Exploring the Keys and a Quick Trip Home

The best part about the trip from Key Largo to Marathon was the dolphins. They joined us off an on along the way and at one point we had 3 on the starboard side and 5 on port, simultaneously. It’s fun to see them jumping in our wake and playing leap frog with each other.20180509_100200.jpg

When the dolphins were not around, there wasn’t much to see. This back channel, the Florida Bay, is very shallow. We could see mangroves, massive power lines and occasional fishermen. Sometimes the water was a beautiful blue-green color, so clear we could see the bottom. Other times it was more brownish, being effected by the mangroves. We could see stripes of different colors in the water in the distance, showing really shallow patches. We did bump the bottom at one point, inside the marked channel, but thankfully nothing bad came of it. Unfortunately, it was me at the helm. Upon arrival at Marathon, we crossed over to the outside traveling under the famous Seven Mile Bridge.


The Marathon Marina is located in Boot Key harbor and is a favorite of many boaters. They have nice floating docks for transients, a gorgeous pool and popular restaurant called Lazy Daze with $4 appetizers during happy hour. During the winter months, we hear boaters must make reservations well in advance of their stay. Those wishing to stay a month or more usually lock in their dates nearly a year out. But this time of year, we were all alone on the transient dock the first night. Two different boats came in on our second and third nights there, but really very quiet. Marathon Key suffered a lot of damage from hurricane Irma last fall and they are still in various stages of recovery. We saw a couple of sunken boats still around.

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Great pool at the marina

On Thursday, we visited Key West with our rental car. A 50 mile drive is much faster than a 50 mile boat ride! Since I had not been to the Keys before, it was nice to see some of the islands by car. The trail of Irma was still very evident with tarps on roofs, trees and fences down and brown vegetation where it should have been green. Locals tell us that most of the damage was suffered on Big Pine Key. Located between the two, its the place where many people live who work in Key West or Marathon.  (Key West was completely spared.) Did you know they have deer on Big Pine Key? This is a feature they are quite proud of. There are lots of road signs warning drivers to look out for the “Key Deer”.

 

What’s not to love about Key West? Everyone there is having a good time. They are friendly, quirky and not in a hurry. There’s actually a lot of history, museums to visit, homes to tour. We drove straight to the end of Duvall Street to get a photo at the “southern most point” of the U.S. We opted for a selfie with the back of the marker after seeing the line of people waiting.

Then we ditched the car and bought a ticket for the Conch Train. Its one of the tourist must do’s, where the driver tells cheesy jokes while driving you around the area. Its a good way to get around and maybe learn a few things.

After taking a break at Sloppy Joe’s for a beer and conch fritters, we got back on the train with a better driver who actually gave out interesting information…

As we passed St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church she mentioned it was actually blessed by the pope, making it a Basilica.  Its one of the oldest parishes in Florida.  She pointed out the grotto in the courtyard where it is said that a resident nun, Sister Gabriel designed and mostly built the grotto using rocks from the property.  She had survived three major hurricanes since arriving in Key West in 1897 and was motivated to keep the area safe from future storms, so she prayed over each rock as she laid it.  When the grotto was dedicated in 1922, Sister Gabriel remarked that as long as the grotto stood, Key West would never experience the full brunt of a hurricane.  And it hasn’t.  Last fall when hurricane Irma approached, at least 1500 people were gathered at the grotto to light candles and pray, holding vigil until the storm passed them by.

Before heading back to our floating hotel in Marathon, we sampled delicious grilled oysters at Turtle Kraals.  This place was a turtle canning operation at one time.  Think about that for a while!  Some of these old places out on the boat docks are fun and boaters like to arrive by dinghy to enjoy them.  Its a short walk to Mallory Square from there where the nightly sunset party happens.

Friday was our day to return to Key Largo for snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Marine Sanctuary.  It was about an hour and a half in the other direction.  At the park, the tour boat took us and about 25 other people out about 3 miles to the reef for 90 minutes of snorkeling.  My time in the water was shortened by about 30 minutes after Joe pointed out a half dozen barracuda sitting near the bottom.  Yikes.  He didn’t seem to mind, but I happen to know they have teeth!  Some of our follow snorkelers saw a tarpon and a shark.  I kinda like the pretty little yellow and blue aquarium fish and the coral was really healthy and colorful.

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All this time, we had been watching the weather and hoping for another day to spend in Marathon, use the pool and check out a restaurant, but it became clear we shouldn’t dawdle.  Everyone was talking about the weather coming in and boats were beginning to come into safe harbor.  The summer weather pattern had begun and rain was being predicted for at least the next 10 days. We decided to make a run for Marco Island to stay ahead of it.  It’s 100 miles between Marathon and Marco which is twice as long as we normally travel in a day.  But, the alternative is an anchorage in Little Shark River in the Everglades which is OK for one night but not really OK for several nights waiting out some weather.  So, we left the dock at sun-up and ran faster than our normal speed, getting some help from the current to get to nearly 11 mph.  We arrived at a marina in Marco Island around 6:30 that night.  Sunday we made the final 40 miles from Marco Island to Ft Myers Beach and once again we needed to stay ahead of a storm.  Incredibly, we made it into the inlet before the rain started.

Our cruising time is done now for a while and we have Tasteful Traveler all tied and fendered for the summer.  Joe spent a lot of time securing lines, as hurricane season is upon us.  We could really use a hurricane free season here on Ft Myers Beach.  How long do you think it would take to build a grotto?

Categories: Gulf of Mexico, Places, Post Loop Cruising | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Through Mansions and Yachts to the Upper Keys

On Tuesday, we arrived at Key Largo, considered the official starting point of the Florida Keys. We’ve had our ups and downs with battery issues and just bad luck. As any “dead head” might say, “what a strange trip it’s been”.

We started in Stuart after arriving with undiagnosed problems with the alternator and ended up staying four nights while Bob, the electrical guy, helped us out. He tested everything, ordered two new alternators (one for a spare) and then helped Joe install one on our last night there. He is one of those guys that works day and night and doesn’t sleep. Although Joe spent a lot of time helping to diagnose the problem, I did some exploring and took a great bike ride. Our marina was in a perfect location on the St. Lucie River with a walk to downtown Stuart along the river walk. We found plenty of restaurants and, in my case, shops to amuse me for an afternoon.

There’s a lot of history in Stuart, as we learned at the small heritage museum. The town was an important stop along the historic Flagler rail route. Henry Flagler spent a lot of time and money to build a rail route from Jacksonville to Key West in the early 1900’s. It was actually completed, but much of it taken out in a hurricane in 1935 and never rebuilt. The rail lines became the foundation for the bridges now enabling automobiles to drive there. This town has a very established feel, like people have lived here for a while. The streets are busy and shops and restaurants are bustling, even in the off-season. It has been labeled the “friendliest coastal city in the US” by Travel & Leisure magazine and the “Sailfish capital of the U.S” by someone else. I think it’s considered friendly because they offer free electric trolley transportation all over the downtown area. You just flag down the trolley and they will take you where you want to go. We asked the driver for a tour and he delivered. On my bike ride around Sewalls Point, I ogled at the eclectic old homes along the way. Half on the ICW and the other half on the Atlantic Ocean, all with beautiful overhanging mature trees and some with banyan trees.

I’m going to have to include a few words about the fabulous food we had in Stuart. Every single restaurant was excellent. We ate out three of the four nights we were there, at Gaffords, the Riverwalk Oyster Bar and Sailor’s Return. At the Oyster Bar we chatted with a woman our age who was with her mother who has owned a place here for many years. They seemed to fit right in with the homey vibe we picked up on our own.

On Saturday, we continued south on the Intercoastal Waterway with our brand new alternator working OK, to the Delray Beach area where we found a nice anchorage for the night surrounded by beautiful houses.

On Sunday we continued to the New River Marina in Ft. Lauderdale. This was a beautiful cruise showcasing the amazing homes of the ICW. Here’s a little slide show of some of the homes we saw.

Thanks to a series of low bridges, “no wake” speed zones and monumental traffic jams on the ICW, the 25 mile trip took nearly five hours. We shared the narrow ICW channel with people partying on mega yachts, sport fishers, center councils of all sizes and wave runners buzzing everywhere. We were spent! Skipper Joe was especially tired when we finally reached the respite of the much quieter New River leading into downtown Lauderdale. The boat docking is alongside the river walk, just one block from Los Olas Blvd. Just as we were breathing a sigh of relief as our slip number 71 came into view, the dark clouds opened up with a heavy downpour. I didn’t even have time to find the rain gear. We just got drenched and did what we could to tie up some lines and then waited out the rain before completing our arrival chores. Such luck.

Joe had to build a plank for us to walk to get off the boat since the pilings prevented us from getting closer to the river wall, but otherwise, our location was perfect for walking to restaurants. We chatted with a few folks out along the river walk on a Sunday afternoon and had dinner at the Old City Tavern. In the morning, we walked to the Publix grocery store for some necessities, taking an Uber back to the boat with our heavy load of water, soda, beer and groceries. We left the dock by 9:30 am, and were feeling pretty confident our luck was changing when, at about 11:00, we realized our bikes were missing. Someone took our bikes from the upper deck of the boat while we were sleeping. Really creepy. After three years of doing the loop cruising through the US and Canada, no one had ever boarded our boat, and now on our Florida mini loop, the bikes were gone in the first week. Quite upsetting. The dockmaster did warn us to lock our bikes when we checked in… “they have a tendency to disappear” he said. We thought he meant when leaving bikes around town. Apparently he meant: ‘someone could take them off your boat’. Big misunderstanding.

The Monday traffic was much, much lighter. We cruised right through Miami without stopping and continued to Boca Chita Key which is a national park in Biscayne Bay. This area of the intercoastal has many bridges which take traffic across the intercoastal to the barrier islands. We are able to squeak under many of the bridges by dropping our antenna and flag pole to get down to 14’. Those we can’t get under are usually rail road bridges. But, in addition to the bridges, are speed zones. It’s crazy how the speed keeps changing along the ICW. We scramble to read the signs with our binoculars and try to understand what they mean for us. In the channel versus out of the channel, after November 1, before April 15, weekends and holidays, slow speed versus idle speed… It takes both of us to figure it out.  One of the signs said no wake larger than 15 inches!

Boca Chita is a lovely and peaceful place to spend the night. There is a protected harbor with cleats to tie up to near a lighthouse and on the other side of the small island is a beautiful beach. Since its a national park, anyone with a senior pass receives a 50% discount, so we expected to pay $15 for the night. There was no money collection system in place though, so it was free for all. We shared the place with three big sailing catamarans and one other trawler. No power, no water, but who cares! This place was developed by Mark Honeywell, the founder of Honeywell Heating Controls. He abandoned his plans after his wife died of an injury she got on the island and now its part of the Biscayne Bay National Park. (Probably not such a peaceful place for Mark.)

We had an uneventful trip to John Pennecamp State Park in Key Largo, without the weekend boaters. This is a good time to mention that there are two ways of navigating between Miami and the Keys. The intercoastal waterway (ICW) is the inside route, traveling between the keys and the Florida peninsula. The other route is called Hawks Channel and it is the route outside of the keys in the Atlantic Ocean about 3 miles out. Our boat draft is 4.5 feet, and so we are able to travel the shallow inside route which is more protected being inside of the keys. The water is surprisingly shallow, though, and we saw only 5-10 ft depths. We dropped anchor in the inside channel and took the dinghy across through a cut into the park only to learn that the reefs for snorkeling are located outside of the park, 4 miles out into the ocean. Many people like us mistakenly believe that the marine sanctuary is located in the park. They offer snorkeling excursions that take you out there, but we missed the last one of the day.

Our evening ended with many colorful locals at the “Big Chill” tiki bar. A two man, B level band played 70’s tunes while we ate lobster Mac and cheese and a fish sandwich. Unfortunately, we left before the “rock and roll magician” was scheduled to begin, but a lot of people were showing up for that. Our next stop is Marathon Marina in Marathon Key.

Categories: Places, Post Loop Cruising | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Florida Mini Loop

Tasteful Traveler has been tied up to the dock in Ft Myers Beach for the last four months, waiting for the snow birds to begin migrating north for the summer. Now that its relatively calm in south Florida, we’ve set off on a little loop. We like loops I guess. Anything to avoid turning around! This is a very small loop which goes from Ft. Myers east through Lake Okeechobee, over to Stuart, FL on the east coast, south to Miami through the AICW, down to Key West and then returning to Ft. Myers. It should take about two and a half weeks. (Do you see the very large gator in the photo? We spied this just before arriving in Stuart.)

Originally, our plan was to go the other way, counter clock wise, to Marco Island, Everglades City and Marathon Key and then back through the lake, but we changed our plan. High winds and 4 foot seas were predicted in the Keys for this whole week, so instead of delaying our departure, we just changed direction. High winds and big seas do not effect conditions much in the Lake or even on the east coast, since we will be in the Inter-coastal Waterway for much of the time. It’s the travel between Key West and Ft. Myers where we will be exposed to open water, and that’s where the weather really matters. We’ll worry about that in a couple of weeks.

Sunday morning we left Ft. Myers Beach and retraced familiar steps from the very beginning of our Great Loop adventure, traveling north up the Caloosahatchee River past downtown Ft. Meyers into the Okeechobee Waterway. Its surprising how much of this we didn’t recognize. I’m pretty sure we were too nervous to notice our surroundings when we left on the loop 3 years ago!

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This island is covered with Ibis on The Caloosahatchee

Sunday night we scored a spot at the Corps of Engineers park at the Franklin Lock. An amazing camp for RVers and 8 lucky boaters. There were only two sailboats docked in slips when we arrived, leaving 6 for us! The cost is $30 per night, but 50% off with a senior parks pass. You heard that right… $15 for the night with 50 amp power for us old folks!

On our second night we returned to Roland Martin’s Marina on Lake Okeechobee. It hasn’t improved since our last visit. Now that we have some experience under our belts, its easy to see the truth of this place. It’s over-rated, over-priced and not that friendly. Alligator tacos are just not worth it.

What we did have at Roland Martin’s, though, was shore power. Unfortunately, we discovered a problem even on our first day of cruising, that necessitates us to plug into shore power for the night. Alarms were sounding indicating that none of our batteries were charging, signaling a problem with the alternator. This is what charges the batteries while the engine is running, a major convenience. Joe called ahead to the Sunset Bay Marina in Stuart, FL to find a guy to help us with electrical problems. (A good marina always has a guy.). He will meet us in Stuart and in the meantime, we need to have the generator running while under way and shore power at night to charge the batteries.

If Sunday’s catastrophe was the alternator problem, Monday’s was the lock. There are five locks on the Okeechobee waterway and after hundreds of locks on the Erie Canal, the Mississippi and the Trent Severn, we thought these would be a minor nuisance at most. That Franklin lock where we spent the first night was a rise of only 2 feet. On Monday we underestimated the second lock, Ortona, which turned out to have an 8 foot rise. We were the third boat to enter the chamber and at the last minute had to change fenders from starboard to port. In the hurried excitement, we only moved two of them over and it wasn’t enough to handle the powerful rush of incoming water that occurred when the lock doors first cracked open. We both struggled to hang on to the lines on the bow and stern to keep us close to the wall and in the process, the stern kicked out and the bow hit the wall. Crunch. We both heard it but couldn’t see it. I was picturing a hole in the fiberglass but now, after examining the area, we only see a scratched area on the rub rail and the fiberglass seems in tact. We used 6 fenders on the last two locks, but we were locking down on the east side of the lake which is a lot easier.

On Tuesday, we encountered a boat named “Diva Di” on the Okeechobee Waterway. Turns out they were gold loopers who we probably traveled through Canada with in 2016, although we don’t specially remember where we met. We enjoyed chatting it up on the VHF enroute and comparing cruising notes. We still find that Looper burgee to be one of our biggest assets on the water.

The Sunset Bay Marina in Stuart is full of amazing and beautiful boats. Not your average little mom and pop shop and we are definitely not in Kansas anymore. This is the entry point to Florida’s Gold Coast. We’ll wait here for the guy.

Here’s another look at that gator on the waterway. (The featured photo doesn’t seem to show on the phone version of the blog.)

Categories: Locks, Post Loop Cruising | Tags: , | 5 Comments

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