Monday, July 2, 2012

Southern Florida (Miami, Everglades National Park & the Florida Keys)

Lummus Beach Park in South Beach

My trip to Southern Florida was planned far less in advance than most of my other trips usually are. In fact, it was on quite a whim that I decided to come visit this area. I had received a good deal on a ticket voucher through my Delta Skymiles account. Having visited warm Puerto Vallarta, Mexico the previous January, I thought it might be fun to try another sunny destination during the following January. My ticket voucher could only be applied towards a destination in the United States, so one day I randomly thought, "What about traveling to Miami in January?" My trip occurred over a period of six days and involved visiting Miami, Miami Beach, Everglades National Park, and a drive down the Florida Keys with a two night stopover in Key West.

Day 1: Thursday, January 8th 2009

Although there are direct flights from Seattle to Miami on Alaska Airlines, my travel voucher was through Delta Airlines and I ended up having a layover in Atlanta. I flew from Seattle to Atlanta at 14:05, and then onto Miami. I finally arrived in Miami at midnight, one hour later than expected due to a late departure from Atlanta.

I had reserved a car rental ahead of time through Thrifty which I had no issues or complaints with whatsoever.

Exhausted at this point, I got the car from the car rental agency and headed to South Beach, where my pre-booked accommodation at the Clay Hotel was located. When choosing my accommodation in Miami, I knew that I wanted to stay in South Beach. However, I didn't want to pay the high prices normally associated with the area so I began searching for budget hotels. Clay Hotel is located along the charming Espanola Way and has a range of rooms that include shared baths to deluxe accommodations. I ended up reserving a budget room which was the cheapest private bath option. The room certainly wasn't fancy but it worked for what I needed and was very affordable.
Clay Hotel in Miami.
Clay Hotel in Miami.
Charming area located just outside the Clay Hotel.
Charming area located just outside the Clay Hotel.


Day 2: Friday, January 9th 2009

Having had an extremely late night the night before, I ended up waking up at 11:00. I was greeted with bright blue skies and the beautiful, warm sun. I was super excited to get outside and feel the sun, so I got ready quickly.

From my hotel I drove through South Beach, enjoying the colorful and interesting Art Deco architecture from my car window as I drove towards Coconut Grove. I eventually reached the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens which was once the private home of James Deering, an American millionaire. In the early 1900’s, Deering bought 180 acres of waterfront property in the northern area of what is now Coconut Grove. His plan was to build and create a Renaissance Italian villa with formal gardens like those he had visited on his European vacations. In order to achieve his goal, he made two separate trips to Europe, purchasing and later amassing a massive collection of various pieces including furniture, decorative art, tapestries, entire ceilings, wall panels and much more. These treasured pieces (which range from the 15th to 19th centuries) were then used to assemble his villa, specifically designing the interior space around the artifacts he had obtained. Construction of his home took over two years to complete and required over 1000 workers, which was at that point in time ten percent of the population of Miami.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
 Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

View from Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

I arrived just in time to join a 45 minute guided tour, which was included in the $15 entrance fee. The tour guide took visitors through the main floor of the house, explaining in great detail the history of many of the objects in each of the rooms. At times, I felt as though I was wandering through a palace in Europe as the rooms were so authentic to their specific designated period (i.e. Rococo, Baroque, Neo-Classical, etc). The house reminded me in many ways of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California as both homes were built with artifacts from palaces, castles, and churches in Europe.

After the tour concluded, I visited the upstairs portion of the house, which included the many guest bedrooms and Deering’s private bedroom and bathroom. Next, I walked outside where I was rewarded with amazing views of Biscayne Bay. From the back terrace, I walked into the formal gardens.

The formal gardens took even longer to create than the house did, finally finishing in 1921. The ten acre garden mixes layouts from 16th and 17th century Italian hillside estates with those of 17th century France, creating a beautiful and serene place with many walking and photographic opportunities. I spent quite a bit of time walking through the gardens as there was many beautiful things to take photos of. The best part of the gardens, however, was the warm sun that was beating down on me; it was crazy to think that it was cold and probably less than 40 degrees back in Seattle, while I was experiencing nearly 80 degree weather.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens


From Vizcaya, I drove towards Coral Gables, which was one of the first planned subdivisions in the United States, the brainchild of George Merrick. This community helped termed phrases such as "gated community" and "homeowners association." In the 1920’s Merrick purchased 10,000 acres and then built the famous Biltmore Hotel, a beautiful resort built in the Spanish-Moorish style. Afterward, Coral Gables continued to evolve with broad streets, plazas, and public spaces such as the Venetian Pool. The 12 square miles of Coral Gables contain several unique neighborhoods, including the Chinese Village, Italian Village, and the French Normandy Village. Unfortunately, due to the lack of addresses for these neighborhoods and without a detailed map in my possession,  I was unable to drive through any of the “themed villages." I did, however, see the Biltmore Hotel and its gorgeous interior along with the Coral Gables Congregational Church.
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables
Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables

Palm trees near Coral Gables Congregational Church.
 Coral Gables Congregational Church
Coral Gables Congregational Church
Coral Gables Congregational Church


After driving through the amazing estates in Coral Gables, I headed over to Key Biscayne. Key Biscayne is actually an island east of downtown Miami and south of Miami Beach. I first stopped at Crandon Beach Park, which was located on the eastern side of the island. I found the beach right away, but was disappointed when I saw that there was a $5 parking fee. However, I somehow managed to avoid paying the fee when I entered the parking lot; the attendant just waved me on in. By this point, it was around 16:30, and the temperature was beginning to decrease, so it was a bit chilly at the beach especially with the breeze. I was shocked at how few people I saw at the beach; there were maybe a few dozen people when it normally could have been covered with hundreds. Although 70 degrees may sound like good beach weather to this Seattleite, apparently the same does not hold true for Miamians. I walked down the beach for a few minutes, running my toes through the soft sand and eventually touching the Atlantic Ocean, a first for me.
Crandon Beach Park on Key Biscayne
Crandon Beach Park on Key Biscayne
Crandon Beach Park on Key Biscayne
Crandon Beach Park on Key Biscayne
Crandon Beach Park on Key Biscayne
Crandon Beach Park on Key Biscayne
Crandon Beach Park on Key Biscayne


From Crandon Beach, I headed to the southern tip of the island to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area. This is a 415 acre park that is home to the Cape Florida Lighthouse, which was built in 1845 and is the oldest structure in Florida. I arrived in the park just as the sun was beginning to set, so I was beside myself knowing that I would be able to attain some amazing photography of the beach and its lighthouse as the backdrop would be a beautiful pink-blueish sky. In the end, I was thrilled with my photos; it seems that I often find myself arriving at the right place at the right time in terms of photograph opportunities.
Cape Florida Lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area
Cape Florida Lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area
Cape Florida Lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area
Cape Florida Lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area
Cape Florida Lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area
Cape Florida Lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area


After leaving the park, I headed back north on Key Biscayne until I reached Key Biscayne Village, the only town on the island. As I had only been snacking all day, I was quite ready for a full meal so I selected Café Croisic, a French bistro, based on recommendations from my Lonely Planet guidebook. I arrived just as the restaurant opened at 18:00. For my meal, I ordered the French Onion Soup as an appetizer, the chicken dish for dinner, and had chocolate cake for dessert. The soup was good, not necessarily the best I’ve ever had, but certainly not the worst either. The chicken was surprisingly good; it was a chicken breast that had been tenderized and then grilled with a balsamic vinegar reduction and placed over mashed potatoes. The chicken was moist and had a pleasing char-broiled taste. The dessert, however, was definitely the best part. It was a chocolate cake-like brownie that had a thick and oozing chocolate sauce in its center, topped by a scoop of ice cream. While I enjoy chocolate, it’s not necessarily my most favorite choice for dessert, but this chocolate dish was the most amazing I’ve ever had (in terms of chocolate). As I bit into the cake-like texture, I was immediately greeted with the warm, oozing rich chocolate center. The taste was phenomenal, period. The total price of dinner was more than I would have like to normally spend ($45) but as I hadn’t spent too much that day on sightseeing, I didn’t feel too bad. In truth, although I had an excellent experience with dessert, the food itself was overpriced, but is a good choice if you want some delicious French food.
Chicken dish from Cafe Croisic in Key Biscayne.
Chocolate cake from Cafe Croisic in Key Biscayne.


From the restaurant, I headed back to South Beach, where I relaxed in my hotel room for the rest of the evening. I was still exhausted from my travel nightmare from the day before.



Day 3: Saturday, January 10th 2009

I awoke to my second morning in Miami under bright blue skies once again, but this time feeling even more exhausted than the day before. The bed in my hotel room had to have been the most uncomfortable I had ever slept on before, so after tossing and turning all night, I hadn't received much sleep.

I finally left around 10:00, and headed out for a breakfast to a place called Le Sandwicherie. This counter service only restaurant was highly recommend by several of the guidebooks I had read and was also rated by Zagat, so I definitely wanted to check it out. Le Sandwicherie serves only sandwiches and smoothies, so I had the French Croque Monsieur sandwich (ham and Swiss cheese sandwich, between layers of toasted bread). My dish came with a salad and I also ordered a freshly made smoothie. The sandwiches were quite delicious and made with the utmost fresh ingredients including awesome and authentic French bread. It’s no wonder why the place is immensely popular and has been so highly rated.
Le Sandwicherie in Miami
Croque Monsier sandwich from Le Sandwicherie in Miami.


From the restaurant, I began the Art Deco walk through South Beach, which started just a few blocks from my hotel. Aside from its nightlife, South Beach is probably most famously known for its Art Deco district, which contains over 800 preserved buildings, many of them located along the chic Ocean Drive. To this day, this area of Miami has the world's largest collection of Streamline Moderne Art Deco architecture. Many people have referred to Miami’s Art Deco architecture as Tropical Deco due to its use of bright colors and tropical motifs. I walked through street after street of these beautiful buildings, some of them obviously well taken care of and others in need of some desperate TLC.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.
Art Deco architecture of Miami's South Beach neighborhood.


During the walk, I also ventured over to Lummus Beach Park which is a 300 foot wide beach that stretches over ten blocks. The beach was filled with volleyball players, women strutting their stuff in tiny bikinis, families with their children making sand castles, and many women sun bathing topless; quite an interesting mix of people and lifestyles and a true representation of all that is SoBe life. The water here was surprisingly warm and the beautiful blue Caribbean color I had so been looking forward to seeing. From the beach, I continued to walk along Ocean Drive, which was a great stroll for people watching.
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach
Lummus Beach Park in South Beach


From South Beach, I went and grabbed the car and headed towards Coral Gables, this time to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. This is the largest tropical botanical garden in the United States (outside of Hawaii) and is 83 acres in size and was originally created in 1938. South Florida is the only region in the continental United States where both tropical and subtropical plants can survive year-round, so this massive place is quite amazing. In order to obtain a good overview of the park, I opted to take one of the 40 minute guided tram tours that was included in the entrance fee. The tram tour took me through a myriad of different gardens, from ferns to orchids, to fruit trees to numerous palm trees (550 of the known 2500 species are grown here) to the beautiful man-made lakes; I saw a tremendous variety of tropical foliage.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden


Along the way, I also saw many iguanas, much to the park’s unhappiness. Apparently, these little (well, rather big) creatures destroy much of the plantings and vegetation, and procreate at an alarming rate. While I know that the park wasn’t pleased with their existence, it was rather fun to be able to see so many of the colorful iguanas up-close.

After the tram tour, I decided to walk around the park myself, spending much of my time in the lakes area, also known as the Fairchild lowlands. I had difficulty keeping my camera turned off as it seemed wherever I turned, there was amazing beauty that had to be captured. At times, when the wind wasn’t blowing, I was able to get some great shots of the palm trees reflecting so elegantly in the lakes (lake reflections are some of my most favorite shots to take). I also encountered a few other forms of wildlife, including a turtle (which was underwater in one of the lakes) and several birds, one of which I was able to get some close-up shots of. Towards the end of my visit, I made my way to the tropical fruit pavilion where I toured the tropical house and enjoyed the amazing and colorful tropical flowers. This garden would make for the perfect wedding location. In fact, I was lucky enough to see some of the staff members setting-up for a wedding that was to occur later that evening; the view from the wedding ceremony location was truly incredible with the lake area providing a gorgeous backdrop.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden set-up for a wedding.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden


From the gardens, I drove to Little Havana, which is a 30 block neighborhood that centers around S.W. Eighth Street (aka Calle Ocho). This famous neighborhood was initially set-up by Cuban immigrants during the 1960's and has been followed through the years by Dominicans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans, to name a few. While the area itself was not as rough as I had expected, there really wasn’t much to see or take photos of. I had initially hoped to eat at one of the Cuban restaurants in the area, but my timing was off as I wasn't very hungry.

Instead, I left the area and ventured over to the Bayside Marketplace. I wasn’t too keen on visiting this place as I had read that it was quite touristy and not too interesting, but thought I might as well check it out. The market had a parking garage where I parked for a ridiculous $10 fee. Essentially, what I saw was your average outdoor shopping mall with all of the standard American chain stores; very disappointing, especially since I had wasted $10 on parking. Sometimes it is truly best to believe your guidebooks and take heed of their advice.

From the mall, I decided to find a place for dinner. Mexican sounded good at the time, so after consulting my guidebooks I found a place called Taquerias el Mexicano, which was located in the Little Havana neighborhood. I parked the car on the street as there was no restaurant parking and then headed inside. I was the only white person inside so I knew that the food would be good. I ordered a combination dish of a ground beef taco, cheese enchilada, and a bean tostada. The dinner began with the standard chips and salsa, but lucky for me, these chips were thick and crunchy, similar to those I had found in Mexico the year prior. The salsa was obviously homemade, and probably some of the best I had ever tasted. Dinner itself was okay, just a tad-bit disappointing. My tostada was probably the highlight of the meal; it was topped with refried beans, tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream, insanely delicious guacamole, and cotija cheese and was quite tasty. My enchilada on the other hand was actually cold, not very good, and the beef taco was okay, just too greasy for my taste.  The best part of the meal, however, was the cheap dessert I ordered; a $2 piece of flan that was smooth, creamy, and placed in a strawberry sauce. Bottom line: I would probably eat here again, but try different items on the menu in hopes of a slightly elevated eating experience.

From the restaurant, I drove back to South Beach and collapsed at the hotel since I was exhausted.

Here are some of the general impressions/things I noted about Miami during my two day visit:
  • Miami drivers tend to drive like maniacs; they were, without a doubt, the craziest drivers I had ever seen, constantly honking their horns and having absolutely no patience for anyone or anything.
  • Almost all of the cars on the road appeared to be very new; seldom did I ever see any run-down looking cars, even in the poorer sections of the city. The only things I could attribute this to was the cheaper cost of living, and the ritzy lifestyle, which seemed to expect these sort of niceties.
  • The downtown Miami skyline was much larger and more impressive than I had imagined. I knew Miami was one of the larger cities in the United States, but I hadn't guessed that it would have such a dramatic skyline, especially at night.
  • Although I only spent two days in Miami, I could have easily extended that time to a week and still not have seen everything the city and its surrounding area had to offer. You shouldn't underestimate the size of the city as it is quite massive and spread over a gigantic area of land.
  • With the exception of the Bayside Market, much of the downtown area was absolutely dead when I drove through it around 17:00 on a Saturday evening. Apparently, most of the city's famous nightlife must take place in South Beach.
  • There were many tolls on several of the local freeways, which surprised me as there are practically none in Washington State.
  • Parking access to many of the beaches costs money, so be prepared to dole out a few dollars when hitting the beach.
  • The city is relatively new, in comparison to other US cities; in 1920, the population in the Miami metropolitan area was only 66,000 people; less than 90 years later in 2009, the population is over 5,000,000.
  • Miami, and more specifically, South Beach, has a very European vibe to it, with lots of outdoor cafes, carefree attitudes, and a large European community. I enjoyed this aspect of the city immensely. 

Day 4: Sunday, January 11th 2009

I headed out of Miami early this morning, leaving the hotel at 8:15. I then drove west for about one hour until I reached the Shark Valley Visitor Center within the Everglades National Park. While doing research for the trip, I had read that the National Park offered two hour tram tours along the 15 mile paved trail in the Everglades prairie. The only other options for accessing this trail were by bike (which I didn’t have) and by foot, which definitely didn’t sound too appealing in the 85 degree weather. The tram tour cost about $16 per person (not including the $10 entrance fee to the park) and was offered each hour, on the hour. However, in order to ensure that I was able to participate in the 10:00 tour, I had called a few days prior to reserve my spot.

Luckily for me, the 10:00 tour was not completely full, so I had a full row of seats to myself, which was quite nice and proved handy when I later needed to move from side to side while taking photos. The entire duration of the tram tour was narrated by a Park Ranger, who was extremely informative and provided a ton of information on the Everglade’s delicate ecosystem. She also gave a thorough explanation on many of the birds and other animals whom reside in the park. One of the interesting facts I learned was that a female alligator lays anywhere from 20 to 50 eggs per year, but only five to ten of her offspring end up living to adulthood. Baby alligators are a yummy delicacy for many of the birds, turtles, and male alligators, so their survival rate is very low. Another fascinating bit of information I learned was that the sex of the alligator is determined by the placement of the eggs in the nest; that is, the eggs that are towards the bottom of the nest remain a cooler temperature, and become females. Eggs that are place at the top of the nest are kept warmer, and therefore, turn into males. The facts I mentioned above are only a small sampling of the interesting information the Park Ranger talked about and explained to the group.

The temperature as I rode along the trail in the tram was very hot, even with the wind. It was difficult to stay cool, especially when I was moving from side to side on my bench in the tram while taking photos.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
There is an alligator directly below this water.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Tram tour at Everglades National Park.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park


Towards the middle of the trail, I came to the Shark Valley Observation Tower, which was an unfortunate concrete eyesore, but made up for its lack of beautify by providing amazing views of the surrounding park. At the top of the tower, I was able to see a group of three alligators sunbathing together, which was unique as the most I ever saw together at once was two. I figured that one was the mother alligator, and the other two smaller ones were her children.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Shark Valley Observation Tower at Everglades National Park


One of the most impressive things about the Shark Valley trail was the abundant amount of wildlife I saw and encountered. I cannot begin to count the number of alligators I saw as I drove along the path (at least 50) or different types of birds that flew past me. It was truly amazing to be able to see so many animals flourish in their natural habitats. I was so incredibly excited to be able to photograph the alligators up close; this was an experience I will never forget and one that I wholeheartedly recommend.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park


From the Everglades National Park, I drove just down the road to Cooperstown Airboats. An air boat is a flat-bottomed skiff that uses powerful fans to propel itself in the shallow water of the Everglades. I was very apprehensive about participating in one of these tours (they can be found everywhere in this part of Florida) as I had read that the boats were loud and that their environmental impact had not yet been determined. I chose Cooperstown based on the positives reviews they had received on Trip Advisor.
Cooperstown Airboats


After arriving, I only had to wait about ten minutes until they placed me on a boat. Immediately prior to getting on the boat however, I was allowed to hold a baby alligator. I was reluctant to hold the wiggly reptile, but figured that if everyone else did, I should as well. When I initially touched him, I was shocked at how soft and squishy he was; I assumed that his body would be very hard, but in fact, it was still quite malleable.
Cooperstown Airboats
Holding the baby alligator at Cooperstown Airboats.


After everyone had their turn holding the baby alligator, I got into the boat, and was given cotton balls to plug my ears with to protect my hearing from the loud fans. The entire ride lasted about 40 minutes and took the group through the wide open expanse of swamp fields and through groves of small trees and bushes, in hopes of finding turtles and alligators. I only saw a few animals, but that was okay as I had seen enough in the Everglades National Park. What I more so enjoyed about the ride was the feeling I experienced while on the boat. It felt as though I was floating through the air and softly gliding through the water. That feeling, combined with the amazing scenery and big blue skies that seemed to go on forever was truly an incredible and unforgettable experience.
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Cooperstown Airboats
Turtles that I saw during my boat ride with Cooperstown Airboats.
Cooperstown Airboats


From Cooperstown Airboats, I began the long drive to Key West. Along the way, I stopped in Key Largo for a late lunch. I found two different recommend restaurants to eat at, but both were closed! I finally settled on a place called Rib Daddy's. I had the prime rib sandwich with grilled onions and gruyere cheese and a side of cheddar mashed potatoes. My sandwich was quite delicious, but unfortunately, the potatoes were instant, which did not make me happy. I had planned to get in and get out of the place quickly, but the waitress ended up taking FOREVER to get us my bill, so I left probably 15 minutes later than I had wanted.

I continued heading down Highway 1, which is a 113 mile roadway that connects 45 different islands in the Florida Keys. At times, it was difficult to believe that I was driving across a small island as there was so many strip malls and small brush blocking the views. However, as I approached the middle Keys I was able to see the beautiful blue water much easier. I would have loved to have stopped and take photos along the way, but I was in a time crunch as I had indicated I would check-into my hotel at 18:00.

I ended up arriving in charming Key West around 18:15 at my chosen placed of lodging called the Caribbean House. The owner of the small ten room establishment was a friendly French woman named Marie who hailed from my favorite city of the world, Paris. She took me to my room, which was painted a colorful pink color, but decorated very tastefully in a Caribbean style. The most important part though, was the bed as it was actually COMFORTABLE, unlike the horrid one in Miami.
Caribbean House in Key West
Caribbean House in Key West
My room at Caribbean House in Key West.
The bathroom at Caribbean House in Key West.


After dropping my stuff off in the room, I headed out into the city and walked down Duvall Street for around one hour. Duvall Street is one of the main thoroughfares of Key West and is filled to the brim with tourists, tacky stores with tourist paraphernalia, and a smattering of good restaurants. I had wanted to find a Cuban place for dinner that evening, but I didn’t have any of the guidebooks on me, so I had to walk back to the hotel room.
Duvall Street in Key West
Duvall Street in Key West
Duvall Street in Key West
Key West at night.
Duvall Street in Key West
Caribbean House in Key West at night.


I decided on a Cuban place called El Meson de Pepe, which just so happened to be located at the end of Duvall Street, about a 30 minute walk away from the Caribbean House. I chose the Pollo al Ajillo (roast chicken dish with a garlic mojo glaze and caramelized onions). All of the main entrees came with a side of black beans, rice, and plantains. I had never tasted plantains before, so I was looking forward to trying a new food. My dish was excellent with intense flavors; a lot of lime and onion had been used to season both dishes, which was fantastic. I thought the plantains were okay, basically a greasy, mushy, sweet banana. Definitely edible, but nothing I would go out of my way to eat again. For dessert, I ordered a slice of key lime pie. I had never tried key lime pie, but I was surprised with the taste and texture. It did not have the huge lime flavor I was expecting, and the custard part of the pie was not as smooth as I had anticipated. I figured (and hoped) that this slice was not a true representation of an authentic piece of key lime pie.
El Meson de Pepe in Key West.
El Meson de Pepe in Key West.
Pollo al Ajillo dish from El Meson de Pepe in Key West.
Key lime pie from El Meson de Pepe in Key West.


From the restaurant, I drove back to the hotel, where I was able to finally enjoy relaxing in a very comfortable bed.

Day 5: Monday, January 12th 2009

I began this morning by walking a few blocks from my room to Croissants de Paris where I picked-up a few pastries for breakfast, including a key lime beignet and a croissant.
Croissants de France in Key West.
Croissants de France in Key West.
Key lime beignet from Croissants de France in Key West.


After eating my quick breakfast, I explored the many lovely side streets of Key West, which just beckoned me to photograph them.
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West
Key West


I eventually headed to the nearby Hemingway House. This house was the former home of the very famous and beloved American novelist Ernest Hemingway from 1931 to 1939. Hemingway wrote many of his most famous works here, including "A Farewell to Arms" and "For Whom the Bells Toll".
Hemingway House in Key West

The entrance fee to the Hemingway House was a bit steep at $12 per person, but I still decided to visit as it was the sight I most wanted to see while in Key West. A guided tour of the house was included for free with the entrance fee and left every ten minutes.

Upon entering the house, I immediately noticed the many cats; they were everywhere, including the house and the gardens. I also noticed that most of the cats had the famous six toe pads, which is usually referred to as polydactyl (extra toes). Their paws were much larger than I had expected and actually quite strange looking. Apparently, some of the cats have extra toes on their front feet and some on their back feet. Ernest was given a six-toed cat by a ship captain many, many decades ago, and all of the cats who now live on the property are said to be descendants from that original cat. The house currently has about 60 cats, all of whom are given names in honor of famous people, such as Audrey Hepburn, Pablo Picasso, Spencer Tracy, etc.
One of the many cats at Hemingway House in Key West.
Hemingway House in Key West
A cat relaxing at Hemingway House in Key West.
Hemingway House in Key West
Hemingway House in Key West
Hemingway House in Key West
A sleeping cat at Hemingway House in Key West.
Hemingway House in Key West
Hemingway House in Key West
Hemingway House in Key West
Hemingway House in Key West
Hemingway House in Key West
Hemingway House in Key West

The tour guide on my tour was a very eccentric man who obviously loved his job, however, at times his loud voice and antics were slightly annoying, so I was somewhat happy when the tour concluded. While on the tour, the group was introduced to many more of the cats, including Charlie Chaplin, Harry Truman, and Archibald MacLeisch. Most of the cats were very friendly, but some looked as though they had seen better days; some just looked a little rough around the edges and as though they were in need of a bath.
A cat performing trickets at the Hemingway House in Key West.
Hemingway House in Key West
The cat cemetery at the Hemingway House in Key West.


From the Hemingway House, I walked several blocks to the Heritage House Museum. The Caribbean Colonial house was originally built in the 1830's and was last occupied by Jessie Porter, who was a fifth generation "conch." Jessie was famous on Key West for her hospitality and entertained many people, including the famous Tennessee Williams. Much of the furnishings and decorations of the home date from Jessie's time. I love walking through old, beautifully restored homes. I paid the $5 entry fee, but was almost immediately disappointed once I walked into the interior of the house. While it had been nicely restored, there was only five rooms to view in the house; the upper floors were closed off to the public. For an entrance fee of $5, I thought it was quite ridiculous to only show a small portion of the house to the public.
Heritage House Museum in Key West
Heritage House Museum in Key West
Heritage House Museum in Key West
Heritage House Museum in Key West
Heritage House Museum in Key West
Heritage House Museum in Key West


From the Heritage House Museum, I walked just around the corner to the Audubon House, which was the former home of ornithologist (scholar of birds) John James Audubon. The house contains the first edition works of 28 of Audubon's paintings. The Audobon House, unlike the Heritage House Museum was much larger and all of the rooms with the exception of one were viewable. The best part of the tour though was the gardens behind the house, which were filled with a variety of different flowers, specifically many colors of orchids. I had a great time taking photos of the many beautiful flowers.
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West
Audubon House in Key West


From here, I headed out of Key West to the place I was most looking forward to visiting on the Keys: Bahia Honda State Park. There are just a few areas along the Keys that have the white, soft, sandy beaches many of us might picture. One of these few exceptions is Bahia Honda State Park, located about 30-45 minutes north of Key West. As I drove north and approached the park on Highway 1, the blue ocean water began to change into turquoise colored water. I had not been able to see this beautiful color on my way down into Key West as it had been dark out, so I was quite excited.

In order to enter the park and park my car I had to pay a $6 fee. From the entrance of the park, I drove about ten minutes north to one of the beaches called Sandspur. I chose this beach out of the three as it was listed as being the best. When I arrived I was blown away by the gorgeous water, but a little disappointed by the beach itself. While the sand was soft and white, there was quite a bit of dried seaweed everywhere, so the views were not as I had expected. However, the ugly seaweed did not detour my enjoyment of the beach. At first I walked along the shores of the beach but eventually made my way a few hundred feet into the ocean, where the water was only to my mid-calves! The water at Bahia Honda State Park is very shallow and maintains its minimal depth outward for several yards from the shoreline.
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park

Being from Seattle, it is a rare occasion when oen can enjoy a beach on a hot and sunny day while also feeling warm ocean water at their feet. Wait, let me restate that, it's not rare, it's actually impossible! The ocean waters of Washington State are always freezing, so to feel warm water on my feet and legs was so refreshing. I also absolutely love the feeling of soft sand underneath my bare feet; it’s probably one of my most favorite simple things in life. I ended up walking down the beach for at least a mile; I really didn’t want to turn around as it was so relaxing and peaceful, but I knew it had to end at some point, just like everything else in life.


After leaving the beach, I drove back down to Key West. Once in Key West, I headed to the landmark of the most southern point in the continental United States. I had expected a huge crowd of people posing next to the buoy, but I saw less than one dozen, which surprised me.
The Southernmost Point in the Continental United States.


I quickly freshened up at the hotel and then left and walked down to Mallory Square in order to watch the famous sunset. Unfortunately, as soon as I arrived at the pier I noticed that one of the giant cruise ships that had arrived earlier in the day was still docked and would probably be blocking my view of the sunset. I was quite irritated with the situation, but at least I was able to witness the process the ship had to go through prior to disembarking. The cruise ship finally left about ten minutes prior to the sunset. I love watching sunsets, especially because I don’t often get the chance (or time) to do so at home. It is very popular for visitors to watch the sunset at Mallory Square and it seemed as though the entire town was out there with me.
Mallory Square in Key West
Cruise ship leaving Mallory Square in Key West.
Sunset at Mallory Square in Key West.
Sunset at Mallory Square in Key West.
Mallory Square in Key West


After the sunset, I began the long walk back to my hotel, but not before stopping at a store called Key Lime Pie Factory. I had wanted to find some easy food souvenirs to bring back to my family. I ended up buying some key lime cookies for them and a slice of Key Lime for myself, hoping that it would taste a lot better than the one I had the night before at the Cuban restaurant. I left and then almost immediately ran into another Key Lime store just a few hundred feet away. A man ushered me in and explained that he was not a chain like the one I had just visited, and that his place actually had “the best” key lime in town. I was doubtful, until I agreed to buy a slice and then took a bite; the taste was truly delicious; sweet and tangy, and the consistency was perfectly smooth. It was in fact much better than the key lime from down the street. Generally speaking, the best tasting food almost always comes out of a local place versus a chain as they seem to have so much more pride in their food and tend to cook and bake almost everything themselves from scratch.
Key Lime Pie Factory in Key West
Delicious key lime pie.


Apparently, the other place had their pies brought in from Miami, and they weren’t baked fresh daily.
After dropping the key lime pie slice off in my hotel room, I headed just out of town to a Mexican place for dinner called Chico's Cantina. Unlike most of the other places I had eaten at on my trip, I had not found this place in a guidebook. Instead, I had seen it twice along the highway as I drove into town. It looked good and I always love eating Mexican food, so I hoped for the best. It’s definitely a local place that is probably not often frequented by tourists. I ordered the same standard plate that I always do at Mexican restaurants, along with a side of guacamole for the chips. Overall, I would say the food was good, but not great. My beef taco was probably the best of my meal, but the rest was just okay. I can’t say for sure if I would eat here again; I would probably lean more towards no as there are so many other options in town; no point in eating only so-so food twice.

I drove back to town again, and settled in at the hotel for the rest of the evening, knowing that tomorrow would be my final day in the warm sun.


Day 6: Tuesday, January 13th 2009

On my final day in Florida, I headed for breakfast to a restaurant called Blue Heaven, which was located just down the road from the Caribbean House. The grounds on which the restaurant is located has had a very storied past; it was once home to a bordello and Ernest Hemingway was the referee for boxing matches here. The restaurant is located completely outside, so it has great ambiance and even includes several resident roosters and hens. Blue Heaven was listed in all of the guidebooks I had as being one of the best places to eat in town, so I thought I should stop in for a visit. I ordered the bacon and eggs benedict. The food was quite tasty and reasonably priced. The only negative aspect to this experience was the horribly humid weather, which destroyed my straightened hair within ten minutes!
Blue Heaven restaurant in Key West
Blue Heaven restaurant in Key West
Blue Heaven restaurant in Key West
Bacon and Eggs Benedict dish from Blue Heaven restaurant in Key West.


After eating breakfast, I walked back to the Caribbean House, checked out, and began the long drive north from Key West to Miami.

Along the way, I stopped at Long Key State Park as I had wanted to spend some of my last moments in Florida at the beach. This beach was okay, definitely nothing near as nice as Bahia Honda State Park but I still managed to enjoy myself just fine. I walked along the beach for a bit, running my toes through the soft sand. I was also fortunate enough to get some photographs of a few small birds that were also enjoying watching the waves roll in.
Long Key State Park
Long Key State Park
Birds standing in a row at Long Key State Park.
Long Key State Park
Long Key State Park
Long Key State Park


Overall, my experience and time spent in Southern Florida was absolutely amazing. Aside from my first night of hell, the rest of my travel plans seemed to run quite smoothly and without any hiccups. The weather was just as I had hoped it would be: a temperature variance that ranged between 75 to 85 degrees with beautiful sunny skies each day. It was so refreshing and invigorating for me to get out of the rainy, gray, and dreary Seattle weather for a few days. It's truly amazing what a difference a few days of sunshine can make in your life in the middle of January.

Prior to purchasing the plane tickets for the trip, Miami, the Everglades, and Key West had never really been on my list of places I wanted to see and visit. However, I am very thankful that the idea of traveling to this part of the United States randomly entered my brain on that day back in September. Had it not, I would have never known just how great this area is and the vast number of choices of things visitors have to choose from. Unlike so many of my other trips, this one was not about seeing as much as I possibly could in a short time span; instead, I chose a few items that most appealed to me and focused on enjoying my time there. I could have easily spent the entire time in Miami instead of also visiting the Everglades and Key West as I only saw a sampling of what Miami had to offer. However, it was unimportant to me that I see every major site in the city. I was actually more interested on getting out of the city and reveling in the natural beauty in the surrounding area.

Southern Florida is an area of the United States where I could definitely see myself returning again in the future, especially during the winter months. It's relatively accessible, has a plethora of accommodations, restaurants, sightseeing possibilities, natural beauty, and best of all, as I always say, has the type of weather needed to "warm one's bones."

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  2. Your post certainly makes me want to visit Miami and the Everglades (I have been to Key West) although some of the alligators were scary! I did wonder-so you were allowed to take photos inside the Hemingway house? When I visited in 2007 only outside photography was allowed. He's an idol of mine (from a writing standpoint ha) and love any Hemingway connections when traveling.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! Yes, the alligators were at times a bit much and in hindsight I was probably a little crazy for getting so close to photograph them but it was incredible to see so many of them up-close!

      The trip occurred several years ago, but I don't remember there being any signs stating that photography wasn't allowed inside the Hemingway House. Hopefully the next time you go you will be able to take some photos inside!

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