South Florida and the Keys, Dec 2020

The week before Christmas in 2020 we decided to travel to South Florida and the Keys. Florida was one of the few states that was largely spared from COVID restrictions and we were eager to use the opportunity to explore an area of the state to which we were all unfamiliar. To make the planning more fun for the family, we gave each of the four of us the opportunity to choose a specific activity to do on the trip. As you will see it worked out quite well.

Highlights: Captain Sterling’s Eco-Tour, Overseas Highway, Aquarium Encounters Florida Keys, Bahia Honda St Park, Boondocks Minigolf & Grill, Hemingway House, First Flight Island Brewery, Everglades National Park, Pelican Grand Hotel
LowLights: Sebago Snorkel Tour in Key West

Day 1: Fort Lauderdale

We arrived and checked into our hotel for the first two nights in Fort Lauderdale, the W Fort Lauderdale. Our intention was to enjoy some sand and surf for the first couple days, and this location was ideal. Ironically we could see the Caribbean Princess cruise ship that Shell and I had taken on our honeymoon 16 years before was still in Fort Lauderdale and is in the distance in the photo below. Because of COVID I believe it was an empty ship simply circling back and forth to port.

View from our room balcony at the W Fort Lauderdale Hotel

Lodging: W Fort Lauderdale, Fort Lauderdale, FL: 3.5 Stars
The W Fort Lauderdale is regarded as one of the glitzier hotels on Fort Lauderdale beach. It certainly has a nice pool area with bar service and a few upscale restaurants. But the rooms are a bit worn and the hotel as a whole isn’t that family-friendly. When I went to the lobby to find dessert to have with my 8-year-old son, Evan, we really couldn’t find a suitable restaurant. This hotel is great for the age 20-35 crowd, however, who would enjoy the nightclub vibe.

Day 2: Fort Lauderdale

Restaurant: Primanti Brothers Grill, Fort Lauderdale, FL: 3.5 Stars
The next morning we decided to walk a couple blocks north of our hotel to find a more low-key place to have breakfast and found Primanti Brothers Grill, which is an Italian eatery that also serves breakfast. We ate outside on the sidewalk and enjoyed the view of the beach across the street. The food was certainly good for the prices charged which were very reasonable.

After breakfast we stopped at a souvenir shop next door to pick up some cheap beach towels (we rarely waste luggage space on things like towels since you can buy them for a couple bucks anywhere you go). Ready now for the beach we crossed the busy A1A Highway where Fort Lauderdale Beach stretches for endless miles north to south.

Attraction: Fort Lauderdale Beach, FL: 4 Stars

Fort Lauderdale Beach isn’t the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, especially with a backdrop of high-rise hotels and condominiums along the entire length. But it is a vast area of warm sand and ocean that’s relatively good for swimming or just a great place to lay out and enjoy the sun, while places farther north or shivering.

The day we were there the temperatures were actually unseasonably cool (high 60s) but the water temperatures were in the high 70s so it was comfortable enough for us. This was also the first opportunity to really test out the waterproof digital camera I brought for use on the trip. It worked great. I’ll get into that more later.

I do want to take a moment to talk about ocean water temperatures and how variable they can be. While we are planning our trips I always head over to various sites like NOAA to get an idea of the ocean water temperatures at different locations so that we can plan accordingly. Ocean temperatures are never as predictable as you might expect. Even at the same line of latitude over a distance of a 100 miles the ocean can have drastically different temperatures.

Miami and Fort Lauderdale are warmed by the Gulf Stream (keeping it near 80F in the winter), the effects of which taper off due to geography the further north you go on the Atlantic Coast. At Jacksonville the ocean is 60F in the winter and spring months. On the Gulf side of Florida the ocean water is warmer in the summer months than the Atlantic side but mostly colder in the winter. So basically if you don’t want to have your snorkeling or swimming plans wrecked by frigid water, do your research.

After our time at the beach we decided to go to the W Fort Lauderdale pool deck to relax and have lunch. One very nice thing about the W is that you can eat and drink with table service at the pool area and there are lots of very comfortable lounge chairs to choose from. It isn’t cheap, but sometimes the convenience of not having to change out of your swimming suit to look for lunch is worth it.

The only problem the day we were there was the temperatures were just a bit chilly so the pool was warm but sitting outside while wet was uncomfortable. This was the only day of the trip where the temperatures were below 70 F.

Rather than eat dinner that afternoon in the obviously high-roller beachfront area we decided to look for one of the local brewpubs, since we are brewpub aficionados.

Restaurant: American Icon Brewery, Fort Lauderdale, FL: 3 Stars
The brewery is full of photos of Elvis, etc (hence the American Icon name). However as far as brewpubs go, it’s not that great. The beer selection was decent but the food was very average or in the case of the pizza, basically on the level of frozen pizza quality. Would I go back? Probably not.

Day 3: The Keys

The next morning we had about 150 miles to drive with plenty of activity planned along the way, so we left early with a fast food breakfast and made a mandatory stop at a Target as well. I can’t think of too many vacations that didn’t involve one or more stops at either Target or Walmart at some point.

After leaving the mainland peninsula we crossed over to Key Largo and our scheduled boat tour of the Everglades mangroves.

Attraction: Captain Sterling’s Eco-Tours, Key Largo, FL: 5 Stars
This was the first of the activities that each of us got to individually choose. In this case Shelley really wanted to see manatees (and so did I). So we looked for a place somewhere along the way that would have a good chance of seeing manatees.
There is never a guarantee of seeing any wild animal anywhere, but in winter manatees commonly congregate in the mangrove estuaries of Florida where it’s warmer. So Captain Sterling’s (the actual boat captain was someone else who was very informative) basically said that we would very likely see them on the tour (we did). The tour didn’t just include manatees but the beautiful mangrove forests, numerous birds, iguanas, and we even saw petrified coral. All four of us thoroughly enjoyed the tour and it might have been the best thing we did on the entire trip.

Two types of food are associated with the Florida Keys. The first is seafood, since obviously the Keys are surrounded by prime ocean fishing waters. And the second is Key Lime Pie. Following our tour we were ready for lunch and stopped at the recommended seafood restaurant on Key Largo, Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen.

Restaurant: Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, Key Largo, FL: 3.5 Stars
Ok, let me be honest. I was a bit disappointed. Is it bad? No. But is it terrific? No. The fish is basically fried everything. Any type of fish that you can fry up and toss on a plate. Frying to me is not the best way to prepare fish since it covers up the taste of the fish too much. My older son had crab which was not fried and I wish I had had that instead.

Second, the key lime pie wasn’t my favorite on the trip. It was very standard, almost frozen-food aisle standard. We would come to have every form of key lime pie imaginable in the coming days and this was the least exciting.

Attraction: Overseas Highway 1, FL: 5 Stars
There are a few drives that are remarkable as attractions in their own right. The Overseas Highway 1 from Key Largo to Key West is one of those drives. At times as you are driving the length of some of the longer keys (Largo and Marathon in particular) you no longer feel like you are even off the mainland, but the next moment you cross a long stretch of blue water and take in the view of dozens of tiny islands across the sea. Take your time and enjoy the drive.

Seven-Mile bridge

After about an hour and a half of driving we arrived at our destination where we would stay for the next four days: Key West.

There are a few things to know about Key West in advance. For years I imagined Key West as a sleepy village cut off from the mainland USA where everything is slower and more relaxed. Few cars and fewer worries. More Caribbean than Florida. It is and it isn’t. It’s a place of history and a place to party. It’s also not devoid of loud cars and busy roads and drive thrus. And if you stay on the eastern side you are far away from the historic district you think of as the genuine Key West, and quite honestly the place you want to be. Finally there are no real beaches in Key West or anywhere in the Keys, which I’ll discuss later.

Lodging: Hilton Garden Inn, Key West, FL: 3.5 Stars
Which brings me to discussing our hotel for the stay. It was on the far northeastern end of the island. To get to the attractions of Key West, which are all on the western end, meant driving and finding a place to park. Also a busy road loops around the north end of the island so if you stay in a hotel here you will not be by the ocean or at a beach-front property.
So our hotel was both nice but also in the could-be-better category. It was fairly pricey at $250/night and the main benefits were the pool area and the convenience of parking outside your room. Unfortunately the hotel nickel and dimes you for everything. Want a shuttle to the old town area? You’ll pay for that. Want breakfast? You’ll pay for that. And even more annoying was our keycard kept deactivating leaving us to go in and have it reset.
My favorite thing about the hotel was actually the roosters that hung around outside the door. Some people hated hearing the crowing. I thought it was hilarious.

Feral rooster outside the Hilton Garden Inn

After checking in and unpacking we wanted to go to the more fun side of Key West to eat dinner so we drove to find parking near Duval Street.

Restaurant: Mango’s Key West, FL: 3 Stars
Mango’s is a nice open-air restaurant in Key West. The thing is it’s very expensive for the little portions you get. Itty bitty food. So if you are hungry you might have no choice but to eat some dessert to feel full. And of course the dessert is tiny too. There are mangoes hanging from the tree overhead and I was tempted to eat one.

Day 4: Key West

Since the hotel had only a pay-for bag breakfast because of COVID, we ate at a Denny’s then drove over to Old Town Key West for the day. We skipped the opportunity to take a touristy picture at a buoy that claims to mark the Southernmost Point in the Continental US (it isn’t) and found a place to park at a paid lot near the Truman Winter White House.

Attraction: Truman Little White House, Key West, FL: 4 Stars

We had an hour before a scheduled snorkeling tour and the Truman Little White House tour was only a half hour long so we decided to take a chance that we wouldn’t be late for the boat and joined the next tour. The LWH is pretty impressive and it certainly seems a nice place for the former president to getaway from DC. And yes, they do have newspapers showing ‘Dewey Beats Truman’. I was rather envious of the card table. Don’t worry about Democrat or Republican. Politics has changed considerably in the past 75 years.

Still I would rather we had done this tour after snorkeling because we immediately rushed away to get the snorkel gear and find the boat dock. Distances in Key West are never far on foot, but if you don’t know where to find things in a rush it isn’t much fun. Luckily my son and I made it to the car, got the gear from the trunk, and managed to get to the boat just before it left.

Attraction: Sebago Watersports 1/2 Day Snorkel Tour, Key West, FL: 2 Stars
My chosen activity for the trip was this snorkel tour which turned out to be a big disappointment. It’s an hour to the reef snorkeling spot, supposedly an hour in the water, and then an hour back for a total of 3 hours.
I had brought the waterproof digital camera as I mentioned earlier and was looking forward to really using it on this tour. The problem was 1) The snorkeling site is really not very good 2) The conditions were very rough 3) There are too many people on the catamaran boat.

It took 20 minutes just to get in the water. The seas were so rough it was hard for anyone to get off the boat safely and many of the kids were clinging to ropes and not swimming away from the boat (there was a risk of getting pushed under the boat). Unlike most tours I’ve been on, none of the crew got in the water to help people (particularly kids) who needed assistance.
It’s really a miracle I got any pictures because of everything going on including the full face snorkel gear fogging up repeatedly leaving me blind in the water every 30 seconds. After about 20 minutes in the water I had largely given up and we returned to the boat. One of my kids lost a snorkel fin which was understandable because of all the difficulties in the water.
Another time of year this might be a more enjoyable place to snorkel but I wouldn’t do it on such a large, crowded boat. Also the coral was really not in good condition. I don’t have answers as to the reasons why, but it was essentially all dead. Rather than do this tour try a kayak tour or other boat tour.

After the dismal snorkel tour we stopped for some ice cream and went to the Shipwreck Museum.

Attraction: Shipwreck Museum, Key West, FL: 3.5 Stars

Evan at the cannon

This is a good museum with lots of kid-friendly exhibits. An interesting aspect of Key West history is that it actually turned the recovery of shipwreck cargo into a valuable industry. Called ‘wrecking’ salvaging shipwrecks made some early residents wealthy in the 1800s. Climb the tower for a good view.

That evening we had a quick pizza dinner then mom and dad took an hour to enjoy a brief date night while the kids watched a movie at the hotel.

Restaurant: Better Than Sex, Key West, FL: 3.5 Stars
This is actually a dessert restaurant and the desserts are really quite good, but a bit expensive. After our desserts (I had my second key lime pie of the trip there) we took a brief stroll on Duval before heading back to the hotel.

Day 4: Marathon Key and Bahia Honda State Park

The next day we left Key West for a day trip to Marathon Key where we had scheduled a visit to the aquarium’s stingray tank.

Attraction: Aquarium Encounters Florida Keys, Marathon, FL: 5 Stars
It was actually kind of nice to get away from the craziness of Key West and Marathon Key was decidedly more low key (pun intended). Years before Shell and I had taken a cruise with a stop at Stingray City in the Cayman Islands. We enjoyed interacting with the stingrays and decided the kids would really enjoy a tank dive with the stingrays at the aquarium.

Meeting the sting rays (photo taken by Aquarium Encounters)

We had quite a good time and stingrays have surprisingly unique personalities. Some are shy and others can’t wait to meet you.
The aquarium has a number of other exhibits (fish, sharks, etc) and there are a number of other encounters you can do with other sea life.

After our time at the aquarium we had a quick lunch then decided to visit Bahia Honda State Park’s beach for a couple hours.

Attraction: Bahia Honda State Park, FL: 4.5 Stars

Probably the best ‘beach’ in the Keys is at Bahia Honda State Park. The keys are coral reef atolls and therefore sand really doesn’t accumulate enough to create extensive beaches. Bahia Honda has more sand than any other area and is a fairly nice place to try once more to snorkel (but again the results were less than exciting). As for the full face snorkel gear, we won’t use it again. It simply fogs up too much and I have heard that people can be affected by CO2 buildup.

At dinnertime we were ready for my youngest son Evan’s chosen activity: mini golf. We found the ideal place on Marathon Key.

Restaurant/Attraction: Boondocks Mini Golf and Grille, Marathon, FL: 4.5 Stars
After a long day of fun and sun this low key restaurant and mini golf place was a perfect place for dinner and mini golf. Adults can carry their drinks with them on the course (and of course we did).

Golfing at Boondocks

Day 5: Key West

Our final day on Key West would cover many of the Old Town sites we had not yet seen.

Attraction: Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters, key West, FL: 4 Stars

The lighthouse is also a museum that tells the story of the lighthouse keepers that helped keep ships safe for over a century. The view from the top is also great.

Attraction: Hemingway House, Key West, FL: 4.5 Stars

The Hemingway House is a must see for every fan of Hemingway’s novels. You’ll get a bit of backstory on his time in the home and life before and after living there. Kids will enjoy the 6-toed cats and kittens. I had read 5 of his novels before visiting and Hemingway is one of my favorite authors.

Attraction: Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Key West, FL: 4 Stars
The next stop on our blitz of historic Key West was Fort Zachary Taylor.

Fort Zachary Taylor was built in the mid 1800s and served the coastal defenses of United States. During the Civil War it was garrisoned by the US navy and helped block Confederate ships despite being in Florida. Along with the fort there is a nice small beach at the park that we didn’t have time to see.

After hitting three historic sites and museums we were ready for lunch and decided to try a Cuban restaurant.

Restaurant: El Meson de Pepe, Key West, FL: 3.5 Stars
The food at El Meson de Pepe was pretty good. Certainly not the best or worst Cuban food I’ve ever had. They have a photographer walking around taking pictures of families and we went ahead and bought the photos. Roosters love hanging around the outdoor tables here for bits of food and we were amusedly entertained by the sound of two chickens getting busy on the other side of a wall while we ate.

After our lunch we were getting a bit tired but wanted to get in one more museum before calling it a day (but not a night).

Attraction: Coast Guard Ingham Museum, Key West, FL: 4 Stars

The Coast Guard Cutter Ingham was a bit of a walk along the western shore of Key West, but the visit to the ship was worth it. You will learn quite a bit about the coast guard and their operations on the tour.

At dinner time we decided to try one of Key West’s brewpubs.

Restaurant: First Flight Island Restaurant & Brewery, Key West, FL: 4.5 Stars

This was a good restaurant with a nice outdoor seating area. They served excellent cocktails and beer and had delicious entrees as well. We enjoyed ourselves there and tried yet another key lime pie, and this was the best one so far. There was also another instance of chicken love-making, this time under a restaurant table. They aren’t modest.

After dinner we went back to the hotel for a while and the kids swam at the pool. At night we had one last tour to enjoy back on Duval Street.

Attraction: Key West Ghost and Mysteries Tour, Key West, FL: 3.5 Stars
My teenage son Daniel chose a ghost tour of Key West as his activity for the trip. I don’t believe in orbs and apparitions, but what I especially liked was the fact that many of Key West’s historic spots and history were featured on the tour. Captain Tony’s Saloon was probably the most fascinating story.

Day 6: Everglades National Park and Return to Fort Lauderdale

On the morning of our sixth day we departed early for the drive back to the mainland and our visit to the sawgrass marsh of Everglades National Park. I would not have ever considered going to South Florida without making a stop in this area of the park.

Attraction: Everglades National Park, Main Park Road, FL: 5 Stars

We saw a three alligators within an hour of time and dozens of bird species as well. We walked the Anhinga loop trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail as well. December is an ideal time to visit since mosquitoes are not at all an issue and the temperature is milder than other times of year. This is certainly a place you should take time to visit.

With time running out we had one last night to spend in Florida before the return flight the next day. Rather than stay at the W again we were able to get a reduced price in a truly magnificent hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach.

Lodging: Pelican Grand Hotel, Fort Lauderdale, FL: 5 Stars
We hit a big home run here. The hotel is beautiful with big rooms and a great pool area with a lazy river. We spent about an hour in the lazy river (an iguana also hopped into the river and swam) and walked on their private beach. Definitely one of the nicer hotels I’ve ever stayed in.

Restaurant: Big Bear Brewing Company, Coral Springs, FL: 4 Stars
Our final night we ended up driving away from the coast a ways to find a more relaxed restaurant than the many around Fort Lauderdale (which we honestly found either pretentious or seedy, but hardly ever in between). Big Bear Brewing Company turned out to be a pretty nice and relaxing place to have dinner, but after all that we had done we were all feeling a tad disappointed that the trip was now at an end.

This ended up being a rather memorable and exciting trip for the family. Having each member of the family choose an activity turned out to be a great way to get various ideas into the plans and to ensure everyone felt like a part of it. Going forward we’ll try as much as possible to incorporate everyone’s input into the plans.

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