The (Florida) Keys to Happiness

To blog or not to blog, that is the question we are asking ourselves. Blogging about something as frivolous as travel as the world grapples with the future seems self-indulgent at best. And now, because of our incredible privilege and good fortune based on where we live, we decided to press the publish button and share anyway. So, if you need a distraction from distressing world events, please read on! What follows is part three of our trip to the US south at the end of 2021. We started working on this post before Russia invaded Ukraine. But as the first images and stories began filling our news feeds, it was easy to put our blog aside. We started reading and watching as much as possible, attempting to understand what was happening. What is happening!

It was our first trip to Florida since before the pandemic. It was also the shortest period spent in the Sunshine State since we began travelling in a van. We decided a quick trip south, that’s five weeks, in case you were wondering, would be a good idea before winter set in Ontario. Our friends, Jeanne and Jay, were letting go of state park bookings and offered to let us know when they would become available. The concept of snagging their sites was both generous and wildly optimistic. Bots were ready to jump the second the sites became available. We did, however, have a little luck and were able to book 7 of their 14 days at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. And so, all of our movements before and after centred around that seven-day booking! 

If you’re at all familiar with camping in the Sunshine State during the high season, November through April, you will know that booking eleven months ahead is best. And if you tend to fly by the seat of your pants, finding campsites is challenging. Nevertheless, Lady Luck was on our side. We spent the first night at one of our favourite state parks, Tomoka, not far from the race car capital of Florida, Daytona. We love the wild vegetation and the privacy the campsites offer. Continuing south, we stopped at another favourite, Jonathan Dickinson, precisely because of its proximity to Juno Beach, a long glorious stretch of white sand on the Atlantic Ocean. Free parking, an open invitation to off-leash dogs, outdoor showers, big surf, what’s not to love. Having rented Airbnbs in the area in 2017 and 2018, we know the area well. 

From here, our goal was to camp in places we had not previously camped. So, on American Thanksgiving Day, we drove into the Everglades National Park and camped at Long Pine Key. We celebrated US Thanksgiving with the most American meal we could think of making, burritos under a canopy of big slash pines which dwarfed the Hymer. We slept with all the doors and windows open to the coolish (hot) air and fell asleep looking up into the star-lit dome above. Because of the prevalence of alligators in the Everglades, dogs are not allowed on the trails. That meant we had to take turns walking while the other of us stayed back at the van with Duff. It was too hot and unsafe to leave him behind in a closed van. You might be surprised to learn that the highest point in the Everglades is a shocking three feet at Rock Reef Pass. If not, did you know that the US Army created a missile launch site here during the Cold War? Back then, the unlucky soldiers stationed here lived without anything close to resembling relief from sun, heat, mosquitoes or even safe drinking water. Come to think of it, not much has changed. Good thing we brought our home on wheels and drinking water.

Luck is one thing but friends looking out for you is even better. Our friend Jeanne let us know about a cancellation at Curry Hammock State Park just north of Marathon in the Middle Keys (Mile Marker 56, Crawl Key). We traded two of our booked nights in Key Largo for a campsite overlooking the ocean in what we decided was the Four Seasons of state park campgrounds. Within moments of arrival, we warned staff that they’d have to remove us kicking and screaming because we knew we would not want to leave when our two days were up. Not only did we thoroughly enjoy this five-star paradise, but we were able to do so in the company of our friends Jeanne and Jay from Sparta, Wisconsin. We met Jeanne and Jay in Venice Beach in 2018, then at a couple more parks that winter and again the following winter in St. Augustine. We met some new friends at this park too. We finally met a couple of Insta-friends in person, Susan and Jamie, from Canada, with whom we share mutual friends, and a great couple named Dottie and Jim from Maine who spends winters in Florida tent camping. They move to a different park every two weeks. On our second night at Curry Hammock, we gathered with our friends, new and old, to enjoy a beachside bonfire which was the highlight of our trip south. We had such a great time that getting food poisoning didn’t affect the memory adversely in the least.

We arrived at John Pennekamp in Key Largo (Mile Marker 102), suffering from lack of sleep and nausea to an incredible welcome party hosted by noseeums. So beginning a five-night stay missing both our friends and the five-star oceanfront campsite of our dreams was not ideal. Things improved on day two. We felt better; the sun continued to shine, and we did some laundry. We also went on our first glass-bottom boat tour. Local citizens’ and groups’ efforts to protect the environment led to President Eisenhower designating the federally protected area, The Key Largo Coral Reef Preserve, in 1960. Later it was renamed John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park after the newspaper editor who fought to protect the reef. It is the only living coral reef in the Continental United States. As you might imagine, climate change and human interference have taken a toll on the reef. We learned much about the reef, preservation efforts and existing threats from the informative group who staffed the boat.

Staying in a park for five days offers the opportunity to explore not just the park but the surrounding area deeply. 

Between Mile Markers 90 and 72, Upper Matecumbe Key

On the third day, we explored Islamorada, named by Spanish explorers for the purple sunsets and purple bougainvillea. There, on the purple island, we enjoyed a delicious lunch from a Mexican food truck in a lovely garden setting. Afterward, we visited two craft breweries, a coffee roaster, wandered a neighbourhood where we discovered a location for the Netflix series, Bloodline, and visited the Hurricane Memorial. 

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park (Mile Marker 84) is further south. The Florida East Coast Railroad purchased this land and harvested the stone, really fossilized coral, to build Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad in the early 1900s. The Labour Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed forty-two miles of the railroad and killed 300 World War I vets who helped build it. The quarry operated and produced keystone until the 1960s. You can still see examples of this stone when visiting some of the grandest estates turned museums in Florida, such as John Deering’s former winter home, Vizcaya, in Miami. 

If you know anything about us and travel, you know there is one thing that always trumps all of the above excursions. People! We met two couples who quickly became friends. Sylvie and Hervé and their dog Billy are from Montréal. We met because they also travel in a converted Ram Promaster van which they spent the pandemic converting themselves. Ingrid and Wladek are fellow Ontarians from Burlington. They travel in luxury, towing a 25-foot long Airstream. We saw few Canadian license plates in the five weeks we travelled in the US, which could be why we attracted one another like magpies. Meeting these folks was a turning point in this trip. For us, people are the necessary ingredient when it comes to travel.

We left the Keys via quiet backroads, which we highly recommend. We set our navigation for the Wynwood Walls Design District of Miami. Miami has become a customary and much-needed urban stop each time we wander the Sunshine State. We wanted to revisit Zak the Baker and buy something which had eluded us since leaving Canada, good bread. We also bought a few other delicious and sweet confections, half of which we paid for but didn’t receive. Sadly we didn’t notice until we were halfway to the Gulf of Mexico. Every time we visit Wynwood, the murals are new, the gentrification more advanced. A reminder that everything changes. And that we continue to embrace change regardless of how difficult or frightening it may be. While wandering the streets, we discovered Bonci’s newest location. We first tasted Bonci pizza (thanks to Anthony Bourdain!) when we visited Rome in 2013 with our 16-year-old niece, Kenzie and her boyfriend, Jack. We’ve dreamt of that pizza ever since. Yes, it’s still good!

With bellies full and eyes and minds catalogued with inspiring visuals and messages, we left bustling Miami bound for the wilds of Big Cypress National Preserve. Stay tuned for the final installment of this adventure and our journey northbound towards winter.