The further we get into Florida, the more crowded it gets. More traffic and the campground spaces are smaller – and less available. This all started once we left Carrabelle (on Florida’s ‘Forgotten Coast.’) But, that’s to be expected this time of the year. Everyone knows that Florida is a mecca for snowbirds (OK, we are one); in particular South Florida on the Gulf side.
Our drive from Dade City to Chokoloskee seemed like 250 miles of construction zones. Then, once we hit Everglade City (about 3 miles from Chokoloskee Island) we ran smack into the annual Seafood Festival that dominates the entire town for 3 days. After about 15 detours, we made it through town and to our destination – Chokoloskee Island RV Park, where we stayed for 2 weeks. The folks who run this place, Sonny and Carmen, were super friendly and pretty much set the ‘climate’ for the place. It’s an older park, composed of about 70% park models and 30% RV spaces. We had a pretty good spot, wedged (literally) in between 2 park models. It took a bit of doing to get in, but with Sonny’s expert help we made it unscathed. Downside of this place – no dog run. Charlie was bummed.
This was a beautiful place, at the end of the road; there is a 3-mile long causeway that gets you there. It’s on the edge of Everglades National Park, and it really feels like it. Most of the folks we met here were from places like Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Michigan and even Maine – but not a soul from west of the Mississippi River. No ‘Left Coasters;’ we were it. All the folks very laid back and friendly, most cordial and welcoming – easy to be around. However, when we told them where were from, their eyes just glazed over; they had no concept of the ‘Left Coast’, and really did not seem to care too much about it. The end of the world for them seemed to be the Mississippi River. No kidding. The most common comment we got was, “Don’t it rain a lot up there?”
Once we got settled in we headed back over to Everglades City for the annual Seafood Festival. This is a big deal here and it swells the population of the area from about 5,000 to 100,000 for 3 days. We got there early, but still had to park about 6 blocks away. To be honest, the most we can say about it was that it was extremely crowded. The seafood was mediocre and very expensive – and mostly deep fried. The vendors that sold other stuff were essentially the same ones you will find at almost street fair anywhere. We stayed about 3 hours and then left when it got so crowded you could hardly move. But, we now can say we had been there.
One of the most popular foods in the area is Stone crab; they were in season when we were there. They are harvested in traps about 10 – 20 miles off-shore. When caught, one claw is broken off and the crab is return to regenerate a new one; they can do this 4-5 times in their life-cycle. We went to a local restaurant one day to try them out. They were on the menu as a side dish – $26 for four claws! (Tourist price…much cheaper for locals as we discovered later.) The shells are very thick and hard, and come to you pre-cracked since is takes a small hammer to break them open. There is not much meat to them, and what there is somewhat bland. But, we are spoiled on Dungeness crabs from the PNW.
We took an air boat tour through the mangrove swamp; pretty interesting. Our guide, Bobby (a local good ol’ boy), was a fun guy and knew the area well. In some ways, it’s designed to be a thrill ride through mangrove tunnels, accompanied with a lot of sliding sharp turns. It was an OK experience and we had a good time. We asked Bobbie if we would see any ‘gators and he told us no, as they don’t like salt water – a statement that was later nullified when we took a NPS boat tour (in a small boat powered by an outboard motor) a few days later, with a different guide; he told us that was BS…and we saw a big-ass ‘gator to prove it. We also saw a few manatees – beautiful, huge mammals. That was pretty cool.
We booked a room in Key West and headed down there for a few days. On the way there, you head deeper into the Everglades and have the opportunity to see an immense amount of wildlife – mainly a variety of birds. It’s really a beautiful and quite amazing journey. On the way to Key West we made a stop at the smallest US Post Office in the United States, located in Ochopee, FL.
About 22 miles south of Homestead you come to Key Largo, the beginning of the 100 miles drive on the causeways to Key West. The average speed the entire way is 45 MPH. We were travelling on a Sunday – that slowed us down quite a bit. It seemed like it was bumper-to-bumper traffic the entire trip, but that was fine since it was a great drive.
Key West is nothing like we had envisioned. I was thinking of sandy, palm tree-lined beaches with a few people sitting on them, drinking margaritas, kick’n back listening to Jimmy Buffet tunes. (OK, not really, but that would have been the ideal, huh?) In reality, it’s about 8 square miles packed with humanity. Lots of traffic – and zillions of motor scooters – and very old and narrow streets. It’s a real party town with lots of and bars (all good) and restaurants (mostly all good). We found this pet-friendly B & B place at the last minute – a bit pricey ($275/night), but it was right downtown. We were there in ‘high season’ so there was really not that much to choose from – especially since we waited until about 2 days before to try to get a room reservation. (We decided not to bring our 5th wheel down for the stay, as RV parks – if you could even get in – and you could not – were charging from $150 – $300+ per NIGHT. Arrrgghhhh!!)
Anyhow, once we found our B & B, we discovered that there was no designated parking – you were on your own. (This fact was conveniently not mentioned when we made the reservation.) But, it all worked out great. I let Dee Dee off in front of the house and then circled the block about 5 times until a disabled spot opened up RIGHT IN FRONT! Wahoo!! (We have a disabled placard from Washington.) We squeezed in and dropped anchor there for 2 days. The room was very nice – old, ‘Key West Funky,’ in a nice old, historic, neighborhood about a block from the Trolley line (a really neat way to get around – we used it a lot), and the downtown area. We had a terrific time here and loved every minute of it! The people are great and there is so much to see and do. And yes, we did seek out the original Jimmy Buffet’s Margaretiville Bar and had a beer. It was a cool place, with a great bartender; and we just missed seeing Jimmy…he was there about 6 weeks before we got there. Oh yeah, also made it to the Hog’s Breath Bar, drank, and bought several of their obligatory t-shirts. One downside to being in Key West this time of the year, we discovered, were the HUGE cruise ships that came in constantly, sometimes 2-3 at a time; each one dumped a couple thousand folks into town. Oh well…
After 2 days, we departed Paradise, much poorer but happy, and headed back up to Chokoloskee. Our stay here marked the turning point of our trip. After driving over 8,500 miles, we were now officially starting our journey back to Washington. It was a sad, and yet happy time. And what better place than Key West, Florida, for it to happen. And, we will so miss all the chickens that populate the place…
On the way back up Highway 1, through the Keys, we stopped at a few RV Parks to see about booking for a month next year. Once we found out what it would cost we decided to reconsider. We found this KOA about 14 miles from Key West that was over $3,000 (plus tax) per month, and units were crammed so tight it was a true wonderment as to how they even managed to get in in the first place. Unbelievable. About 30 miles further up on the road, in Grassy Key – not too far from Marathon – we found a ‘much better’ deal – only $2,300 (plus tax) per month. We decided that if we ever returned (and we hope to, someday), we would probably stay at one of the several RV campgrounds in the Everglades, drive down to Key West and then stay in one of the pet-friendly hotels we found that are on the Trolley line. And, we would make our room reservations a year in advance – almost a necessity. After checking with several locals, they suggested coming in December. The crowds are smaller and the weather is not too bad.
The day we drove back up to Chokoloskee was a warm one – about 80 degrees. When we passed back through Everglades National Park (again) we counted at least 50 ‘gators sunning themselves on the shores of the canal that bordered the highway. That was a really great experience.
After 2 relaxing weeks on Chokoloskee Island, we headed back north to Dade City to visit some old friends from Modesto, Jim and Diane Weatherford – that was a hoot. Such great people. On the way there, we got stuck in a huge traffic jam on Highway 75. The freeway was totally closed for about 5 hours. We detoured around the area (along with everyone else…); that elongated our drive by about 4 hours. Made for a very looong day.
After Dade City, our next stop was Tallahassee where we stayed at one of the crappiest RV parks of the trip – semi-rude (and clueless) check-in lady and way over-priced. But, we were tired and there was just no place else to stop. There is much more to this story, but let’s just say it’s on our list of places not to stay ever again. Not that Tallahassee is a place to be avoided – it’s definitely a great city; we would definitely visit there again…just stay someplace else.
As we progressed further West, our next stop was Mobile, Alabama. We spent 3 days here resting up at this terrific RV park – clean, quite, in the woods just outside of town and – can you believe it? – $23 per night! The cheapest stay of our entire trip, so far. Not to mention our gracious (it seems everyone in the south is gracious) host, Charlie. What a neat guy. We took a day and enjoyed old downtown Mobile where we toured a (4/5 scale) reconstruction historic Fort Conte and then took the free trolley around the historic district. We had a very friendly driver to explain stuff, and shared the bus with several ‘locals’ who kept us thoroughly entertained. We had an incredible meal at this very nice restaurant, ‘Spot of Tea,’ where we met Ruby, the owner, who is also a great ambassador for the city of Mobile. Next we headed over to see the warship USS ‘Alabama’ and the submarine, ‘Drum,’ as well as a very good aerospace museum. We did more walking and climbing then one could ever imagine. Exciting, and very tiring, day. We would come back to Mobile in a heat beat. It’s a great city.
OK, as I type, we are back near Lafayette, Louisiana, where we stayed about 6 weeks ago, on our way to Florida. A great town with incredible Cajun food. We are staying at a different place, about 10 miles down the road in Deson. Nice park, great place to run Charlie-the-Dog, and very friendly. Last night, we drove into town (Duson) and found this really funky restaurant called Thibodeaux’s. Looked questionable from the outside, and when we walked in the question got bigger…two old folks watching Judge Judy on an old TV, and not another person to be seen. But what the hell, we risked it. Oh, and ‘no alcohol served here,’ when we asked our waiter for a beer (he was partially deaf and had to get his wife to come over to get order.) But, the food was excellent, and as we sat there, we discovered that they did a terrific take-out business. So, don’t let outward appearances deceive you…
Later today, we are going back to Prejean’s Cajun Restaurant (we ate there twice on our trip east) for more of our favorite – fried green tomatoes. Tomorrow, we are headed further west on Interstate 10 and plan to stop about 100 miles or so, on the other side of Houston…
Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter…