Monday, November 29, 2010

Everglades, Florida Keys and the Space Shuttle

We decided to take a fall trip to Naples, Florida to celebrate Jamie Bernthal's wedding. This is not a normal Out of Edwards post because flying to Florida isn't a typical escape from Edwards. But it was a blast and maybe someone will find our itinerary and tips useful for their own adventure! All week, we were waiting for the Space Shuttle Discovery to launch (originally planned for Monday, then Wednesday, then Thursday and finally Friday). The Shuttle never launched, but our trip reflected this aspect. We drove back and forth unnecessarily because of the Shuttle's delays - but with careful re-planning each night of the trip, we got to see everything we wanted to see.

Elizabeth and I flew from LAX to MIA on Delta, then drove 25 miles south to Homestead Air Reserve Base. The lodging there is under renovation and stunk. It was so bad that we asked for and were granted a refund. On our first real day in Florida (Monday), we drove to Biscayne Bay National Park (10 mins east of Homestead). Since Biscayne is 95%+ underwater, we took a snorkeling trip out to the reef. Don't bother at Biscayne - it's 1 hr by boat to the reef and an hour back, and the reef is no better than nearby parks (ex: John Pennekamp State Park). But the snorkeling day trip did give us a good introduction to the area.

After snorkeling in Biscayne, we drove 120 miles along the keys to Key West. This drive is one of the most scenic in our country and should be taken at leisure. Stop at pull-offs to take photos and enjoy the scenery. In Key West, we stayed at NAS Key West lodging. If you stay here, ask to be in the Truman Annex, which is within walking distance of Duval Street nightlife. We drove, but you could easily walk. Dinner at Seven Fish, then Key Lime pie at Willie T's were both great! Seven Fish is not on Duval Street and is not part of the normal tourist mecca at Key West. It's a local restaurant in a neighborhood with decadent food to match. Also note that real Key Lime pie is yellow, not green.

On Tuesday, we did the one thing in Key West that we drove down there for: Dry Tortugas National Park. My parents did this trip a few years ago and raved. A couple of outfitters take catamarans 70 miles west to the park so the day starts early (7:30am) and ends late (5:30pm). But your fare includes your fare ($145 included breakfast and lunch). Note that the Yankee Freedom outfitter has a military discount ($5) and refunds you $5 if you have a National Parks pass. Oh, take Dramamine. After the 2.5 hr ride to the park, you can take a guided tour of the fort, snorkel or lounge on the beach. Snorkeling gear was provided.

After returning to Key West after a day of great historical fun and perfect snorkeling, we hopped in the car and headed back north along the keys to Key Largo. We enjoyed some more Key Lime pie there.

On Wednesday, we went to the Everglades National Park. I originally thought that the Everglades didn't have much to offer, but it had wildlife, interesting history and adventure! We drove from Key Largo to Flamingo and took a backwater boat tour. We saw the American Crocodile and plenty of birds. There still isn't much at Flamingo because of Hurricane Andrew but it's worth the drive. We downloaded 13 MP3s from the National Park Service website that explained what we were seeing as we drove thru the glades. That night, we stayed in greater Miami and had dinner near MIA at Bella Capri by Anacapri. This charming Zagat rated Italian restaurant in-a-strip-mall was exactly what we needed after a day exploring the swamp.

Thursday entailed a stop at the Shark Valley Visitor Center for the 2 hr ranger-led tram tour ($18). This was an extremely educational tour. Some people rent bikes at Shark Valley and go it alone, but having the park ranger was invaluable. Our ranger even took his shoes off and waded into the waist-deep river of grass to pick up some plant material. Not too far away, we spotted gators - and more gators and more gators. At the mid-point of the tram tour, you get 30 mins to scramble up an observation tower to look out over the Everglades. There's also a short hiking trail there. And that's where we came face-to-face with two 10'+ alligators. Our camera ran out of battery so there's no evidence. But it's true, they were 5 feet away.

We continued our push up to Sanford, Florida on Thursday night. We arrived in time for Mexican night out with Elizabeth's aunt, uncle and cousin. They were so kind to let us stay with them and we really enjoyed catching up. In the morning, we packed the car and headed to Cape Canaveral for the Shuttle launch (2nd from the last ever). En route, we got the message that the launch was scrubbed due to a leak in the external tank. We said our goodbyes and headed toward Naples.

On our last two days in Florida, we enjoyed our time at the Naples Beach & Golf Club. It's usually better to stay at the hotel where a wedding is being held and this was a perfect example. The wedding was on the Ocean Lawn and was just perfect. At the reception, we made new friends and danced thru the night. Congrats to Jamie & James on a fabulous wedding! And we also thank them for giving us good reason to take a week away from Edwards to enjoy another part of this great country.

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