John Pennekamp State Park – Key Largo, FL

This is a concern in Key Largo

This is a concern in Key Largo

We left the Everglades a day earlier than we thought we would. Don’t get me wrong, we really enjoyed the scenery and interesting adventures, but I think it was the bugs that drove us out a bit before we thought we’d go. Those darn no-see-ums (aka the biting flies) are something to be reckoned with. They are so small you basically can’t see them (hence, the nickname) and they can fit through the screens on your windows. We didn’t realize this until it was too late and we had a Moho filled with the little devils. That, combined with quite a distance to drive from the Everglades to get to any Walmart to get anti-bug stuff, sent us packing for Key Largo earlier than expected. Of course, the bugs would follow us down to the Keys (or there would be new ones waiting there) but we quickly learned a thing or two from the internet and other campers and locals to repel them from our bodies and our rolling home.

 

Ok, so maybe our desire to get to the beach had something to do with our rush to the Keys, too. I mean, we’d been dreaming about the place since we both were young. You grow up hearing so much about how amazing the Florida Keys are. The perfect weather, the warm water, the quirkiness. And it’s practically a must on my Jimmy Buffett wannabe  list.

Live Gators!

It sounded like a place we could really get used to. Chris had done some research on where to stay, and we’d read some fellow travelers’ blogs who all said the same thing: if you’re going to stay in Key Largo, stay at John Pennekamp State Park if you can. There are quite a few State Parks in the Keys, Pennekamp being at the top in Key Largo. There’s a website to book all state parks, and Chris had been refreshing his screen on their website hourly to try and get us a spot booked for a bit. Understandably, these State Park campgrounds in the Keys are booked just about as soon as they are allowed to be.

On the way...

On the way…

Zeph taking a stroll through the woods in his jammies at Pennekamp

Zeph taking a stroll through the woods in his jammies at Pennekamp

Reservations open up 11 months earlier than any given date, and the only way we were going to get a spot was to snatch up a cancellation or two online. Luckily some did pop up here and there when Chris was looking over about a week’s time. One night in one site, another night in another. We booked what we could online and tried our luck when we drove up on a Saturday afternoon to try and snag any walk up spots they might have available. On our way down, we called every other private campground in Key Largo (there were about six) which were all also fully booked until at least March. We knew we were in for an interesting adventure trying to find a place to park our home until our next reservation at a private campground down south which didn’t happen for more than another week.
Anyways, we drove up to the gate at Pennekamp and low and behold, they had a spot for the night! We quickly signed up and headed into the campground. Over the course of the next eight nights we had managed to reserve a spot on the Reserve America website for six of those nights. The other two in the middle of all those nights were hanging in the air like a distant mist. We knew we’d have to figure out the two homeless nights eventually. But for our first night at least we had a spot. After we parked we explored a bit. No wonder Pennekamp is so popular!

Pennekamp boys at the beach

Pennekamp boys at the beach

The park is very clean. There are a couple of beach-ish spots (more on the beach issue later), a visitor’s center with a pretty decent aquarium (Zeph loved this), a snack bar and gift shop, a playground, and a little marina with boats and kayaks to go on various water adventures. There were also plenty of Poisonwood trees on the property, which the rangers at the front gate let us know to avoid at all costs. I didn’t think Poisonwood was a real thing (I’d only heard the word from reading “Poisonwood Bible” many years ago and I’d recommend it – what a great read!) but quickly learned to recognize the very dangerous trees. Apparently if you even so much as touch one of these babies, you get a rash worse than any case of poison oak or poison ivy. And it’s even been known to be deadly to small children. You can imagine that was enough info for me to grow a second and third pair of eyes to keep on Zeph while we were there. Most of the trees are mixed into the woods, and not directly on any of the paths we traveled while there so it wasn’t a huge issue and we did make it through our time there without any incidents.

Zeph enjoying the real sand at Founders Park in Islamorada

Zeph enjoying the real sand at Founders Park in Islamorada

OK, the beach issue: Where the heck are the beaches in the Florida Keys I’ve been dreaming about for so long? The white sand that stretches on for miles and slowly slopes down to calm, shallow crystal blue waters? I can say they don’t really exist on Key Largo. Not for free, anyways. We did find a couple of very small beaches that you could pay a fee to hang out on. One was Founders Park on Islamorada, just south of Key Largo. It’s a private park, with a sandy beach, a skate park, a heated pool, a playground and some other amenities. Pennekamp’s beaches didn’t have much sand and walking out into the water without some sort of water shoes was not enjoyable due to the reef/rock bottom. So when we saw Founders Park with a piece of white sand that led into the water, we had to go. I think it was $16 for us to get into the park for the day. I’d say it was worth it. We spent at least three hours there wading through the calm, clear bay and Zeph swam his heart out. He did not want to get out of that water but we had to eat dinner at some point so we pulled him out of the water and ventured to a Mexican food restaurant the locals told us about.
Puerto Vallarta (the restaurant, not the city) reminded me of El Patio Cafe back home. Kitchy, bright, mismatched decor and pretty darn good food. Their fajitas with al pastor, chicken and steak were super tasty. They had an excellent key lime pie as well (not really a Mexican dish I don’t think, but when in the Keys…) and we left happy with full bellies. Another food joint we enjoyed was The Juice Stop, owned by a local Cuban lady who makes all sorts of fresh juices every morning, as well as typical Cuban fare like guava cheese pastries and meat pies. We were introduced to soursop, which is the fruit of a tree native to Central and South America. The juice was white, to me it tasted like a mix of pear and guava juice. It was delicious.

Zephyr swimming to Cuba from the Hilton in Key Largo

Zephyr swimming to Cuba from the Hilton in Key Largo

All the locals recommended Anne’s Beach, about 20 miles south of Key Largo. We drove down one day to check it out, hoping for the best, and were (sorry, locals) extremely disappointed. There was a very thin beach filled with dried seagrass and the access to the water there was kinda like Pennekamp in that if you didn’t wear shoes into the water you’d have cuts all over your feet from the rocky, reefy bottom. As a last ditch effort we pulled into the Hilton at Key Largo hoping they’d have a little manmade beach we could sneak onto. We were not disappointed there! They had a decent-sized beach, with great access to slow-sloping clear sandy-bottomed water.

And as long as we rented something from the beach toy rental shack on their beach, Caribbean Water Sports, we could stay. We rented this big round floaty thing that all three of us could sit in out on the water. We spent pretty much all day there. The staff was super friendly, there was a little snack bar to order food from, and the beach was perfect. It was one of those days you try and repeat later with nowhere near those awesome results. We tried to go back to this beach but the weather was not on our side. There were 15mph howling winds and we had to find something else to do that was more… indoors.
There are a ton of things to do in the Keys, especially as you head south a bit. John Pennekamp, the campground we were staying at, had a glassbottom boat that cruised you out to a reef (only about a 1/2 hour boat ride there) to check out the local wildlife. We did that for Valentine’s Day. Zeph loved it, Chris and I got a little queasy but no puking! The boat was really big and not too full, and the glassbottom catamaran was a very cool concept. Did you know the Florida Keys is home to the world’s third largest coral reef? First is the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, then a reef somewhere by Belize, then here!

Glassbottom boat "Spirit of Pennekamp"

Glassbottom boat “Spirit of Pennekamp”

We saw signs for a free bird sanctuary off the side of the road and decided to check it out. I was pleasantly surprised. It looked like a rinky-dink operation from the side of the road, and it pretty much was, but there were lovely birds there and they were well taken care of. We also learned a lot about how the birds got there and ways we could be more conscientious at home. There were three or four types of hawks. They also had barred owls, a barn owl, and quite a few great horned owls. You could see by the mangled wings on some of them why they were there. There were also some parakeets (one named Fred was very talkative), a super vain cockatoo that would come next to you in his cage and preen his feathers if you told him how pretty he was (his name was Pickles), and a very sweet and social mockingbird named Jay (thank you, Hunger Games) that hung out at the bottom of the cage tweeting at you and walking along in his cage following you while you walked by. There were a ton of pelicans, some missing full wings, and a myriad of other injured wild birds and abandoned pets (the cockatoo and parakeets). I was quite impressed with this little place, and the birds were all very beautiful. Zeph really enjoyed it too, and kept wanting to go back and see the owls. Like mother, like son I guess!

Theater of the Sea Sherman the dolphin

Theater of the Sea Sherman the dolphin

Now this next part of the blog I hesitate to write because I am sort of embarrassed about it. I am a huge dolphin lover. I hate the thought of these smart animals being in captivity. I know in my Orlando/Disney World post I mentioned that I wouldn’t let my mom swim with the dolphins like she wanted to because I hate the thought of dolphins in captivity and made her watch the documentary “The Cove” about the dolphin slaughter that takes place in Japan every year due to animal parks needing more pretty bottlenose dolphins for their shows. But when the weather turned cold on us (a whopping 63 degrees – poor us!) we needed something to do besides go to a beach. Theater of the Sea was one of those places on Trip Advisor that was super highly rated and a “must see” so we took a chance. I was very curious to see how the dolphins and other animals were taken care of, since I hadn’t been to Sea World back home or any other place with marine mammals in captivity since I’d seen “The Cove.” After reading up a bit and chatting with some of the trainers there, I got a good picture of the way the animals are treated at Theater of the Sea. It’s basically a small, family-operated version of Sea World. Without the whales. Just dolphins and sea lions, and lots of rescued animals with severe permanent injuries.

Theater of the Sea turtle w lifejacket

Theater of the Sea turtle w lifejacket

The dolphins (they had seven I think) lived in a natural lagoon that was quite large, not square cement tanks like Sea World. They were all (except two I think, that had been there since the 70s or 80s) bred in captivity, not taken from the wild. Theater of the Sea also had multiple ponds filled with sea turtles that had severe deformities, either from birth or because of encounters with boats or trash or fishing lines or nets. One even had a life jacket on so she could float! These animals were well taken care of, spoiled even, and although they didn’t get to choose to live in captivity, they seemed more like pets than workers. I guess there are two sides to every story.
That about sums it up for our adventures on Key Largo. Now south to Key West!

 

 

 

  • Aloha great pix and travel blog ! Thanks for being a part of The Kaya experience. Mahalo nui loa

    • zephyrsunrise

      Thx again Scott for the fun food and experience. There is a typo in your profile on kayaislandeats.com.

  • Laura Glynn

    So glad you posted a picture of the Hilton Floaty Family. I was gonna ask! Sounds great. We, too, had issues with there not being any beaches in the Keys (well, at least near Key Largo). So bizarre. I don’t think we ever did go to the beach there – just in Palm Beach. Ho Hum – thank goodness for the Hilton toy rental shack! Happy floaty family!!! Hugs – Laura