Crystal River-Summer 2021 1.0

Finally! Got to plan a short trip to Crystal River. We knew it might be a dicey trip as there was a tropical storm/depression/wave/thunderstorm (really, seems like every cloud has a name – just saying) in the Gulf but all indications let us believe it would go further north than our spot. Leaving that morning, this was our forecast.

Nothing is ever easy…………especially with a boat. Eric had been washing and waxing the boat earlier in the week. The night prior to leaving he discovered the boat trailer had……………….a flat tire – of course it did. One more thing that had to be done to get ready – exchange the tire for his spare. Nope, the spare was fine, not flat. Bet you were expecting another tale. Ha!

Going to our home-away-from-home spot, King’s Bay Lodge.

Surprisingly, we were assigned to a room we had never stayed in – #2. Even better, as we were driving over that morning, we got a call the room was ready immediately, mid-morning.

Interior was fairly typical of other rooms, same style but each individual owner gets to pick their specific furniture. Would I stay on the room again – sure. Didn’t necessarily love the room’s location in the overall scheme of things. It was fairly close to the road and just about as far away from the boat as you could get.

Take a look at the first photo in this blog and see that phrase “River Flood Warning”? Yep, we noticed. Getting to the boat at the KBL dock required wading – yikes.

Naturally we had to stop at Pete’s Pier……..

………and saw more flooding. This is the walkway from the parking lot to the store & bait shop.

We did notice they’ve done some work on the place, repairing recent hurricane damage. Guess the gas pumps haven’t made the list for replacement – yet. The photo doesn’t show, but 2 feet to the right, the boardwalk is under 5″ of water.

The trip was for naught. HOWEVER, loved being on the water…….

The weather was adversely affecting the fishing so after time on the water, we headed in for an afternoon snack. Found a new place – St. John’s Tavern – very nice.

Perfect for an afternoon snack was a beer, a pretzel and a cup of chili – loaded with onions and jalapenos (yes, that was Eric’s selection).

We didn’t want to fill up too much. After watching the sun set, Eric was cooking steaks on the grill. Man! It was nice just sitting, relaxing, drinking a beer and watching the sun go down. 🙂

The radar looked MUCH better the next morning. This is doable. Should be plenty of time for a little fishing and a little scalloping.

Scalloping – LOVE to eat them (raw) but don’t love searching for them in the water. Eric did pretty well. That will be a post in itself, scalloping. We (and by that I mean Eric) caught enough seafood for our dinner: one trout and quite a few scallops.

Once again he used the grill for the fish, leaving the skin on when cooking.

Put that together with some dirty rice and a salad (tomatoes from our home garden!) and you have a mighty tasty meal.

Our second day of fishing was MUCH better – code for I caught some fish – with the photo below showing our haul. In addition to these fish Eric find plenty of scallops for the two of us. I’m holding that photo for the next post

Three grunts, left, sand perch in the middle, a grunt, porgie and blue runner on the right with a seatrout at the bottom.

Our last day of fishing yielded one of my favorite fish – spanish mackarel – the bigger fish at the bottom of the photo. We also caught this small porgie which gave us two small fillets for another meal.

Why do I r.e.a.l.l.y like mackarel…………….sushi! Add in an avocado, tuna, edamame, bok choy, followed by the mack and you have an awesome meal.

Having the sushi was a great end to several days on the water on Florida’s Gulf coast. Next up is a post dedicated to scalloping.


A short trip to the tropics!

Oh, how I wish I could be traveling. It’s just part of my DNA. My grandma used to say if I heard keys jingling, I was waiting for them in the car. Didn’t matter the destination I was always ready to GO.

Okay, time to get back to the tropics and this post……………

I’ve always been a fan of the tropical fruit Mamey Sapote. I was introduced to the fruit back in the day when I was taking college kids to south Florida. Almost everyone was from another state and had no idea of the diversity of Florida’s agriculture. Three days in a 15 passenger van – me driving – with 8-12 college kids was always an exciting time. Oh the stories I could tell, but I digress. Let’s just say it was a good thing that smart phones were not readily available back then.

Prounounced mah-may sah-poh-tay, the fruit is found on branches of (usually) large evergreen trees. It is a fairly big-sized fruit, 4-6″ in diameter, about the size of a large mango.

These plants are native to Mexico and Central America but are found growing in South Florida due to the climate and established market for these fruits. The skin is tough and sand-papery with the fruit inside having texture of a baked sweet potato. It is not well known world-wide as their seeds are short-lived and not conducive to travel.

They can flower summer, fall and winter depending upon the variety grown. While that sounds kind of vague, the upside is that provides year-round harvest. From flowering to mature fruit takes 13-24 months. Grafted trees can bear fruit in 3-5 years while plants grown from seed takes closer to 7 years before bearing mature fruit. A common method of judging ripeness and maturity depends upon a small scratch on the skin surface. If the pulp inside is orange-red in color you’re good to go. Mature trees can bear 200-500 fruit per year. Below you can see the flesh and seed of the fruit.

We can locally find mamey in Lotte Market in Orlando which caters to the Asian population in Central Florida. The taste is very unique and is sometimes compared to that of apricot or raspberry. I’ve also read the flavor is a mix of sweet potato, pumpkin, honey, prune, peach, apricot, canteloupe, cherry and almond. Is there other flavor left as a descriptor? Ha! Here’s a recent purchase.

I’ve eaten this fruit in a smoothie or shake and that was the method this day. My chosen ingredients for this recipe were honey, cream, (homemade) vanilla extract with the mamey flesh at the bottom of the photo along with some skyr (icelandic yogurt).

Add in a few cherries before filling the blender with ice………..

………….and this luscious treat is formed. It’s almost, almost too pretty to drink. It was gone in a New York minute – just saying.

The mamey sapote is an interesting and dare I say exciting fruit to add in your pantry.

Wanted to throw in this last photo found on the internet from some tropical world market before closing the post. – loved it.

So. If you find this in one of your markets, go for it!!! Surprise, delight and amaze your friends with this unique tropical fruit. See which of the above fruit descriptors land on your taste buds.


Girls’ Sunday ventures

I subscribed to Natural Life’s Daily Chirp and really enjoy their graphic art. This one seemed fitting for today’s post.

Eric’s been working a few days at a local ’boutique’ grocery store which required a few changes in our normal Sunday plans. He’s only working 1-2 days weekly and invariably Sunday is one of those days. Therefore…………the girls were on their own!

What do do? Where to go? What kind of plans should we make? Most important – where should we eat! Occasionally, there was another factor for our eating destination. Depending upon his shift, he could meet us afterwards – mid-afternoon – so that somewhat dictated locale and direction. We did good with our selections. Let’s check out where we went.

First Sunday we texted a popular Winter Garden restaurant located in their historic downtown to see if we could get a table for 2 before noon at The Chef’s Table. Got it!

We haven’t taken Adrienne here yet and it has been a LONG time since I visited – both good reasons to stop here. We started with some liquid refreshment. Florida lager for me and a blood mary for her.

I tried to find some history about this place and it was tough. It has won numerous awards, both locally and more broadly and was considered a gourmet dining experience. The owner, Laurie Tarter was doing ‘farm to table’ cuisine way earlier than most. She originally opened with 9 tables and 30 seats. That has expanded into two concepts (prix fixe menu & small plates).

We started with two small plates for sharing: duck fat fries and smoked fish dip (of course) 🙂

Next up was a salmon plate and ham benedict on a biscuit. Never had a benedict served like that, but it was mighty tasty.

A different Sunday we went to The Porch located in Winter Park.

Started with a red Sangria and these pretzel bites. LOVED the pretzel bites and come to think of it, REALLY liked the Sangria. Total win.

So I had an awesome and authentic pressed Cuban sandwich in Miami earlier this summer. The one I ordered here was no slouch. I would come back here in a heartbeat – just for this sandwich. Okay, it doesn’t look like much in my photo but it was mighty tasty. Oops – a repeat phrase, but it’s the truth so the phrase stays in the post.

Checking out their website before coming, these things were top of mind and there was no doubt they would be ordered. Beignet Poppers: homemade apple cinnamon puffs topped with powdered sugar and served with Angry Orchard Cider-salted caramel sauce. Wow. A lot of words for a dessert. They were yummy. But let’s be honest………..they were fritters, not really beignets.

Wanted to throw in a few photos from another Sunday stop – The Glass Knife. A guy at work visited and could not stop talking about the place. Even arriving mid-morning we had a 30-minute wait.

Going inside I can see why – its small. We ended up in their outside covered patio which was bearable, even during July in Orlando. White sangria definitely helped get over the wait.

Small menu for their Sunday brunch but I ate every single crumb of this pretzel roll, roasted turkey club sandwich with aged cheddar cheese, applewood smoked bacon, vine-ripe tomatoes, argula, peppercorn aioli and a tangy honey mustard. Man! Everybody likes to include lots and lots of descriptors for their menu items. The photo may not look very exciting, but nothing was left on the plate.

I’ll close with another interesting food stop in Orlando – Se7en Bites. They specialize in nostalgic southern comfort foods with a modern twist.

Chef owner Trina Gregory-Propst has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives along with other tv shows. Her restaurant currently resides in the area in Orlando defined as the ‘MILK’ district for the last 5 years. Wasn’t sure what to really expect. There was a line outside by this door when we drove up.

Next stop inside was the counter to order your food.

Being this was ‘brunch’ Adrienne ordered a chicken salad sandwich which she said was fantastic.

I got another ‘benedict’ with the egg sitting on top of another biscuit with smoked bacon and a fried green tomato. More yumminess.

We both ordered sangria with our choices. I think being served in a plastic cup didn’t really do the drink any justice.

Something the restaurant is known for is their bakery within the building.

Had to vouch for their goods and brought home some sweets – the cherry pie was awesome. I would go back to this place just for the pie – just saying.

Probably wondering what is the ‘MILK’ district. One cow and twenty acres of land was all it took for T.G. Lee and his wife to open a dairy farm east of Orlando in 1925. This dairy still exists and anchors the 10th Main Street America district in Orlando with their national headquarters.

That’s it for this post. The girls are still exploring dining options throughout Central Florida and sometimes we let Eric come along. 🙂


Florida Keys – Post #7 the final one

This is it, the last post of our time in the Keys. Good thing! As I’m writing this Hurricane and/or Tropical Storm Elsa was expected to pass over the Keys. Let’s wrap this trip up.

First two things were new to me!

One ask before leaving home was a request was to jet-ski. Another one of those things on my ‘bucket list’. I don’t want to buy one, but just do it at least once. Possibly repeat the experience if I like it.

Pre-planning found several businesses that would rent them but one in particular talked about an eco-tour – sold. Reservations were booked several days in advance, now we just had to wait.

The previous tour was soon in sight and started landing the jet-skis. Once paperwork was completed, we suited up and got on our designated machine.

REALLY hard to take photos while on the jet-skis – just saying. After some free-form traveling, we followed the guide through mangrove islands. BTW – that’s Adrienne in front of us.

And now Adrienne was behind us as we entered other mangrove islands.

As you can see Eric is driving and I’m sitting in the back. That’s wasn’t exactly the original plan. Their website indicated you would get off the jet-ski about halfway through, stopping at a sandy beach to see more of ‘natural’ Florida. At that point I was going to drive. Yep – that didn’t happen. I might be a big disgruntled. Yes, we will be repeating this, probably on a lake.

Several said that it wasn’t as easy as you would think. Part of our route was through boat channels and water was choppy. We also had two of the jet-skis take a ‘short-cut’ and got hung up – sorry Adrienne. In her defense, she was the last jet-ski and was following the one in front of her. Bummer.

Here’s the second new thing we did………….

Driving down earlier in the week we saw one of Hard Rocks’ most unusual hotels & casinos. Tried several times during the week to get a good deal on a room, but no luck.

We did the next best thing…………walked through the casino and got a drink.

Eric did a little gambling with the slot machines. The little (and I do mean little) money he won was quickly lost.

Driving around the Miami Beach area, saw this young lady along-side three lanes of traffic. Really? Not sure I would have ridden a bike in the bike lane, let alone in-line skates.

Even in the south of Florida can’t get away from some Disney magic. Actually, this ship was the Disney Wonder.

We drove a few blocks along the beach and WOW saw all the cruise ships anchored off shore. BTW – the area flagged in the sand………..a sea turtle nest (read the preious post).

We had three interesting meals after leaving the Keys: a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner.

N.Y. Deli ‘A little Taste of New York in South Florida!’

LOVED my granola French toast with fruit. We’ve got to add granola the next time we make it at home – the extra crunch took it over the top.

Eric went a little more (NY Deli) traditional and enjoyed his selection of lox and eggs with a hash browns.

We had to bring a few bagels home with us. 🙂 Plain and Everything were the bagels of choice.

Poke House – rated the best in South Florida.

We both enjoyed our poke bowls and was a total change of food for this vacation. Mine (left) had grilled chicken, advocado and small hunks of fresh pineapple – delicious!

The Tipsy Boar Gastropub – yep that was our evening meal.

Our table top was tiny and we ordered a LOT of small plates to share. Let’s see if I can remember them all (top left, clockwise) Fried duck wings, lamb croquettes, drinks, guacamole (loved the plantains for dipping – who knew) and goat-cheese stuffed dates wrapped in bacon.

And if that wasn’t enough……………..dessert. Apple cobbler on the left and bread pudding on the right.

I’m going to close with this photo of the white sandy beach, the softly blowing palms, blue skies, white fluffy clouds and blue water – that’s why we live in Florida.


Florida Keys – Post #6 Food & Drink

Food & Drink – the building blocks for any vacation, especially for the Dardens!

Let’s start with Breakfast. Googling top breakfast stops in the FL Keys was not as plentiful as we originally thought. Darn good thing research was done prior to the trip or the possibility existed for some ‘Hangriness’ (hungry + angry).

First up Harriette’s Restaurant, Key Largo.

Established in 1982 it was originally a small two bedroom, one bath family home. As you can see on their menu front…………

……….they are the ‘Home of the World Famous Key Lime Muffin!’. Although we didn’t get one and quite frankly I never saw anyone order them – but hey! we were here for breakfast, maybe it’s something you get later. They had an extensive menus of muffins, 24 different flavors.

We were pretty boring ordering basic breakfast food: French toast, eggs w/hash and hash browns and bacon.

Then came the biscuit – huge! We guessed 5″ x 5″. One biscuit could have fed all of us.

Another breakfast stop was Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, also in Key Largo.

While the building was built in 1947, it wasn’t until one of the owners decided to use his mother’s recipes (Mrs. Mac) that it became the restaurant it is today in 1976. It is considered the longest running restaurant in Key Largo.

I went a little off-script getting a bacon, egg & tomato sandwich on pita bread, while Eric went for eggs, hash, hash browns and a biscuit.

You can see a theme – license plates are everywhere. It is considered a ‘locals’ favorite and famous world-wide’. There were license plates from across the planet.

Lunch was generally skipped and we held out for dinner. Now I’m not saying we didn’t have some snacks along the way (we had waaaaaaaay too much fish dip – just saying).

Sometimes in the keys, you get tired of seafood – hard to believe – I know. We wanted something a bit different mid-week. C&C Wood Fired Eats. It was a.w.e.s.o.m.e. It’s the only wood-fired oven in the Keys.

The founders have been locals for 30 years and they wanted to create a local hangout. They did with an upscale twist. The outside did nothing to prepare you once stepping inside. And by that I mean, why were we walking into this building. I wish we had a place like this closer to home. Our waitress brought our liquid refreshment fairly quickly while letting us peruse the menu.

We started with a cheese & meat plate and this is one of my worst photos – sorry about that. 😦 It came with three cheeses, two dried meats, accompanying munchies and the BEST bread. You had the ability to pick your edible selections for your board.

Then came the pizza – OMG. Crispy, smoky, authentically Italian, cheesy and then topped with delicious bits of tomato.

This is one place we couldn’t resist dessert: locally-made salted caramel ice cream. While I’m not a fan of salted caramel, this could change my mind. Adrienne had her own bowl and Eric and I shared one – we wanted more.

Eric had a restaurant request – The Fish House Restaurant & Seafood Market.

It is one of the establishments that purchase from local commercial fishermen and fillets all fish on premises.

Signs were posted both outside and inside for available fish. Select your fish, decide how you want it cooked and if you want a sauce or topping.

No fish dip, but smoked fish – great change by the way and much needed. The smokiness of the fish hunks with the mustardy & mayo dipping sauce was perfect for me.

My selection of yellow-tail snapper fillet is buried under the most awesome sauce – black & bleu – which was great for dipping my fries. The black & bleu sauce was cream sauce consisting of blue cheese, garlic, blackening seasoning and white wine. Man! Eric needs to recreate that at home!

Eric enjoyed his fried yellow-tail snapper – one of the few places you could get the whole fish. Not my thing. There wasn’t a lot of meat left by the time he was done.

No dessert – there wasn’t room.

Going to end with a few Keys brewery stops. Let’s start with the Florida Keys Brewing Co.

They had a great selection of beers and by rotating through seasonal and barrel-aged beers, they ultimately brew over 25 different ones.

The board at the top mentions the beer garden. We drank our beers outside and it was a great way to relax before or after eating while your food was digesting. They had little, shaded nooks with plenty of air movement for everyone to enjoy the Florida weather.

The last brewery we stopped at was Islamorada Beer Company.

Opened in 2014 as the only brewery and distillery in the Florida Keys.

Beers were tasty and we found another outside beer garden to enjoy. Yep, we ordered more fish dip.

Their webside said the following statement:

Islamorada Beer Company was founded on Islamorada Island to make quality, local, craft beer with the drinkability that complements the owner’s lifestyle.

I like it!

Right before leaving, Eric had one more sticker (Oyster City Brewing Company) to place. It’s a ‘thing’ to put brewery stickers in other breweries and most places have a designated space for this.

Last Florida Keys post is coming. We did a few things totally new.


Florida Keys – Post #5 Turtles

Let me prepare you………….this post is going to talk and look at turtles in very diverse ways.

Let’s start with the Turtle Hospital.

Doing some internet research before leaving home, I came across this facility, having daily tours. After our few challenges with finding hotel accommodations, reservations became a priority (for anything) so we pre-booked this tour – glad we did, otherwise we would have missed out.

Before going I knew more education was needed to get me grounded. Here’s a few fun facts:

  • they have inhabited the oceans over 200 million years.
  • adults are believed to live longer than 75 years.
  • they can sail/swim through oceans up to 25 mph.
  • turtles spend most of their time in the ocean while migrating thousands of miles in their lifetime.

It was the first state-certified veterinary hospital in the world for sea turtles, opening in 1986. The site was originally a hotel that has now been turned into the turtle hospital. Those working on site or on internships can stay in the small (former) hotel rooms. The Turtle Hospital has been equipped with up-to-date medical equipment, donated by hospitals and doctors.

But it hasn’t all been easy.

Let’s get started. The 90 minute tour includes an educational presentation………..talking about the seven species.

After a short walk by their operating rooms, we headed outside for a walking tour behind the scenes. We first came upon these large tanks and these turtles.

And this guy who came up for a few breaths of air. OR, maybe he was checking us out!

An example of their work was this turtle. There was damage to his shell and subsequent buoyancy. He’s being rehabbed with these weights (green blobs) on his shell.

They have four major goals at the Turtle Hospital.

  • Rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtles before returning them to the wild.
  • Educate the public.
  • Conduct and assist research with a variety of universities and research facilities.
  • Work and support Environmental legislation for sea turtles.

We walked to the back of their property to this large sea pool, kind of an in between transition space before being released.

And also got the opportunity to feed the turtles.

Since this was a hospital they didn’t really talk about ‘nesting’ so here you go.

The females come to shore after mating and most amazingly go relative to where she was hatched years ago. Her hind flippers dig a hole in the sand, where she deposits 100-150 soft, rubbery ping-pong ball shaped eggs. The female turtle goes back into the water and may nest up to 6 times in a season.

The eggs are left to hatch on their own. After about two months, all the clutch of eggs hatch within 2-5 days and then burst through the sand and scamper towards the ocean with the sun reflecting the water as a beacon. They are in a frenzy to get into the water and a safer haven as nearby animals and birds are quick to pick up their presence. Only 1 in 1000 hatchlings make it to adulthood.

Before leaving the Turtle Hospital we found these on the nearby docks – iguanas.

A bit further up the Keys, we honored a pre-vacation request from Eric – lunch at the Green Turtle Inn.

In 1947 Sid & Roxie Siderious purchased a roadside establishment along the roadway to Key West. It has been designated as a heritage monument.

It gained wide-spread reputation for great food, a comfortable night’s rest and a location to eat something harvested from the local waters – turtles.

Hurricane Wilma (2005, at one time a category 5 hurricane) created the latest metamorphosis and while still casual dining, it has a more sophisticated and innovative menu serving modern Keys classics and southern staples. On a side note it one of the few Islamorada restaurants that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Started with smoked fish dip – of course.

I had an a.w.e.s.o.m.e mahi fish sandwich and fries. Hard to see the fish, but it was cooked to perfection. I forgo eating the bun and stuck with the fish, bacon and tomato. Fries were mighty tasty also. I had plenty to share.

No surprise that Eric ordered the turtle chowder but got a beet salad to round out his meal.

Since the ‘theme’ of this post is about turtles, let’s end on a note for their preservation. What can we do?


Florida Keys – Post #4 State Parks

Lest you think all we’re doing is eating and drinking………..we’ve taken some time to visit several Florida State Parks which are definitely out of our normal driving realm being in the keys. Let me preface with saying there are more State Parks than what I’m blogging about, but we only squeezed in four during our time in the Florida Keys.

First up – Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.

It is the southernmost Civil War fortress with construction begun in 1845. The fort stayed on active duty status through 1947 with the facility encompassing 87 acres.

The fort is named after our 12th president Zachary Taylor, shortly after his sudden death in office.

The fort was used at the outset of the U.S. Civil War with orders to prevent the fort from falling into Confederate hands. It was heavily used again during the 1898 Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Upon some construction work, a discovery was made. Turned out, it was the location of the largest cache of Civil War era cannons. At the time it was easier to use them for ‘fill’ than to haul them away.

It was definitely hot the day we visited and w.i.n.d.y.

Another line of defense was a moat. The photo above is looking towards the Gulf with the photo below faced the city.

There was also a sprawling beach of sand & pebbles and nearby breakwaters teeming with tropical fish. Next visit, we’re definitely going to spend a few hours relaxing here. It looked awesome and attendance was limited with the capacity of the state park, so it didn’t appear it would get overrun. Basically the park ranger (and said parking spots) limited the number of guests coming in. The beach area is the sandy, curvy area on the right of the photo below.

Second park visited was Bahia Honda State Park – a few miles above Key West in the lower keys and covers 524 acres.

Bahia Honda means deep bay in Spanish and it is close to the end of the 7 mile bridge. The channel at the island’s west end is one of the deepest natural channels in the Keys. Look at the beautiful blue turquoise waters. BTW this is looking west.

While the visitor center was closed, this sand sculpture was outside of the building. Definitely took someone a lot of time. Both sides were very detailed.

Part of the park was the railroad bridge topped with the original oversees highway. Obviously damage has occurred through the years and it is no longer traversed.

The state park was founded in 1961 and covers virtually all of the uninhabited island.

BUT………I saw people at the top of this bridge trail and HAD to make the climb.

Seeing this at the top……………………not really surprised since there was a huge gap seen in an earlier photo above.

Being at the top of the bridge trail was also a chance to get a great shot of the beach area.

Digging deeper via the internet about this state park, I also found some interesting info about a rare butterfly, called Miami Blue. I read nothing about it while at the park. It was thought extinct as a result of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but was discovered in this park in 1999. Research along with propagation of the species is ongoing to spread the butterfly.

Going further up the keys we stopped at…………..

John Pennenkamp Coral Reef State Park. This is the first underwater park in the US, established in 1963. The park is 25 miles in length and extends three miles into the Atlantic ocean.

Original plans in the 1930s was to designate the reef off Key Largo for protected statue and incorporate it into the National Everglades Park. Opposition from various sources stopped the plan that included the Key Largo reefs although the national Everglades Park was established. It wasn’t until the 1950s that citizens became concerned (again) about the destruction (I read the reefs were being hammered, chiseled and even dynamited for coral souvenirs) that another push was made to save the reefs. The man which would eventually be the assistant editor of the Miami Herald, John Pennenkamp, teamed up with others for the fight. In 1960 the reef was designated as federally controlled and protected area. When land and access to US 1 was acquired in 1963, it became a State Park.

Everyone here is planning on snorkeling and/or taking their glass bottom boat to see the reefs. Not me. I had a very bad experience in the 1980s and to this day get panicky if I put on a snorkel and mask. We drove around the park and found a quiet lagoon and this sign. We worry about alligators in central Florida, now add in the American crocodile down south.

They have this fabulous 30K gallon saltwater aquarium and six smaller aquariums along with a natural history exhibit about the park’s biological communities and ecosystems. A theater shows nature films and videos. And it was closed……….for renovations. Really? Really! Could that have been down months ago when no one was traveling – just saying. Yep, not much time was spent in this park when we visited.

The last state park we visited was the Dagney Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. Yikes! That was a mouthful. Parking is outside of the entrance.

It was established in 1982 when land was acquired by Florida Conversation and Recreational Lands Program. The park occupies about a third of the island of Key Largo, covering over 2400+ acres. It is home to 84 protected species of plants and animals. It’s the largest track of the tropical hardwood hammock in the US. Two animal species are only found on Key Largo: Key Largo Woodrat and the Key Largo Cotton Mouse.

The name honors a local environmental activist who from the 1970s – 90s led several environmental organizations that fought to stop development that was planned – Port Bougainville – a planned community of 15 hotels and 2000+ condos. Google it – I did and went down a rabbit hole reading more and more articles about it.

Okay, now I need to admit something. Until I read the plaque after getting home……….never knew this was named after a female. Oops.

As seen in the first photos above, parking is all outside of the archway and the park is pretty much self-service – no park rangers stationed here. It is about the nature trails – approximately 6 miles with several loops involved. There were several signs like this posted along the trail, but this one stuck out – Poisonwood. Yep, it’s a pretty bad tree. People have been known to go to the hospital from a rash after rain water dripped off the tree. People also been affected by burning smoke from this tree. It does have some good qualities as noted below – food source.

We walked down the main pathway and found this arbor area. Can I say this park looked deserted, felt deserted and was so empty, kind of felt creepy.

I was able to grab this quick photo of our walk. It was a nice wide, paved trail. I’ll also admit……….we didn’t walk very far. This day the keys were hot, muggy and with all of the trees, not much air movement. We reached the arbor area and said ‘We’re good’.

We did several r.e.a.l.l.y cool things later in the week and they will be in a post – very soon.


Florida Keys – Post #3

Quick shot from our balcony before spending the day at Key West. While I didn’t exactly see the sunrise, I enjoyed some time watching the water and wildlife while others were getting ready.

Breakfast was pre-determined, by me at least. I had read about Blue Heaven and their reviews and was looking forward to some awesome pancakes. Spoiler alert – they were totally awesome. 🙂

The restaurant has been in existence since 1992 with the building being at least 100 years old and the first incarnation had them selling alcohol and spirts to Key Westers. The property has hosted cock-fighting, gambling and boxing.

The second floor has been a dance hall, bordello, art gallery and a playhouse. Although not used for the breakfast crowd I wandered around and got a few shots of the upstairs.

We had a 30 minute wait for our table and the ‘waiting area’ is across the street in an off-shoot of their business ‘Andy’s Cabana’. Adrienne and Eric started with a bloody mary. They both said their drink was a healthy pour of spirits. Another one of those and they would have had a different view of Key West. I ordered the coffee in the center.

Pretty much to the minute, we were called. Looked like one of their blue angels had a bloody mary……….

Their restaurant business began with (1) no money down, (2) some gardening tools and (3) mom’s church cookbook. The husband and wife team planned and executed a lunch soup counter. They eventually expanded into breakfast and lured one of their brothers to initiate a dinner menu. The rest they say is history.

We had awesome weather the morning we visited. The experience would have been very different if seated inside.

And YES, I ordered the pancakes along with a scrambled egg and their locally made sausage.

Eric was a copycat and ordered the pancakes with blueberries. He pretended to eat healthy by getting granola w/fruit and yogurt.

We had several visitors running around the area. Eric doesn’t look too thrilled with their company.

Which now kind of gives a reason for finding this grill outside of the restaurant.

I couldn’t resist this shot. Just part of the decor……….

We did a L.O.T of walking during our day in Key West. Ultimately we tracked 10 miles walking this day. One advantage versus driving is you really get the flavor of the area seeing the houses and neighborhoods.

Mid-afternoon we needed a break and snacks.

This building is one of Key West’s most impressive and historic – the birthplace of Pan American World Airways. The first tickets were sold out of this building in 1927.

Pan Am was the principal and largest international air carrier in US from 1927 – 1991, when they collapsed. Originally their business plan involved air mail and passengers serving between Key West and Havana, Cuba. The airline was credited with shaping international airlines with their widespread use of jet aircraft, jumbo jets and a computerized reservation systems.

It was a pretty cool place and they get decent marks for their menu. Like most places in Key West, majority of seating was outside.

We had some brews and snacks.

A bavarian pretzel, deviled eggs and fried jalapenos kept us going.

Adrienne had a few requests. She wanted to see the end of US 1, mile marker 0.

Which is also the beginning of US 1, mile marker 0.

Another stop to whet our whistle. This brewery opened in 2015 and was the largest brewery in the Florida keys.

One more request from Adrienne was to see the ‘Southernmost point of the continental USA, 90 miles to Cuba’. It was established as a bonefide tourist attraction in 1983 by the city. It is 18′ above sea level. Google says it is one of the most visited and photographed attractions in the US. Possibly that’s true – we had to wait in a line just to get a photo. Man – have these people be at Disney? The line was organized and self-owned – and it worked.

It was soooooo hot as we were waiting in line (really? really!) we needed something to cool off. Luckily there was this place: Southernmost Bar.

To close out our day in Key West dinner was at Conch Republic Seafood Company.

Another fish dip started our meal. By the end of the week, I can see us possibly getting tired of ordering fish dip – but not just yet.

Another bowl of conch chowder (Eric) – to quote him ‘It was the best he had during the trip’.

Eric’s meal was yellowtail snapper with garlic mashed potatoes and steamed veggies.

And what did I get…………………..yep, grilled chicken caesar salad. I’d had enough seafood for awhile. I needed something a bit lighter and greener. It was a wise choice. While the grilled chicken was a bit dry…………bottles of hot sauce on the table remedied that situation.

There’s only one dessert to order when you’re in Key West – key lime pie. I really didn’t need more food, but who can resist this pie? At least we shared it amongst the three of us which took away some of the guilt – but not the over-stuffed feeling.

The phrase ‘Conch Republic’ was seen throughout Key West. Conch Republic – what is that? In 1982 Key Westers protested the US Border Patrol roadblock and inspection point on US 1, prior to driving into the keys. Vehicles were being stopped and searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants. When their complaints went unanswered they declared their Independence day on April 23, 1982 when they seceded and created the micro-nation for the city of Key West. Its turned into a tourism booster and one more quirky Key West thing.

I opened the post with a sun-rising photo and let me close with the sun setting while sitting on our balcony.


Florida Keys – Post #2

LOTS of places to stay in the keys, especially if you want to spend LOTS of your dollars. Many of our prior vacations we rented through VRBO or AirBNB but not this time. We’re moving around, not staying in one place so we had to go the more traditional route. BTW – if you haven’t tried that route, do it at least once. I think I like it better than ‘tradition’. First selection was SugarLoaf Lodge. It’s 17 miles north of Key West.

After checking in parking was along the backside of their one building, housing 31 rooms. It had been owned and operated by the Good family for almost 4 decades.

Front side faced the water, gulfside.

Rooms were nothing fancy, but adequate. We weren’t planning on spending any time in the room, except to sleep.

Unfortunately their restaurant and tiki bar was closed on Sundays & Mondays. Morning coffee was pretty basic, but available!

Dropped the bags and headed further south for our first night in Key West. Eric found a really cool place – Hogfish Bar & Grill. VERY low key and local, no AC, all seating was open-air, but covered – thank goodness – with lots of fans. Yep, also considered a tiki bar.

They’re not kidding about finding this place. it was hard to find even with knowing about it and (trying) to follow google maps You drive past a trailer park neighborhood that looked fairly rough before coming up to an unpretencious building with parking roadside under overgrown bushes & trees.

Shots of their menu are below.

Waiting for our fish dip to arrive we had some local brews.

And then came the smoked fish dip – absolutely yummy, it had a slight kick which we all enjoyed.

Eric and I both ordered the hogfish & chip basket. G.R.E.A.T. choice. Asked Eric why I had never seen hogfish available elsewhere and he said it’s a reef fish, not commonly served in seafood restaurants. If I ever see it again on a menu – I’m in!

He started with a bowl of conch chowder before the fish & chips arrived.

This sign always makes me chuckle – even if I’ve seen something similar before. Keeping my fingers crossed that no hurricane starts up even though we are in ‘the season’.

Somebody had waaaaaay too much time on their hands. Not sure if the truck runs, but would definitely be scary if it did. This was sitting across from the bar.

Time to go SOUTH! We headed for Mallory Square.

This is where everything starts and the phrase ‘See you at sunset’ embodies the spirit and history of Key West. It started in the late 1960s with local acts trying to make a few extra bucks and gathering happens about two hours before sunset – 8:24 pm when we visited. Basically, its a large area where everyone gathers couples and families alike. There’s the potential to see magicians, jugglers, psychics, local musicians, artists and food vendors. LOVED this vendor. If it could have gotten a video it would be much, much, much more impactful.

The guy was serving coconut water, straight from the coconut. He handled his machete like a pro and (being somewhat theatrical) had the coconut ready for drinking in 4 strokes of his tool.

Here’s my shot when we first arrived.

And here’s Adrienne’s photo (with her I-phone 11 – Eric?).

And that’s why we came.


Headed towards the Florida keys!

KEY WEST OR BUST!!!! We figured it had been at least 20+ years since we’ve been in the keys and the time was right to head back to the southern toe of the state.

It’s definitely a haul to get down to the very last key.

It all starts with the Florida turnpike. Since we were on the turnpike for such a long time, I got interested in its history. Man! You could do an entire blog post just on the turnpike!

Sooooooo, here we go.

The years following WWII Florida experienced unprecedented growth in population and tourism along with a revitalized citrus industry after a hard devastating freeze. These things combined for a reason to build a better road to connect parts of Florida, top to bottom. There was an individual considered the ‘father of the turnpike’ (Thomas B. Manuel) and was chairman of the turnpike from 1955 – 1961. His belief and dedication to this mission won over many of the current-day detractors and the idea of a turnpike was hotly debated in the legislature. Ultimately he was able to convince all but 4 to pass legislation for the road.

It was opened in stages from 1957 to 1964 going through eleven Florida counties. Total length was 309 miles stretching from Miami Gardens to Wildwood. Construction began July 4, 1955 and they use the slogan ‘The Less Stressway’. It was built on a northwest-southeast axis.

You might notice in the photo above another nickname for the toll road – Ronald Reagan Turnpike. In 1998 the legisture decided “he was one of America’s most beloved presidents and a true world leader”.

We couldn’t believe we saw this paper ticket. We got off for a brief time and had to grab this before getting back on the turnpike. We’re accustomed to transponders or coins. In the 1990s congestion was so bad in Miami and the Orlando metropolitan area they both went to coin. Now we’re (central Florida) strictly electronic either by transponder or license plate photo.

Research says the turnpike averages 6.7 cents per mile. Service stations (8) are about 45 miles apart and we were stuck in the middle when we needed to jump off thus picking up the paper ticket. Okay – I’m done.

Lunch was on our agenda and we googled top resturants in/near Homestead, FL prior to leaving home. Havana Spice was highly rated.

The cuban bread looks so simple yet is so tasty. We didn’t really need the plantain chips, but, we did. There was nothing left on the plate OR in the basket either.

What else could I order but a cubano sandwich. Easily the best cuban sandwich I’ve had. What made it special??? The roasted pork sandwiched in with the ham, cuban bread and cheese – and then pressed. There was a garlicky aoli that was part of the sandwich – yum.

Eric also had pork, but in a different way. He had more of an entre’ with black beans, rice and fried plantains. Both of us had waaaaaaay too much food. If we had been home, there definitely would have been leftovers for another meal.

Don’t think I mentioned the decor – very kitschy. We were lucky enough to sit outside under cover from any of the short-lived passing rain showers.

The car pictured above is part of their charm. There were a number of older cars parked around to give you the ‘Havana’ feel.

This guy watched us eat our delicious lunch.

Dessert?!? This was something we had already planned while still at home. We headed to Robert is Here. It was a short 5 minute drive from Havana Spice.

It is a family institution that has (seriously) grown and expanded since the last time we were in this area – 20+ years ago. Have I mentioned that already? Truly, it was a corner fruit stand where all the locals picked up their fresh groceries and the fruit stand made shakes out of the excess fruit. They still have plenty of fruit and veggies. Here’s a small sampling.

Interesting story about the name ‘Robert is Here’. Google it. And yes, Robert is still working, he’s the one in the dark green shirt.

So you’ve seen a few shots of the fruits, now take a short look at their products. They have row after row after shelf after shelf with their own bottled product. The shot below is a small snippet of their items.

Along the front of the market, they had buckets and buckets of sunflowers. Loved them!

Let’s get to the REAL reason we came – the shakes…….actually we all ended up with smoothies! Ha! The smoothies were sweet enough. I can’t image how sweet the shake would have been. It was a process as you can see on the sign.

Walking to the front of the market, there was a l.o.n.g. line, just to order your desired drinks. I wandered off and heard someone say ‘that’s didn’t take long’. I’m sure that Eric was ready to turn around and keep driving but he had come to the same conclusion just watching the line. We ultimately ended up with three different flavors. Mine was the bright orange cup in the center (mamey sapote). Eric’s was the creamy cup on the left (guanabana) with Adrienne getting a mango smoothie.

Back on the road, we continued south. We expected traffic and we got it. 😦 Luckily we had stretches where 4 lanes existed and we could pick up the pace. Eventually we got to the source of this back-up ……….gawkers checking out a group of boaters on the water. Really people?

Regardless, we made it to our hotel with plenty of time to drop off bags and still head all the way to the bottom before sunset – next post!