Flight to Fort Myers
The LTU flight from Düsseldorf was scheduled for departure on Saturday, 9th April, at 10:45 a.m. and we headed for the runway right on time. Flight time was approx. 10 hours 30 minutes. The weather forecast had predicted rain and 4-9 °C only so we were glad we were finally heading into the sunshine! The aircraft was fairly new and the service was nothing to complain about. They even distributed free newspapers and magazines. We only had to buy our own headset. We had two meals and two recent movies were shown during the flight: "Meet the Fockers" and "Never been kissed". When we reached the coast of the UK it was even sunny (in spite of the weather forecast), so we were able to see the Channel and we got a good view of the city of Dover. Unfortunately I missed that photo opportunity. For London we sat on the wrong side of the plane. Then we flew along the British south coast and the coast of Brittany. But once we reached the Atlantic there was nothing more to see than water. The last part from east to west over Florida didn't take much longer than 15 minutes. We flew in over West Palm Beach and looked down upon Lake Okeechobee. Florida from above looked quite appalling. It was very flat and separated into lots. We arrived on time at 15:15 and spent an hour in immigration. Then we took a shuttle service to Alamo where we had a choice of three rental cars. We opted for a silver Chevrolet Classic, which was still very new. It only had 625 miles on the clock! It was 5:30 p.m. when we were ready to go and we got to our pre-booked motel, Mariner's Lodge, around 30 minutes later, at midnight German time. It was 26 °C and partly cloudy. After checking in we had two plain chicken burgers from a roadside vendor nearby and went to bed soon afterwards.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands
We had breakfast at Perkins Restaurants & Bakery for $17 including tip and we bought some muffins to take along for lunch later on. We were ready to hit the road at 8:45 a.m. We drove to nearby Sanibel Island. There is a $6 return toll for the causeway. We went to the lighthouse first (parking was $2 per hour) and walked along a boardwalk nature trail to the fishing pier and then strolled around the beach for 30 minutes. Here we saw a few wading birds and an osprey. Afterwards we continued to J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and did the 5 miles wildlife drive ($5 per car) where we saw lots of wild birds like ibises, egrets, a great blue heron, cormorants and roseate spoonbills. The refuge is home to many more animals including alligators and raccoons, but we didn't see any. We did spot a baby horse-shoe crab in the water. The final boardwalk trail in the park was closed as it had been damaged in the last hurricane and trees were uprooted. We left the park and crossed the bridge to Captiva Island which is home to many beautiful villas. A few houses still had damaged roofs from the hurricane that struck the island last summer. Apparently the island has lost many trees during that hurricane, but as we didn't know how it looked like before, we couldn't see any difference. Back on Sanibel Island we stopped at Bowman's Beach for an hour ($2 parking) which is famous for its abundance of shells. I went for a little swim. The sea was fairly cold. Then we drove to Bailey Tract, another part of J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge (free of charge), where we went for a little walk around some lakes. We heard the alligators' mating bellow, but we couldn't see them.
Shortly after 5 p.m. we drove the one mile from our hotel to Fort Myers Beach which is one of the major tourist destinations of that area. It was quite busy indeed and it wasn't easy to find a parking space. But in the end we got lucky and parking was even free for the rest of that evening. Apparently traffic jams are common on the weekends and it may be advisable to use the Park & Ride Trolley instead. There was quite a party atmosphere with live bands, etc. and we were glad we had booked a hotel in a quieter area. Nevertheless we were very close to the main hub. The hotels on South Estero Island were much further away than ours. We had a look at the pier first, then we went for dinner at the "Beached Whale" pub, right on Estero Boulevard. We had to wait a while to get a seat on the roof-top terrace. By now it was 6:30 p.m. We had 2 burgers plus drinks for $26 incl. tip. The day ended with a beautiful sunset (7:30 p.m.), which we watched from the beach, but also with a lot of itching as we got badly bitten by no-see-ums (little mosquitoes that you can hardly see). At first I didn't feel any bites at all, so we didn't put on any bug repellent. But in the middle of the night my skin began to itch quite unbearably which was to last me for three days! An anti-itch cream from Wal-Mart brought a bit of relief.
Lovers Key State Park, Naples and Marco Island
On Monday morning we were on the road by 8 a.m. with two muffins from Perkins and two coffees from McDonalds (only realized later that Perkins also did take-away coffees). We passed through Fort Myers Beach again and reached Lovers Key State Park ($5 admission) shortly afterwards. One of the two bridges to the beach was damaged (another result of the hurricane) and we were too early for the tram, so we had to walk 10 minutes to the second bridge. We had breakfast on the beach and suddenly realized we were being attacked by no-see-ums again, so we quickly sprayed ourselves with insect repellent. We ate up quickly, then we walked along the beach and watched a number of pelicans hunting for fish and shooting down from the sky into the water. It was quite a sight! The beach was full of beautiful shells and we saw several ospreys (fish hawks) nesting in the trees. We also hiked along part of the Black Island Trail. After spending around 1.5 hours in the park we continued on our trip to Naples around 11 a.m. Olde Naples is quite a nice town with shaded streets and many beautiful and expensive villas. We arrived at the historic pier shortly after 12:30 p.m. Here we spent another 45 minutes (the parking meter was ticking). Naples has a beautiful beach without high-rise condominiums that often spoil the view on many of Florida's beaches. Looking down from the pier the water was alive with fish. Pier fishing is a popular sport in Florida and from below the pier the pelicans were waiting for their share of fish. We also saw a dolphin swimming near the pier. That was neat!
We reached Marco Island at 2 p.m. We stopped at the visitor center to ask about an affordable motel in the area. There was nothing available below $80. We were recommended The Boat House, but they only had $95 rooms left. Including tax this amounted to $104. But what could we do: either return to Naples or try the next village, Everglades City, which might not have been any better. So we decided to stay. It was quite a nice, large room with a king-size bed. We had a dip into the heated pool, which was very small and very warm, like a bath tub! The motel has a nice sun-deck right by the water. After we were rested we went for a little tour around the island and the town of Marco. There are many high-rise condos facing the beach and the only two public accesses to the beach (Tigertail and South Marco Beach) charge $4 for the day, which was a bit much just to have a look. So we drove along the canals instead watching the posh villas with their private boat docks. We had dinner at Captain Brien's (2 fish/grouper burgers with cokes for $28 incl. tip). We watched the sunset from the docks behind our motel where we saw a dolphin diving in front of an incoming boat. At the end of the day the motel was fully booked.
On Tuesday morning we drove to Dunkin' Donuts and bought coffee and muffins to go which we ate back at our motel room. We checked out when the reception opened at 9 a.m. and drove back to the Tamiami Trail towards the Everglades. The first stop we made was at a Seminole Indian village right next to the entrance of the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk (no charge). The boardwalk is 1/4 miles long and winds through the swamp forest which is part of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Right at the start we passed through a cloud of mosquitoes, but we had sprayed ourselves with Off! Deep Woods, and after that we weren't bothered anymore. At the end of the boardwalk is a viewing platform over a gator hole. Here we saw our first alligators. We also saw a couple of bald-headed eagles perched in the trees above the boardwalk. Back on the road our next stop was at the smallest post office in the US in Ochopee. And after that we stopped at the Big Cypress (Oasis) Visitor Center where we got a good view of a canal full of alligators basking in the sun from a viewing platform. This was a really good photo opportunity.
We didn't drive along the Loop Road (CR 94) at Monroe Station, a 20-mile single-lane mostly unpaved road, as it can take 2 to 3 hours to travel it. From what I heard about the loop road in internet forums it may have been worthwhile though as you can see a lot of wildlife.
Around 12 p.m. we arrived at the Shark Valley Entrance of the Everglades National Park. There was a $10 fee for the park, valid for 7 days. At Shark Valley there's not much to do though unless you take a tram tour or rent bicycles to ride along the 15 miles (24 km) loop road through the sawgrass prairie. The price for the tram tour or the bike rental was more or less the same. While the tram tour was $13.50 per person, bike rental was $5.72 per hour per person with an estimated 2-3 hours for the tour. We decided on the bicycles because it meant we were more flexible. We didn't have to sit in squeezed into the tram with many other tourists and we were able to do the tour at our own pace and stop for photo opportunities. We completed the tour in 2.5 hours but eventually we were only charged 2, which was nice! This was the best wildlife-spotting spot during our entire Florida trip. Along a small canal we saw lots of alligators and exotic birds: anhingas, ibises, cormorants, a great blue heron and snowy egrets. It was fairly hot and there was no shade, but there were a few clouds and a light wind was blowing, so it wasn't too bad. At the half-way point we climbed an observation tower which provides panoramic views of the "river of grass". Click here for more details about the bike tour.
We arrived in Florida City shortly before 4 p.m. and checked into the Travelodge for 2 nights for $60 per night. It was one of the best motels on our trip, good value for the price. Then we took a dip into the pool which was nice. When Hurricane Andrew made landfall just south of Miami Beach in August 1992, it virtually flattened the communities of Homestead and Florida City. But by now they have largely recovered from the devastation. The two communities are very close together so that they almost appear as one town. In Homestead's historic center we saw a number of small independent motels, while in Florida City there are mostly the bigger chain motels that are located in the commercial area. For dinner we went to Denny's just around the corner ($22.50 incl. tip with a 10% Travelodge discount). Afterwards we drove to Homestead Speedway to have a look because Volker wanted to see it.
On Wednesday morning we got up at 7:30 a.m. The continental breakfast at the Travelodge wasn't bad for US standards. It consisted of cereals, muffins, bananas, yoghurts, coffee and juice. When we had finished we drove to the Everglades National Park entrance on the road to Flamingo. The ticket we had bought the day before was still good for today. At 9 a.m. we reached the Royal Palm Visitor Center and started off on the Anhinga Trail. It was a half mile boardwalk trail through sawgrass marsh and it was the best trail we did for wildlife watching. We saw many birds and alligators, a turtle and a squirrel. Then we did the Gumbo Limbo Trail, also a short 0.5 miles, through a shaded, jungle-like hammock, but it was much less interesting, unless you are interested in vegetation. We didn't see any wildlife. For both trails we spent an hour in total. Then we continued towards Flamingo. We stopped again at Pa-hay-okee Overlook which looks over the sawgrass prairie. Afterwards we drove all the way down to Flamingo, where the road ends, without any further stops. In Flamingo we rented a canoe for 2 hours from 11 a.m. ($8 per hour; $22 for the half day). We paddled along a broad canal lined by mangroves but we didn't see very much, just a couple of alligators and birds. So it was rather disappointing, especially as we had to come back the same way. They didn't allow us to go out into Florida Bay because of the possibility of an approaching storm (which we didn't see much of later on). At least it wasn't too hot yet and we didn't get harassed by mosquitoes. To read more about canoeing in the Everglades go to http://www.nps.gov/ever/visit/canoe-f.htm.
We had a buffet lunch at the Visitor Center ($17) which was so-so. When we were finished around 2 p.m., it had become quite unbearably hot and humid (30 °C). We did the Guy Bradley Trail along the shore of Florida Bay where we saw a marsh rabbit. But as it was just too hot, instead of continuing to Eco Pond on foot, we turned back and took the car - what a relief to turn the air-conditioning on! Eco Pond offers good bird-watching opportunities, but we've had enough for the day and didn't stay long. We returned to Florida City on the same road, which is the only one through the park, with a quick stop at West Lake and we finished the day off with a short hike around the Mahogany Hammock Trail where we had to spray ourselves against the mosquitoes which were quite bad here. There are many more trails in the Flamingo area but most of them are one way only: http://www.nps.gov/ever/visit/trail-f.htm. We got back to the Travelodge around 3:30 p.m. As it wasn't too late yet, we drove to an outlet center where I bought two Levis jeans for just $20 plus tax, a very good price. We didn't feel very hungry, so we just had a quick dinner of pizza and pasta at the food court.
On Thursday the 14th we were on the road again around 8:30 a.m. and today we were heading towards the Florida Keys on the Overseas Highway which starts with Milemarker 127 just past Florida City and ends with MM 0 in Key West's old town. The keys (low flat islands) are linked by 42 bridges including the spectacular 7 Miles Bridge. There are over 800 keys and only about 30 of them are inhabited. We stopped at the Howard Johnson hotel in Key Largo because I heard that it's possible to see manatees there, swimming in the canal, but there was some construction going on, so we didn't venture further. Nevertheless we saw some dolphins playing in the canal. Next we stopped at the Holiday Inn in Key Largo to take a look at the "African Queen" lying in the docks, the boat from the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. It was amazingly small! Then we drove to Grassy Key where we visited the Dolphin Research Center ($17.50 general admission each minus $5 discount from a coupon from one of those brochures that you get nearly everyhere). We had arrived at 11 a.m. and spent a couple of hours watching a dolphin show (starring Rainbow) and a sea lion show (starring 3.5 yrs old Kilo and 17 yrs old Loki). It was here that the Flipper series was filmed. Swimming with the dolphins is also on offer. We also had a quick lunch of fish and chips. Then we continued towards Key West. Quite often you can't see the sea from the road because it's hidden behind trees and bushes. But the route becomes more interesting from Islamorada. And when you are able to see the little islands in the turquoise water from one of the many bridges, it's beautiful!
We stopped in Big Pine Key to book a snorkeling tour for the following morning and we arrived at the Days Inn Key West around 2:30 p.m. After checking in we realized that we had been given a smoking room and upon complaining we were told that because we had booked via a wholesaler, we were only entitled to a house rate room and besides there were no non-smoking rooms left. Hmph! Otherwise the rooms were fine. The motel is located 3 miles from downtown Key West, but we had counted on taking the shuttle service. But when we realized that the Bone Island Shuttle which stops right in front of the motel charges $8 per day per person, we decided to take the car instead. I think it's only worthwhile to take the shuttle if you intend to go into town several times per day, or if you want to have a drink. For two people we would have paid $16. Going by car we only paid $0.50 for parking at Smather's Beach plus a bit of gas of course. We were able to find a free parking space near Duval Street on Truman Avenue. In that area there are quite a number of free parking spaces in the residential areas. Further north most free parking spaces are reserved for residents.
We walked to Southernmost Point (of continental America; only 90 miles to Cuba), Key West Lighthouse and Hemingway House, then up Duval Street. The upper part of Duval Street was more like a party zone but actually much less so than I had expected. I was a bit surprised that no street performers and entertainers were to be seen, but so what? We went for a drink on the Sunset Pier and sat there watching the tall ships and catamarans sail into the sunset. The sunset itself was rather disappointing as there was some low hanging cloud right above sea level and the sun simply disappeared behind that cloud quite suddenly before it set behind an island. Only later did I realize that we had missed the famous Sunset Celebration on Mallory Square which was a bit further to the left. I thought it was right at the end of Duval Street. But maybe people hadn't applauded the sunset anyway today, because the sun had made such a disappointing exit. We had a quick dinner at Burger King, then we headed back down Duval Street where the lights had gone on and people were still walking the street and sitting outside in the many restaurants or celebrating in the pubs. We even saw some transvestites. It was 9 p.m. when we got back to our motel.
On Friday morning we got up early. For breakfast the Days Inn offers muffin bars and coffee, not great but better than nothing to get you started. We were all ready to go by 8:15 a.m., but when we phoned to confirm our snorkeling trip it turned out that they had moved it from 9:30 a.m. to the afternoon session at 1:30 p.m. because we were the only two people who had booked for the morning. This turned our plans for the day upside down a bit. I had to call my pen pal Ellen again that we would be able to meet her only later that day while we had all set up yesterday that we would go for lunch together after our snorkeling trip. So we went back to our motel room, not quite sure what to do now. Then we made up our mind to visit a bit more of Key West first. We parked in Truman Avenue again and walked up Whitehead Street to finally take a look at Mallory Square. A Norwegian cruise ship was lying at the docks. Key West almost has a European feel. You can walk along its streets lined with pretty old houses, instead of just driving along a main street lined with motels, gas stations and supermarkets. I only thought it was a shame that power lines often spoil the view. Why don't they place power lines underground? It's more expensive I guess and underground lines are more prone to flood damage, while overhead lines have more exposure to wind damage. From Mallory Square we went to the Historic Harbor Boardwalk and back along Simonton Street. The harbor was quite interesting with all the yachts, sailing boats and tall ships. We had sandwiches at Subway, then we drove to Higgs Beach (found a free parking space) and spent another moment there before it was time to drive to Big Pine Key.
By now it was shortly after 12 p.m. and we arrived at Strike Zone Charter around 12:45 p.m. We were supposed to be there by 1 p.m. We checked in and were given our equipment (masks, fins, wetsuits). We paid $80 for both of us (with a $5 discount coupon) including equipment. The boat was full now with 22 people and there was another German couple (What a coincidence that I was to meet that lady from Mannheim at Düsseldorf station a few months later!). The guy even gave me an underwater bag for my camera, which was really nice, however it didn't work very well for us. It took 35 minutes to go out to Looe Key reef (named for the British frigate HMS Looe that sank here in 1744). While others when diving we snorkeled for an hour, then we went to a different, much better spot. It was fantastic. The water was crystal-clear and I was swimming right in the middle of fish schools. There were many beautiful fish such as parrot fish, angel fish, maybe I even saw a barracuda and I definitely saw a pufferfish (Kugelfisch). The first spot really wasn't so interesting. But maybe we had already seen better at the Great Barrier Reef...
We were back on Big Pine Key by 5 p.m. We had to change, then we drove to my pen pal Ellen's place (on the road we saw a little Key Deer, a species that only lives in this area). Here we also met Ellen's 4-year old son Wyatt and her partner Art. It was really good to have a chat. We went for dinner together at Big Pine Restaurant & Coffee Shop. It was very good value for money. We had ribs and grouper fillet and we also tried Key Lime Pie which was good. When we headed back to Key West it was 9 p.m. The drive didn't take us much more than 30 minutes. That night was a beautiful sunset, but we didn't really get a chance to watch it.
The following day, Saturday, we got up at 8 a.m. and checked out by 9:30 after a breakfast of eggs and toast at the Waffle House on the Days Inn premises. We returned on Overseas Highway to the mainland. We didn't stop at Bahia Honda Beach. It's supposed to be one of the top beaches in the US but it looked fairly small from the road and it's a State Park, so it's not free of charge. But maybe this keeps it from getting too crowded? And I'm sure the view of the old railway bridge would have been something (the beach is located between the old railway and the new road bridge). It took us an hour to drive to Marathon. Here we checked out at Sombrero Beach which seemed really nice and remote and there's no admission. Had another photo stop at the 7 Miles Bridge. Running parallel to the 7 Miles Bridge you can see the old railway bridge broken and disconnected at places. Unfortunately we didn't have time to visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park at Key Largo which should be good for snorkeling. They offer tours with glass bottom boats as well, or you could try out a nature trail. There was a very long traffic jam from the mainland into Key Largo because they had some cycling event going on and the road was partly blocked. We were glad we were heading into the opposite direction! At 1:30 in the afternoon we were back in Florida City where we stopped for sandwiches at Subway.