Thursday, March 31, 2011

Life on a bike in the Florida Keys

March 31st
Bahia Honda State Park to Sugarloaf Key
32 miles (22 on route)

We took our time leaving Bahia Honda this morning. We ate a great filling breakfast, a Greg original creation, pancakes with bits of fruit, topped with peanut butter and honey. We are in for another beautiful, sunny day in Florida. We left the campground at 1 pm, in no real hurry to get to our next spot, which was yet to be determined, but likely around 20 miles down the road. The sun has been hard on our skin and I seem to be breaking out in hives or blisters from the sun and heat. Even when we are completely doused with sunscreen it seems to feel like our skin is on fire.

We rode through a very picturesque part of the keys, crossing many bridges over channels. The water is unbelievably blue and turquoise in color. You can easily see fish swimming below the channels in the waterways. Mangrove dominates the landscape and especially tidal areas. The Keys are not known for sandy beaches and most areas not covered in mangroves are a rocky shoreline composed of ancient coral. Bahia Honda (pronounced Bay-uh Honda) is unique for the fact that it has a sandy beach, one of the few places in the Keys where sea turtles can nest. We visited one of these sandy beaches yesterday, but because the wind was blowing at the beach the water was a little cloudy and Greg didn't like the idea of stepping on a Portuguese man-of-war. The Man-of-war is a conglomeration of organisms live together and end up looking like a jellyfish with a sail. They are extremely poisonous and can cause respiratory issues if stepped on or touched, even after they have dried up and died. I spotted several dead ones on this beach and that was enough for Greg (don't tell him I said it!)

We made it through the hot day by stopping in the shade occasionally and stopping at cafes for cold drinks and rest. We stopped at Mangrove Mama's and had some Arnold Palmers and an appetizer to cool off after lunch. While we were sitting outside at the restaurant, out of nowhere, a big palm frond fell down out of a palm tree and almost hit me on the head if an umbrella hadn't deflected it! I had to laugh because I can say I've never been hit by a falling palm frond before.

Greg and I eventually made it to a nice side street with a great bike path leading to a natural area we had hoped to camp at. Unfortunately there was a sign indicating that this area was closed to the public at night, so we were left with the dilemma of where to camp. Mediocre hotels around here run about $160 a night and the only other option was a KOA Kampground. We paid more to camp here than we usually pay to stay in a hotel, a whopping $60 with tax for a campsite! It was nothing impressive as a campsite and if there had been another camping option we would have taken it. However, aside from yards, all vacant land was either swampy sand or a tangle of mangroves. We did get to swim at the pool at the KOA (yes, a campground with a cafe and a pool, weird we know.) Greg and I ended up practicing our synchronized swimming routine and practiced it in tune with the music playing at the bar. It was a great time, we felt like we were eight years old again. We had a nice ending to a lazy day and settled in for a peaceful sleep.


Looking out over a channel

Roadside Shade

Dani's wrist with heat rash

Heat rash on my elbow

Cyclist's tan, haha

An anole; we see them everywhere down here

We never saw a key deer, but they are an endangered species and we rode through a refuge where they live

Greg at the Mangrove Mama's Cafe

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Long Key to Bahia Honda, Florida
March 30, 2011
35 miles

Due to a constant breeze off the ocean last night, we were able to get some good sleep. Our gear was actually nice and dry when we woke up, so we decided to pack everything up right away and hit the road without breakfast to beat the midday heat.

In this section, the bike trail separated from the road is in great shape. The path is lined with brush on both sides and allowed us to ease our nerves. Riding so far without the threat from traffic was a good change of pace. About fifteen miles from Long Key, we reach Marathon, the first real developed area we came to this morning. We found an open air restaurant right on the water that advertised breakfast. We made it inside just in time to get our orders in before they stopped taking breakfast orders. Eating under a cabana style roof with the ocean right outside made for an enjoyable breakfast; plus eating breakfast after riding a good distance is my favorite way to get the morning going.

We had to grab some groceries in Marathon, and ended up dilly dallying in the grocery store because the day was hot and air conditioning felt great! After Marathon, we rode over the seven mile bridge, which, as you guessed, is seven miles long. It was a bit unnerving to be suspended above the ocean on a bridge with cars whizzing by for almost a half an hour. Luckily the shoulders were wide enough to make crossing safe. While crossing the bridge, we saw more sea turtles swimming below us. They are so huge and swim so fast for turtles. It is great to see them. We have heard that they are more visible right now because mating season is right around the corner.

After an otherwise uneventful ride, we arrived at Bahia Honda (bahia is pronounced bay-ah) state park. After we set up camp and got our gear organized, we checked out some beaches and then found a nice bay for snorkeling. We ended up spending the rest of the evening in the water. Within a few minutes walk from our campsite, we were able to find a bunch of cool fish and other ocean creatures during or snorkeling. We saw some huge sponges, a black and yellow angel fish, a few different species of trunk fish, and had a school of some yellow striped fish followed us around to eat what we kicked up off the bottom. Snorkeling might be my new favorite thing. As soon as my head is below the surface, I feel like I am in a completely different world, and that world is full of so many cool things I have never seen. Before sunset, we went back to camp and made burritos to eat as the sun went down.


Slash the iguana at our breakfast spot in Marathon

Old Railroad bridge with sections cut out to allow for larger ships

From seven mile bridge

View from halfway across the seven mile bridge

Sea turtle!

Nice bike path.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Easy ridin' in the Keys

Key Largo to Long Key
37 miles

The crazy thunderstorm last night cooled down the air enough that we were able to actually sleep in relative comfort. Our cold adapted bodies are balking at the heat and humidity at night and continue producing copious amounts of sweat. This on a foam sleeping pad leads to a generally uncomfortable situation. Once we woke up, we played the waiting game, waiting for our gear to dry out. Down here, however, nothing dries very well because the humidity is so high.

Once we packed up and left, we were running a little behind, but no big deal as the distances we are covering lately are pretty short. The riding in this area has been easy as can be. The overseas highway connects all the Keys (also highway 1), and actually has a nice shoulder. In addition to this, there is a great multi-use trail called the Florida Heritage Trail that is separated from the highway, and runs much of the distance. The biggest hills in this part of Florida are actually the bridges. The winds, though constant, have not been very strong, and are very welcome to help off set the high temperature and humidity.

In addition to the easy riding conditions, the views are fantastic. The islands themselves are covered in dense scrubby vegetation and some trees ranging from mangroves to palms. The ocean is always present, and sea life is more visible here than anywhere I have ever been. We discover at least one new bird species a day that neither of us has seen before. The bays and inlets and full of schools of fish that are visible from the bridges and the highways. While we were riding over a bridge today, Dani pointed out and came to a quick stop. She spotted a sea turtle! It has huge, and then a few other appeared. We ended up seeing a group of four, and we think they were loggerheads.

A while later, we saw a restaurant/bar called Robbie's that is famous for it's tarpon. No not for eating them, for the tarpon at their docks. We stopped in a bought a buck of bait fish and fed the huge tarpon that were swimming right below us. Some of these fish weigh up to 200 pounds! It was incredible to see them so close.

We finished the day at Long Key State Park. We had an amazingly beautiful campsite right on the ocean. After we set up camp we went snorkeling right from our site and had a great time. We saw many different sponges and corals, and a decent number of fish. When we got back to camp, Dani found a Portuguese Man Of war jelly fish, and I think that about does it for me. No more swimming in the ocean! These things are terrible. The town by the state park has no restaurant or grocery store, but they do have a gas station. We ended up buying a supper of gas station food that turned into macaroni and cheese with corned beef hash. Not exactly gourmet, but it worked. Luckily the breeze is strong here, so we might be in for another good night's sleep.


Greg cooling off his toes

Dani riding on the Heritage Trail

Bike trail

Dani feeding some huge tarpon

This one almost took Greg's arm off

Sea Turtle!

Great campsite and Long Key

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fishing on the Sailor's Choice

Fishing on the Sailor's Choice
Key Largo

While flipping through some of the tourist guides last night Greg spotted an ad for ocean fishing “1/2 day for $40!” We thought it was too good to be true and had to have some catch, but after calling the company to ask some questions, we thought it sounded legitimate. So it was our plan to fish on the open ocean the next day.

Our day began with a disappointment. We returned to the Cuban Restarant and ordered breakfast. We both ordered heuvos rancheros and what we got was disappointing. It came as a plate with one scrambled egg, a basket of buttered and stale grocery store french bread, a big greasy chorizo sausage, and a premade greasy, square hashbrown. Yuck, we were expecting better after the previous dinner. But don't worry, the day gets much better!

We had a relaxing morning packing up and chatting with other campers and then moved to our new campground a couple of miles down the road. We were at the boat docks by 1PM and we prepared to board our fishing boat for the afternoon, the “Sailor's Choice.” The boat is 65' long and decked out with plenty of fishing rods and a generous deck. It worked out nicely because this boat could hold 49 people, but this trip only consisted of 15 adults and a couple of kids. We had the boat to ourselves, relatively. At first we didn;t know what to expect from the trip as our first mate seemed a little rough around the edges. However, as soon as we got out on the water we were having a great time. Everyone lightened up and talked to each other and the first mate (our guide) was very friendly. Right off the bat he opened a pool to bet on who would catch the largest legal fish and I put in three bucks to bet on Greg. After about a 45 minute ride over crystal clear azure water we slowed down to our first spot for fishing. We fished with simple bait casting rods with a weight on the end. About a foot above the weight was another line about a foot long with a hook on it. We laced the hook with pieces of baitfish or squid and let the line drop until it hit the bottom, then reel up the line about three feet.

The group caught fish pretty regularly. Most of what we caught were grunts and a small red reef fish of the grouper family. I caught one of these little groupers and Greg caught two fish. The first fish Greg caught was a beautiful yellowtail snapper. It was about 15 inches long and the guides told us this was a great size for a yellowtail snapper and that they are a great fish to eat. We were very excited about it and knew we would eat this fish for dinner. The next fish Greg caught was a surgeon fish. Surgeon fish are large and beautiful fish that live in the coral reef. They are dark blue and black and are called surgeon fish for their ability to cut you open with sharp retractable fin projections on their tail before their tail fin. We released this fish. It was absolutely amazing to see all of the different fish that people caught while out on the boat. It was also such a treat to be able to spend so much time out on the water on such a gorgeous day. Fishing was a little slow so our guides tried very hard to have us catch fish, driving the boat to five locations where we fished on or near the reef. We ended up being on the boat from 1:30 to 5:45. We had a day well spent and did something we have never done before. Once we docked our guide asked everyone to pull out their biggest fish and Greg almost won the biggest fish pool, but we were beat out by about 1/2 an inch.

Our guide fileted our snapper and we carried it straight to the nearest restaurant, hoping someone would cook it for us. We were lucky enough to happen upon the Conch House Restaurant, a family owned business that has been featured on the Food Network. It was set in a beautiful old southern style Victorian house. We sat down and handed our waitress the filets, which she took right to the chef and they cooked it in the same style as their special. The special that evening was “Yellowtail Snapper in coconut and macadamia nut with an orange reduction.” It was a perfect fit and our fish was fantastic! It was one of the freshest fish we've ever had and certainly the freshest saltwater fish we've ever had. We were in great spirits and rode back to our campsite ready for a good night's rest.

We changed into our swimsuits and took a little swim at a beach in our campground, which was at the edge of a beautiful mangrove forest with an osprey watching as the sun set. It was a very relaxing way to spend our evening. After working on our blog for awhile after our swim, we heard the wind start to pick up, then a couple of rain drops. Within about 15 minutes it began an out and out torrential downpour. It was raining so hard we didn't want to make the 400 yard run back to our tent from the breezeway where we were sitting. We ended up being stuck at the breezeway until 11PM when there was a lull in the storm. That lull lasted about three minutes, enough time to get back to our tent and hole up for the night. We didn't want to run through the rain because we knew we would get soaked and it seems like nothing dries here because the humidity has been between 80 and 90% day and night. We slept unusually well as the rain poured down around us and provided a but of relief from the heat.

Bird species so far: White ibis, anhinga, double crested cormorant, moorehen, little blue heron, little green heron, white heron, great blue heron, osprey, snowy egret, cattle egret, glossy ibis, purple gallinule, common yellowthroat, palm warbler, gray catbird, tricolored heron, ovenbird, great crested flycatcher, magnificent frigatebird. There are more but these are the interesting ones for me.


Greg and his surgeon fish

Greg and our guide after releasing the surgeon fish back into the ocean

Dani on the fishing boat "Sailor's Choice"

Us on the boat, beautiful water :)

our dinner at the Conch House, our catch on the plate in front of me

at the Conch House

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Day on the Ocean at John Pennecamp State Park

March 27, 2011

Fun Day at John Pennecamp State Park, Florida

We have been dragging around snorkeling masks and tubes since we arrived in Florida, so today, we decided to put them to use. John Pennecamp State Park was the first underwater state park, and is well known for its coral reefs. There are numerous companies that guide snorkeling trips out on the reef. We chose the state park concessionaire, and are happy we did, we had a great trip. The boat was nice, and the guides were great. They took us out to the Grecian Rocks and gave us a quick snorkeling lesson. Then we were set free to discover the reef on our own. I have never been snorkeling before, so this whole experience was very new.

After I proved to myself that I could breathe through a tube while underwater, I really started enjoying the experience. We started off the reef in the sea grass and saw some conch crawling around. As we moved closer to the reef, we saw more and more fish. I have no idea what they all were, but I know we saw many barracuda, smooth trunk fish, spanish hog fish, french angel fish, queen angel fish, blue tang, and many others. Toward the end of our time in the water, Dani and I swam right into the middle of a large school of parrot fish. They were huge fish, and at first I was a little reluctant, but then I saw how small their mouths are. The coral itself wasn't really all that colorful at this location, but the number and diversity of fish made up for it. All and all, this was a great first snorkeling experience.

After we finished snorkeling, we still had a good amount of daylight left, so we figured if we are going to play tourist, we mind as well go all out. We rented a two person kayak and paddled through the mangrove canals around the state park. The canals were chock full of all different sorts of fish, and the paddling was nice and easy. We had a great day spending time out on the water. I guess bike trips don't always have to be about riding bikes!

Also, just as a side note, it is really hot down here! I don't want to come off as a whiner to everyone who is up North right now, but after being used to cold all winter, this feels hot! The temperatures have been in the 80's with humidities is the 80-90% range. It is so hot, that when we try to sleep we are still sweating, even without sleeping bags. I can't imagine what summer is like here, and truthfully I don't really want to know.


We don't have any pictures for today because we took them all on a waterproof instant camera. We will try to put them up when we can.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Key Largo, Montego, Baby Why don't we go to Key Largo...

Everglades to Key Largo and John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park
50 miles

This morning we awoke to a blanket of fog covering the campground. We ate breakfast and put away camp in a timely fashion and left the campground by 9. We didn't get quite enough to eat, or rather, burned up the energy from our oatmeal breakfast and decided to stop at the best of the undesirable fast food spots in Homestead Florida and had breakfast at Denny's. We were not expecting much and we were pleasantly surprised when we got our food. We noticed that everyone is obsessed with bacon and you can see the “bacon pyramid” below as evidence. With more fuel in our bellies, we rode on down the road.

The traffic here is pretty disturbing. Many drivers (at least half) pass way too closely and nearly everyone is driving too fast. Some people are just jerks and pass way too close and way too fast. A note to drivers out there (I'm sure you all are): please pass cyclists in the other lane of traffic, just as you would another car. There is no reason to pass us so closely, especially when no cars are coming in the other direction.

There wasn't much out there for development between Homestead and Key Largo. Most of the scenery was dominated by sawgrass expanses and hardwood hammocks. Today was really hot and the vegetation provided absolutely no shade. Greg and I were feeling the heat, but it seems that Greg is the one who is better at regulating body heat. Oddly enough I barely sweat, apparently even when it is 85 degrees and 100% humidity. I got pretty hot and had to stop and cool down several times today and with a persisting headache, felt like I was on the verge of heat exhaustion. We stopped at the very first gas station on the outskirts of key Largo. We treated ourselves to ice cream and filled our water bottles in the well air-conditioned building. Before long we were on a proper bike path (a great relief) and pulled up to our home for the next two nights; John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park. We were very excited to get here and do some snorkeling and swimming in the ocean. Our first stop was the visitor center and the concession building. We asked around and discovered that in order to see the coral reef, we would have to take a boat ride about 30 minutes out from shore. Thankfully, we arrived just in time to book a spot on the morning boat trip out to the reef. We are thrilled about snorkeling tomorrow! Before we went out to eat we decided we had to go swimming. We have been riding along the coast most of our trip and we have scarcely even seen the ocean, much less gone swimming. The beach where we took our first dip was on a sheltered cove surrounded by mangrove forest and instead of a sandy beach, (which don't really exist in the Florida Keys) the shore was comprised of ancient coral. The water was warm and very comfortable and we played like little kids.

Then it was time for dinner! We rode up and down the bike path several miles before deciding on an unassuming restaurant right across the street from the park. The Marlin Restaurant had a car wash outside (a canvas tent with a garden hose and pressure washer) and advertised itself as both “seafood” and “Cuban.” We started out by ordering a pitcher of sangria. Greg also ordered a salad (which ended up being huge!) because he wanted to make sure he got enough to eat. When the entrees came, we knew we would leave full, and that maybe we wouldn't be able to finish the meal. That says a lot when it comes to the two of us. The portions were enormous! We both ordered Cuban dishes, in the spirit of trying new cuisine. Greg had pepper chicken and I had Cuban style breaded steak. My piece of steak was about the size of a flattened football. Our side dishes included yucca, fried plantain, and Cuban style rice and beans. The food was fantastic and very flavorful but not spicy. We were absolutely stuffed to the gills when we left the Marlin. A hearty meal and our favorite drink to end a long hot day of riding.


Everglades Sawgrass prairie during the dry season

Where the elevation gets a little higher, pine trees emerge from the grass.

Straight and flat roads. See how humid it is?

This should be called the cyclists food pyramid

Cuban food!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Grass, Gators, Great Blue Herons and Gas explosions

March 25, 2011
Florida City to Everglades National Park, Long Pine Key campground

Staying at the International hostel in Florida City last night was a good idea. Yesterday felt extremely hot, and we were sticky with sweat. The hostel had a great outdoor shower that was very relaxing and allowed us to wash off all the sweat and sunscreen. Just as a note: when you are sweating buckets, literally, reapplying sunscreen seems to be more important than in the west where sweat tends to dry pretty instantly.

After an ok nights sleep (US highway 1 next to the hostel is busy and loud) we woke up to a free pancake breakfast at the hostel. Our gear was wet because the dew was so heavy last night, the condensation created a mini rainstorm from the tree canopy. We packed up some of our gear while wet, and headed off to Everglades National Park.

Shortly outside of Florida City, we came across a fruit stand called Robert is Here. We had heard about it from a few locals and decided to stop in. Like all fruit stands, not all of the produce was local, but to our surprise, a good part of it was. We bought some fresh tomatoes and peppers, a mango, the biggest avocado ever, and a grapefruit. We also had a key lime milkshake, which was made right before our eyes with real key limes. It was delicious. We ate it while checking out the animal farm at the fruit stand. I never turn down a milkshake, especially when I am ten degrees further south than my body ever intended me to be.

We were both excited to go to Everglades, not just because we are NPS geeks, but because, the Everglades is really the only place like it on earth, and we might see a gator! The ride into the park is what I will now call typical southern Florida. The traffic wasn't bad, but the drivers are all in a hurry and pass each other with no regard to oncoming traffic. The road is flat as a pancake, but has no shoulders at all. What is up with no shoulders in a place where it would be impossibly easy to have them?

Once in the park, we stopped at the visitor's center and decided what programs we could check out while we were there, and checked out a great movie called River of Life. Come to find out, the Everglades is not a swamp at all. Swamps have stagnated water, but the water in the glades flows like a very slow river. We continued on to the campground, set up camp, then rode to the Royal Palm area to see a ranger talk called gator spy. Sure as peach pie will put a smile on my face, we saw a gator. The talk was great, but the wildlife was even better. I will let the pictures speak for themselves. We couldn't pull ourselves away from looking at all of the birds and gators. This park is truly amazing.

Now, as the sun is going down here at the campground, the air is cooling off, and it feels great. No need for even a jacket. Now I see why people come to Florida during the winter.


Also, our stove burst into a ball flames tonight and melted the pump. It seems like it will still work, but for a few seconds we thought we might have a bomb on our hands. Good to know that even on an easy day, adventure finds us.

Dani really enjoying the Key Lime Shake

Emu at Robert is Here

Florida Panther crossing

Our First gator!

Baby Gator


Little Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Green Heron

Purple Galinule

Look at all of those gators

Young GBH

GBH and an Anhinga staring at each other

Glossy Ibis

GBH eyes

Anhinga that caught a bluegill

Anhiunga's can swim, and do so often. They don't float, so they can dive at will and chase fish under water

Because they dive a lot, you will see them drying off everywhere

Add caption

Gator with a tri-colored heron behind him

Dani riding in the park

Our campsite

Huge avocado!