Thursday, January 31, 2013

Anhinga Trail and Everglades

Breakfast at the Florida City Travelodge was actually pretty good.  They had sausage and egg sandwiches and some fresh fruit.  We stopped by a favorite local market called "Robert is Here" for snacks and food for lunches.  They have a nice assortment of fresh local fruit, some of which I have never seen anywhere.  Everything was very fresh and priced low. Go to the link to see how the fruit stand got the name "Robert is Here."

Anhinga sunning to dry feathers
When we arrived at the area of Everglades National Park where the Anhinga Trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail depart. We were surprised at the number and aggression of the black vultures.  The Park Service provides tarps and bungee cords to cover cars in the parking lot since the vultures not only roost on the cars, scratching the finish with their claws but they eat the rubber from windshield wipers and around the windshield and sun roof.  We really weren't sure how we would explain to Enterprise Car Rental why their nice new Nissan Altima had the rubber parts destroyed by hungry vultures.  We opted for the tarp to avoid the problems.  Some cars had a dozen or more vultures on them.  The parking lot looked like a Hitchcock movie!

Mamma say that the reason alligators is so ornery is because
got all those teeth and no toothbrushes.
We really enjoyed the walk around the Anhinga Trail.  Everyone we spoke to said that this trail is the best place to visit in the Everglades.  There were many types of wading birds including tons of anhingas, cormorants, wood storks, great blue herons and white egrets as well as many others that we don't know.  There were a number of alligators along the trail, some of which were very close.  Other alligators were in the water waiting for a meal to come by.  While we were on the trail, a brief rain shower blew up, but it passed quickly as they are prone to do here in Southern Florida.  We could have spent more time just walking around the short path and boardwalk, but a large group of elementary school age students arrived. We went over and walked the short Gumbo Limbo Trail that has informative signs about the native flora.  We were pleased that there was no vulture damage to the rental car when we got back to the parking lot.   We gave out tarp and tie downs to another couple who arrived and moved on.

Great blue heron
We drove slowly on the road from the visitor center toward the area called Flamingo.  There were many places to stop for informational signs or to birdwatch at a pond or meadow.  There are trails of all length that lead visitors to areas where birds or landscapes can be seen.  When we stopped at Pouratis Pond, we saw many nesting wood storks and a number of rosette spoonbills in mating coloration.  We enjoyed our packed lunch at a picnic table there as we watched the birds.  It was a very pretty area and made for a pleasant place our lunch.   Another stop at the Pay-ay-okee Overlook took us on a trail through a bald cypress area.  Since we are here in the dry season the cypress had lost many of their leaves but the trees were pretty.

Crocodile at Flamingo
After several short stops, we drove to the visitor center at Flamingo.  We saw saw a number of ospreys including two nests at that were at the visitor center.  We understand that there are manatees in the canal near the visitor center, but we didn't see any while we were there.  We did, however, see a crocodile sunning in the bank of the canal.  They really do look very different from the American alligator.  We walked around the area a good bit then started driving back toward the park entrance which is about 35 miles from Flamingo.

We stopped at a trail called Snake Bight which is a 1.8 mile path down to the bay.  At the right time flamingos and rosette spoonbills can be seen there as well as other birds.  We enjoyed the 3.6 mile walk for our round trip.  The path is well maintained and easy walking.  The temperature warmed back up to nearly 80 degrees while we were on the path causing us to work up a bit of a sweat on the walk.  We only saw a few birds at a distance but were were perfectly happy with the walk out and back.  We were impressed with the number and variety of cacti along the trail.  Some of the cactus were over 12 feet tall.  I guess I just don't think about cactus growing in the Everglades.

Little blue heron
On the way back, we made another stop at the Anhinga Trail since it was such a great place to see birds and alligators.  We stood in one place and saw 18 alligators either in the water or basking on the bank.  Many of the visitors on the Anhinga were European.  We heard French, Italian, German and some Eastern European languages that we couldn't identify.  It is a popular place and for good reason. On the way around the pond, a big vulture swooped near Mary.  "Someone" bumped into her pushing her "accidentally" toward the vulture.  That someone was in BIG trouble.

Black vulture
We got back to the motel around 5 pm and rested our feet after showering and changing clothes.  We made our way to Mario's Cuban Cuisine for dinner.  We knew it would be good when we saw three separate groups of police officers from different agencies having dinner there.  We weren't disappointed.  Mary had Masas de Puerco which is marinated grilled pork that came with beans and rice and sweet plantains on the side.  I had a chorizo sandwich.  The restaurant features freshly squeezed juices (or "youces" as our Cuban waitress called them) that were all very good.  Mary had passion fruit juice, and I had tamarind juice then a pineapple juice.  We liked them all.  After we got back from Mario's, we learned that is was well rated by Jane & Michael Stern in their Road Food column.  

Tomorrow we plan to visit the Northwestern part of the Everglades then perhaps have dinner in the Naples area.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Going North up the Keys

We checked out of the Days Inn Key West around 8 am and took our time driving up US 1 toward Florida City.
We drove up to Big Pine Key and drove around the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge. We walked several of the trails in the reserve but saw far more key deer along the roads. The speed limits on the island are low since the deer are an endangered species and many of them are automobile casualties I was surprised at how tiny they are. One little doe that we watched for a long time was only about 18 inches tall. We spent a good bit of time on the Key and stopped by the visitor center where the ranger gave us a lot of information about the natural history and geology of the Keys. Big Pine Key was one of the best stops on the Keys because most of the island is part of the Refuge and there were lots of trails and paths to walk.  A fire a few years ago damaged many of the hiking trails and although the habitat is returning, the trails and signs were all destroyed.  Although the trails were nice, we would suggest just driving residential roads to see Key Deer.
We drove to Bahia Honda State Park and walked several trails including one that went to a closed section of the original bridge. From one of the guidebooks, we learned that in many places the original concrete from the German technique is in better shape than concrete that was poured much later. Of course we know that all the best stuff is made by Germans! We also walked a great interpretative nature trail. The signage was excellent and we learned a lot about the plants of the area. We saw a lot of tropical, wading and shore birds. We couldn't identify most of them but they were interesting to watch. We saw an osprey carrying a huge branch that nearly weighed it down. It was not going to give up on the branch. The beaches there are supposed to be some of the nation's best but we aren't sure why. It was a nice area but didn't seem much different than many other beach areas. Nevertheless, it was a pretty place and we enjoyed walking around and enjoying the day.
We made a few other stops to take a snapshot or hunt a geocache. The temperature was in the mid 80s so it was nice to be outside in the sea air for a walk. We were amazed at the turquoise color of the water and the general beauty of the area. We also liked to look at the fossilized coral that makes up the bedrock of the Keys. We saw fossils of all types of coral in the stones as we were walking. The area is just so different from our home area.
We made a great stop for lunch at Juice Paradise Cuban Cafe in Marathon. Everyone eating there was a local on a first name basis with the people at the restaurant. Many of the patrons were local construction workers who come for the generous portions of Cuban food. There were only four folding plastic tables there but a lot of locals get carryout. Mary had a Cuban sandwich that was huge. It had a stack of ham and roast pork with lots of Swiss cheese on freshly baked hoagie bread then grilled. I had the roast Cuban pork with beans and rice on the side. We shared each other's meals as well as some fried sweet plantains. The juice drinks there are all freshly squeezed and were excellent. I had mango and Mary had watermelon. We thought this place was an excellent lunch stop.
We considered stopping at Crane Point State Park but the description sounded like it was mostly nature trails and we had already visited an excellent and well marked trail at Baiha Honda and planned to stop at another in Key Largo so we decided to pass on Crane Point.
In Islamorada we stopped a Anne's Beach which has a nice public beach and a boardwalk along the beach. We found a couple of geocaches there and took a few snapshots before continuing northeast.
At one point, we saw a huge iguana in the middle of US 1 blocking traffic. We had read that iguanas are among the many invasive species that are causing problems here in Southern Florida. Big pythons get a lot of publicity in the Everglades but there are many invasive plants and animals that are causing problems.
Our last stop of the day was at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock State Park. There are nice wide trails that are well marked with signs describing the unique plants of the area. The park is well used by local people for bicycle riding and walking. It is a beautiful park and a good stop along the way.
We drove up Card Sound through Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of the few areas where American crocodiles have a breeding population. This is one of the areas that has seen an invasion of non native pythons despite eradication efforts.
We arrived at the Florida City Travelodge around 5 pm and crashed since both of us had tired feet from all the walking. We had a late dinner at Rosita's Mexican Restaurante which was only a couple of blocks from the motel.  Our meals were very good and the service was excellent.  Mary had the flautas with beans and rice.  I wasn't very hungry so I had two pork tamales. We both enjoyed our meals.  

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Touring Key West

We slept in the morning, not arising until 7 am. After a shower and a glance at the tour guide books, we caught the hotel shuttle to the old town area of Key West.
We walked around Duvall Street which is "party central" for Key West. Truthfully, it was like the tourist areas of any beach community. Lots of bars, t-shirt and junk shops. We enjoyed the walk but didn't see much there that really interested us. We thought we may go back in the evening for a drink after dinner.

We walked over to the Southernmost point in the continental US. There were a lot of people there taking photos. Most of the people we have seen here are European tourists or older people from the cruise ships.
At the Hemingway House, we had an excellent young tour guide who knew a great deal about Hemingway, his writing and the cats. This kid knew the names and parentage of all 45 cats at the property! About half of the cats were polydactyl and all seemed to enjoy the life of leisure there. We stayed there a good while and enjoyed the house and grounds.
After leaving the Hemingway House we walked around town more and investigated some of the historic homes and parks. We took a quick walk through Mallory Square and through the area where the cruise ships debark.
We caught the hotel shuttle back to the room and rested our feet for a bit then took the rental car to a nearby Publix grocery store and picked up some fruit and cereal for tomorrow's breakfast. Mary got a snack salad and I got a case of soft drinks for the week.  The the temperatures were already in the mid 80s, we thought that taking a mid-day break would be welcome.
At 5 pm we caught the shuttle to the side of the key near Mallory Square to see the sunset. Like many tourist areas of this sort there were many street performers and pan handlers. We bought some excellent mojitos from a cart on the beach and watched the sun go down. There were a lot of vessels in the area including sailboats, sport fishing charters, sightseeing cruises and military watercraft. The saw the Estonians from the hotel at the waterfront photographing the sunset. They seem nice but just reminded me of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroid doing the Czech Festrunk brothers, Georgl and Yortuk, the "wild and crazy guys".
After watching the sunset, we made our way to the Blue Heaven for dinner. We ate in an open air courtyard that was used for cockfighting at times and Hemingway refereed boxing matches there in the 1930s. Mary had a broiled grouper over linguine with a citrus butter sauce. I had jerk chicken with black beans and rice. Both of us enjoyed our meals. There was a local band playing Caribbean music which added to the atmosphere. After dinner, we walked along Duvall Street and enjoyed the evening. We stopped in Capt. Tony's which is the original Sloppy Joe's in the 1930s when Hemingway lived on the Key. There was a live performer who wasn't all that great. I had the only drink they serve which is Pirate's Punch, pineapple juice with rum. The drink was not exceptional but was refreshing after dinner. The shuttle station was a short walk away so we returned back to our room for the night.
One of the things here that we found most amusing is the number of chickens that seem to run free on the island. Most of the chickens are roosters which seems odd since most people who have chickens eat the roosters while they are still young and allow the hens to mature for egg production. Many farms have only one adult rooster which is adequate for their needs. Here, the roosters have the run of the streets and buildings often mooching food like pigeons.  All of the chickens we saw were small light bodied birds, no doubt owing to their ancestry from the game cocks that were brought to the island for the cockfights that were common here a generation ago.
We enjoyed our day here but really don't think we would want to spend a whole week at Key West. It is pretty much like so many other areas of the kind. We will leave in the morning to make our way back north up the Keys toward the mainland.  We will travel northeast from near the zero mile marker on US 1 for most of the day on Wednesday getting us to our lodging in Florida City.   

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Arrival at Key West

Our flight from Huntington to Ft. Lauderdale was on time and uneventful although I had my usual seat in the crying baby section. I really can't complain because the two small children across the isle from we were very good except for when we were descending toward the airport. Mary did some reading and I listened to some NPR podcasts until we both nodded off. For a $50 flight, we sure can't complain.
There were no problems picking up our checked bag and getting the rental car from Enterprise. We had reserved a Toyota Corolla but got a free upgrade to a Nissan Altima which is a nice car. The drive from Ft. Lauderdale to Key West was nice especially once we got out of the city. As I would drive through the area, Mary would read from the trip guides about the history of the area and what there is to see and do there. We took our time driving down and enjoying the scenery, sunshine and warm weather. The temperature was in the upper 70s the whole trip and there was a nice breeze when we would stop.
We stopped for dinner at a small Greek fishing community on Marathon Key and ate at the Seven Mile Grill which appeared to be a local favorite. The restaurant owner would talk to some of the regular customers in Greek. I made friends with an old drunk guy, Rick, who was enjoying the draft beer there. The dining area was very open air which was nice since the weather was beautiful and the light breeze felt good on the 80 degree evening.  I had the grilled seafood platter that included shrimp, grouper, scallops and a crab cake. A cup of conch chowder on the side was very tasty. Mary had the special of the day which was coconut shrimp. Each shrimp was the size of a flattened tennis ball! We wanted Key Lime Pie but decided to take it to go and have back at the room.
When we got to the Day's Inn we were please to get a free upgrade to a suite which is huge. There is a full kitchen, living room and an enormous bedroom. The motel is older but is really nice. The clerk also gave us passes on the shuttle that goes all over the island which will be great since parking is a problem in many areas that tourists want to visit. Most of the people we have seen here so far are Eastern European and the group in the lobby was from Estonia. We are here before most US tourists arrive in late winter.
While driving the Overseas Highway (US 1) I kept thinking about driving much of US 1 through Maine last October. We traveled from Portland to Whiting on US 1 and while the road was coastal, the scenery couldn't be more different here in the Keys.
The over 120 mile stretch of US 1 called the Oversea Highway is largely built on the rail bed for Flagler's Oversea Railroad from the turn of the previous century. The railroad was largely destroyed by a storm in the 193s but much of the landfill connecting the many tiny islands and keys provides a base for the highway.

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Winter 2013 Trip to Key West and the Everglades

The first trip that will be included in this blog is our winter 2013 visit to Southern Florida.  We will depart our home in Milton, WV on the morning on Monday, January 28 and will return on the afternoon of Monday, February 4.
We were able to secure flights on Allegiant Air for a little over $50 each from Huntington, WV to Ft. Lauderdale, FL.  We are renting a car from Enterprise using a great discount through the Marshall University Alumni Association.
We will drive from Ft. Lauderdale to Key West where we will spend a few days enjoying the scenery and visiting Ernest Hemingway's home and hopefully seeing the famous polydactyl cats.  We also hope to visit Sloppy Joe's Bar, frequented by "Papa" while in the area.
From Key West, we hope to make our way up the Keys stopping at several of the many State Parks and local attractions.  We will spend a few nights in Florida City, FL that will provide us access to highways leading to Everglades National Park.
If possible, we will post a blog entry for each day's activities that include photos as possible.