Key West and Dry Tortugas National Park

Itinerary: 

  • Saturday- Tuesday: Miami and Biscayne National Park
  • Tuesday- Friday: Key West and Dry Tortugas National Park
  • Friday- Sunday: Everglades National Park

Dates: December 26, 2015 to January 3, 2016

Our Odyssey: 

Tim and I drove from Miami to Key
West on Tuesday December 29. Key West is a very popular New Year’s destination,
so I think we lucked out with only about an hour’s worth of extra traffic on
the Overseas Highway – the 113-mile highway that carries US-1 to the Florida
Keys. The highway consists of 42 overseas bridges crossing 34 islands, and
takes about 2 hours to reach Key West from mainland Florida (with steady
traffic).

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Our Florida trip on one sign! 

The drive takes travelers through
Key Largo (scuba diving capital of the world, allegedly); past a sea turtle
conservation center, a wild bird rehabilitation center, and a dolphin center;
by the largest lobster in the world (it’s a weird statue thing in front of a
store); and the remains of an historic railroad that was completed in 1912 and
unfortunately destroyed by a hurricane in 1935 – all while passing the
turquoise waters of Gulf of Mexico to your right and the Atlantic Ocean to your
left.

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Overseas Highway

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The famous lobster

We got to Key West in time to
visit Ernest Hemingway’s house (now a museum) before it closed for the day.
Hemingway is one of the most famous 20th century American authors, and he wrote
his best work during the eight years he lived in this home (1931 to 1939) with
his second wife and polydactyl (six-toed) cat. Now the estate is home to about
50 other polydactyl cats, all descendants of Hemingway’s pet. Our guide through
the house was passionate and engaging. The story of Hemingway’s life is both
romantic and tragic. I won’t spoil the story for you here – go to Key West and
hear all about it for yourself.

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Hemingway’s House

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My dream come true – shelves of books and cats! 

On our drive back to our hotel
(10 minutes from the Old Town, where all the historic sites and bars are), we
passed by the Southernmost Point of the continental United States, marked with
a large red concrete buoy. It was ridiculously crowded with swarms of people
trying to take a good photo. We sort of got some pictures with strangers, and
then got the hell away. We decided we would try again in the morning, since we
had to get up early to go scuba diving anyway and we figured there would be fewer
people early in the morning.

That evening we ordered pizza and
had a few beers in the hotel hot tub. The next morning, sure enough, the
southernmost point marker was completely empty. With the dawn sunlight
glistening off the water behind the buoy, we couldn’t have picked a better time
to come back to the spot.

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At the Southernmost Point

We then made our way to the marina, where the dive
shop we booked our trip with is located. We got there a little earlier than the
meet-up time, so we walked around, watched the chickens crossing the road (yep,
lots of wild chickens in Key West), and explored the area a bit.

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Proof of chickens

Our dive trip had originally been
booked for a dive of the Vandenburg wreck, a deep and large wreck and one of
the more famous dives in the area. Due to poor conditions (damn that El Nino),
however, the dive shop decided we should go somewhere else instead. We went to
the Alexander wreck instead – a smaller wreck site. We were still super excited
though, since we’d never dived a wreck before (and hadn’t dived since late November
2014 in the Great Barrier Reef).

It was a pretty exciting dive day
for us, despite the poor visibility and strong current (this actually added to
the experience, as it was very different from dives we’ve had previously). On
our first dive of the Alexander, we found the wreck, then lost it, swam in the
wrong direction for a while, lost each other (we had to use the lost buddy
protocol for the first time!), surfaced, found each other, reoriented our
direction, and finally found the wreck and a bunch of sting rays too! Most of
our diving time was up at this point, so we headed back to the boat to gear up
for the second dive.

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Alexander wreck

On our second dive, we found the
wreck much more quickly, and in addition to seeing many rays again, we also
saw, for just a quick second, a very large sea turtle! This was our first wild
sea turtle ever (if you’re a regular reader you may recall we tried to see some
ashore in Bundaberg, Australia), so
even though it was a murky glimpse, we were both ecstatic to have finally been
so close to such a great animal!

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Alexander wreck

Getting to explore the wreck
itself was also very exciting – so many nooks and crannies! I also found it
fascinating how a manmade structure, a ship, can become a home for marine life
and develop into an artificial reef. I think that’s what makes a wreck dive so
particularly intriguing for me. It mixes a bit of history with nature and blurs
the line between natural and manmade, demonstrating that, not unlike the jungle
growing around Ta Prohm temple
in Cambodia, nature has a way of taking over the ruins we leave behind.

After our dive, we enjoyed a
decadent lunch at Half Shell Raw Bar, across the parking lot from the dive
shop. We split an order of conch fritters and a tower of oysters, clams, shrimp
and crab claws. We finished with a slice of Key Lime pie. Absolutely delicious!
As an aside, it may seem obvious but we never realized that Key Lime pie is
called such because the limes come from the Keys, so it’s a bit of a local
special. Any thoughtful traveler should of course try the local specials, and I
was excited to have an excuse to eat pie.

Key Lime pie

That evening we walked around the
Old Town, visiting a few historic sites and a lot of bars, including Jimmy
Buffett’s original Margaritaville. For those who don’t know, I was raised on
Jimmy Buffett, so I was very happy to be in his first bar in one of his
favorite places. We also went to a bar called Rum Runners, which had a great,
sandy outdoor space with a set of bags. Tim and I split a rum runner drink
(invented in the Keys as well – again, gotta try those local specialties!) and
played a few games. He won every time but I still had a blast.

Afterwards, we met up with some
friends of ours who also happened to be in Key West that night. Our friends
Erin (who worked with me and Tim 6 + years ago) and Nick (who worked with Tim a
bit over the past year) were vacationing there with Erin’s sister and sister’s
boyfriend. Erin and Nick moved to Seattle a few years ago and so we hadn’t seen
them in a while, so it was a lot of fun to catch up!

Catching up with old friends! 

The next morning (New Year’s Eve)
was another early one for us, as we were heading to our second national park of
the trip – Dry Tortugas! Considered one of the more remote national parks in
the US, Dry Tortugas is located 2.5 hours by ferry west of Key West – so
basically it’s out there in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the ferry ride over, Tim and I
amused ourselves playing cards, filling out our Junior Ranger Guides, and
reading about the park. Dry Tortugas National Park is actually made up of seven
islands, and while the ferry took us past several, Garden Key and Bush Key
(which was connected by a sand bar to Garden Key at the time of our visit)
would be the only one we would set foot on. These seven islands are the
western-most keys of the Florida Keys, and only about 60,000 people visit
annually.

The Dry Tortugas received their
name from Ponce de Leon during his explorations on behalf of Spain in 1513.
“Tortugas” means “turtles” and was named such for the many
de Leon saw here. “Dry” came into play shortly after to reflect that
there is no fresh water on the islands.

Approaching Fort Jefferson on Garden Key

 

Fort Jefferson, on Garden Key, is
a massive (but incomplete) fortress and the largest masonry structure in the
Western Hemisphere. Construction began in 1846, and throughout the United
States Civil War, it remained a Union outpost. After the war, it was home to
about 500 soldiers or civilians and another 500 prisoners. While most of the
prisoners were held for either desertion or robbery, in 1865, 4 men convicted
of conspiring in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination arrived as prisoners.

Pieces of the fortress have fallen into the sea over time, creating another artificial reef for wildlife. Here, you can see the old and the new. 

During our tour of the fort, we
learned about how life here was pretty miserable, despite the beautiful island
paradise setting. With no fresh water, they had to capture rain water in
cisterns. If the cistern had a crack, though (which one always did), then the
entire water supply would be contaminated. Additionally, it was baking hot on
the island, with very little shade.

As tourists today though, we had
a lovely stroll around the historic fort and especially enjoyed the water views
from atop the structure.

Tim and me at the entrance

After the tour we ate some lunch
and then spent the rest of the afternoon snorkeling and swimming. We had a
great time exploring, and we saw many tropical fish, and even our first jelly
fish! Thankfully we didn’t get stung.

Coral along the moat’s wall

A jellyfish

The last part of the trip was
really special to us – so special I’m documenting it in its own post. As for
the remainder of time in Key West, we enjoyed a quiet evening together. I think
it was the first time since I was a kid that I didn’t stay awake for New Years.
New Year’s Eve was big enough – so I don’t regret staying in that night one
bit!

Garden Key lighthouse

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