was $9 for the both of us, this one was $7. This made our usual ‘drive somewhere, check out the area, go check somewhere else’ way of traveling impossible as we just couldn’t pay for dozens of parks separately. You kind of need to choose which ones you want to visit ahead of time.

This park was lovely, with a beautiful beach and warm ocean. Great to get some sun and time at the beach after Miami let us down.

After a couple of hours chilling and a nice picnic, we decided to go for a little stroll in to the town.

Key West was cool. Duval Street, Mallory Square and the Bahama Village are well worth a visit.

The areas are filled with bars, restaurants and beautiful colorful houses. We felt a bit of a New Orleans vibe there, but instead of the French/Spanish background, here the city was obviously Cuban.

We also made our way to check out the mile 0 sign of the highway 1, where the road starts and goes all the way north to Canada (this must be a really cool road trip!).

Down here we were also closer to Cuba than the mainland (only 90 miles away from Cuba!). They used to have ferry’s and planes going direct from Key West to Havana, but unfortunately they don’t run anymore. It would have been cool to keep going to Cuba from there if politics didn’t obstruct.

After our little stroll, we returned back to Fort Zachary Beach to enjoy the last bit of sun before returning to our accommodation.

The next day, after unsuccessfully reaching out to a company to organise a snorkeling tour (you’d think sending 3 emails would do the trick, but apparently not!), we opted for another beach day instead at Sombrero Beach, a short 10min ride from our place.

The beach itself was quite nice, though the back of the beach was pretty much a building site with construction workers, trucks and noise. We read somewhere they’re still repairing after hurricane Dorian.

We went as far from the work as possible, and found a quieter area where we enjoyed more sunshine for the day.

We then headed to our new accommodation in Homestead, located about half way between Marathon and Fort Lauderdale. We stayed there so that we would be near the Everglades, close to our airboat tour that we’d planned for the following day.

Only 3 companies run this kind of tour, and they are all located in the northern side of the Everglades, near Miami. We chose to go with Gator Park.

You can’t pre-book a time for your tour. You simply need to get there and wait for the next tour to go. It seemed to be running every 20 minutes.

The airboats are quite big and can accommodate about 25-30 people. We were lucky enough to see 2 alligators straight after leaving the dock! The boat is very low and you are practically level with the water, so when an alligator swims next to the boat, it’s very scary as you feel it could jump on the boat any minute.

There are over 1 million alligators in Florida alone. They live in the Everglades, but also around many inhabited places in this state. You are a lot less likely to see a crocodile in the region though, as there are only around 1500. You’d be very unlucky, as apparently crocs are much more dangerous in comparison.

After the slow start, the boat started getting some speed up. The boat went really fast at times, often going sideways! The way airboats glide over the water is pretty cool. We got a little wet, but it was great fun.

As we went during the wet season, the water levels were very high in the area. We got lucky with timing as well, as end of September is a bit cooler than in summer so you can spot a lot more alligators (they hide in the water when it gets too hot, to cool down). In total we saw 6 of them, including a baby! We had an amazing time.

The tour finished with a presentation by the park staff, who brought out an alligator and a crocodile and proceeded to highlight the differences in appearance and nature. It was very informative.

We loved doing this tour. It was an awesome experience for relatively little cost (AUD $60 for the both of us).

After the tour we made our way to Fort Lauderdale for the rest of the day, where we enjoyed some further beach time before heading to our last accommodation in the US. Fort Lauderdale was a cool city. It seems to be a small version of Miami, with its beach and boardwalk. Pretty cool for a day or two.

#TheDexplorers

TIPS

  • If you can’t afford the price tag of Key West accommodation, staying in Marathon is a good compromise. You have nice beaches nearby and aren’t too far from Key West to travel there on a day trip.
  • If you are in Miami or around for a few days, the airboat tour is a must do. It was an awesome experience. Gator Park was great. You can find the details here.
  • In The Keys, choose your stops wisely as most of the parks are ticketed and you need to pay an entrance fee.

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