3/4/19 to 3/11/19
The Keys are grouped into 3 distinct regions – the Upper, Middle, and Lower Keys – each with a bit different geology, history, culture, and population density. From the largest and northernmost island, Key Largo, to the tip of Key West, the Keys are linked by 42 bridges along the 126-mile historic US 1, including the spectacular 7-mile bridge.
To go from the Florida mainland, there were 2 routes from which a boater could choose – the Atlantic Ocean route or the Florida Bay route. The 2 routes were very different and with only 5 crossover points a boat our size could transit (with 2 of those being in the Upper Keys), making an early choice of our route to Key West was very important. The route along the Florida Bay in the Gulf meandered through shallower water. The more exposed route along the Atlantic Ocean, sheltered by a reef 3 miles offshore, was called Hawk Channel.
We decided since we were coming from Fort Myers on the Gulf coast, we would transit to Key West along the Florida Bay route, which had more numerous anchorages. Then we would return north by way of the Hawk Channel allowing us to snorkel along the way on the coral reef (note dive sites on map marked by red and white flags).
Key West, the southernmost city in the US is one of the hottest vacation destinations in the country. Since it was spring break time, we saw all ages in town. It lies at the southernmost point of US Route 1, the longest north-south road in the US. Only 4.2 square miles, it is 1 mile wide by 4 miles long with a population of 25,500 people. Average winter temperature is 84 degrees.
In 1990, America’s only barrier coral reef, the 3rd largest in the world, was protected as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), which encompassed the entire Keys. Special regulations meant we were limited in the places we could anchor (never on the reef though we could anchor in the sand nearby). In some areas, we could not anchor at all but had to use one of the large mooring balls just off the reef, and then we could only pick up the small day-use mooring balls in our dinghy. Also, we could not expel any waste products, which meant we had to use our holding tank and pump out at regular intervals at marinas.
Southern Florida was just plain expensive. Marina prices now rivaled the cost of what we saw in NYC on our last Loop – up to $4.00 per foot per night, sometimes with electrical and other add-ons, which for our boat was $175.00+ per night. Fortunately, we found a slip at the City Marina at Garrison Bight which was considerably less. It wasn’t fancy but it was adequate, mostly filled with houseboats. Food was also very expensive, and we paid about double what we pay in Phoenix. Paula saw organic apples in the grocery store for $5.00 a pound. Most menu entrees were $20-25 all the way up to $50 for something like stone crab, a local specialty.
The day after our arrival, we had breakfast on Duval Street, the center of the main tourist district in town. Then we wandered all along Duval Street, composed mainly of T-shirt, Cuban cigar, and tourist shops, bars, restaurants, and many art galleries, which we enjoyed. We resisted all purchases other than food except a Key West mug. We did get some info from Divers Direct, the largest dive shop in Key West, about snorkeling in the area. Then we scootered down to the Southernmost place in the US for the requisite photo. By the time we returned to the boat, we had logged 4.1 miles in our flip flops.
For transportation, the number of bicycles plus scooters seemed to equal the number of cars. In our marina parking lot, we counted 40 scooters, 42 bicycles, and 37 cars. Chickens and roosters ran wild. One tried to attack me when we came home from Winn Dixie with a hot cooked chicken. Was he mad at me or did he want to eat it himself?
We continued searching weather info daily to see how long we would be staying in Key West due to high winds, vacillating between thinking we might be able to get out in a few days as we desired followed by deciding perhaps we couldn’t.
Tuesday, we walked the houseboat docks. Some were so cute and colorful.Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, the #1 rated attraction in Key West. Besides all the beautiful butterflies, they had 2 hand-raised Caribbean flamingos named Scarlett and Rhett acquired at 17 months old, as well as small birds flitting about. It was very enjoyable.
We had the fresh fish of the day (snapper) at Red Fish Blue Fish and then walked through Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden. We then did the Pelican Path using the Walking Guide to Historic Key West. We really enjoyed looking at the old houses and learning about their architecture and history. We walked another 4.1 miles for the day.
We finished with our favorite Southern tourist town ice cream – Kilwins – and conversed with a couple from Ohio, Dave and Cheryl, who were spending a few months in the Keys. Dave, unlike most, had heard of the Great Loop, and we enjoyed sharing our adventures. Back at the boat, we enjoyed a piece of Key Lime pie Paula had made (a piece at a restaurant is usually $5 or more, she made the whole pie for less) to finish the day.
Tom got up the next morning ready to go pick up the belt to fix our autopilot. But…due to the incompetency of the UPS employee who told him she would save it from being returned to the sender, UPS failed us. Oh well, more self-steering and we reordered it to be sent to our next marina.
Key West had 2 sightseeing train tours – the Old Town Trolley Tour and the Conch Train, both owned by the same company. We chose the Conch Train, the shorter 70-minute one with only 4 stops since we had stopped many of the places already, and enjoyed the history we heard from the driver-guide. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we did it again with a different driver-guide, and heard much different information.
Many of the early residents became wealthy from the many shipwrecks that occurred on the reef 3 miles east in the Atlantic. The richest had a widow’s watch on the roof and the captain could see far out. Instead of alerting the townsmen of the wreck so they could help rescue the passengers (as was the custom), he began pilfering cargo before anyone else knew about it. According to the courts, the one who first got to the wreck was given 50% of all recovered goods.
Originally, “conchs” was a derogatory term given to the Cuban locals who were so poor all they could eat were conchs from the sea. Now it is a term enjoyed by the locals. Only residents born in Key West may call themselves “conchs” while 7-year residents are jokingly referred to as “freshwater conchs.” Do you know where the name “Conch Republic” originated? Read here.
On Sat, March 9, we did some boat tasks in the morning (including sewing a new winch cover) and Tom got the grill ready for service (for the next fish he caught). At 1:00 PM, our friend Kathy arrived from Phoenix to spend some time with us. We made use of the free Duval Loop city bus to get around and showed Kathy the sights. First was the Eco-Discovery Center featuring 2 excellent underwater movies (one was 3D), as well as several dioramas and interactive exhibits. Unfortunately, it closed at 4:00 and we didn’t have nearly enough time there.
We found some cute wooden cutouts behind which to take our pictures and then walked Duval Street once again toward Mallory Square for sunset, stopping along the way to eat. We watched a few street performers before calling it a day.
Sunday, 3/10 was the start of daylight savings time. Kathy came up with the idea of riding bikes with Paula while Tom rode the scooter. We rode about a mile to Higgs Beach where the weekend Artisan Market had about 40 booths, food trucks, and a band. After getting a sample, we supported the European Bakery booth by buying some delicious olive bread and baba ganoush spread. We were glad to find the West Martello Tower garden, supported by 500 volunteers, was open and enjoyed a walk through it.
Paula and Kathy biked back to the boat, then Kathy went out for another ride all the way to Stock Island and back, looking for beaches. There are some beaches in the Keys, but not as many (and definitely not as large) as you might expect.
Next were some more preparations in anticipation of leaving Key West the following morning. Time to pump out the holding tank. This was the first marina we had ever encountered with a self-pumpout. Tom picked up the marina pumpout hose. He got all set up, then we hit the “on” switch. It went perfectly! Amazing. But…(did you know that was coming?)…there was also some brown water near the holding tank (which didn’t smell good – uh oh). On our previous Loop, our holding tank cracked and we had to replace it. Surely this hadn’t happened again! Well, fortunately, it was not poop water this time but muddy water from anchor retrieval. We brought the pumpout hose in through the cabin and sucked it out, then rinsed & sucked multiple times. Well, another thing to add to the list – to figure out why the bilge pump wasn’t working and fix it.
Paula found an Italian restaurant with half-price meals between 5 and 7 PM. It was a high-class restaurant by Vail standards (white tablecloths and a live pianist) with delicious pasta dishes and leftovers to bring home. After a few more errands, we remounted the bikes and scooter (our first time after dark), looking forward to our departure the next day.
Additional pictures below (click to enlarge):