On May 29, we began our journey to the southernmost spot in the 48 contiguous United States . Our trek was overflowing with adventures along the way.
The first placed we stopped en route was Wakulla Springs. Florida . Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park spans 2,860 acres of nature preserve and wildlife sanctuary includes one of the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs. An average of 250 million gallons of pristine water flows from Wakulla Spring each day.
Wakulla Springs offered a Ranger guided boat tour of the natural spring area where wildlife is abundant and boat traffic is limited to only the park tour boats. The tour boat made for great photographic opportunities as a Park Ranger shares the mysteries and history of this unique natural area. Park Ranger navigated the boat for the 3-mile round trip down the Wakulla River introducing us to the “Real Florida”. We loved it!
If observing alligators and other wildlife in their natural habitat is what you are looking for then Wakulla Springs is the place to visit. The unforgettable expressions of the uncommon Limpkin, guttural call of the moorhen or the bellowing of the alligator are sounds that can be heard from the river boat. Large alligators, abundant birds, whitetail deer, wild turkey, bobcats and alligator snapping turtles all call this place home. Ending with a trip by passing over Wakulla Spring, a large and deep freshwater spring, our guide included a great narration of the trip from the movies made here “black lagoon” to recounting the discovery of prehistoric Mastodon bones on the bottom of the spring basin.
After the boat tour we looked around the park ending in a visit to the Edward Ball lodge where we met Old Joe. This Legendary Reptile established homestead at Wakulla Springs prior to any construction in the area. His estimated age around 200 years. His weight 650 pounds, length 11 feet, 2 inches. This gator lived at springs on sand bar across from swimming area. According to the plaque, Old Joe, “Was murdered by assailants unknown on Sunday night August 1, 1966 . Had never molested man, woman, child, or pet.”
Next on our agenda was cruising Florida 's Turnpike. The turnpike is the main toll road connecting Homestead , Greater Miami, Fort Lauderdale , Palm Beach , Orlando , and Ocala through a continuous limited access corridor. This was a long stretch with islands of shops called service plazas spaced about 40 miles apart. It cost a few bucks to take this route, but by taking the turnpike we made good time to our evenings lodgings in Homestead .
After a great afternoon at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, we traveled about 2 miles to the Bayside Resort.
This tropically landscaped property with charming Coconut Palm Trees features a quaint sandy beach, heated pool and a sundeck overlooking the picturesque Florida Bay.
The Bayside staff is extremely friendly and helpful. The rooms are nice and clean. The grounds are also clean and the view is great.
The pool was a not large, but we enjoyed it. We watched the sunset by the pool it was gorgeous.
The location is excellent. Many activities were within walking distance and we were able to eat dinner at Sushi Nami on the grounds of the resort. The yellow tail was perfect!
The place was beautiful. a quiet relaxing location with an awesome view of the Florida bay. The wireless Internet connection worked well too.
We ate breakfast on the beach in the morning and took another dip in the pool before heading to Robbies.
There is nothing quite like listening to Alligators bellowing in the morning. Wow! Everglades Alligator Farm gave thrilling airboat rides in the Everglades (right outside the National Park). The farm had gator demonstrations, crocodiles, a large breeding pond with many bellowing gators, snake shows, alligator shows, and breading ponds.
This rustic place is a “gator” Disney world ...something's constantly happening down on Florida ’s oldest working alligator farm.A great experience. The interaction with the snakes and gators was fun. You can even hold them for photos.
The airboat was one of the highlights. The 40 minute narrated ride give you a great view of wildlife actually in the wild - watch for birds, water snakes, turtles, and, yes, more gators.
After a morning at the Alligator Farm we stopped at the Robert Is Here fruit stand. Robert Is Here, a remarkable fruit stand, sells vegetables, fresh-fruit milk shakes, 10 flavors of honey, more than 100 flavors of jams and jellies, fresh juices, salad dressings, and some 40 kinds of tropical fruits. Robert Is Here has been featured on NBC’s Today Show and World News Tonight and in newspapers across the country. The exotic fruits here were great. For a truly delicious treat, try the amazing Key Lime Milkshake. Perfect on a hot day.
After Robert is here! we headed a few miles south to Key Largo and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park , the first underwater state park in the U.S. This park plus the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, cover approximately 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps. The turquoise sea, the green mangroves, and the brilliant colors of tropical fish and other marine life found in the only contiguous coral barrier reef in North America make the park seem like a premier wild aquarium.
Inside the visitors center was a great aquarium focusing on life along the coral reef. We also walked the along the shores of the park, which showcase the mangrove swamps and hardwood hammocks that once thrived all along the Florida coast. After a picnic lunch in the mangroves, we took a glass-bottomed boat called “Spirit Of Pennekamp” out to the lacy coral reef that parallels the keys.
The Spirit Of Pennekamp took us on a 3 hour tour along the shallow reefs teeming with wildlife. On the way to the reef, we enjoyed spotting the many egrets lined up like statues to watch our boat pass through the narrows that connect the shores of the park to the open ocean. The glass bottom boat must be one of the best ways to appreciate the beauty of the spectacular coral reef. The dramatic underwater terrain and its inhabitants was awesome. All those colorful tropical fish seemed right behind the glass. We saw yellow-and-black striped Sargent Major fish, blue hamlets, angelfish, and the occasional turtle swimming by. The coral and seagrass in various shapes and colors swayed dreamily with the waves. It was like looking at the most beautiful tropical aquarium we'd ever seen, only it was real.
You have to go feed the tarpon at Robbies! At first glance you may be put off by the fishing shack appearance of the place, but soon you will be charmed by the simplicity. You pay $1 per person and $2 for a bucket of fish. You then go out to the end of the pier and throw the fish or dangle the fish off the end of the dock to feed the huge stealy tarpons that hang out at the pier. Where else but the Keys do giant tarpon lurk at the end of a pier waiting for silly tourists to bring breakfast.
It is the coolest things I have ever seen. These huge 200 pound tarpon will leap out of the water, and grab the food right out of your hand. It's an amazing experience. This may not sound like a big deal but my we loved it.
This is an inexpensive place to stop that will delight the kids or kids at heart and I highly recommend Robbie's.
While at Robbies, eat at the Hungary Tarpon. The brunch we had there was big and delicious.
Hungry Tarpon is no secret. NBC’s Today Show called it the “...Best Breakfast in the Upper Keys...” has also been praised by Southern Living Magazine, The Food Network, and the Miami Herald.
After the meal, we continued to savor the breathtaking views on the drive to Key West via the overseas highway. Among the 43 bridges from the mainland to Key West on U.S. 1 is the spectacular Seven Mile Bridge . One of the world’s longest bridges, it offers sweeping views of the open Atlantic on the left and the Gulf of Mexico to the right.
Following the old bridges of the Florida East Coast Railway, U.S. Route 1 travels across the southern rim of the Everglades feauring breathtaking views on the two-hour drive to Key West . Among the 43 bridges from the mainland to Key West on U.S. 1 is the spectacular Seven Mile Bridge . One of the world’s longest bridges, it offers broad views of the open Atlantic on the left and the Gulf of Mexico to the right. Distance is measured by mile markers, the closer to Key West the smaller the number. Along the way are many of opportunities for mini adventures and plenty of stuff for building one-of-a-kind memories such as stopping a Robbies.The public beaches along the way have picnic facilities. Imagine having a cool drink facing the ocean on a fabulous beach. These are great places to stop for a break or lunch.
Mangrove-fringed and water-bound, the Overseas Highway (a.k.a. U.S. Route 1) joins a chain of subtropical isles that arc off the tip of Florida terminating in the tropical, whimsical, eccentric town of Key West .
Key West , the wacko island capital of the Conch Republic , is very much a place apart from the mainland, a one-time sleepy fisherman's paradise now transformed into a mélange of redneck bonhomie, Caribbean flavor, and tourist tackiness. Very much akin to New Orleans ' French Quarter, it's too laid back to take itself seriously, but it can be quite a hoot.
First was an orientation tour by Old Town Trolley Tours. These comfortable, enclosed trams took us on an hour and a half tours of Old Town . Our guides shared stories about the area's post and its legends. It was along Old Town 's waterfront that our tour guide explained how Key West sprang to life in the early 1800s as the treasures of the sea lured captains, merchants, and ship salvers. She went on to tell us of how this formed the largest collections of pre-Victorian and Victorian buildings in the country remaining today.
And then there are the chickens. Everywhere! Much like a Third World backwater town. Hens and chicks blocking traffic. Roosters crowing at all times of day. You soon realize these feathered friends are an integral part of the landscape and mascot for Key West 's unpretentiousness.
Angelina Guest House was a great place to stay in Key West . Two blocks off Duval Street , in the heart of Old Town Key West , this gambling hall and bordello turned guest house was wonderful. Built in the 1920s, this charming rambling, yellow-and-white wooden building has second-floor porches, gabled roofs, and a white picket fence. A tropical paradise a short walking distance from Duval Street was a good choice.
There was almost no parking, but the staff helped us find a spot. Our queen room was small, but the bathroom was large. The staff was busy but friendly. We loved the pool area (small pool and tropical foliage) and the resident cats. A pool, fountain, and old bricks accent a lovely garden. A gorgeous lagoon-style heated pool with waterfall and tropical landscaping was an excellent addition. It was such a relaxing place to come back to after a full day and night of activities. After an exciting, but exhausting day, we came back to the Angelina and relax at the pool and lie in the hammock under the palm trees.
The continental breakfast with homemade cinnamon rolls and fresh fruit was a nice touch.
Nostalgia is part of the appeal in this fourth-generation family-run eatery with huge desserts in glass display cases, a deli counter, friendly service, and a smoky kitchen.
The Deli Restaurant is really more of a comfort food diner than a deli and has a vast menu with all kinds of hearty options, from meatloaf to conch fritters. The selection of more than a dozen vegetables includes the typical diner choices with some distinctly Caribbean additions, such as rice and beans and delicious fried plantains. We shared a variety of the ''Floribbean'' choices from the conch fritters, plantains, and pie. A great meal.
The restaurant itself has an interesting story, which is on the back of the menu. It opened in the 50s by a couple out of their garage using the kitchen in their house. The story goes into detail about how their children and grandchildren have worked there and some of the waitresses have been there for 20 years.
For a frozen delight, skip Ben & Jerry's and go to at the southernmost end of Duval for Flamingo Crossing. Gelato (homemade, including tropical flavors like soursop and a pina colada), and various sorbets are on the menu. Enjoyed our gelato treats in the garden. The building was constructed in the 1920s using materials from a World War I blimp hangar.
Definitely a local's place with a very fun "double-horseshoe counter" The cheeseburger shines here, and it's said that Jimmy Buffet wrote "Cheeseburger in Paradise " at the Dennis Luncheonette. The Key Lime Pie here was fresh and tasted great!
Along with the great food you rub elbows and listen to the locals who flock to this classic lunch counter within "The Southernmost Pharmacy, Luncheonette, and Photo Lab"
Slapdash souvenirs, obscene T-shirts, and suggestive leather goods pack shop fronts on Duval Street and Mallory Square . On Duval Street , tacky shops seem to alternate with touristy bars, complete with drag shows and shills.
A stop at Fast Buck Freddie's emporium is de rigueur. It's witty window displays will set you laughing, though its exuberant clothing and tchotchkes are typical of the area shops.
We understand Papa Hemingway used the lighthouse to guide him home when he over did his Duval crawls.
Each evening Mallory Square , on the historic waterfront in Key West , is the location of a sunset celebration. The seaport once a bustling commerce center with schooners, and frigates, cigar makers and fishermen, remains linked to its history and connected to the times. Now, it’s the place for shopping, dinning, and tropical entertainment. Enter the center of Key West 's historic waterfront where you will find exciting attractions, plenty of shopping, and every evening a Sunset Celebration.
Next we visited the Hemingway house where the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway wrote about 70% of his life's work, including For Whom the Bell Tolls. The handsome stone Spanish Colonial house was surrounded by a wonderful garden and grounds filled with many cats.
Besides the highly entertaining and interesting six toed cats - most are even friendly! – the tour guide was fabulous. This very knowledgeable local guy told us about Hemmingway and the history of the house along with some history of the area. His running commentary was full of anecdotes about the author's life in the community and his many household quarrels with wife Pauline. He made us feel as though we could feel Hemmingway in the house.
The Everglades has 1.5 million acres of subtropical wilderness and some of the most amazing sights we have seen.
Taking the guided tram tour of Shark Valley is fantastic ways to see the park's highlights. The guides are very well informed and have a good time telling the riders about the National Park. The flat, paved 15 mile Tram Road is used for trams, bicycles, and walking. Along the road you may see alligators, herons, egrets, deer, turtles, and snail kites. This place is teeming with wild life.
As the sawgrass prairie slowly unfolds before your eyes, take a moment to standstill and enjoy the life that abounds. An observation tower at the half-way point provides panoramic views. Alligators, anhingas and a variety of birds, including white and glossy ibises, wood storks, herons and egrets, white-tailed deer and raccoon. At the end of the pavement is an observation tower, offering a wonderful panoramic view of the region. Bring your camera and binoculars.
While at Shark valley, take the time to walk the little trails there. The Bobcat Boardwalk is a half mile trek behind the Shark Valley Visitor Center. This self-guiding boardwalk trail meanders through the sawgrass slough and tropical hardwood forests.
The shorter Otter Cave Hammock Trail is a short walk from the Shark Valley Visitor Center on the tram road. A rough, limestone trail through a lush, tropical hardwood forest.
Wow! What a fantastic zoo! There are so many animals. Metrozoo has a collection of 1500 mammals, fish, reptiles, birds, invertebrates and amphibians of almost 300 species. Animals are grouped according to their geographic territory and animals that live together peacefully in the wild are placed in exhibits together. Miami Metrozoo is a cageless zoo where animals roam in surroundings similar to their natural habitats and are kept within their boundaries by cleverly designed moats or other natural means. You can tell that the animals have been given great places to live. A fantastic experience and great for photos - no cages to take pictures through!
The Aviary Wings of Asia exhibit attests to the variety of animals kept here; over 300 rare, endangered and exotic birds live in the largest open-air aviary in the country, including the only known captive Sultan Tit in the western hemisphere. The exhibit of the aviary focuses on the link between the birds and dinosaurs. These creatures are closely related and it is believed that some of the birds in the aviary are direct descendents of the giants, once believed to be related solely to lizards.
This 290-acre, landscaped complex is worth the trip. Residents include two rare white Bengal tigers, a Komodo dragon, a number of kangaroos, African meerkats and an Andean Condor. The air-conditioned Zoofari Monorail tour offers visitors a nice overview of the park and a great way to cool off on a hot day.
The hotel was great. The room wasn't a cramped up hotel room, it was very spacious. Beside the coffemaker there also was a small microwave.
Situated on the Manatee River , this park attracts guests by re-creating the look and atmosphere of the period when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto landed here in 1539. It includes a restoration of De Soto 's original campsite and a scenic half-mile nature trail that circles a mangrove forest and leads to the ruins of one of the first settlements in the area. The 21-minute film about De Soto in America was revealing as were the museum displays that portray the early settlers' way of life.
The 14-acre Edison Ford Winter Estate is a remarkable place to visit with a laboratory, botanical gardens, and museum. The huge banyan tree that shades the laboratory and gift shop was only 4 feet tall when Firestone presented it to Edison in 1925; today, it now covers 400 feet and is the largest tree in Florida.
We liked the museum with displays of Edison's inventions, as well as his unique Model-T Ford, a gift from friend Henry Ford.
The guided tour of the houses and gardens were interesting. Edison experimented with the exotic foliage he planted in the tropical gardens surrounding the mansion.
After crossing we made our way to the Pier in St. Petersburg . The inverted pyramid structure on the end of the Pier contains five-stories. Go shopping on the first level - there are probably at least a dozen little shops there selling everything from hats to wine to curios and candles. The Dockside Eatery food court, Captain Al's Waterfront Grill & Bar and outdoor Tiki Bar are also on the first level. The Pier Aquarium, a marine education center has three cylinder tropical fish tanks on the main level and eight tanks of sealife from oceans from around the world, several mural-sized educational exhibits and a museum store on the second level. The levels 3 – 5 have restaurants along with the Observation Deck on level 5,
Fishing takes place on the approach to The Pier and around the exterior of the building along the sea walls. The Bait Shop/House sells you buckets of fish to feed the frenzied mass of Pelicans that gathers there for the handouts. The handouts may not be the ecologically responsible thing to do, but it sure is fun!
This park has something for everyone! Busch Gardens in Tampa is one of America 's largest zoological institutions, with more than 2,700 animals. Adding to the fun are the shows and park rides such as: Rhino Rally, Montu, Gwazi, Edge of Africa, and Sheikra, a vertical dive coaster. With all this you know it is a large park - plan on spending the whole day here.
We started the day with the roller coaster Gwazi followed by the Rhino Rally which is quite fun and amazingly well done. One park hightlight near the train was petting the Clydesdale horses, the breed of heavy draft horse deriving its name from a district in Scotland . The train ride around the park which is a great way to get an overview of the spectacular collection of animals kept in natural surroundings.
We spent some time walking through the many wildlife exhibits. All are well done. The hippo area with the underwater viewing area should not to be missed. The aviary and the lorikeet houses were great too.
After lunch, the African bird show was impressive as was Katonga, an abbreviated Broadway show reminiscent of The Lion King.
We did ride the skyride. From this high vantage point, you can tell the whole park is well maintained and delightfully landscaped. We ended our day at the 4-D pirate presentation in Timbuktu . Eric Idle, Leslie Neilsen, and Rodney Dangerfield are among those appearing in the film with live 4-D effects.
One word of advice, use the tram entering or exiting the park. It is a long walk to the park entrance!
Native Americans visited and used these springs as long as 6,000 years ago. The 603 acres of De Leon Springs State Park offer a variety of attractions. There is excellent swimming in the spring, which remains at 72 degrees year round and flows at a rate of about 20 million gallons a day. The idyllic swimming area is adjacent to a beautiful, shady picnic ground.
A half-mile nature trail meanders through floodplain forest. A butterfly garden and a hiking trail are also located in the park. Park wildlife includes alligators, white-tailed deer, turtles and otters. Among the birds that can be seen are anhingas, egrets, hawks, limpkins, ospreys, Belted Kingfishers and Great Blue Herons.
De Leon Springs State Park provides access to Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, where canoeists can explore 18,000 acres of lakes, creeks and marshes.
The unique restaurant at De Leon Springs State Park is one of the incentives to stop here. Located inside the Old Spanish Sugar Mill building is the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House. Here they grind grains using French millstones and use the resulting flours to make pancake batters, breads and cookies.
Each of the tables in the restaurant is equipped with a griddle in the center. The servers bring you pitchers of homemade pancake batters. Blueberries, sausage, eggs or other items to accompany the pancakes are optional.