A Weekend in South Florida: Key West to the Everglades
Our friend Cindy Zhou recently went on a weekend trip to Key West and the Everglades in Florida and wrote a guest post about it. Thanks, Cindy!
After growing up in Toronto with endless snow, and living in Portland the past three years with endless rain, winter getaways in sunny destinations became a must. This year, I was lucky to have work send me to Miami for a week. With such an amazing travel opportunity, I knew I had to make the most of it. So I decided to stay the weekend, and explore the best of what South Florida had to offer with my Escape Campervan – Polly!
Day 1: Friday
After a quick and easy 1 pm check-in at the Miami depot, I was off on my adventure. (Please note: the Miami depot has moved to Orlando, Florida in the summer of 2020.) My first destination was the Florida Keys. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the area, the Keys are a series of stunning tropical islands connected by the Overseas Highway aka US Route 1. Key West, the town at the very end of the Florida Keys, is approximately 6.5 hours from our camper van rental in Orlando.
It took about an hour to make it down to Key Largo, one of the first main towns in the Upper Keys. I stopped for a quick bite at “Mrs. Macs Kitchen” and enjoyed their famous fish of the day. With a belly full of deliciousness, I continued south through Islamorada Key and Marathon Key, eventually hitting the iconic Seven Mile Bridge. This bridge was by far my favorite part of the drive, with the Atlantic Ocean sprawled out in either direction for miles and miles.
I was pleased to find out that there was a great parking area called ‘Veterans Memorial Park’, where you could access a half-mile walkway that was adjacent to the bridge. By the time I had finished skating up and down the walkway, it was 6 pm and time to find dinner, a spot to catch up on work, and sleep for the night, as I had a big Day 2 ahead!
Day 2: Saturday
I woke up at 6:45 am to catch the sunrise in Key West – which was about a 20-minute drive away. I settled along a quaint fishing wharf to eat breakfast while watching boats and birds go by. It was an extremely lucky spot to randomly find, but finding those gems are the moments that make van tripping the best.
The next stop was a 10-minute skate to the Southernmost Point in the Continental USA. To mark the momentous arrival, I made sure to pull out a beverage to celebrate. I spent the rest of the morning exploring downtown Key West, passing by numerous tourist shops, checking out the Ernest Hemingway Museum, and admiring the slow, laid-back pace of life all around me.
As much as Key West had its charms, an adventure was calling, and I knew I had to get into the water to experience the full potential of the Keys. After some quick research, I booked a last minute snorkeling trip to Looe Key that started at 12:45 pm. Despite the choppy conditions, and the murky visibility, it was still an amazing experience full of dolphin, turtle and fish sightings. It’s a snorkeling destination that I’d definitely recommend – another one being John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, in the Upper Keys.
Shortly after snorkeling, I hit up Bahia Honda State Park to take a nap on one of the only natural beaches in the Keys and watch the epic sunset with the historic Bahia Railroad Bridge in the background. With the Everglades planned for the next morning, I decided to drive out of the Keys and spend the night in the town of Homestead at the local Walmart.
Day 3: Sunday
With only a couple of hours to explore the Everglades, I had some tough decisions to make in terms of what I wanted to experience. Unlike other national parks, the Everglades has three separate entrances all about 45-minute drives from one another. After some research, I decided to go to the Shark Valley entrance to check out the observatory and get a birds-eye-view of the park.
The observatory is a 15 mile round trip from the visitor center and there are two options for getting there – either a tram tour (2 hours, $25) or bike rental (2-3 hours, $9/hour). I opted for the bike rental and started along the trail. Right away, I got up close and personal with a ton of wildlife including herons, egrets, and of course, alligators. You can literally get inches away from the gators, but as the rangers suggested, I stayed a good 10-15 feet away. The trail itself was flat and forgiving, which made the cruise a super pleasant experience even without the wildlife.
If I had had an extra half day, I definitely would’ve planned to get on the water either by kayak or airboat. The park is 90% water so it would have been an amazing way to experience the park more intimately. I would have also checked out some of the trails near the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center entrance.
A Bittersweet Goodbye
With my afternoon flight closing in quickly, I hastily returned the van to Miami and said goodbye to Polly. Saying goodbye was tough not only because I was leaving the warm weather, but also because I knew that I could have easily spent another whole week exploring. Whether it be experiencing each of the Keys more thoroughly, learning to fish, eating more seafood, experiencing more nightlife, getting on more boats, interacting with more wildlife, or trekking more paths, there was always something new to discover.