Friday, December 21, 2012

The Four State Park Campgrounds - Florida Keys

Welcoming committee at Fort Zachary Taylor, Key West, Florida

The similarities of the four Florida State Park campgrounds in the Florida Keys that allow recreational vehicles and camping are fewer than we expected. Each park offers unique vistas or features not found at the other parks. Even the day use fees differ from park to park, depending on facilities and services offered. We visited all four of them, from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park where we were camped at the very top of the keys, to Bahia Honda, just south of Marathon and the Seven Mile Bridge, where the Overseas highway swings west toward Key West. We also toured Curry Hammock State Park, located in between the two, but we were allowed access to only those three parks, as Long Key State Park, also in the middle keys, doesn't issue any kind of visitors pass.

Our Venture sailboat  at Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, 1982

There are several really unique Florida State Parks in the keys that don't have camping facilities, such as the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park and its mahogany forest, which is actually north of Pennekamp on Old Card Sound Road, and the boat-only accessible Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, located near Robbie's Marina in Islamorada. At the far end of the U.S. Mainland is Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, located in the Truman Annex at Key West. None of these parks offer camping facilities, though, and we wanted to catch up on the state of the parks for future reservations. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park has only recently added full sewer hook-ups, and we thought it would be nice to see what else is new in the Florida State Parks of the Florida Keys

John Pennekamp Ocean Reef State Park – MM 102.5

We made reservations at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, located in Key Largo at Mile Marker 102.5, months in advance as all Florida State Park campgrounds fill up rapidly during the winter season. Even though the weeks following Thanksgiving are known as the best time to visit the Florida Keys, the campsites are almost always full as soon as the snowbirds head south and Pennekamp is no exception. There were no empty campsites the entire four days we were there. The RV campground is a single, dead-end paved road with a simple turn around, or cul-de-sac, and a key-pad operated security gate for entrance anytime, day or night.

Ibis walk through the campsites

All 47 campsites have water and sewer hookups, as well as 30 amp and 50 amp electrical service. There were coin-operated washing machines but we weren't there long enough to need them. Maximum length is 45 feet, so we were just fine with out little 21 foot travel trailer. The camping area is far enough away from US-1 as to shield the campground from highway traffic noise, but is not near the water's edge as the other parks we visited. Still, the dense hardwood forest is unique in itself and creates an environment not found at the other parks.

Pennekamp is one of our favorite parks in Florida. Ilse snorkeled for the first time there back in the early 70's, and we still fondly remember the old glass V-bottom boat, Discovery, that took us for our first view of the beautiful coral reefs that are part of the park. The Discovery has been replaced with a flat style of glass-bottom boat, the Spirit of Pennekamp, which remains just as popular with tourists. The boat made tours twice daily while we were there.

The old observation tower next to the welcome center that offered a grand view of the park and the surrounding waters has been torn down as the State of Florida decided it was too costly to modify the tower to make it ADA compliant. It was simply torn down. The Ranger-run visitors center, though, still has its marvelous salt-water display tanks and is a great place to start a visit to Pennekamp.

The swimming areas are still as inviting as ever although it was a little cool for us Floridians. Kayak and canoe rentals are more popular than ever as the number of boats available for rental is astonishing. According to the park brochure, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the first undersea park in U.S, and encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles. In other words, you can't see most of it from land.

...Memories  - The old vacant lot in Tavernier today

On a bright, warm, clear Tuesday morning in late November, we slowly headed out of our campground at Pennekamp and turned south on U.S. 1 toward Bahia Honda State Park. We stopped at all the old places we knew along the way for a nostalgic look at places we took for granted so many years ago.

We had a less than memorable breakfast at a restaurant that no longer deserves its honors, then stopped just past Tavernier Creek for our first dose of reality, looking up the old sandspur-covered vacant lot where we used to tie up our sailboat. Today, a beautiful two-story house sits where we used to park our van, and a seawall with a boat-lift has replaced the coral rocks we used to clamber over to get to the boat.

...and in 1981, before the building boom

We passed Robbie's in Islamorada, having stopped there the day before only to be totally ignored by the Tarpon we were trying to feed. Still a nice place to visit if you're looking for atmosphere. You can see Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park from the dock at Robbie's and if you want to paddle over to the state park, Robbie's rent kayaks as well. We haven't been back to Lignumvitae in many years, but we made day-sails to the state park back in the early 80's just to visit and eat our picnic lunches while we owned the sailboat we kept up in Tavernier.

A Super-Male Iguana climbs up the steps on a seawall.

We headed on to Bahia Honda, passing Curry Hammock State park which we planned to visit on the return trip, and through busy Marathon with its airport that now boasts a real terminal. Immediately after leaving Marathon, we crossed the new Seven Mile Bridge. Well, we still call it the new bridge even though it was opened in 1982.

I look for the Peter Fancher memorial plaque every time I drive across, but I have yet to spot it. Minimum speed is 40 mph, so rubbernecking is hard to do, especially in the usually heavy, two lane traffic. The plaque is in memory of the 39 year-old bridge tender killed the week before his retirement in 1982, when a backhoe that accidentally extended while being towed on a flat bed trailer failed to clear the bridgetender's 200-pound propane tank mounted below the tender's shack. The explosion killed Fancher and closed the old swing-bridge forever. The new, 65 foot-high bridge was slated to open in less than a year when the accident occurred.

Bahia Honda State Park MM 37

Just a few miles south is the entrance to Bahia Honda State Park, one of the most popular RV destinations in the country. It isn't difficult to see why. It looks as if it were on the edge of the earth and all you have to do is walk to the beach and sail away. The park, located at Mile Marker 37, is the southernmost Florida State Park with campground facilities in the keys. Mile Marker means it is 37 miles from the end of U.S. 1 in Key West.

Everything in the keys is found by the Mile Marker. We pulled into the front gate and asked if we could check out the park for future camping sites. The friendly young ranger explained the rules of the temporary pass, then handed us the full complement of brochures for the park. We took a slow tour around all three camping loops, the Buttonwood, sites 1 to 48, Sandspur, sites 49 to 72, and Bayside where the remaining eight sites, 73 to 80, are located. Only the Buttonwood loop can accept our little 21 foot travel trailer, but all sites on the loop have water and electric. Not all sites on the other loops have electricity.

Check the website (listed at the end of this article) for details. The park uses a dump station for all loops. Both of the other loops have a 14 foot size limit on trailers and RVs. Getting to Bayside involves driving under U.S. 1 where the clearance is a meager six feet, eight inches!

Yep! If you're vehicle is taller than 6 feet, 8 inches, you aren't going to use Bayside or the cottages as they are also located on the other side of U.S.-1. There are three duplex cabins on stilts, five units available total, but you won't get there with an SUV with a kayak roof-rack or a tall van.

The rental cabins at Bahia Honda

The waterfront sites are unique in they are directly on the Gulf of Mexico, but offer no shade. In fact, not many of the sites offer shade as the buttonwoods and seagrapes that surround the campground simply don't grow tall enough. But the location is marvelous! There is a boat ramp and a basin that faces the old railroad bridge that was converted to highway use back in 1938. The bridge was abandoned in 1972 when the new concrete bridge was built further north, effectively cutting the state park into two sections.

It makes a unique, immediately recognizable backdrop to the state park. We made it back to the ranger station with a few minutes to spare, and made a note to revisit this park in the future whenever we can get a reservation. Yes, we will be back.
A short three minute video tour is at:

Curry Hammock State Park – MM 56.2

We once again drove across the seven mile bridge and through Marathon, this time headed north. Just north of the city is Curry Hammond State Park, and we pulled in to check it out. Again, a friendly gate attendant wrote out our 30 minute temporary pass and asked us to park in the main parking lot near the day use area and walk the camping loop.

They prefer not to have visitors drive through the camping area, a policy we agree with wholeheartedly. Not as big as Pennekamp or Bahia Honda, but once again, a different way to see the Florida keys. There are 28 sites in the campground, located on a single loop with some directly on the Atlantic Ocean. The campsites right on the water do not have immediate access to the Atlantic because of the buffer of protected sea grasses.

Campsites on the ocean at Curry Hammock

The only access to the water is via a single walkway through the protected area. Clean and well maintained, each site has water and full electric service. As at Bahia Honda, the park is serviced by a dump station. There is no shade. The campground is unique as the maximum RV length is 70 feet!

Just outside the campground is a playground and picnic day use area. The kayak rental and launch area is the other side of the parking lot, and is simply a wide, put-in spot in the mangroves. OK by us! Not a large area, but the water access is great. Again, we returned our pass at the gate, and with a friendly wave, we were once again on our way up busy highway U.S. 1.

Long Key State Park – MM 67.5

Luckily for us, the campground we decided to visit last on our day-long, research outing was Long Key State Park. We planned to stop at the campground on our return north to Pennekamp from Bahia Honda. If we had stopped at Long Key on the way south, we would have assumed all Florida State Parks have restrictions on short-term, look-and-see visits, and probably not visited the other two parks. Long Key State Park is the only one with the strange policy requiring full admission, even if just checking the facilities.

We had already visited Curry Hammock and Bahia Honda when we pulled into the Florida State Park located at Mile Marker 67.5, in the middle keys just south of Layton. We didn't expect any problems as we had our John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park camping sticker that we had on when we visited the other two Florida State Parks, valid for three more days, affixed to our windshield.

It made no difference at Long Key State Park. Either pay full price or no admission. After we protested that the other parks allowed visitor's passes and we had no problems at the other locations, Ranger Robert leaned over and quietly assured us we would get a refund if we came out again in thirty minutes or less. My wife wondered if he would be there in thirty minutes or if he would be “at lunch.” We declined his odd offer and headed back to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, confused as to the different rules and policies of different Florida State Parks. Too bad, we would like to see Long Key State Park.

We had no problem with Bahia Honda State Park or Curry Hammock State Park, where friendly rangers issued us visitor's passes valid for thirty minutes. Not enough time for an in-depth study, but plenty of time to see all the campsites and check the facilities. We even got to check the cabins at Bahia Honda. All of Florida's State Parks get great marks, except, of course, for Long Key State Park.

Mausoleum in Key West Cemetery

Check the following sites for more  information.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park -

NEXT: Close to Home - Acting like a tourist, at:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Birthday Dinner in the Conch Republic

“Do ya' need menus?” the rail-thin, aging waitress asked, standing impatiently at the end of our waterside, bar-top high table. She had long, stringy, dirty-blonde hair, not uncommon for her age group down here in the land of fun and sun. My wife says they're just hanging on to their youth as long as possible. She may have a point, but old hair styles don't age well on bodies that march tenaciously toward old age. Skin damage from too much sun doesn't help the youthful image, either, as the waitress's skin looked leathery and dry.

Our impatient waitress shuffled her weight to her other leg. “Can I get you anything to drink?” she said, crossing her arms.

“Do you have diet Pepsi?” my wife asked.

“Nope! Just Coke. Regular Coke, Diet Coke, whatever.”

“How about an Amber Bock?” I asked.

She stared at me for a moment, then said, “All the beers we have are on the list,” pointing to a galvanized pail sitting on the end of the table. I leaned over and picked up the plastic-coated sheet from the pail, glanced at both sides but didn't see anything about beers. I put the sheet back. Aggravated, our brusque waitress pushed behind me and took it out again, turning it so I could read the beer list on the bottom. She didn't say a word, just shoved the list at me.

"We'll wait a few moments before we order,” my wife said as she read the expression on my face. I hadn't said a word but she knew we weren't eating at this restaurant, at least not today. All the horror stories of spiteful wait staff spitting on customer's food flooded my vision.

Our waitress shrugged and headed off to who knows where without saying a word. We sat for a moment, then my wife said, “Ready?”

“Yep, how about we eat at the camper?”

“Sounds good to me.”

Too bad, my wife and I wanted to spend my 70th birthday at the iconic, if not totally incongruously named, waterfront restaurant in Islamorada, Florida, where we have eaten many times in the past. There are no nymphs or sirens here to lure sailors onto rocks, certainly not our waitress. Come to think of it, there aren't any rocks, either. Well, not big ones that form cliffs, anyway. The restaurant's coconut shrimp with the orange dipping sauce is one of my favorites, and I couldn't think of a better locale to enjoy a great, laid back dinner. And if we stretched it out a bit, maybe another fabulous Keys sunset, as well. Sorry, but bad waitress service is a harbinger of more bad things to come, and I've had enough of that nonsense. I'll spend my money elsewhere. So, we did.

It was not a good day for restaurants in the Florida Keys. We started the day by stopping at an award-winning family restaurant we had eaten at many times before for a home-cooked breakfast. It turned out to be not so much home cooked as simply thawed and micro-waved. We had eaten there in the past as well, and were surprised by the differences in attitudes and service from our last visit. They had just won an award for outstanding breakfast restaurant the last time we ate there back in 2005. The food and service was really good then, and we looked forward to having my special, once-a-year “cholesterol special,” sausage gravy over biscuits with two over-easy on top. I do that on my birthday as my wild-fling, reckless celebration of having made it another year. Hey, it's my birthday.

Instead, this time the hash browns came in a little rectangular pressed patty, colored the appropriate crispy brown, a la MacDonald's. What happened to the real hash browns? Will we have a generation of Americans who will grow up thinking this is how hash browns are supposed to look? The biscuits didn't taste like home-made, either, but at least the eggs came out OK. My wife picked out stalks and bitter pieces from her “special” spinach omelet that had been tossed in without regard to digestibility. We finished breakfast, at least most of it, and headed south to Robbie's to feed the Tarpon. We were beginning to wonder about the state of restaurants in the Florida keys.

Knuckle Sandwich at Robbie's


Stopping at Robbie's has always been a thrill for me, hand feeding the huge tarpon that loll around the docks, teasing all the big-game fisherman who spend a fortune to catch this king of gamefish. There are always so many of them they are impossible to count. This time, however, they simply aren't hungry. I buy a bucket of white bait, about the size of large sardines, and can't even give them away, except to the ever present pelicans and a few swift jacks that dart in between the well-fed Tarpon and snatch the morsels before the Tarpon even bother to react to the free hand-outs. I finally get one to respond and he smacks my knuckles, missing the bait I'm holding by quite a bit. Next time we'll just watch others buy the bait. Still, it is an awesome sight, and I know Tarpon fisherman must just stand and stare wistfully.

We head back up to Key Largo and stop by our camper at Pennekamp for a glass of wine and a reassessment of where I want to eat my birthday dinner. We eventually head out again and stop at the nearby ever-popular Pilot House. Cars are parked everywhere. There is no room to squeeze in without parking on someone's lawn. The place is packed! By this time, I'm not keen on seafood anyway, so rather than wait, we head for another of my favorite restaurants in the keys, the Café Largo.

DiGiorgio's Café Largo is exactly as we expect, great service and great food! This is the fourth time we've eaten there, and thankfully they are as good as we remembered. No regrets here! The Penne with Vodka Sauce erases any thoughts of missed coconut shrimp. We should have started here first.

We noticed earlier in the day one of the stalwart eateries, the always busy Coral Grill on the northern end of Islamorada, is closed. The once world-famous restaurant is now just an abandoned, rundown coral-pink building. Another longtime landmark, the Green Turtle Inn, looks almost barren with the removal of the huge tree that graced its front for many years, probably a result of hurricane force winds. It is still in business, but we had decided on Café Largo. We didn't have time to try all the restaurants, such as the renowned Marker 88, or the Islamorada Fish Market. Four days isn't enough time to eat at all the restaurants in the upper keys. Something to look forward to next time we visit the Conch Republic.

: The Four Florida State Campgrounds in the Keys, at:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Bicycle and the Key Largo's Bike Man

I stared at the old man's eyes as he slowly walked around our old, damaged bicycle. I turned my head slightly, trying not to be obvious. He was as intent on the bicycle as I was on him. He recognized the copper-colored Lady Raleigh immediately.

Never, never carry bicycles on the back of a trailer!
His eyes went from the front fender, down the twin-tube upper frame to the pedals and back to the rear fender. The bicycle itself wasn't damaged, but the rear wheel and tire were mangled beyond repair. It didn't matter, I could tell he wanted the bike.

“It's been well kept,” he mumbled., as he fingered the curve of the rear fender. “Except for the twenty-seven inch wheel, don't know if I got one of those.” We were simply trying to make a decision: fix my wife's bicycle that fell in on U.S. 41 in the middle of the Everglades when my bumper-mounted bike rack broke, or scrap the damaged bike and go for a new one. 

The bike didn't separate completely from the trailer because I always use a safety cable to keep it attached to the trailer in case of rack failure, it just got dragged along until I finally got to a spot wide enough to get off the road. The first time a bicycle rack failed I was on I-85 sandwiched between 18 wheelers. This is the second time it has happened to me, believe me,  it won't happen again. 

I told Jack how the bike was damaged. “Oh, I get these that fall off bike racks all the time,” he replied. “Yours is not too bad.”

Eighty-some year old Jack Oewein owns Jack's Bikes, a one-man show run from a double storage unit at the U-Haul facility at Mile Marker 103.5 on the Oversea Highway in Key Largo. He has too many bikes for me to count stowed at various angles in the two storage units. He has classic bicycles from original dual-headlight Western Fliers from the late fifties and early sixties, to dust covered Sears Roebuck and J.C. Higgins cruisers, all tightly packed in his valuable little world. He can probably tell you anything you would want to know about any of them. He is more than a used-bike dealer, he is a bicycle historian.

“Yep, got start selling this stuff off,” he says, waving his arm vaguely in the direction of the storage unit, “I'm getting' too old to hang on to all this stuff.” 

Nevertheless, he wanted the Lady Raleigh we placed temptingly in front of him. The Lady Raleigh had the traditional skinny road tires that my wife wanted to get rid of. She couldn't go off road in any sense of the word, and wanted a bicycle more suited to dirt or gravel roads. My old mountain-bike damaged the front wheel and tire, and luckily, suffered no other damage when it too, crashed to the highway.

“Tell you what, I'll fix your bicycle,” pointing at my old, black Huffy, "...and I'll toss in that women's Giant you're wife is looking at for your Raleigh and a hundred bucks.” Ilse had just fallen in love with a rebuilt Giant with thumb shifters he had on display in the gravel driveway. She had ridden it around the U-Haul lot and was ready to bargain with Jack. No bargaining required, we were both getting what we wanted. A hand shake and we soon loaded my fixed bike and Ilse's new knobby-tired Giant with the shifters she loves on our brand new bicycle carrier, mounted securely on the back of the Sequoia SUV. He did OK, and so did we. A great way to start our Keys vacation.

NEXT: Birthday Dinner in the Keys, at:

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