Port of Call Key West

Many western Caribbean cruises include Key West, Florida as one of their port visits. This city has much to offer a one-day visitor from history to shopping to just soaking up the atmosphere of Americas most southern place.

Where You Dock – Cruise ships dock along the waterfront right at Mallory Square in the heart of town. While there is no cruise terminal there are plenty of facilities with a short walk.

A five block walk to the left down Front Street takes you past Duval Street, home to a number of shops, bars and restaurants to A&B Docks with its array of restaurants and shops next to Key West Bight. Walking down Front Street in the opposite direction takes you past the Truman Winter White House and Whitehead Street the address of the Audubon House and the Hemingway House.

Transportation – Key West is not a very large city with the center of town just steps away. Getting to the other side of the island is a few miles but without a specific interest in mind probably not worth the walk. Sightseeing is easy with the Conch Train and the Trolley one to three block from the ship. There are also a few less conventional modes of transportation available like street legal golf carts and miniature two-seaters you can rent.

Money – The US Dollar

Attractions – If you are interested in history there are a number of attractions for you. From the Ship Wreck Museums to the homes of famous Americans like President Truman, Hemingway and Audubon. There are also an assortment of water activities like snorkeling and diving trips along with sailing excursions available. Key West is also popular for shopping, seafood and bars. Be sure and visit Sloppy Joe’s Bar, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite. There is little in the way of attractive beaches nearby but there are excursions down to the Dry Tortugas and the National Park and historic fort.

Key West is also famous for its sunset celebration at Mallory Square but unfortunately because of local regulations cruise ships must depart before sunset so as not to block the views.

 

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Back To The Florida Keys?

When I was a kid growing up in the Northeast more than a few years ago, I thought Florida was the promised land, paradise and the most exotic place I could imagine – all rolled up in one. I was in my twenties before I ever made it there but I had long dreamed of turquoise water, coral reefs, palm trees and warm tropical weather. Later I visited Florida a few times on business and on a vacation and my dreams remained intact. About forty years ago we relocated to Ft. Lauderdale with a job. While there are more than a few people who don’t care for Florida, we loved it.

At the time we moved to Florida, Ft. Lauderdale airport was a single, one-story cinderblock building with twelve parking meters out front. The movie “Where the Boys Are” was still inspiring spring-break college students to the degree that we wouldn’t even try to get to the beach during spring-break because of the traffic and mobs. By late June each year many neighborhoods were all but abandoned and restaurants, if they were open, had few customers. Jump ahead a couple of decades and things have really changed. More business meant more employees. More employees meant more families and that meant more children and all that meant a growing year-round economy. Things were changing and not all for the better.

When I was in the Navy I was a diver and fell in love with coral reefs. In all the forty-eight mainland states only Florida offers coral reefs. If you’ve never glided over or thru a coral reef you have missed one of life’s great experiences and you should try it as quickly as you can. Many people plan trips to tropical places for the beaches and warm water but for very little extra money and effort a coral reef is only a short swim away.

The main attractions in Florida are fishing, boating, beach-combing and diving. Everything is focused on the water. After we moved to Florida, for a number of years every Sunday morning would find us at the beach. It started with breakfast and the Sunday paper, progressed to beach combing and sunbathing and ended with an onshore dive at a nearby reef. It just didn’t get any better than that.

Soon we discovered the Florida Keys and now we had a get-away place for weekends. In those days summer was the best time to go to “the Keys”. Like the rest of Florida, summer was off-season and hotels were cheap. As Florida residents we could frequently find deals at four star hotels that included breakfast and dinner for two for less than a hundred dollars a day! The Keys were everything we loved about Florida and more.

Just recently we spent a week in the Florida Keys. With the exception of Key West it has been over ten years since we’ve been in the Keys and that was way too long. Last September hurricane Irma rolled over the southern Keys as a category four storm. That explains the question mark in this title. Category four hurricanes are incredibly destructive and it always takes time to recover. Part of this trip was to see what progress has been made. This post is presented in four parts:

  1. An Introduction To The Florida Keys
  2. Key West, A Different Sort of Place 
  3. Where to Dine In The Keys (coming soon)
  4. Is It Time To Visit The Keys Again? (coming soon)

Our Florida Keys, An Introduction

Come with us and we’ll show you around our Keys.

The Keys Are Not What You Probably Think

Most people have an image of the Caribbean as miles of white sand beaches, all-inclusive resorts and exotic cultures. The Florida Keys are none of that. Many people visiting Florida plan a trip down to the Keys as part of the vacation and often they are disappointed. They arrive in the Keys thinking grand resorts, miles of sandy beaches and fancy seafood restaurants. The reality is there are very few beaches in the Keys and fancy resorts are few and far between and the best food is grilled fresh from the sea often on docks with picnic tables.

Resort at Islamorada
Resort at Islamorada

Geographically the Keys are a narrow band of small islands connected by bridges that stretch almost a hundred miles south out of Miami. U.S. Route 1 here is called the Overseas Highway and ends at the southern most point in the United States. There are a number of islands  that are only a couple of hundred feet or less wide so you understand how unique this piece of the planet is. One bridge actually stretches across seven miles of water. Most shorelines are rocky and often covered in washed up eel grass.

The lifestyle is laid-back in an oddly rural sort of way with only a few towns like, Kay Largo, Islamorada, and Marathon along that hundred miles, and just one small city, Key West. All the rest are just wide spots on the overseas highway with only a few with enough need to warrant a supermarket.

So don’t come seeking fancy because this is “The Keys”. But if you love watersports, are a fisherman, a boater, enjoy diving or snorkeling welcome to paradise. If you believe a great meal is fresh caught seafood thrown on a grill or a good evening is a tiki-hut bar with a guitar player singing while watching the Sun sink into the sea, this is the place.

Besides what nature has provided in the Keys you will find a few attractions along the miles mostly focused on nature but a few of historical note.

You’ll find the African Queen  (also known as S/L Livingstone) a boat used in the 1951 movie The African Queen starring Humprey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. It is located in Key Largo, Florida. I would be surprised if many people still know about the movie and that’s probably a shame but on February 18, 1992, someone thought enough about it to have it added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Arts and crafts in Islamorada
Arts and crafts in Islamorada
The Pilar at Outdoor World
The Pilar at Outdoor World

The other is the Pilar. Ernest Hemingway loved Key West and owned a 38-foot fishing boat named Pilar. Papa Hemingway sailed the Pilar out of Cuba and Key West on frequent fishing trips including to the Bahamas and the Marquesas. Papa’s adventures with the Pilar were legendary including world record sport fishing catches and hunting for German subs in WWII. Pilar had a twin sister (an exact duplicate also named Pilar and with the same boatyard lettering) and it is on display in the Outdoor World Bass Pro Shop in Islamorada, Florida.

Navigating the Keys starts at the North end with Key Largo. It is a large island and home to Pennekamp Underwater State Park along with a number of resorts. While it has a patch of sand here and there it has no real beaches. From the number of businesses lining the highway it is obvious that diving is its main focus. It also offers a State Park featuring a fossil coral reef that was quarried for a number of years used in Florida buildings.

Next comes Tavernier just south of Largo. It is actually a town and boasts one of the Keys only movie theaters. It also doesn’t have any real beaches to speak of.

Seven Mile Bridge
Seven Mile Bridge

Twelve miles on from Tavernier is Islamorada which includes a number of nice hotels and good restaurants. It is home to the big Outdoor World store but again no beaches. We actually prefer Islamorada as it has some character with an art colony and something like a night life.

The next real town is Marathon which boasts a small airport, several good accommodations and it actually has a couple of stretches of nice sandy beach. One is located at Key Colony that includes a few beach front hotels and the other is Sombrero Beach which is a public park. Leaving Marathon you come to Seven Mile Bridge and at the south end of the bridge is a great park.

The beach at Bahia Honda Park
The beach at Bahia Honda Park
Bulldozer restoring Bahia Honda Beach
Bulldozer restoring Bahia Honda Beach

Bahia Honda State Park is probably the best public camping in the Keys, has a nice beach on the Gulf as well as cabins for rent (reservations usually required). It also has a marina and boat launch and an Atlantic beach, but that has been closed since Irma because of damage but they are working at restoring it.

The last key that could be called a town before Key West is Big Pine Key which is most famous for its population of wild key deer. A unique species found only in the Keys.

 

Winter Garden, Florida In the Shadow of Orlando

A Cute Town With A Juicy Past

Orlando is a massive metroplex with dozens of suburban towns that include Walt Disney World in the west and Winter Park in the Northeast. Within the Orlando orbit and located twenty miles due north of Disney World is the town of Winter Garden.

It was a thriving town in the early twentieth century with it’s principle focus on growing oranges (juicy past). It was located in Orange County and at one time shipped more fruit than any other spot in the nation. Centrally located. two railroad lines passed through the town bringing in tourists and hauling out oranges. Many of the tourists came to fish Lake Apopka, once an international capital for bass fishing.

By mid-century the lake was terribly polluted (mostly from agricultural runoff on its north shore), the orange industry had consolidated around mostly larger corporate groves that had moved farther south and the town was drying up.

The town has enjoyed a rebirth recently. In 1994 the West Orange Trail opened on the former Atlantic Coast Line rail bed and become one of the states most popular biking and walking trails stretching out to twenty some miles. Created by Orange County the trail included way stations and rest stops doted along its length. On weekends Winter Garden plays host to throngs of bikers from all over riding the West Orange Trail. The middle of the trail runs right through the center of Plant Street, Winter Garden’s main downtown strip.

For several decades Lake Apopka has seen extensive efforts to reverse its pollution and the results are showing signs of making a difference. Anglers are catching bass again and boaters are using the lake for recreation. The town is making use of a lakeside park for concerts and Forth of July celebrations and there are plans to improve the waterfront.

Located on Plant Street along with two bicycle shops are a number of noteworthy attractions including the Edgewater Hotel. Developed in the 1920s as a state-of-the art accommodation for the anglers who visited Winter Garden to fish largemouth bass, it now operates as an upscale boutique bed and breakfast.

Also there’s the Plant Street Market, a new facility that looks a lot like Winter Park’s original Farmer’s Market. On the outside, the brick building looks like a survivor from the earlier century, but inside it’s 21st-century modern, with a craft brewery along with a number of food venue choices.

The town includes the Garden Theatre, which originally opened in 1935 as a modern motion-picture theatre and was restored in 2008 to become a performing-arts center that now offers plays, concerts and movie festivals.

The downtown district covers an area about eight blocks long and two to three blocks wide and within this area are two museums, several gift shops, four women’sdress shops, more than ten restaurants and three café/coffee shops.

Weekends are full of events with Friday night music on the square in the town center, along with additional music usually available in three or four other venues around town. Live music is usually featured all weekend at The Attic Door wine café, Pilars Martini Bar (Pilars also features a great open-mic jazz Sunday) along with the Crooked Can Brewery in Plant Street Market.

 

Saturday mornings start with one of the best Farmers Markets in Florida and continues with more live music around town going right thru Sunday. Recently on one Saturday evening there was live music going on at seven different locations in town.

 

Winter Garden is also noteworthy for a number of special weekend events throughout the year. There is the Spring Fling Garden Show, Blues and Barbeque, Classic Car nights, Halloween Treats in Town, Holiday Light Up Winter Garden., Orlando Symphony on the Lake, along with a couple of music concert weekends taking over the length of Plant Street.

If you are visiting Orlando or live within driving distance and are looking for a fun day consider a visit to Winter Garden. Unfortunately other than the Edgewater Hotel there are not a lot of hotels nearby.

 

Old St. Augustine Florida

Often people talk about “old Florida” and it probably means different things to different people and at different times, but you can’t get any older historically than St. Augustine. Founded in September 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain, St. Augustine is the longest continually inhabited European-founded city in the United States – more commonly called the “Nation’s Oldest City.” Americans like things that are the biggest or tallest or oldest and St. Augustine lays claim to a number of “oldest” structures in the country. Starting with the Castillo de San Marcos and including the countries oldest school house.

The area was noted in the journals of Ponce de Leon in 1513 while searching for the fountain of youth and later fortified into a Spanish stronghold. The cities defenses are the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, the Castillo de San Marcos is a large Spanish stone fortress built to protect and defend Spain’s claims in the New World. It’s a National Monument and, at over 315 years old, it’s the oldest structure in St. Augustine. It’s also one of the main attractions visitors to St. Augustine come to see.

After visiting the National Historic Site of Castillo de San Marcos spend some time taking a stroll down St. George Street in the Old Town. There you can stop for breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of the many great restaurants and cafes or have happy hour at a wine cellar. Browse the retail shops, and museums and visit the other historical sites.

St. Augustine’s rich heritage makes the city and its surroundings a unique getaway for visitors who are drawn to the old city and the fort. But the city  also has dozens of other options to occupy the visitors time.

 

  • There is Marineland Dolphin Adventure Featuring a variety of interactive programs, which range from programs for land-loving guests to enjoy dolphins up-close, to ones that offer the opportunity to immerse yourself in the dolphins’ aquatic world as you swim with our gentle residents.
  • Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium is the very first permanent Ripley’s attraction! Set in a beautiful historic castle, Ripley’s houses over three floors of family friendly fun!
  • Potter’s Wax Museum has been rated as one of the Best St. Augustine Attractions for more than 50 years, Potter’s Wax Museum was the First Established Wax Museum in America.
  • The Fountain of Youth Park –  which gives visitors a chance to experience history at this important archaeological site and to claim that they drank from the famous springs.
  • St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum – You can also relive the Golden Age of Piracy at Pat Croce’s St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum with the world’s largest collection of authentic pirate artifacts; interactive and educational exhibits, including the award-winning Book of Pirates and the spine-tingling Disney Imagineer-designed Below Deck sound experience of Blackbeard’s last battle; the world’s only pirate treasure chest and one of only two existing 17th century Jolly Rogers; and rarely-seen shipwreck treasures from the Florida Division of Historical Resources.
  • The Old School -Located in the historic district, this is a true “American Landmark”. The original Colonial house is handmade of red cedar and cypress and dates back to the 1700’s. Juan Genopoly purchased this homestead and transformed his living area into a classroom for the children of St. Augustine’s newest residents, the Minorcans .
  • St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum – Once a week you can catch the sun set and the moon rise from atop the St. Augustine Lighthouse, and enjoy complimentary champagne and snacks.

If you are in the area or are planning a Florida trip, go ahead and be a tourist for a day or two. We did and it was actually a lot of fun. In case you are wondering, yes St. Augustine has a good beach with a number of ocean-front hotels  in case you get tired of being a tourist.

P.S. If you are going to be in Florida this holiday season St. Augustine puts on a great show called The Festival of Lights where the entire downtown and historic district are decorated in lights. (In 2017 it started on November 18th)

Disney World is Worth Staying Inside the World

Walt Disney World is Worth Staying Inside the World

A great number of families have a trip to Disney World as part of their future plans. If this is you, here are a few pointers on accommodations.

Epcot

First, the “World” is more than four theme parks. There is Disney Springs (previously Downtown Disney) with more shops and restaurants than you can count. There are two water parks, a sports complex and an entertainment area associated with the Boardwalk Hotel. In addition a number of the on property hotels are worth a visit like The Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Grand Floridian. There are also dinner shows at the Wilderness Camp Grounds and the Polynesian Village.  *Note: Disney Quest is now closed. It is supposed to be replaced with “NBA Experience”).

Throughout the Disney property there is a wide range of accommodations at various price points. Like most resort areas, the pricing varies by season and there are numerous specials and packages available. Average room rates at Disney properties are around $250 to $300 with economy rooms being in the $100 to $150 range. The premium resorts without specials run $450 and up per night. Even though listed on the reservation site, many of the units are not readily available because they are part of the Disney Vacation Club system.

The Grand Floridian Resort

The economy range includes the “All-Star” hotels and are priced near what you are used to paying for travel around the U.S. You can save a considerable amount by selecting a motel “off property”.  The huge supply usually keeps prices remarkably low compared to Disney hotels and hotels in general. The biggest disadvantage to staying “off property” is the cost of parking at the parks (now $20 a day) and missing access to the Disney transportation system. Staying at a Disney World resort lets you park free at the hotels and provides the ability to travel around the “World” as you wish until very late at night. Also, if you are booking a resort off property be aware that many hotels apply a daily resort fee on top of the room rate (usually $12 to $20) that may not be quoted as part of the room rate.

Going up a bit in cost is Port Orleans, Riverside, Coronado Springs and Caribbean Beach, each with its own theme and character. In a similar price range, or maybe a bit higher, are two hotels not actually operated by Disney in the Boardwalk area. They are the Swan and the Dolphin and come with almost as many perks (no magic bands).

The Boardwalk area

At the higher end in resorts are the Animal Kingdom Lodge, where animals roam past your balcony, The Boardwalk with its entertainment area and Wilderness Lodge near The Magic Kingdom. Even higher in price are two of the original hotels with monorail stations at their door, the Contemporary and the Polynesian. The crown jewel of Disney World is the Grand Floridian also on the Magic Kingdom monorail loop.

The Dolphin Hotel at the Boardwalk

In addition to the Disney operated hotels, there are three areas inside the “World” which feature hotels. They include the Buena Vista area near Disney Springs, the Bonnet Creek area which includes the Waldorf Astoria Golf Club and the exclusive Golden Oaks neighborhood with its Four Seasons Resort. In these areas bus service, if available, is limited.

The transportation system and being close to all there is to offer are two of the main reasons for staying “on property” but the Magic Band system is also a consideration. These bands are connected to your vacation account so you can enter the parks, select FastPass rides, open your hotel door, access your dining plan and charge at many gift shops and restaurants.

Pop Century Resort

Following is a complete list of hotels and features:

Disney’s All-Star Resorts (each with its own matching theme)

  •     Movies Resort
  •     Music Resort
  •     Sports Resort
  •     Pop Century Resort

 

 

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (set on an African savannah with live animals).

Animal Kingdom Resort
  • Jambo House
  • Kidani Village

Disney’s Art of Animation Resort (family suites only)

Boardwalk area with restaurants, entertainment venues, roaming entertainers, access to Epcot and Disney Studios

  •     Disney’s Beach Club Resort & Villas
  •     Disney’s Beach Club Villas
  •     Disney’s BoardWalk Inn

    On the Boardwalk
  •     Disney’s BoardWalk Villas
  •     Disney’s Yacht Club Resort
  •     The Swan & Dolphin

Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort

Seven Seas Lagoon area (access to Magic Kingdom, view nightly fireworks)

  •     Disney’s Contemporary Resort (monorail loop running thru it)
  •     Disney’s Grand Floridian (monorail loop running thru it)
  •     Disney’s Polynesian Resort (monorail loop running thru it)
  •     Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (boat service to Magic Kingdom)

Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort

Disney’s Old Key West Resort

Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside (boat service to Disney Springs)

Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa (near Disney Springs)

The Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort (boat service to Magic Kingdom).

If you are booking a Disney hotel and are going to visit the parks, it is strongly recommended that you purchase the tickets, set up an account at My Disney Experience website and begin to reserve FastPass for rides.

Chimney Rock North Carolina and Lake Lure

In the mountains of Western North Carolina is a lake fed by a river that runs thru Hickory Nut Gorge. Standing high above this gorge is a rock formation named Chimney Rock which also gives its name to the town below. Chimney Rock is a North Carolina State Park which features a number of attractions the foremost of which are stairs and an elevator taking visitors to the top of this rock formation. From that perch you can see for miles down the gorge and across Lake Lure nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park also features miles of hiking trails which go to the top of the mountain and over to the top or the bottom of a four hundred foot waterfall called Hickory Nut Falls. Take a quick tour of Chimney Rock North Carolina and Lake Lure.

click below for slide show

 

The area is a popular tourist, weekend and vacation destination and claims a connection to a couple of famous movies. Lake Lure was the setting used in Dirty Dancing and Chimney Rock was the backdrop for The Last of the Mohicans. While the area has all the trappings of a tourist town the trails and views surrounding Chimney Rock are also really amazing.

Note: I am trying to post using the worlds slowest internet connection. Apparently wireless and the internet have trouble penetrating Hickory Nut Gorge. Will clean all this up in a few days.