Looking for a laid-back atmosphere in a frost-free climate with 1,700 islands of coral reef no more than 20 feet above sea level? Oh, and you want to drive there from the continental U.S.? Then head to the archipelago just a few hours south of Miami commonly known as the Florida Keys.
There is only one major road running the length of the Keys, and it is U.S. Route 1. The popular areas from northeast to southwest are Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and Key West. About 80,000 people call the Keys home, with a third from Key West alone. All landmarks are referenced by mile markers; Mile Marker 0 is at Key West and Key Largo is around Mile Marker 106.
There wasn’t always a highway running right through the middle of the Keys. In the early 1900s, Henry Flagler of Standard Oil fame extended his Florida East Coast Railway all the way to Key West. Spend any time in Florida, and you soon realize the influence of Flagler. Considered the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Overseas Railway was heavily damaged by a hurricane in 1935. The railway was abandoned, but the existing infrastructure was used to build today’s Overseas Highway. Some of the old railway can still be seen today, especially near the famous Seven Mile Bridge that connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys.
Bridges are everywhere in the Keys, and it can make for some slow going traffic. It can take three to four hours to drive from Key Largo to Key West. Some portions are wide enough to feel like a regular part of the mainland, but some portions are narrow enough to have views of the Straits of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Florida Bay in the Gulf of Mexico on the other side. In fact, at my campsite at Long Key State Park, my back window looked out to the Atlantic and my front window looked out to the Gulf.
For all but two nights of my monthlong stay, I found availability at state parks. I started at Curry Hammock State Park, a newly developed campground just outside of Marathon. Some of the campsites are right on the ocean, and all are within a 30-second walk to the ocean. The best part of Curry Hammock is a sandbar in the bright blue waters just off the shoreline. I paddled my kayak over there several times to see rays, seastars, crabs, fish, sand dollars, birds, and all kinds of ocean life. The quiet nights, awesome scenery, and friendly vibe at Curry Hammock makes it an easy choice for a return visit.
From there, I moved over to Long Key State Park. Every single campsite is right on the ocean, but the kayaking didn’t seem to be as exciting from my campsite. And, for some reason, it just didn’t seem quite as friendly as Curry Hammock. I enjoyed Long Key mostly because of its close proximity to Islamorada. The tarpon feeding at Robbies and the complex at Islamorada Fish Company are not to be missed. I have never seen such massive fish just hanging around for a quick meal. Robbies was also a great place to launch the kayak and paddle over to Lignumvitae State Park. If you’re looking for a good place to stay near Islamorada, then I recommend Long Key State Park, but if you want to be closer to Key West, I say keep driving down the road to Bahia Honda.
Of the three state parks I visited with the Airstream, I think my favorite was Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key. If I had been able to grab one of the secluded waterfront sites, it would have been my favorite, hands down. I just had a regular campsite with no view to speak of, but it didn’t diminish the overall appeal of the place. Bahia Honda (pronounced BAY-ah HON-da by the locals) is sprawling. Some of the campsites are on the Atlantic and some are on the Gulf side. There is a day use area which is packed full of visitors each day. Food, drinks, and supplies are available at the concession store. Boats for snorkel trips to Looe Key depart from the marina if the weather is calm. (The snorkeling out at Looe Key is pretty impressive, too!) There is also a smaller marina just for the campers. The beach is a sandy beach (actually unusual for the Keys) with great sunset views. And the rangers accepted all my mail deliveries! I now see why it is next to impossible to find a campsite at Bahia Honda State Park. They are completely booked 11 months in advance, and almost no one cancels it seems. (I relied upon one last-minute cancellation to get my spot.) The campground itself is about ten minutes into town, and about 40 minutes down to Key West.
Any visit to the Keys wouldn’t be complete without a few days in Key West. I had absolutely no desire to pay the ridiculous, outrageous, and idiotic $135 nightly rates for some of the campgrounds right in and around Key West, so I left the Airstream behind and made day trips instead. Parts of it (especially Mallory Square) are a little “touristy”, and parts of it (Old Town) have old, narrow streets lined with beautifully restored homes. The center of town, Duval Street, is packed with bars, restaurants, and shopping of all kinds. I was shocked at just how urban Key West felt. I had pictured a sleepy little village on the beach, but it is really a thriving metropolis on the beach. To me, it is a small (but less refined) version of Charleston, South Carolina. It even has an international airport. And I took advantage of that airport for the absolute highlight of my entire stay in the Keys.
At the far end of the airport is a charter company with several daily flights to Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the least accessible national parks in the U.S. The flight isn’t just any ol’ flight. It is in a 1956 de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter seaplane that takes off from a paved runway in Key West, and lands right on the waters surrounding Dry Tortugas. Normally a three-hour ferry ride, the seaplane cuts the 70-mile trip down to 35 minutes. Other than a few minutes up at 2,500 feet because of a wildlife refuge, the flight is just 500 feet above the water. It is close enough to see sharks, porpoises, birds, and hundreds of sea turtles. Our flight happened to be on the day of a full moon and it was just the start of sea turtle nesting season. The crystal clear water also makes it easy to see various shipwrecks along the way. Flying above the calm waters definitely gives a unique perspective to what lies below. And, of course, it was pretty impressive to land right next to some sailboats–basically in the middle of the ocean–and then taxi up to the beach.
Before it was classified as a national park, Dry Tortugas (and its Fort Jefferson) was a military outpost built in the mid-1800s to defend the United States from attack. Today, it makes a great place to snorkel. I did the obligatory guided tour, but I really just wanted to get in the water and explore. There is a tent campground that would be an absolute blast to try someday. There is no internet, no cell phone service, no nearby coffee shop. As far as I know, there isn’t even a place to grab a snack. It is truly out in the middle of nowhere, with water in every direction as far as the eye can see. It was such an awesome experience! Next on my list: take seaplane lessons.
As you may have noticed, I really enjoyed my time in the Keys. I didn’t even mention Sparky’s Landing in Key Colony Beach, or Blue Hole on Big Pine Key, or No Name Pub near No Name Key, or Knight’s Key Campground, or Key deer, or key lime pie. To be perfectly honest, at a quick glance it can look a little rundown and dingy in places, but that is just the feel of the Keys–laid-back and casual. Once you realize it isn’t anything like nearby Miami, you start to get it. The locals have it–that desire to never leave and the longing to return someday: The Keys Disease.Read More
Land Yacht Harbor of Melbourne (or LYH as the residents call it) is an RV park in the Orlando area of Florida. I use the term RV park loosely, as it is really more of a close-knit snowbird community built around RVers. Airstreamers built the park in the 1970s, and up until a few years ago, only Airstream brands were allowed to stay. They have since relaxed their rules and let in SOBs (Some Other Brands) — their words, not mine — but over 80% of units at LYH are Airstreams. There is another rule: the minimum age is 50. Well, some rules were meant to broken, and I was given special dispensation to spend some time with the “old folks.” I think it helped that I was mentioned in Airstream Life magazine and that I was, in fact, an Airstream owner. I’m so glad they let me in. Seriously, so glad.
Within the first week, I found myself going from Airstream to Airstream to help people with their computer problems–getting online, removing viruses, helping with iPads, setting up email, saving photos, etc. In fact, there was so much interest I held a couple of seminars in the club house. So many people showed up that I turned it into a weeklong tech event. I just may have to take that concept on the road with me.
I absolutely loved listening to everyone share their personal stories. Some were retired teachers. One was a high school principal. One was the personal photographer for JFK and LBJ. One was a seaplane pilot. One was a Canadian aircraft mechanic. One helped build submarines. One couple lived on a sailboat full-time. One even won an Oscar. One fought in Vietnam. One still teared up when talking about her late husband. One was a mail carrier. One was an electrician. One was a corporate executive. One was a baker. (If I stayed longer, I am sure I could have found a butcher and a candlestick maker.) They came from all walks of life with all levels of income, but they all had one common bond: an Airstream.
Land Yacht Harbor of Melbourne is a special place. And that is because of the special people who call it home for half of the year. Dick and Marilyn, Dick and Barb, Bobby and Jane, Katrina, Janie, Pete and Marsha, Patty and Cotton, Don and Fran, Bea, Claude, Bobby and Faye, Overton, Pat, Joan and Bill, Judy and Chuck, Waco and Moni, Reno and Gerry, Jim F., Jim P, Jack and Barbara, Warren and Sharon, Doreen, Maxine, and countless others: you let me into your lives and treated me like your very own son or grandson. I will always have fond memories of my three months with you. And I hope to see some of you on the road!Read More
Imagine a nine-year-old kid who, in 1984, was so fascinated with the first launch of the Discovery space shuttle, he painted it for a summer art class. Fast forward nearly 27 years and imagine that same kid watching the final launch of Discovery–in person–with his very own eyes.
Never would I have imagined being a mere 45 minutes away from Cape Canaveral, home of so many launches to space, during a scheduled launch. Once I found out about the scheduled launch of STS-133 Discovery during my stay in the southeast, I had to see it in person. Little did I know my wait would be 111 days. It was scrubbed five separate times and continually delayed for various reasons. But that’s alright; it gave me time to get my act together.
Almost like a nine-year-old kid again, I just assumed I could drive over to Cape Canaveral in my car, grab a spot a couple hours beforehand, and watch the shuttle launch. Right? Wrong! While many view the airborne shuttle from miles away, the actual launch pad itself can only be seen from a few special spots. Arguably the best free spot is in Titusville, just across the Banana River from the launch pad–about 11 miles. But I wanted closer than that! The closest spot (about three miles from the launch pad) is NASA property reserved for press, dignitaries, and NASA staff. That wasn’t going to happen. The other spot (just over 6 miles away) is on the NASA Causeway, a little strip of man-made land that connects Merritt Island with Cape Canaveral. This is also inside NASA property, so a special vehicle pass, a special visitor pass, and a special causeway pass are all needed to view the shuttle launch from here. And I found all three passes–on a good ol’ site called eBay! If I had really been thinking, I would have signed up for the NASA ticket lottery, but I had no idea that even existed and missed my chances of that by several months. Before you ask, I briefly entertained another option: renting my own plane and seeing it from the air. But NASA restricts airspace within 30 miles during a shuttle launch. So the causeway it was!
I had another issue: my camera lens. My Sony SLT-A55 is a sweet camera, but my longest lens is only 270mm. I needed more length, and once again I turned to the internet. I found a great place to rent camera lenses and equipment at lensrentals.com. For around $12/day, I was able to rent a $1500 400mm super-telephoto lens. It was so worth it!
With my tickets and gear in hand, I set off for Kennedy Space Center early in the morning on launch day. (Well, early for me–about 8AM.) By 9AM, I had passed through the magnetometers at the Visitor Complex, and had almost 8 hours to wait before the scheduled launch time of 4:50PM. So I went to see a movie! The admission price of the launch ticket includes a free showing of a 3D IMAX movie about the Hubble Space Telescope, appropriately called IMAX: Hubble 3D. Words cannot describe the “cool factor” of this movie. The images of the universe from Hubble’s lenses are absolutely jaw-dropping! Seriously, go see this movie! You will feel like a speck of sand in an ocean of boulders.
After waiting in line for the movie, and after waiting in line for food after the movie, I got to wait in yet another line to board one of dozens of buses to the causeway. After an hour wait, it was only about a ten-minute bus ride to the viewing area. As we were heading over, security stopped us to let the six astronauts pass by on their way to the launch pad–in a 1983 Airstream motorhome known as the astrovan! Overhead was a helicopter mounted with machine guns. After they passed, we were back on our way to our destination.
I ran off the bus and a made a beeline straight for a spot of grass with a direct view of the shuttle sitting on the launch pad. I couldn’t get there before several hundred others swarmed to the same spot, but I did get a spot in the second row–with nothing but water in between the launch pad and me. By the time the rest of the buses had all arrived, several thousand people surrounded me. Around 40,000 people watched from the Kennedy Space Center property, and an estimated 250,000-300,000 watched from the surrounding Space Coast. (I never knew this, but the Space Coast of Brevard County, Florida is the region around Kennedy Space Center. In fact, the region has the best area code out there: 321!)
So, really for the next three hours and 45 minutes, I sat in my chair and got a suntan. Food, beverages, and the all-important portable toilets were nearby. And loudspeakers blasted the live NASA communication and countdown. I had my iPhone with text alerts and Twitter updates, too. This came in handy because there were several tense moments when NASA had some delays, but the live audio feed was sometimes hard to understand.
The minutes and seconds leading up to launch were exhilarating! I think I checked my camera about 20 times to make sure all my settings were just right. The launch window for STS-133 Discovery was exactly ten minutes: from 4:45:27 PM to 4:55:27 PM. At about 4:40, we all heard the dreaded words, “no go” from the Range Safety Officer. Apparently there was an Air Force computer malfunction and the launch was in serious danger of yet another scrub. To this day, I think it was just the PR department creating anticipation. But they somehow fixed the glitch in a few minutes, and the crowd erupted when we heard the words, “Discovery is a go for liftoff!” It had come within two seconds of being scrubbed! Two seconds!
I had my eyes on my camera viewfinder and saw the first puffs of steam from the launch pad. Yes, steam and not smoke. NASA installs a sound dampening system made of 400,000 gallons of water. The hot exhaust hits the water and it turns to steam. Without it, the blast would break windows for miles around. So, once I saw the steam, I just held my finger down on the camera button, and fired off as many photos as I could take. Exactly 30 seconds after I saw the first puffs, the sound waves hit me, and I heard and felt the half-million pounds of thrust. When I looked up and saw it without using a lens, the overall brightness of the exhaust surprised me. It wasn’t as bright as, say, looking directly at the sun, but it was close. And with that, Discovery was on its way to a 12-day mission–for the last time.
On the bus ride back to the Visitor Complex, our bus driver–who had personally witnessed every shuttle launch but one–entertained the passengers with NASA trivia. Even if you don’t agree with the principles of spending billions of dollars to go to space, I guarantee the space program is part of your everyday life. WD-40, microwaves, titanium, disposable diapers, invisible braces, memory foam mattresses, ear thermometers, long-distance telecommunications, pacemakers, cordless tools, water filters (and much, much more) were all direct inventions of the space program.
Once back at the Visitor Complex, I got to wait some more–in traffic. I counted about 7 hours of waiting before the launch and about 4 hours of waiting after the launch–all for about two minutes of thrill. But, oh, was it worth it!Read More
So I left all my winter gear in storage somewhere in Chicago. That means I will spend the winter months in the warmth of California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. It also means very few blog updates for the next couple of months. In the meantime, be sure to follow me on Twitter!Read More