While Miamians live where everyone else vacations, residents like to sneak away occasionally for a change of scenery. When feeling the itch to get out of Dodge without dealing with TSA lines, head to The Florida Keysâ€”a mere one to four hours away, depending how far down the A1A youâ€™re willing to venture. Visitors in the know are also keen on this diverting locale, often extending work trips a few days to dip their toes in the white sand and unplug. Take a look at a few of the top Florida Keys destinations that are worth the drive.
Time-Tested: The Moorings Village Spa, Islamorada. This cottage at The Moorings says â€œvacation hideaway.â€
Three decades ago, windsurfing champion Hubert Baudoin traveled to The Keys for a competition and stayed. In his 20s at the time, Baudoin purchased The Moorings in 1988 and has since expanded it into the internationally celebrated, 18-acre luxury property it is today. The site of big-name fashion shoots (Chanel, for example) with some of the worldâ€™s leading supermodels, The Moorings is just as renowned for its postcard-worthy white-sand beaches (as seen on the hit Netflix show Bloodline) and cottages that transport you to a state of mind worlds away from city life. The impeccably manicured property comprises 18 one- to three-bedroom cottages and villas, including the two-story Blue Charlotte House, a 6,500-square-foot stand-alone home that gives travelers a true taste of private-island living. Donâ€™t forget to pop into world-famous Pierreâ€™s for the freshest catch of the day. 123 Beach Road, Islamorada, 305-664- 4708
Group Outing: Cheeca Lodge Spa, Islamorada. Thereâ€™s not much guests canâ€™t do at Cheeca Lodge Spa.
Planning a weekend gathering for friends? Just two hours south of South Beach, the famed Cheeca Lodge Spa, one of Islamoradaâ€™s most popular destinations, works for laid-back and active vacationers alike. Simply relax, or dive into snorkeling, visit a spa, fish (Islamorada is frequently dubbed the â€œsport-fishing capital of the worldâ€), satisfy any appetite at dinner, golf on a Jack Nicklausâ€“designed course, play tennis, hang at a private beach, stretch at yoga classes, or go boating. For the kids, thereâ€™s an all-day camp full of activities (which really ends up being a win for parents). 81801 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-4651
Private Escape: Little Palm Island Resort Spa, Little Torch Key. At the aptly named Little Palm Island Resort Spa, guests can land in style aboard a seaplane.
Arrive by yacht (the propertyâ€™s marina can accommodate up to 120-footers) or seaplane at this resort, which consistently lands on multiple international â€œBestâ€ lists. With indoor-outdoor tropical suites, thatched-roof bungalows peppering the beach perimeter, and unobstructed views of rolling ocean waves with nary a soul in sight, you wonâ€™t believe youâ€™re still in the States. A trip here is purely about the utmost in indulgences, from outdoor mud baths and hydrotherapy to catch-and-cook romantic dinners and secluded swims. Leave the kidsâ€”and the wireless connectionâ€”at home. 28500 Overseas Hwy., Little Torch Key, 305-872-2524
New Digs: The Marker Waterfront Resort, Key West
Located at the seaport in the heart of Key Westâ€™s Old Town, The Marker is the areaâ€™s first new luxury build in close to 20 years. Miamians will feel at home in the propertyâ€™s familiar island-contemporary designs, or enjoy an evening swim under the stars in one of three saltwater pools. If you fancy enjoying the island like a local, wander a few steps from the hotel to Key Westâ€™s most famous eateries, bars, and nightlife, which line Duval and William Streets, and cultural attractions like the Key West Garden Club, the Key West Lighthouse, and the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. Book The Captainâ€™s Quarters for unparalleled views from your wraparound deck overlooking the neighboring harbor. 200 William St., Key West, 305-501-5193
Located 90 miles from Cuba at the southern most tip of the United States, Key West offers unparalleled access to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, it’s about a 14-block walk from one shore to anotherâ€”a short journey that allows visitors and locals alike to take advantage of everything the seas have to offer. From snorkeling to beach lounging, fishing to wine cruises, Key West serves up an aquatic A-game you can’t find anywhere else.
1. Beach -Â Key West is approximately two miles wide and four miles long, so a beach is nearly always in sight. We’re fans of Higgs Beach (pictured above), which is conveniently located next to the pier and AIDS memorial. Smathers Beach, Key West’s longest beach that runs along the Atlantic Ocean on the southern shore of the island, is a prime location for sandy acitivites like volleyball and suntanning, and of course, swimming. Head to Fort Zachary Taylor Beach to see the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean meet. It’s also a great spot to rent a chair and recline, chat with fellow beach crawlers (it can get busy during high season), or grab a bite from the snack shack.
2. Suba Diving -Â The entire 120-mile stretch of the Florida Keys contains the United Statesâ€™ only living coral barrier reef. Just five miles offshore and you can plunge under water and explore this aquatic wonderland. Not only will you experience a pristine ocean view, but trained instructors will point out coral-encrusted ship wrecks, natural coral formations, and the many fish and plantlife found in these treasured waters. Itâ€™s no wonder some of the most well-known underwater photographers make their way to Key West.Â
3. Swim With Dolphins – Arguably the ocean’s sweetest mammel are readily accessible in Key West. You can opt to dolphin watch on one of the manyboat toursÂ (where you can also snorkel to discover starfish, rays, and sea turtles) or take a short trip toward Key Largo and actuallyswim with the friendly fish. One of the best ways to familarize yourself with Key West waters is to get to know the creatures who live there.
4. Fishing -Â In the 1930s, author Ernest Hemingway could often be found trolling the Key West seas aboard his 38-foot fishing boat looking for tuna, permit, and tarponâ€”all native fish. Embody Hemingwayâ€™s nautical spirit and hit the water; various charters and guides will take you through the best locations, including flats fishing and deep sea fishing. Reconnect with your fisherman roots or discover for the first time one of the most relaxing pastimes in Key West.
5. Sunset Wine Cruise -Â Ranked as one of the top two sunset sails in North America by Coastal Living magazine, Wind and Wine Sunset Sail boards on the Westin Marina and swiftly takes passangers off the mainland and onto the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. A friendly crew of three serves guests a variety of domestic and international wines, along with a wide-selection of cheese, from classsic brie to dill-infused goat cheese. During the two hours aboard, you’ll be able to talk to fellow passangers while soaking in the setting Key West sun as it reflects off the sea. Ocean, vino, and sunsetâ€”the perfect close to a day in the water.
Corals are turning chalk white and dying on reefs stretching from the Florida Keys to Palm Beach County, in what experts call one of the worst episodes in two decades of coral bleaching.
Under stress from unusually warm water, the corals are expelling the tiny bits of algae that give them their fiery streaks of red, orange or green color and that provide the coral with nutrition.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the most bleaching has been seen in the Florida Keys, Miami-Dade County and Broward County, although some reports have also come in from Palm Beach County.
Brian Walker, research scientist at Nova Southeastern University’s Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, said the bleaching appears to be particularly severe from Biscayne National Park to Hillsboro Inlet in northern Broward County. Among the hardest-hit species are pillar corals, maze corals, star corals, and staghorn corals.
These include corals off Broward and Miami-Dade counties that had survived 200 or 300 years. Scientists have found that some of these old corals have lost nearly half of their living tissue.
“These corals are very important because they have proven to be quite resilient, withstanding everything over the last couple hundred years,” Walker said. “Understanding how these resilient corals respond to present environmental conditions informs us of how the environment has changed. The fact that they are dying now after living hundreds of years, may indicate that their surroundings are much more stressful than ever before.”
The corals form the only major reef tract in the continental United States and support fishing, diving and snorkeling. Reporting the bleached and dead corals are scientists from government agencies and universities, as well as volunteer divers, in a system coordinated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection..
The sick corals off the South Florida coast are part of a worldwide bleaching outbreak that includes the coral reefs of Hawaii and other Pacific islands and is projected to reach Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia. The last global coral bleaching event occurred in 1997 and 1998, when 15 to 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs were lost, DEP said in a statement.
Asked to describe what he’s seen, Walker said, “Many white colonies, some diseased colonies, and many corals that have recently died. These are identifiable by exposed fresh skeleton without any tissue or bare colonies covered with a layer of turf algae. Some sites appear to have over 50 percent of the colonies affected.”
Scientists say it will be difficult for South Florida’s reefs to make up for the loss of coral. Although coral larvae settle out of the water onto rocks and found new colonies, this doesn’t happen to a sufficient extent to make up for the losses, Miller said.
“It’s a bad situation for the corals out there right now,” she said.
Bleaching episodes have increased in duration and severity in the past few decades, according to National Marine Fisheries Service. Miller said climate change is likely to be a long-term factor in increasing the number of bleaching episodes, although it would be difficult to tie any particular episode to global warming.
This year, for example, there is a strong El NiÃ±o, the periodic warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean along the equator, she said, which is a factor in the bleaching taking place across the globe.
You already know about great fishing in the Florida Keys; but are you aware of the winged riches there? The National Audubon Society has just recognized Floridaâ€™s Everglades and Biscayne Bay as â€œGlobally Significant Important Bird Areas,â€ measured by a set of peer-reviewed, scientific criteria.
In the occasional freshwater ponds, tidal lagoons and in the undisturbed Florida Bay by Everglades National Park, resident and migrating warblers, vireos, tanagers and thrushes share the habitat with white-crowned pigeons, year-round tidal waders and spring-nesting sea birds. And thatâ€™s just for starters.
Living only an hour north of the Keys, I often escape for a weekday or two to enjoy nature both under and above the water. The Gulf and the Atlantic â€” and the mangroves between â€” are magnets for birds as well as sea life. And to pull it together, the 12-county, 116-site Great Florida Birding Trail opened in 2006 and was renamed the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trailin 2011.
The South Florida segment of the trail includes a dozen Keys native habitat stops such as the National Key Deer Refuge, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, Long Key State Park and Dry Tortugas National Park, a remote birdersâ€™ paradise located 70 miles off Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. (For trail information, visit here.)
In the Lower Keys, the National Key Deer Refugeâ€˜s 9,000-plus acres of mangrove forests, freshwater and salt marsh wetlands, pine rockland forests and tropical hardwood hammocks are an annual stopping point for thousands of migratory birds, and a winter home to many North American bird species. The refuge lies off U.S. Highway 1 at mile marker (MM) 30.5 bayside on Big Pine Key.
At Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, located on Route 905 at MM 106 bayside, birders can view breeding populations of black-whiskered vireos as well as migrating species such as warblers, white-crowned pigeons, terns, noddies, boobies and other unique Keys shorebirds and songbirds. Rare sightings of the LaSagraâ€™s Flycatcher, thick-billed vireo and Zenaida dove also have been reported.
At Long Key State Parkat MM 67.5, you can explore mangrove swamp, mudflat, rockland hammock, beach and coastal berm habitats. At low tide, the Roseate Spoonbill may be spotted dipping its round-tipped bill into the shallows searching for a meal, joined by reddish and other egrets.
Spearfishermen who bag at least 10 lionfish a day during the two-day lobster mini-season next month will be entitled to an extra lobster if state fishery managers approve a new pilot program this week.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) board will vote on a proposal when it meets Thursday in Sarasota that wouldÂ allow divers that harvest 10Â or more lionfish a day to take one lobster over the bag limit during the two-day sport season, which is July 29 and 30.Â In the Keys, recreational divers are entitled to six lobsters a day.
A diver would only be allowed to possess a single lobster above theÂ bag limit per day, regardless of how many lionfish greater than 10 they harvested, FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.
â€œIf you get 50 lionfish, you are not entitled to five extra lobsters,â€ Nalley said.
In addition, the lionfish must be harvested prior to taking the extra lobster, and divers would be required to retain their lionfish while on the water to verify their qualification for the additional lobster, Nalley said.
FWC staff has been pushing lionfish eradication programs for the past five years and trying to reach more groups interested in killing lionfish. Currently, there is no size limit, bag limit or closed season for lionfish.
â€œThis is the group (spearfishermen) most closely tied to harvesting fish or lobster,â€ Nalley said.
One of the biggest supporters of lionfish eradication efforts has concerns about the FWC proposal.
â€œThere are other ways to do it without further impacting the lobster fishery,â€ said Lad Akins, who oversees special projects for the Key Largo-based REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation). â€œWe need rules that are based on sound science. Lobster regulations are in place for a good reason. I understand what they are trying to do, but we donâ€™t need to give up an extra lobster to accomplish the goal.â€
REEF has been on the forefront of lionfish research and eradication efforts. The group was one of the first to hold lionfish removal derbies and has worked closely in the past several years with the FWC and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on eradication.
Akins instead proposed waiving the lobster endorsement tag fee for people who hunt or harvest a certain number of lionfish, he said.
In the past five years, the FWC has launched several projects to reduce regulations for individuals who want to harvest lionfish.Â Recreational lionfish harvesters are no longer required to have a recreational fishing license when using a pole spear, Hawaiian sling, hand-held net, or any other spearing device designed and marketed exclusively for lionfish.
Measures have also been put in place to minimize the potential for new introductions of lionfish into Florida waters. FWC staff worked with the Division of Aquaculture at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to coordinate implementation of a prohibition on breeding lionfish and cultivating their eggs or larvae in captivity. Measures have also been added to limit the possibility of new introductions by prohibiting the import of any lionfish into the state of Florida.
The FWC created a Lionfish Outreach Team with the goal of educating the public about lionfish and the invasive speciesâ€™ impact on the marine ecosystem.
FWC has also designed a new program, Reef Rangers, which is comparable to the Adopt-A-Highway ProgramÂ offered by the Florida Department of Transportation where volunteers commit to litter removal from their section of the highway. Similarly, participants in the Reef Rangers program pledge to protect their local reefs against the lionfish invasion and conduct lionfish removals at regularly scheduled intervals on reefs of their choice. Divers can sign up for the Reef Rangers program online at ReefRangers.com or at a lionfish event using the programâ€™s traveling sign-up kiosks.
The National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, meaning hoopla, poo-bahs, and crowds. IfÂ 2014 saw a record 292.8 million park visitors, just imagine the chaos that a centennial year will bring. Even this year, parks are expecting record numbers.
But you’ll only get hounded byÂ the hoi polloi if you don’t know where to go.Â Start early with these adventures in ten classicâ€”and should-be classicâ€”parks. We’re sharing our favorite ways to get an adrenaline rush, theÂ hidden spots where you won’t be stepping on other tourists’ Tevas-clad feet, and the finest nearby eats.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Kenai is a 669,983-acre rampart of rock, crevasses, and impenetrable ice on the Gulf of Alaska shore, but donâ€™t be intimidatedâ€”thatâ€™s why youâ€™re going. The park is a two-and-a-half-hour drive south of Anchorage and just ten miles from the harbor town of Seward. One of the best hikes is at Exit Glacier: a steep four miles alongside the edge of the icy slope, the trail yields impressive views onto the large Harding Icefield.
But the park is best seen by boat. Take an overnight sea-kayak tour withÂ Kayak Adventures Worldwide, which includes a three-hour boat ride to 22-mile-long fjord Aialik Bay, where youâ€™ll see whales, sea otters, sea lions, and puffins ($699). Youâ€™ll paddle along the mile-wide face of Aialik Glacier, then head two miles south to camp near Pedersen Glacierâ€™s lagoon, with a maze of icebergs to explore. For a softer landing, the 16 cabins atÂ Kenai Fjords Glacier LodgeÂ are also on a beach near Pedersen Lagoon and are the only lodging within the parkâ€™s boundaries ($725, meals included).
Trail Mix: Head toÂ ChinooksÂ in Seward for cod hauled off the boat that morning. Gateway Activity: Seward is spectacular in its own right, set at the end of glacially carved Resurrection Bay. Reserve one of three waterfront cabins atÂ Angels RestÂ ($239).
Olympic National Park, Washington
The massive Elwha Dam was removed two years ago to restore the riverâ€™s salmon population. Paddlers are cheering, too, since this opened up an uninterrupted float through Olympicâ€™s former Lake Aldwell to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Go with Olympic Raft and Kayak, which is launching ten-mile trips through the lower dam site, including three miles of Class IIIâ€“IV water ($54). A raft is the perfect vantage point from which to spot eagles and other wildlife and to view the riverâ€™s restoration up close.
Also, the Boulder Creek Trailhead re-opened last fall. (It was closed for three years during demolition of a second dam.) Now you can hike 2.5 miles to Olympic Hot Springs, a handful of clothing-optional, rock-ringed pools in the fir and hemlock forest along Boulder Creek. For a longer trek, the Hoh River Trail on the parkâ€™s west end climbs 17.4 miles from the Hoh rainforest to alpine wildflowers at Glacier Meadows. There youâ€™ll find the starting point to ascend 7,980-foot Mount Olympus. The choicest digs are the Roosevelt Cottages at 100-year-old Lake Crescent Lodge ($279), located just 30 minutes from the gateway town of Port Angeles.
Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Dry season is the time to visit the Everglades. From October to April, the rain subsides, mosquitoes disappear, and wildlife is easier to spot. Alligator sightings are all but guaranteed on a day paddle of the Turner River, and manatee and sea turtle encounters are common. Arrange a shuttle and kayak rental fromÂ Everglades AdventuresÂ for the 11-mile paddle from the put-in at Highway 41 back to the parkâ€™s Gulf Coast visitor center in Everglades City ($75). The paddling starts in a freshwater cypress swamp and ends in brackish mangroves, with open marshland and plenty of wildlife in between. Youâ€™ll likely have it to yourself on a weekday. Experienced paddlers can take longer expeditions through the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile maze of sloughs and mangroves, or along the coastal 10,000 Islands route.
Youâ€™ll camp on beaches or on chickees, docklike platforms built over the water. Grab a backcountry camping permit at theÂ visitor centerÂ (from $12), and be sure to pack fresh waterâ€”thereâ€™s none along the route. The paddle from Everglades City to Flamingo, at the parkâ€™s southernmost point, takes about a week, and Everglades Adventures will shuttle your car to Flamingo for $420. When youâ€™ve made it back to Everglades City, recuperate by the pool or on the screened porch of theÂ Ivey House innÂ ($99).
Everyone should visit Yellowstoneâ€™s trippy geysers and hot pools at least once. To avoid bus tours and traffic jams, go in the fall, when the park is mostly empty and the elk are horny and bugling. If you canâ€™t pull that off, there are ways to navigate the more crowded times. Jeremy Schmidt, author of National Geographicâ€™s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks Road Guide, recommends Lone Star Geyser, a remote and less visited thermal area that erupts every three hours; itâ€™s located two miles from Grand Loop Road by foot or bicycle. Get farther off the beaten path by hiking from the Heart Lake trailhead, near Grant Village, alongside hot-springs-studded Witch Creek, and pitch a tent on the shore of Heart Lake (backcountry permit, $25). Itâ€™s a 23-mile route, with an optional side excursion to 10,308-foot Mount Sheridan for views of the Absarokas to the east and the jagged Tetons to the south.
Prefer to paddle? Access the Shoshone Lake Geyser Basin via sea kayak on a two-night, 30-mile expedition through the Lewis and Shoshone Lakes. Rent boats or sign up for a guided trip withÂ Rendezvous River SportsÂ in Jackson Hole (from $720). To see Old Faithfulâ€™s otherworldly gallery of thermal pools, stay at theÂ Old Faithful Inn, which was constructed almost entirely from local lodgepole pine logs ($108).
Trail Mix: Head south to Jacksonâ€™sÂ Snake River GrillÂ for the steak tartare pizza with garlic aioli and capers. Gateway Activity:Â The fishing on the Snake River, just outside Jackson, is some of the best youâ€™ll find anywhere. Third-generation guideÂ Boots AllenÂ will ensure that you make the most of it (from $475).
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
The majority of visitors to Black Canyon never make it past the rim, but itâ€™s hard to blame them: the routes descending the 2,000-foot gorge to the churning whitewater of the Gunnison River follow steep, unmaintained gullies, some of which require technical-climbing skills. For those who do go deeper, the rewards are great: world-class trout fishing, limitless rock climbing, and stunning views of the granite walls on either side.
To keep it mellow, hike the two-mile Oak Flat Trail, which dips 400 feet into the gorge on a maintained section, or walk the three-quarters of a mile out to Warner Point, the parkâ€™s highest spot. If you go all the way down, the best camping is on the riverside beach at the bottom of the Warner Route, a six-hour round-trip scramble from Warner Point. Youâ€™ll need a free backcountry permit even for a day trip, which can be picked up at the South Rim visitor center or North Rim ranger station. To scale one of the Blackâ€™s legendarily long and airy routesâ€”like six-pitch, 5.9 Maiden Voyageâ€”book a day with Irwin Guides (from $265).
Trail Mix: Head to Camp Robber, 24 minutes from the park in Montrose, and fill up on sirloin or chile relleno, the house speciality. Gateway Activity: Recuperate after your canyon adventure at Gunnison River Farms, a 1,200-acre spread near Austin with six renovated cabins, farm-to-table dining, and an on-site fly shop. Fish the farmâ€™s riverfront, or just take a cooling plunge from the six-foot diving platform into the pond ($85).
Yosemite National Park, California
With its iconic rock domes, 200-foot sequoias, and 2,000-foot waterfalls plunging over sheer granite walls, Yosemite may be the most spectacular spot in the lower 48. Which is why it gets so crowded in summer. Our recommendation? Go early (April) or late (October) in the season, and avoid weekends. But go, by all means. Our favorite hikes include the seven-mile round-trip, 2,500-vertical-foot trail to the top of Yosemite Falls; itâ€™s steep, but the views are sensational. For an overnight, cross the valley and backpack the 14-mile Pohono Trail from the Tunnel View parking lot on Wawona Road. Youâ€™ll get views of the valley and El Capitan from Dewey Point. Camp at Bridalveil Creek ($5 per person) and detour to the rim for views of Bridalveil Fall. The hike ends at Glacier Point, where you can catch a shuttle to the valley or hike down via the eight-mile Panorama Trail to see Liberty Cap and Half Dome in the distance.
To get vertical, rope up with Yosemite Mountaineering School, which offers group lessons on classic crags (from $148). Or book climbing instruction and scale long routes like Nutcrackerâ€”a five-pitch, 5.8 climbâ€”or 16-pitch Royal Arches, one of the finest in the world. Stay at the Ahwahnee, an art deco masterpiece with 30-foot ceilings in the dining room and three huge fireplaces in the lounge (from $490). Rather sleep under the stars? Head to Yosemite Creek, a remote, first-come, first-served spot on Tioga Road.
Split into three zones by the deep canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers, and with limited road access, much of Canyonlands is impenetrable to casual sightseers. Venture deep into the red-rock desert on foot or boat, though, and youâ€™ll encounter a 527-square-mile empty playground of the surreal. In the Needles District, hike the 11 miles round-trip to Druid Arch through Elephant Canyon, a gallery of orange-and-white-banded pillars hundreds of feet tall. Or from the Elephant Hill trailhead, take the moderate but spectacular Chesler Park Loop into a sandy bottomland punctuated by sandstone spires and deep, narrow rock corridors. To avoid crowds at the Island in the Skyâ€™s Mesa Arch, just a quarter-mile from the road, go at dawn for an unbeatable view of the Colorado River canyon.
Summer visitors should explore the Green River by canoe, where a cooling dip is a ready option. Put in at Mineral Bottom for a four-day, 52-mile Class I float, or head farther upstream of the park boundary for longer trips.Â Texâ€™s RiverwaysÂ in Moab will rent you a canoe and shuttle you to and from the river ($155). Base yourself in Moab, where Up the Creek Campground offers walk-in camping adjacent to burbling Mill Creek ($32). Or rent a two-bedroom condo downtown atÂ 57 Robberâ€™s RoostÂ (from $329).
With 30 lakes and some 1,000 islands splashed across the Minnesota-Canada border, Voyageurs is a paddlerâ€™s paradise. Explore 600 miles of bedrock shoreline and camp among spruce and birch forests, trolling for walleye or casting for northern pike. Head out for a night or two via kayak or canoe to one of the parkâ€™s 270 designated campsites, which can be reserved online up to six months in advance (from $16). Or go for the grand tour: a five-night, 80-mile loop through the parkâ€™s three largest lakes, with just two portages. Start from the Kabetogama Lake visitor center and head west toward the half-mile Gold Portage trail to 360-square-mile Rainy Lake. Take a few days to paddle the south shore, ducking behind islands if big waves arise. At Kettle Falls, stop by the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, accessible only by boat, where you can have a meal and get your boats trucked across the quarter-mile-long portage to Namakan Lake ($5).
Take a few more days to explore Namakanâ€™s smaller inlets and passages, swinging by 125-foot-tall Grassy Bay Cliffs, and make your way back to Kabetogama Lake via Blind Indian Narrows. Houseboats cruise the park, and theyâ€™ll be your primary competition for campsites. If you canâ€™t beat them, consider joining them. Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats in Crane Lake, at the parkâ€™s southeast corner, will rent you a boat with a gas grill and a hot tub on the roof. The Sportcruiser, with five double beds, goes for $605 a night. Youâ€™ll get a tutorial before youâ€™re sent on your way. The most popular three-night route? A visit to Kettle Falls.
Trail Mix: A trip to Voyageurs will likely involve a stop in Duluth, about 2.5 hours south of the park. Swing by Fitgerâ€™s Brewhouse to see which of its 100-plus beers are on tap. And order the burger: itâ€™s made from cattle raised by the brewery and fed spent grain from the brewing process. Gateway Activity: In Duluth, get out on Lake Superior. North Shore SUP rents paddleboards for exploring and leads Great Lakes SUP-yoga sessions (rentals, $15 an hour; classes, $25).
Acadia National Park, Maine
*Photo credit is wrong, should be Noah Couser/Aurora*Acadiaâ€™s granite bluffs are iconic. Less well known: you can climb many of them. Otter Cliff, on Mount Desert Islandâ€™s east coast, is one of the best places to scale sea cliffs in the country, with routes from 5.5 to 5.11. Inland, the south wall of Champlain Mountain has multi-pitch trad climbing and views of the Atlantic. Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School in Bar Harbor can arrange a trip for you and your crew (from $99). Pitch a tent at Blackwoods Campground, a beautiful forested spot that fills up quickly in high season (reservations available up to six months in advance; $22).
Looking for something more remote? Take the mail boat from nearby Stonington to 5,400-acre Isle au Haut for a night at the Keeperâ€™s House Inn, a working lighthouse (from $325, all-inclusive). Hike the islandâ€™s rugged southwestern coast, then ride one of the innâ€™s loaner bikes to Long Pond for a dip.
Trail Mix: The fireplace and copper tables give McKayâ€™s Public House in Bar Harbor a cozy feel, and its local-catch fare elevates the food above standard pub grub. Wash the seafood risotto down with a pint of Bar Harbor Real Ale from nearby Atlantic Brewing Co. Gateway Activity: Every Friday, Portland Paddle offers two-hour moonlight sea-kayaking trips along Casco Bay ($45). Youâ€™ll launch at 7 P.M. in Portland, three hours south of the park.
Glacier National Park, Montana
File this one under go before itâ€™s gone. When the park was created 105 years ago, 150 of the namesake glaciers dotted the landscape; now there are fewer than 30. Hike four miles along the Loop Trail to the 100-year-old Granite Park Chalet, your backcountry base camp for an exploration of the stunning Grinnell Glacier, a 1.5-mile hike away (from $100).
Or take to the water: driving 30 miles up bone-jarring gravel roads to Kintla, one of the northernmost lakes in the park, might take a toll on your suspension, but your reward is a translucent body of glacial meltwater surrounded by larch forest. Load up your canoe for a three-mile paddle to the six-site campground at the head of the lake. Pack bear spray and some rope to hang food; this is grizzly country (backcountry camping permit, from $5).
Trail Mix: Located 36 miles northwest of West Glacier, Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery is off the grid. But that doesnâ€™t prevent it from making the tastiest huckleberry bear claws in the lower 48. The Merc has sandwiches, beer, espresso, cabin rentals, and other essentials, and has served this remote outpost for over 100 years. Gateway Activity: With more than 50 miles of lift-served downhill and cross-country trails, Whitefish Bike Park, a 40-mile drive from West Glacier, is an up-and-coming mountain-biking destination (from $22). Check out Kashmir, a black-diamond trail full of jumps and banked corners.
Nothing is really remembered without nostalgia. The way things were during
vacations taken long ago are memories of wonderful times, simpler times, when it
was normal to take time, to spend time, to enjoy time. It was more than just
getting some place, cell phone and computer in hand, then getting home; it was
an era when families traveled to Florida by car. There were gasoline wars.
Stations competed for business by busting prices. Some threw in a bag of oranges
or grapefruits with every fill-up. There were monkey farms and alligator farms
and produce stands and gift shops catering to every tourist delight from sticky
pecan rolls to ice cold watermelon.
Those were the days of our parentâ€™s generation. Big cars with big fins; gas
guzzlers that no one paid any attention to since gasoline was cheap. Summer
vacations were the lazy days; school was out and families would plan their
holidays with the kids and dog, bundle everything up in the trunk of the car and
It is again. Not as easy to find anymore. The Florida Keys are built up. There
is still only one road in and one road out called Overseas Highway, a fancy name
for US 1. Fast food emporiums pave the roadside from Key Largo to Key West.
Concrete hotels pepper the waterfront. Dive shops beckon with gigantic flags
fluttering in the wind. Modern supermarkets provide every convenience.
Transplants seeking a relaxed lifestyle move in with their tattoos and slang.
They mostly take jobs in restaurants. Whatever happened to the people that lived
in the Keys all their lives? Where did they go? Are there any retreats left
where you can just be left alone?
Finding Jorge and Angel Cabrera is easy. Stop off at Old Conch Harbor in
Islamorada. You donâ€™t need shoes and no one will tell you to put on a shirt.
Directions are given that something is â€˜baysideâ€™ or â€˜oceanside.â€™ Located on one
side of US 1 or the other. Small, oblong green signs put up by the highway
department pronounce every mile along the way from Key West at zero up to where
the Keys begin south of Homestead. Old Conch Harbor is at Mile Marker 90,
oceanside. There is an old paved roadway between US 1 and the two story building
Jorge built 35 years ago. It is hard to miss. Flags proclaim their newly opened
wave runner concession, bike rentals and gift shop. This is the place to stop.
Angel has used an amazing lot of space to stock all manner of crafts,
paintings, unique clothing apparel and one of a kind items made from old lobster
trap panels. There are of course boxes of shells, trinkets and Keysiana of all
sorts. Browse, buy or just walk straight through the gift shop to the deck
outside. You might want a soft drink, coffee, usually free, or just amble
around. The marina is home to unique fishing boats. Look for Stephen Stough at
his magnificently restored 53 foot Hatteras. If you like old boats from the
early days of sport fishing, talk to Steve. You canâ€™t miss him if heâ€™s around,
he stands about 6â€™5â€³ tall and knows everything about fishing in the area.
Then of course there are the stars of Old Conch Harbor. A little frisky mutt
called â€˜Snorkel,â€™ a big cow dog called â€˜Princessâ€™ and a green parrot that sits
on its perch above a little wooden bar. Jorge and Angel are everywhere, doing
everything. They greet visitors warmly, bid welcome to do anything or nothing.
They have restored the building with loving care. The dock and deck have been
rebuilt using original lumber. It was removed, refinished and replaced. Youâ€™re
walking on old boards.
There is no place for the eyes to rest. Sit on old fashioned wood chairs.
Driftwood tables are perfect for putting your legs up. Enjoy giant fica trees
that climb up through the deck. The branches twist around old roots far above
the building. The old trees provide welcome shade. There is always a breeze off
the water. A new garden area set among ancient fica, gumbo limbo and sea grapes
offers a place to sit and relax. There are orchids, brightly enameled geiko
lizards and sun faces. Old fishing floats gaily painted by Lila, Jorgeâ€™s 79 year
old aunt, hang from the trees. Watch as they build new lobster pots. Old frames
are everywhere. This is a working dock. Jorgeâ€™s lobster boat is dockside. He
runs a commercial lobster operation and has for the last 35 years.
Kids of all ages will be fascinated by the live lobster tank with water
bubbling to keep it oxygenated. The catch is fresh and for sale. More
interesting is to hear Angel relate that a person that performs weddings at sea
offers the bride and groom a chance to release a live lobster during the
ceremony as a talisman of good luck.
Dockside there are three Cuban fishing boats. They brought refugees across from
La Varadero, 123 miles east. â€œâ€˜La Estrellaâ€™ came ashore right at our cottages
three weeks ago. U.S. authorities checked to see if Cuba wanted it back, they
said no so we were allowed to keep it. We have two other Cuban fishing boats
that brought refugees across,â€ Angel Cabrera explained. The small green launch
rocked in the water, picturesque as any local fishing boat might be in the
â€œThe refugees left their wet clothes on our beach. Put on dry clothes and
walked out to the highway. We had guests staying at the cottages. They were
sitting outside and were surprised to see people just walk past early that
morning,â€ Angel added. If the history of Cuba and Cuban-American relations is of
interest then speak to Jorgeâ€™s mother, 82 year-old Georgina. She was born in
Cuba as was Jorgeâ€™s father.
â€œMy Dad came over in 1956, before Fidel Castro. Back then Cuba was the place to
honeymoon. People would come to fish. It was free. My Dad was young. His father
sent him here to grow up. I was only six months old in 1956,â€ Jorge explained
with a laugh. His good humor and kind nature radiate welcome to visitors.
When Jorge was four years old the Cuban revolution happened. His father picked
up the entire family in Cuba. â€œThey all moved into our house.â€ Eventually Jorge
and his own family moved into a plywood shelter built over an old International
truck parked at Sid and Roxieâ€™s Cannery, now the site of the Islamorada Fish
House. â€œThatâ€™s how my life started in the Keys,â€ Jorge smiled. His father
fished. Jorge and his brother went to local schools.
â€œWhen I was twelve years old I started my own lobster business. Iâ€™d buy 300
pounds of lobster from the fishermen. My Dad would drive me up to Miami and drop
me off in front of a gas station. I was the â€˜Seafood Man.â€™ In those days Iâ€™d buy
lobster for seventy-five cents a pound and add a dollar to it for profit. One
day, on a drive back, I was counting my money in Dadâ€™s truck. He said, â€˜You are
making more money than me.’â€ Jorge worked his lobster business on Friday and
Saturday, weekdays he went to school. The same kids that were his classmates
then, are still his friends.
Jorge bought the lot where Old Conch Harbor is now in 1979. He built the two
story building. He created a gym that became an immediate success. Then he got
the idea to create a restaurant and lounge. It still exists upstairs under
â€œCome with meâ€¦â€ Jorge signaled with his hand to follow him down the dock to an
office at the far end. Inside the walls were covered with pictures and art work,
most in old wood lobster trap frames. â€œLook at this photo. This is â€˜The Old Man
and The Sea.’â€ He took a picture down off the wall of himself with a big black
beard, he is now clean-shaven, and Gregorio Fuentes. It was taken in 1995.
Fuentes was the first mate on â€˜Pilar,â€™ Ernest Hemingwayâ€™s boat in Cuba.
â€œHemingway wrote the book about Fuentes.â€
â€œWe are making this a kind of museum. We have many old photographs from the
Keys. We are putting them in lobster pot trap frames. People that stop by the
gallery are amazed by local history seen in these early photographs,â€ Angel
said. There is an entrance from the parking lot to the gallery. It is air
conditioned and chock full of beautiful art work and framed photographs.
Jorge and his mother bought three lots in the old days. The government wanted
them for part of a bird sanctuary. With the profit from the sale of the lots
Jorge and his mother bought a 2 1/2 acre lot on the ocean. There were two
cottages on the land. They kept the property, sold off a little chunk, and
enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the place. Wealthy people built mansions on
lots adjoining the cottages. Jorge kept the place the way it was. They
modernized the cottages to create a magnificent two bedroom and separate studio
cottage. The two bedroom has a full kitchen and tub bath. The studio has a
shower and toilet with small refrigerator.
The Keys flair remains. The long drive is surrounded by palms and coquina
rocks. The coral sand driveway describes privacy. The plantings have been
supervised by Jorgeâ€™s mother. Georginaâ€™s garden includes fragrant frangipani,
palm and fica trees. There is a lagoon where boaters can tie up small craft and
a long dock that can accommodate a fifty-foot yacht. A shallow pool on a
concrete deck is set with recliners and glass topped tables. The pool is a good
place to relax at night. There is a beach to launch kayaks, paddle boards or
surf boards Jorge and Angel leave for the use of guests. There is good
snorkeling right off the beach and fishing poles to try your luck casting off
Hammocks swing between palms. There is always a nice breeze off the ocean. â€œThe
man next door bought the property for 3 1/2 million. He tore down the house and
built a monolith for $14 million. I came down and sat on the beach one night. I
looked up at the moon and stars and decided to leave the property the way it
was. It is a dream to be able to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the Keys. It
is the way it was when I was a kid,â€ Jorge said.
Perhaps the Cabreras will add Tiki huts here and there, however, they are
persuaded that life is more than concrete mausoleums and ostentatious mansions.
Jorge once thought he would one day like to own a mansion akin to those
millionaireâ€™s built on beaches he played and fished as a boy growing up in the
Keys. The revelation he had sitting quietly on the beach, on property he paid
$50,000 for with profits from his little lots, then sold a piece for half that,
was a turning point in his life. The beachfront with its simple cottages offered
a peace and tranquility he wanted for himself and his family. He wants to share
it with visitors. Thus was born the idea for Peacock Cottages.
â€œA Doctor Zim brought peacocks to the Keys. They are all over. Youâ€™ll see them
and hear them on the property. So we decided to call it Peacock Cottages,â€ Angel
â€œWe have four million tourists drive through on US 1 every year. Weâ€™re trying
to bring back the sandals and T-shirt life that was. Sit, have coffee, see a
lobster boat or fishing boat come in. Iâ€™m framing old photographs to show how we
used to live. Weâ€™re the third biggest reef in the world,â€ Jorge pointed toward
the Atlantic Ocean.
â€œIâ€™m trying to create here the history, the old feeling. That is what people
came here for. We were poor. Rich people owned everything around here. My dream
was to have what rich people had. So Peacock Cottages was my second property. It
used to be a fish farm in the 1960s. I bought it when I was 18 years old. Then I
had to work and grow up.â€ Jorge reminisced. His once ambitious dream to build
his own concrete mansion on the property became a better dream after all.
â€œMillionaires come and go. Their mansions are bought and sold with the tide of
Wall Street. I decided to fix up the little cottages, forget the big real estate
taxes. Simple. People that stay at the cottages tell me they come down from big
houses. The simple life on the ocean is what they are looking for,â€ Jorge said.
Simple but wonderfully comfortable. Air conditioned with ceiling fans, large
king and queen size beds with ornate wooden head and foot boards, flat screen
televisions, Wi-Fi and modern kitchen appliances in the two-bedroom cottage.
With it are exposed beams and wood paneling that has been scrubbed and oiled.
Small hexagon tile in the bathroom with modern but old style porcelain sinks.
There is every convenience to be comfortable and every comfort to make Peacock
Cottages a respite from modern life. Jorge and Angel are animal lovers so pets
Jorge and Angel Cabrera along with Dona Georgina, who at 82 years old continues
to work and supervise landscaping on the property, share their dream with
guests. There will always be majestic hotels and resorts in Floridaâ€™s Keys yet
the peace and tranquility of having a private setting right on the ocean is
indeed rare. Enjoy it while you can. It is the way it was.
For more information visit www.oldconch.com or call 305-853-1010, email [email protected]
ISLAMORADA, FLa. â€” Thereâ€™s no downtown to speak of here. And as islands go, the beaches are fairly few and far between. And if you didnâ€™t know much about it before you hit the road, you might pass right through Islamorada, Florida, on your 159-mile drive from Miami to Key West.
But that would be a mistake.
Key West is the fun, funky, beautiful destination at the very southernmost tip of the Florida Keys. It gets all the attention. But itâ€™s well worth the drive (preferably with a convertible top down) thatâ€™s sometimes slow and congested on the Overseas Highway that links it to the mainland. Itâ€™s a laid back, party town with a Naval Air Station, a cruise ship dock and and a nightly Sunset Celebration that draws at least hundreds to its shore, if not thousands.
But Islamorada has plenty to make it a worthy place to escape for some island time, even with a population of almost 6,300 and a median age of 52 (older than the rest of Florida).
Itâ€™s the â€œsports fishing capital of the world,â€ for example. The proximity to the Florida Bay, Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico attracts a great variety of fish species. Marinas offer charters and boat rentals for experienced or novice anglers. Former President George H.W. Bush, who has stayed and fished in Islamorada several times, made headlines in 2008 when he snagged a 135-pound tarpon while fishing with guide George Wood and Olympic skier Andy Mill, posed for a photo and released the fish. Other famous anglers who have fished these waters include British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, former presidents Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman, actor/philanthropist Paul Newman and former Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams. Cheeca Lodge, one of the places Bush stayed, still hosts an annual presidential fishing tournament.
Robbieâ€™s Marina might be one of the better known spots for tourists with a variety of interests. Our party of five â€” three anglers, and one grandmother-granddaughter pairing along for the ride â€” went out on party boat to fish for a few hours.
But Robbieâ€™s isnâ€™t just known for its fishing excursions. While youâ€™re waiting for your boat to go out, you can shop among local artisans selling their wares on tabletops in the yard. (Thatâ€™s where I found a wooden teal mermaid for my home.) Or buy a cheap bucket of small fish to feed big tarpons that swim up to the dock looking for the treats. If you stumble upon a circle of adults and kids lying on their bellies on the dock, hanging little fish just above the water, you know itâ€™s feeding time. Pelicans know it, too, and theyâ€™ll try to grab the bait right out of your bucket.
Paddle boards, jet skis and kayaks can be rented here for exploring the island. And the Hungry Tarpon restaurant will cook whatever you catch right there â€” any way you want it â€” for $15 a pound. Our catch for the day was a little small to be worrying about such things.
We tapped the advice of some locals for great restaurants and hit the jackpot at the Lazy Days Oceanfront Restaurant, where we got a table on the upstairs balcony overlooking the clear blue water and pier below. At Morada Bay Beach Cafe, we enjoyed the dining in colorful tables on the sandy beach so much that we went back a second time. And the Islamorada Fish Company was a fun place to stop for drinks and light snacks.
There for a family birthday celebration, we just happened to pick the weekend of the annual Nautical Flea Market put on by the Upper Keys Rotary Club at Founders Park, which has its own little beach by the picnic area. The boat owner among us was in his element, looking at boating and fishing gear while the rest of us did some people watching and checked out the T-shirts, hats and art for sale.
Judging from the crowds we saw on Sunday and the parking jams nearby, itâ€™s a popular event with people who love anything nautical, from beautiful boats to motors, rods and reels and accessories to deck out a boat.
Preparing to leave, I spotted a familiar well-coiffed silver head of hair in front of us.
â€œIsnâ€™t that the former Cowboys coach,â€ I asked my husband, trying to recall the name. Yes, Jimmy Johnson, thatâ€™s the one, I acknowledged. I later learned by flipping through one of the Florida Keys tourism guides that Jimmy Johnsonâ€™s Big Chill in Key Largo is quite the hot spot, with live entertainment, tiki bars, a martini bar, raw bar, watersports rentals and waterfront dining. And â€” get this â€” Super Bowl trophies and celebrity sightings. Maybe that spot will go on our list for our next visit.
Terry Scott Bertling is travel editor of the Express-News. [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @TerryBertling.
Keysnet.com -Â Well looks like we made it through another festive holiday weekend. Even with the crowds, there were some great catches both in the backcountry and offshore.
Like most guides and captains, I had several charters over the course of the busy weekend, but one in particular stood out among the rest. On July 4, I had a half-day trip with Dan Walenjus and his 9-year-old son Alex, both from New Jersey. They had just recently purchased a home in Key Largo and wanted to see what the local flats have to offer. We spent our first hour throwing baits to rolling tarpon that had a bit of lockjaw, and then headed over to the flats.
Before we could shut off the engine, we could see tailing bonefish not far from where we were. After a few minutes, Dan hooked up to a nice bonefish but lost it after it cut him off on a sponge.
Still determined, we moved to another flat and found a large hungry school of permit that could not resist some live shrimp. Alex and his father both hooked up at the same time and landed their permit. After posing for some photos, the fish were released unharmed. Shortly after this, Alex caught another permit along with two legal mutton snapper, all this before 11:30 a.m.
On the offshore side of things, Capt. Jon Reynolds and his crew aboard the Drop Back out of the Post Card Inn at Holiday Isle Resort and Marina have been reporting a lot of bigger dolphin around this past week. In fact some of the biggest schoolies of the year so far are averaging between 6-10 pounds (almost gaffers), mixed in with larger fish in almost every school they found.
Adding to the excitement, with the dolphin there have been more skipjack tuna around averaging between 5-10 pounds more than they had seen in previous weeks.
For the Drop Back the hot bite has been out deep in and around 1,000 feet while trolling dead ballahoo with colored skirts.
Once a school of dolphin is located, pitching fresh cut chunks of bait like ballahoo, squid and pilchards keeps the action going.
There have already been a few marlin caught in the Upper Keys over the past few weeks. With all the dolphin around, expect there to be more marlin caught in the coming weeks.
On the west side of U.S. 1 in the backcountry, all the rain the mainland has received has flushed large amounts of bait out into the bay, making any outflow a hot spot.
Tarpon, snook, redfish and seatrout are all being caught on live baits like pilchards or shrimp in addition to artificial lures like gold/silver spoons and Gulp tipped jigs.
Redfish have shown up in a big way on and around the flats of Flamingo and Cape Sable. Schools of 50-100 fish can be seen pushing large wakes as they make their way across the flats. Hanging around these schools have been big snook and sharks, in addition to the mangrove snappers and jacks that are already there.
Having a dedicated rod with a wire leader ready for a shark encounter is a must-have when fishing the bay during the summer months.
Big tarpon are still being caught locally on live and dead baits, with the best action happening at night during the falling tide. Live baits like crabs and mullet work best, but dead baits fished on the bottom can work as well if not better.
Those of you who know me, know that to me, fishing is more than just a game, it is a way of life. So fish hard and fish often!
Capt. Mike Makowski is a backcountry fishing guide and owner of Blackfoot Charters in Key Largo. His column appears biweekly. To send him fishing reports or photos, e-mail [email protected] or call (305) 481-0111.
A venomous fish with destructive habits has surfaced as a tasty meal at several South Florida restaurants.
â€œWe love serving, and our customers love dining on, lionfish,â€ said Michael Ledwith, chef-owner of Chef Michaelâ€™s in Islamorada. â€œWe have had a few squeamish folks converted to lionfish lovers after a small sampling.â€
Fish Fish in North Miami added lionfish to its selection of fresh-caught specials soon after opening in February 2013.
â€œOur fishermen were catching lionfish in their lobster traps,â€ co-owner Rebecca Nachlas Franks said. â€œWe were discussing it one day when they were bringing the lobsters in, and I requested that they bring the lionfish in as well.
â€œIn addition to our guests having a new taste experience, it opens up a discussion on lionfish and its impact on our reefs,â€ Nachlas Franks added. â€œWe like to say at Fish Fish, â€˜We are saving the reefs one lionfish at a time.â€™Â â€
Native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans, lionfish became popular aquarium fish because of their colorful vertical stripes; broad, fan-like fins; and tall dorsal spikes, a venomous defense mechanism. The attraction faded fast for some aquarium owners.
â€œThe lionfish grew quickly. They consumed all those other expensive reef fish that people were also keeping in their aquarium. And in a number of cases people got stung while cleaning their aquariums,â€ said Lad Akins, director of special projects at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo. â€œSome people were relocating and just didnâ€™t want to take the aquarium with them. All those things provided incentive to release the fish.â€
Since being dumped into Miami-area waters in the mid-1980s, lionfish have spread exponentially along the Atlantic Coast, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
Lionfish reproduce quickly, prey on native species and have few natural enemies. State wildlife officials recently banned the importation and sale of lionfish, effective Aug. 1.
The silver lining is that to the human palate, lionfish is a delicate, flaky fish thatâ€™s often compared to hogfish and snapper.
In 2010 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled its Eat Lionfish campaign, urging chefs, wholesalers and fishing communities to promote the savory menace as a food choice. It can be served whole in a number of preparations â€” fried, pan-seared, grilled, blackened â€” and used in gazpacho and ceviche.
â€œAt first some customers were turned off, thinking it was poisonous,â€ co-owner Michelle Ledesma said. â€œWhat we would do is fry small bites and offer it to the tables. Once people tasted how good it was, we could not keep it in the restaurant.â€
Your kayak slows over turquoise water only a few inches deep. Something shimmers ahead â€“ a heat mirage? It looks like houses in crayon colors: yellow, green, red and blue, somehow hovering weightlessly over the bay.
Squinting now â€“ no, these homes arenâ€™t levitating at all; they are supported by pilings and suspended a few feet above the sea. Welcome to Stiltsville in Biscayne National Park, the gateway to one of the most interesting kayak trails on the globe.
Accessible only by flats boat or kayak, these seven wooden homes are a few miles off downtown Miami but light years from the cityâ€™s stress and hum. Stiltsville dates to the 1930s. â€œCrawfish Eddie Walkerâ€ built the first shack above the water. Over the years, larger homes were constructed, then enlarged, and the area took on an aura of mystery.
Florida Kayak Trail
Today, a kayaker can lean back and watch the currents carry bonefish across the flats; snorkel pristine coral reefs with only a few minutesâ€™ paddle. Fish the shimmering flats or, at the end of an afternoon with the dayâ€™s catch on the grill, watch the lights of Miami blink on while the setting sun paints the sky in hues of orange. Above the paddler hangs an amazing array of birdlife: hawks, frigate birds, brightly-colored warblers and below, gin clear water only inches deep.
Elliott Key is just visible as you start to paddle. Beyond that is Key Largo and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park; after that countless small islands and 110 miles of turquoise water. Kayakerâ€™s Heaven.
Paddling is a great way to experience the hundreds of islands that make up the Florida Keys archipelago. The Overseas Highway is sometimes a parking lot crammed with powerboats and rented convertibles. But from the low on-the-water vantage point of a kayak a paddler can experience the small islands that dot the coastline on either side of US 1, paddling on the Florida Bay/Gulf or the Atlantic Ocean.
The islands of the Keys change by the mile. At times the paddlersâ€™ trail takes kayakers through densely populated areas with heavy boat traffic; at other times serene and isolated estuaries and forgotten coves. Paddlers can find themselves gliding beneath dense overhanging mangrove tunnels and tea colored water, then skimming past waterfront restaurants and fishing villages and marinas where they can stock up or just stop in for a fresh drink.
Much of the kayak trail consists of uninhabited and undeveloped islands. Most are simply white ringed wild habitats for birds and wildlife, perfect for primitive camping. Much of the water depth surrounding these small islands and inlets is too shallow for most boats. Kayakers can weave their ways in and out of creeks and channels enjoying the true solitude and peacefulness of these tiny islands.
Glide inches above a rich array of marine life, passing over manatees, historic shipwrecks and sting rays. Some of the islands have historic remnants of settlers. Remains of Henry Flaglerâ€™s overseas railroad of the early 1900s can be seen in the decaying concrete columns of the old rusting bridges. Important sites such as Indian Key Historic State Park, Pigeon Key and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park are a short paddle off the trail.
Whether you are planning to paddle an hour or a week or more, seeing the Keys by kayak offers many rewards.
Before you Go
Start your trip planning by logging onto http://www.see-florida.com/florida-keys/Â or www.fla-keys.com for a free planning guide. Carrying a hand-held GPS is recommended as many of the mangrove channels snake their way in and out of the keys. Several outfitters in the Keys can also assist you in renting or selling equipment or in guiding trips. Lodging is available in all of the Keysâ€™ towns, and there are numerous private campgrounds. Up-to-date trail information can be obtained by calling or visiting Florida Bay Outfitters in Key Largo (305) 451-3018.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages the Florida Keys Wildlife and Environmental Area and the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary covers most waters in the keys, encompassing 2900 square miles. Paddlers should be aware of regulations if planning to fish or snorkel.
Florida’s popularity with Canadians is no secret. During the winter, provincial licence plates are almost as common as state ones in beach towns along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Attraction-packed Orlando and glitzy Miami draw huge Canadian contingents, too.
But mention the Florida Keys and it’s a different story. Most people have heard of Key West, but few have visited any of the 1,700 coral cays that stretch south-southwest along the Overseas Highway from the mainland.
Except for its balmy winters, white sand beaches and swaying palms, much of Florida resembles the rest of the U.S. Not so in the 30 inhabited Keys, which have distinct personalities and a Caribbean vibe. While there are many tourist attractions, this is not the Florida of amusement parks, chain restaurants and outlet malls. But if you embrace individuality, even quirkiness, it may be the Florida for you.
The attractions below are only a small sample of what awaits between Miami and Key West:
KEY LARGO: FLOATING HISTORY
The rustic steamboat with the riveted metal hull and red-and-white striped awning stands out among the lux tour boats and mega-yachts docked at Marina del Mar.
The 102-year-old vessel plied the waters of the Victoria Nile before being featured in the 1951 John Huston classic African Queen. Humphrey Bogart won his only Oscar for his performance as the film’s crusty, gin-swilling Canadian riverboat captain. Katherine Hepburn was nominated for best actress for her portrayal of the plucky prissy missionary. But the vessel, where those famous scenes took place, faded into obscurity before being found in Cairo in the ’70s, shipped to the U.S., restored and put into service as a tour boat.
The story of the boat’s long journey from derelict to delightful is complicated but today film fans and boat buffs can cruise down the placid Port Largo Canals to the Atlantic and back aboard a piece of floating history.
In the ’90s, the American Film Institute ranked African Queen as the 17th greatest movie of all time; the boat is a designated National Historic Site. Lance Holmquist and his wife Suzanne painstakingly restored the boat and operate it with the African Queen Trust. The ship attracts a lot of attention from local boaters, especially when Lance dresses the part and or lets passengers blow its distinctive stream whistle.
The 1.5-hour cruises are $69 per person ($25 for kids). Evening cruises with dinner are $89. Contact africanqueenflkeys.com.
DUCK KEY: DOLPHIN ENCOUNTER
There are many places where people can learn about and interact with dolphins, but Dolphin Connection ” based at Hawk’s Cay Resort ” is the only resort-based program in the continental U.S. Several activities focused on creating connections between humans and dolphins are offered. The Dockside Dolphin Encounter ($60 per person) allows people of all ages to feed and interact with these engaging creatures from the dock. For a more in depth experience, the Dolphin Discovery ($175) puts participants (minimum height 4′ 6″) on platforms in the water, where they can touch, splash, swim and play with dolphins. There is also a three-hour Trainer For A Day experience ($325) for those 10 or older who meet height restrictions. The resort also organizes free viewing of the four resident dolphins a few times a day. Contact dolphinconnection.com.
ISLAMORADA: FISH TALES
When people talk about the quirkiness of the Keys, places like Robbie’s of Islamorada come to mind. For an interesting morning, have a hearty breakfast at the marina’s waterside Hungry Tarpon Restaurant then go out onto the docks ($1 per person) to see the huge tarpon that hang out in the clear shallow waters. You can buy a bucket of fish bits ($3) to feed the tarpon and “if you’re really brave ” learn to hand-feed them. You need to have quick hand-to-eye coordination for this task as the enormous game fish (which can measure more than 2 metres and weigh up to 90 kilos) jump right out of the water to snatch the morsels! Fortunately their teeth are tiny, but they can give you a nasty scrape. Robbie’s also arranges fishing and snorkelling charters, and is surrounded by funky stalls selling cheap and cheerful souvenirs and crafts. Contact the marina at 877-664-8498 or see robbies.com.
PIGEON KEY: FLAGLER’S FOLLY
No story about the Keys is complete without a mention of Henry Flagler. The American tycoon developed luxury hotels along Florida’s Atlantic Coast and established the Florida East Coast Railway before turning his attention to the Keys.
Convinced Key West could become the largest port in the U.S.A., Flagler decided to run a rail line there. But building a railroad across many small islands, through swamp and over long stretches of ocean presented expensive construction challenges. Skeptics dubbed the pricey project Flagler’s Folly, but work started in 1905 and finished in 1912, when the line went into daily passenger and cargo service.
During construction, some 400 railway workers were housed on Pigeon Key now one of the last surviving sites of the Overseas Railroad and Overseas Extension, which ran until 1935 when it was severely damaged by a powerful hurricane. Bridges and sections of rail were washed out, and hundreds perished when 10 coaches of an evacuation train were swept off the tracks by the storm surge.
The railway was never rebuilt, but in the ’40s, some of its foundations and bridges formed the backbone of a new Overseas Highway.
Today, Pigeon Key is one of Monroe County’s most historically significant sites. The island is managed by the Pigeon Key Foundation and Marine Science Center, which offers tours and runs a small museum. Eight of its buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visitors can take a short ferry ride from Knight’s Key to the 2-hectare island to learn about its railroad history, or just enjoy a picnic and swim at the beach or a stroll on a remaining section of Flagler’s legendary Seven Mile Bridge. For a longer stay, you can rent a refurbished cabin equipped with all modern amenities. Tours are $12 for adults, $9 chidren 5-13. For information, contact pigeonkey.net.
MARATHON: TURTLE TIME
Sea turtles don’t have it easy. They are frequently hit by boat propellers, become entangled in fishing lines and nets or develop intestinal blockages from eating plastic bags, which they mistake for jelly fish. In addition, they are prone to tumours that damage their eyes, mouth and internal organs, and must sometimes migrate vast distances to lay eggs that have a very low survival rate.
Of the world’s seven species of marine turtles, five ” hawksbill, green, Kemp’s Ridley, loggerhead and leatherback ” are found in the Keys. All are threatened or endangered.
When sick or hurt these ancient air-breathing reptiles often float on top of the water, unable to dive for food, or wash ashore. Fortunate ones are rescued, rehabilitated and (if possible) released by the Turtle Hospital, the world’s only state-certified veterinary hospital for sea turtles.
Their ground-breaking work is partly funded by a fascinating 90-minute tour during which visitors see some of the patients, treatment rooms, and tanks where they recuperate. About 70 sea turtles are rescued each year. More than 1,000 have been released back into the wild. Turtles too disabled to be released sometimes find new homes at zoos and aquariums.
Contact turtlehospital.org. Open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tours are $18 for adults, $9 for children 4-12.
BAHIA HONDA KEY: PARK YOURSELF
There are 10 state parks in the Florida Keys and ” much like the islands ” each one is a little different from the next.
What makes 202-hectare Bahia Honda different are its sandy beaches.
Beaches are not as plentiful in the Keys as elsewhere in Florida, and the pristine beaches at Bahia Honda are some of the best. They have even made America’s Best Beach list put out yearly by foremost U.S. beach expert Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach.
In addition to excellent swimming, snorkelling, fishing and birding, Bahia Honda has campsites and rental cabins, a Sand and Sea Nature Center for visitors, and Bahia Honda bridge an Overseas Railway remnant with great views now used for recreational purposes.
Admission is $2 per pedestrian/cyclist or $8 per vehicle (up to eight occupants). There are three campgrounds with sites from $36 per night. Cabins go for $120-$160 per night. Contact floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda. Camping reservations may be made 11 months in advance at ReserveAmerica.com.
From campgrounds, cottages and BBs to motels, beach hotels and full service resorts, the Florida Keys has accommodation for most budgets. But it doesn’t get any better than Hawk’s Cay Resort, which has 24 hectares of beautifully landscaped grounds and opportunities for swimming, fishing, diving, kayaking, kiteboarding, standup paddle boarding, tennis, Segway tours and more.
Resort features include the Dolphin Connection program, a full service marina, six swimming pools ” including a tranquillity pool, a pirate ship pool for kids and a saltwater lagoon” activity clubs for kids and teens, the Calm Waters Spa, five restaurants and a firepit for evening gatherings. In addition to 177 guest rooms in the main resort, there are 225 villas arranged in villages around the property.
A new Stay and Play offer includes a 25% savings on villa stays of seven nights or more, plus two complimentary bike rentals. Prices vary depending on dates and villa selected. For instance, a townhome in Sunset Village with two bedrooms (two queen beds or one queen and two twin beds, plus a sleeper sofa), full kitchen, living and dining rooms, 1.5 bathrooms, and a terrace starts at $339.96 per night for seven nights starting Jan. 24. Other deals are offered throughout the year. For information, contact hawkscay.com.
NEED TO KNOW
For comprehensive travel information, contact the Florida Keys Tourism Council at fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS (352-5397).