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Snowbirds In The South Keys

RV Paradise

Jennifer Steedly Duncan
Apr 1, 2013
Photographers: Jennifer Steedly Duncan
Photo 2/10   |   A little piece of heaven at Anne’s Beach
If Emily Dickinson had ever made it to the Florida Keys she might have said “an everywhere of turquoise,” or some other lovelier two-syllable word for shimmering blue.
As you drive into the Keys, it really is stunning that there is anything down here at all. The water laps right up to the road in so many places, and you might as well be on a bridge rather than a tiny strip of sand and coral held together by some tenacious trees and a little bit of grass. As our family drove in from Miami, it began to feel like a foreign country. The view is so distinctly “un-American,” and so very tropical. Mangroves cover the landscape, and crushed coral roads instead of sand or dirt took us to parking lots where signs in English and in Spanish warning about native trees that drip poisonous sap on unwary walkers and bounty hunts for the invasive non-native Lionfish convinced us that we were indeed someplace unique.
Photo 3/10   |   City Park, Tavernier Key
John Pennekamp State Park was our first stop after crossing the uninviting 18-mile stretch between Florida City and Key Largo. The open panoramas of my childhood memories are now fenced on the Monroe County side with an impossibly ugly 12-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and a concrete barrier median painted a revolting shade of aqua. There were no signs to tell us why an ecological preserve needed such high security. It would have made some sense if the barbed wire intended to keep wandering tourists out of the Bay of Florida, but no, the water-facing wire left us wondering what kind of crocodile on steroids was out in the bay that could transverse that fence.
"An everywhere of silver With ropes of sand To keep it from effacing The track called land -Emily Dickinson"
Later research led to no solid conclusions for the presence of the fence other than one, everyone hates it; and two, some speculation that if escaping inmates headed south into the Bay of Florida from the adjacent correctional facility made it past the guards, they would be trapped by the fence. Then nature, in the form of the protected American crocodile, would save the taxpayers the additional expense of hunting them down.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
At Pennekamp, we immersed immediately into the spirit of the islands, snorkeling among the cannons from a recreated Spanish wreck that dot the saw-grass bottom of the swimming area. The boys, grabbing their dive gear, hit the water running, anxious to start exploring. Once they were comfortable in the semi-open water, we signed up for one of the daily tours that head out to the state park’s protected coral reef three miles offshore. The reef was lovely and was a perfect introduction to open-water diving for the kids, as it is a very shallow reef.
Photo 4/10   |   Snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
So shallow in fact that you should not be surprised if you hear the dive boat operators intermittently using their bull horns to remind the dimwitted tourists who didn’t believe them when they were told on the boat along with 30 other people not to stand on the reef! Standing on the reef kills the coral, but it was sad and astounding to see how many people seemed to think that they were the exception to this unwavering rule of nature and that their magical feet would somehow not damage the reef. However, despite the plethora of fellow fish watchers, this reef will always be special to us, as somewhere on the bottom of this reef is one of Tucker’s baby teeth, knocked out by his snorkel, and now rolling merrily along in the shifting sand.
Anne’s Beach
For a quieter, less populated day in the Keys, we headed south to Islamorada and the day use spot of Anne’s Beach. Like a scene from a travel brochure for Bali, the blue-green water the temperature of a baby’s bathwater stunned us into wordlessness.
Photo 5/10   |   Secluded shelters at Anne’s Beach
We pulled out our books and our beach umbrella and plopped ourselves in the shallow water, while the boys determined how far out into the bay they could walk with the water at their knees (about the length of a football field, it turned out). The cabanas tucked into mangroves at strategic locations down the wooden boardwalk enhanced the peacefulness and serenity of the site.
Photo 6/10   |   Anne’s Beach
Bahia Honda State Park
Following a close second in pure scenic craziness is Bahia Honda on Big Pine Key, 12 miles south of Marathon Key. This state park is in high demand, so your trip planning needs to be made 12 to 13 months in advance if you want to camp here, especially if you are in a large RV. It also has excellent day facilities, so staying farther up the Keys at a place such as Pennekamp and driving down for the diving is doable.
Photo 7/10   |   Beautiful views are everywhere in the Keys
Located on the Atlantic side of the Key, the state park is precariously balanced on a spit of land, surrounded on three sides by water, and is one of the few places in the Keys where good snorkeling is accessible from shore. Bahia Honda is also a haven for migratory birds, so late winter is an excellent time for bird watchers to pull up a sand chair on this “little rope of sand” edging the blue-green waters with a margarita and a pair of binoculars. Honestly, what more could you ask for?
Travel Tips
Late winter and early spring are the best times to travel in the Keys. It tends to be too far for the Spring Break crowd, but the temperatures are still balmy and the average rainfall is at its lowest, which means mosquitoes are also at their lowest.
Don’t head down to the Keys without a copy of The Florida Keys: A History and Guide, by Joy Williams, and a good snorkeling/dive guidebook and a laminated underwater reef guide like FishFlips or the Reefcomber’s Guide, by Innovative Scuba Concepts. The guides in particular will serve you well and budget travelers will appreciate the significant savings they will get by not paying the Keys’ retail pricing. All three publications are available on amazon.com.
For an introduction to open-water diving, the state park tours at Pennekamp are nice, but check out the private tour operators for quieter, less crowded diving.
The online reservations system for the Florida State Parks will let you make camping reservations 11 months in advance. Heading to the Keys without a reservation at a private or state campground is not a good idea.

Sources

Florida State Parks
850-245-2157
http://www.floridastateparks.org
Florida Gateway Resort
855-754-8929
http://www.gatewayfl.com
Everglades Isle
239-695-2600
http://www.evergladesisle.com

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