This article marks the beginning of the series of travel diaries for our road trip to Florida. Stay tuned because a lot of surprises are waiting for you.
Part 1: Travel Diary Part
2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diary
Today is our last day in Miami Beach. Before leaving on a road trip, we gather all our winter clothes and computer equipment in a suitcase and leave it in a locker. This will be safer than leaving them unattended in the trunk of the car during our visits (read more about the lockers available all over the world here).
It’s a good choice finally because not only that makes us more space in the trunk, it also forces JB to make a real cut since his computer is also in locker (evil laughter ahahha). Usually, I blog on the same evening of the visits but it exhausts me enormously, so my computer is also in the locker and I have to rely on my memory to type these lines for you later.
Car rental at Hertz
Before going to North America, JB took an American Express Air France card (more info) to save us insurance costs (Amex covers very well for this kind of thing), so we confidently rent a car from Hertz, without having to pay for insurance this time.
We’ve been upgraded to the next category, so instead of leaving with a compact, we’re leaving with a nice, very quiet, automatic Chevrolet Cruz. It remains small and handy compared to other pick-ups and monsters crossed on the road (Americans don’t like small cars). As you can see on the picture, in Canada and in the US, there is no license plate on the front of the car.
To go to the Keys, here is our program (hover over the round points with your mouse)
- Day 1: Leave early in the morning. Snorkeling in Islamorada at 1pm. Night at Homestead
- Day 2: Drive to Key West making several stops(Seven-Mile Bridge, Marathon, Bahia Honda Key). Visit Key West in the afternoon. Night in Key West
- Day 3: Snorkeling in Key West at 9am. Visit Key West in the afternoon. Night next to Homestead.
The 1st day, we have to turn back to sleep in Homestead, but it was either that or pay 200€ for a hotel that we will not have time to enjoy in Key Largo.
Day 1: How we almost missed our snorkeling trip
The snorkeling outing at 1pm has been booked by phone with the agency one week in advance. Here we are early in the morning with our Chevrolet Cruz, leaving Miami Beach at 9am. We are largely in advance on the timing. A thought crosses me suddenly: we will have all our time to go to a shopping mall and to have lunch there.
Short trip to the shopping center
So we’re going to Dandeland Miami, 30 minutes from Miami Beach because I wanted to buy something at Urban Outfitters, and see if we could buy a sun visor for the car.
Against all odds, we see a Tesla store, you know, autonomous electric cars! We shyly enter the store, but the salesman immediately puts us at ease and allows us to get into all the cars and play with the control panel (which is as big as a computer).
I’m not much of a car person, but I’m in admiration of this technical prowess combined with a minimalist design that’s hard to resist. There are always the brake and speed pedals (to regain control of the car – for fun). But there’s no gear lever, the car is automatic, electric, can drive itself, there’s not even a key, just a card to slide. The ceiling is glazed, the self-heating seats move forwards, backwards, recline in one click.
Everything is centralized via the huge control screen. As a result, there is a lot of space between the two front seats. It feels closer to the window as well, because the front space, without all kinds of buttons, has been extremely simplified.
Then we had lunch at Chick-fil-A, a fast-food chain equivalent to KFC, which I heard a lot of good things about. In the end, it wasn’t that good. The only good thing was their fries.
It’s 11 o’clock and quietly, I turn on the phone’s GPS. The day before (like midnight), I had checked on Google Maps and we should arrive there at 12 o’clock normally. For an appointment at 1pm.
But here, the horror: Waze announces 2h30 of road instead of one! I had not taken into account the traffic jams of a weekend in my calculation, a beginner’s mistake! (there is only one road to the Keys so it’s impossible to do otherwise).
JB gives me a black look and we feel that he is stressed, he has been waiting for months for this snorkelling outing in the keys. I try to reassure him as much as I can: we have an appointment at 13h, certainly, but the boat leaves at 13h30. And then the boat contains only 6 passengers, they are going to wait for us. A small phone call to the agency later, the lady isn’t happy at all but tells me to arrive as soon as possible. During 2h30, we are tense as not possible and as soon as Waze foresees one minute more at our arrival time, the stress goes up a notch.
In addition, we see “toll” signs everywhere but don’t understand how to pay. We will understand later that between Miami and the Keys, the toll is automatic and our car rental company will take care of it by charging us extra fees (more info on the toll here).
Snorkeling in Islamorada
But the planets are aligned and this road trip is under the sign of the miracle, so we arrive at 1:31 pm, and run to sign the papers, pay (50$/person in cash), take the flippers and here we are in the boat… We made it, we made it! #insert them-smileys-dance-here It’s like I realized the american dream ahahhahahahahaha 😀
We stopped 1km from an old lighthouse. While we are snorkeling, one of the clients goes down first to do the dive with his instructor.
The water isn’t very clear today unfortunately and there aren’t many fish. The sun is absent, so it gives a green color on the pictures, instead of blue, it’s not very nice. After going around the area, we are about to go back in the boat when we notice that the fishes are all… under the boat – to enjoy the shadow. And a huge barracuda is hiding there too (from a distance, I thought it was a shark and my heart stopped for a microsecond).
The captain worries and looks everywhere because he does not see the bubbles of the divers. In fact, the usual instructor is sick and replaced by another person – who got on the wrong boat and went around in circles for an hour. Maybe it’s because of this delay that we finally made only one stop? (instead of 3!).
On the way back to the port, the Americans shout “manatee” and show us something that looks like the back of a seal. I had to google to know what it was => manatee in French
Night at Homestead
We take the car back in torrential rain to return to Homestead. Our hotel: Hotel Redland(Booking link) with its whisky bar, with a very old, very American decoration, we like it very much. The paella is to fall. We spend a good night and so much the better because we needed to rest after so much stress 🙂
To see the vlog of this 1st day of travel, watch our video :
The vacation atmosphere is at its maximum, we leave early this morning to avoid being stuck in traffic jams like the day before. I found on Internet several beaches which could interest us on the way. The idea is to fly our small drone, not to swim because the road is still long (more than 200km to do in one morning).
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Overseas Highway
First stop: John Pennekamp Park in Key Largo. $4.5/person. People come here to swim but mostly to kayak. Mangroves grow everywhere (see aerial photo), and it is the ideal habitat for crocodiles and alligators. There is a sign indicating the presence of crocodiles. The swimming area is protected by a net, but frankly it is useless.
From here it is possible to opt for a snorkeling tour by boat. Key Largo is the best place to do this because there is a coral reef in the area. However, recent opinions are mixed, it seems that the recent storms have destroyed a lot in the area.
One of the most beautiful beaches of the Keys. Seriously? Uhhh… The advantage I see is the free shower, and the free parking too.
I admit that the picture above isn’t bad at all but in real life, a sweet smell of decomposed algae attacks the nostrils. It is marked everywhere on the beaches in Florida that they refuse to remove the algae because they will be used as fertilizer for the mangroves. Ecosystem all that. That’s good!
On the other hand, the tourists’ game will be to find THE beach without algae, or with algae but which do not stink.
If you look at Google Maps, you will think that going to the Keys is like island hopping in the Philippines, but by car, with bridges between the islands. You will drive almost at the same water level, as if you were bathed in the blue of the ocean. What nenni! All this is FINISHED!
The mangrove has taken over, now you have the green of the mangrove that blocks the view 🙁 Here is an aerial photo to illustrate this “visual pollution” 😀
But but but but, there is still a magical place in the Keys, it is Seven-Mile Bridge. Without mangrove. Blue as far as the eye can see. The bridge carries the aqueduct of the Florida Keys as well as the fiber optic cables.
The old bridge, parallel to the new one, has become pedestrian now, ideal for fishermen, cyclists… and tourists.
we saw a huge barracuda and birds. It was magnificent! I never get tired of it.
It is really the most beautiful beach of the Keys. OK, the seaweed is still present, and the “sand” part is a bit small, but
(1) it doesn’t feel anything
(2) the depths are variable, you can sit down, like snorkeling, swimming, kayaking…
(3) the beach is huge
(4) there are showers on the spot
(5) the parking lots are huge
Admission is $4.5/person. And going to the end, you will find a small path leading to the old bridge destroyed by the storms. Some people snorkel nearby because there are more fish there.
We take our beach bag out of the trunk with the intention to swim in it but the threatening clouds arrived much too fast 🙁
We drive without stopping and arrive FINALLY in Key West! As the crow flies, we are 170KM from Havana, it’s crazy! The development of Key West was made thanks to its strategic position, its deep water port, its naval base… and the island is internationally known thanks to the personalities who have visited it, like Hemingway, Tennesse Williams…
Unlike other places in the USA, the streets here have names instead of numbers. It’s more difficult to find your way around 🙂
We check-in at the hotel first Douglas House (Booking link) (old house style, it’s super nice, with private parking), before visiting the port. Free parking spaces being rare, most of them are marked “residential” (for the locals) so we only have paid parking spaces left, at 4$ per hour.
At the port, we are going to see different agencies for tomorrow’s snorkeling. JB insists on the side 2 or 3 stops to avoid spending the whole day in not very clear water. Most of the snorkeling agencies don’t have an office, and sell tickets only online, so we just book and pay online as well.
Southernmost Point of the Continental US
We pass quickly in front of the southernmost point of the United States but seeing the queue to take pictures and the impossibility to park, we couldn’t stop there. To see what it is, here are the pictures on Google
The walk on the pier at Higgs Beach is really relaxing. The water is unfortunately a bit green like yesterday, and we see from the pier that there aren’t many fish around here.
We take a tour of the city by car and admire the beautiful old houses that make the reputation of this island.
We end the day at Mallory Square for the famous sunset. There is a foodtruck on the spot, an expensive restaurant, and many animations to wait until the sunset at 8pm. We are relieved to see the very blue water here, chances are the snorkeling will be exceptional tomorrow with such clear water.
The clouds make the sky even more beautiful. You can also opt for a snorkeling tour or a boat trip at this time.
The next day, we leave for a 4 hours boat trip with the agency Fury Water Adventures. The online booking gives us 10% discount, and we chose the “Double Dip” package to have 2 stops.
It was a very good choice because the agency seems to be concerned about the environment, by providing us with sunscreen compatible with the corals; and by asking us to respect the snorkeling area and keep a minimum distance from the corals. Everything is provided (mask, snorkel, flippers, the fry-shaped buoys they call “noodle”).
Non-alcoholic drinks are served at will during the whole trip, but beers are only served after the snorkeling. There is a fresh water area at the back of the boat for rinsing. So much the better because we have some road to do just after.
The water is clearly bluer, more transparent. There must be at least 5 meters deep but we can see everything to the bottom. There are always fish. We are clearly not in Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, or Cuba, but it’s nice anyway.
I heard a tourist talking about a nurse shark seen in the sand, and JB saw a huge barracuda.
On the boat, I was very embarrassed by the behavior of the French… the French. They are the only ones to smoke cigarette after cigarette, without embarrassment, in any country; I hate smoke and I resent them a lot for the passive smoking they impose on me.
It is difficult to see now the usefulness of such a lighthouse so far from the port and surrounded by trees and houses, but this lighthouse guided hundreds of boats before it was declared obsolete in 1969.
Right next door is the house of the writer Hemingway. It took us a long time to find a parking space (free of charge as well) and walking in this heat, even 5 minutes, almost finished me off.
But as soon as I set foot in the garden, I feel good again. Admission is $14/person, and payment is cash only. We can give you a presentation document (in all languages) but there are free guided tours in English regularly and we were able to take one of these tours.
The house looks huge but inside, each room seems quite small (maybe because of the decoration a little busy too).
Hemingway was very fond of cats, and he had a Snow White cat with 6 fingers (normal cats have 5), which was given to him by a captain. Polydactyl cats are particularly adapted on the boat because they apparently hunt mice better. Thanks to Snow White’s very active life, her descendants are numerous and now half of the cats on the boat have 6 or more fingers, like her.
Cats are allowed everywhere, sleeping on the furniture, on the bed, in the writer’s old office… exactly as when the writer was alive.
The famous swimming pool of the house cost 3 times more to build than the house itself 🙂 it remains the biggest on the island. Unfortunately nobody uses it anymore.
Visiting this house is my favorite experience in Key West. Talking about it still stirs up a lot of emotions for me. I have heard and read so much about this house and its cats that I feel like it only exists in books. On top of that, the muggy heat and the many fans on the ceiling take me right back to my childhood.
No, we didn’t have a house with a garden like this in Vietnam, but as I walked through the garden, I remembered my late grandmother’s small family home. In the bedroom there was a huge ceiling fan. This fan was bought as a result of dad’s lottery win… at that time, this fan was worth as much as a Porsche today so even by winning the lottery, dad chose to buy the most necessary for all of us: a fan… Vietnamese people used to take a nap after eating, and despite my inability to nap like everyone else, my grandmother always tried to make me sleep, rocking me every noon. I let her do it because the singing was nice.
Con cò mà đi ăn đêm,
Đậu phải cành mềm, lộn cổ xuống ao.
Ông ơi! Ông vớt tôi nao,
Tôi có lòng nào, ông hãy xáo măng.
Có xáo thì xáo nước trong,
Đừng xáo nước đục, đau lòng cò con.
Every day, during siesta time, I would stare at that fan, watching for the slightest noise from street vendors, or any noise that would tear apart that peaceful moment when the whole city seemed to be on standby. I would lay there, my head on a blue satin pillowcase with phoenix and dragon embroidery. When there were power cuts (very numerous at that time), my grandmother would take out her large fan, a fan that smelled good, while continuing to rock me. She would always end up falling asleep first, while my wide-open eyes kept staring at the movement of the fan. And today, in this green garden where I set foot for the first time, in this moist but silent heat, not even that of the wind, I have found the same quietness as those many naps in Vietnam. All I needed was my grandmother’s song.
We take the road back in the opposite direction, leave Key West and spend the night in Kendall. The vlog of the 2 days in Key West is also available here :
Part 2: Practical Tips
Budget & addresses
- Snorkeling in Key Largo: choose the agency you want, the + would be to have 2 to 3 stops to vary the depths. This part is often more agitated than in Key West so beware of those who get seasick. Count 45$ to 50$/person. You can pay a little less through Groupon.
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: 4,5$/person, expect cash
- Bahia Honda Beach: 4.5$/person, expect cash
- Snorkeling in Key West: we recommend Fury Water adventures, the Double Dip package with 2 stops at 52$/person. Payment and online booking will give you 10% discount
- Visit of Hemingway’s house: $14/person in cash only
- Paid parking at Key West: $4/hour, provide quarters or $1 if you want to pay in cash. Payment by credit card is accepted.
- Accommodations in Homestead and Kendall
- Accommodation in Key West: in a charming house with swimming pool: Douglas House(Booking link) $149 per double room, unlimited coffee & tea
This article is part of our series of Road Trip in FloridaYou can find all other travel books here:
- 3 days in the Keys (USA) : Snorkeling in Key West, Dream beaches – Road trip in Florida #1
- Wild dolphins in Naples, The Ringling, Siesta Key Beach, Dali Museum (USA) – Road trip in Florida #2
- Ginnie Spring, Rainbow Spring (USA) – Road trip in Florida #3
- The Drive In experience, the outdoor cinema in the United States – Road trip in Florida #4
- [Practical Guide] Disney parks in Orlando (USA) : Top Attractions, where to stay, Fast Pass : Road trip in Florida #5
- Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando (USA) : Our favorite theme park – Road trip in Florida #6
- Kennedy Space Center, Hollywood Beach – Road trip in Florida #7
- Attend a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral (USA) – Road trip in Florida #8