A solo trip to Florida in search of the wild

Note: These travels were completed a few weeks before the Covid-19 outbreak in the US. 

As a Florida man living in New York for the past year, there was a lingering feeling for me that was unsettling.

In the NYC area I feel I’m at the mercy of humanity. It’s a stark contrast to the blanket feeling where I grew up in Florida of being at the mercy of nature.

Mankind is changing and deforesting Florida rapidly, but it still feels to me like lightning, grasshoppers, gators, greenery and other untamed habitants dominate the state.

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On a hiking trail in John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo, Florida.

I had some days off work that I needed to use before they expired, so I thought spending a few February days in Florida before going to see family in Texas would be a respite from my daily New York reality of packing onto trains, buses, and sidewalks (considering the pandemic times we’re in now, I hope for the return of this reality asap of course).

Sunday evening I flew into Fort Myers on a nonstop JetBlue flight from my local airport in White Plains, NY (flight costed 8k JetBlue miles).

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The sun setting at Westchester County Airport.

I stayed at a hotel near the Ft. Myers airport (40k Hilton points), and within the first hour I’d already felt the familiar Florida embrace of walking into a spider web, when I walked to the Olive Garden across the street from the hotel.

Uppity haters will hate, but Floridians love Olive Garden. Orange juice, then Olive Garden, top my list of the greatest Florida exports.

The next morning I drove my rental car 70 miles south to Everglades City, where I had an afternoon ticket (~$40) aboard a pontoon boat tour of Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, led by a naturalist.

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Since the tour enters waters within the boundaries of Everglades National Park, you also have to pay the $30/vehicle park entrance fee, which lasts for 7 days.

The 90-minute trip took us through a maze of mangrove islands, where aquatic birds nest and sunbathe, and dolphins hunt in the shallow waters.

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Blurry beauty.

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Where the islands meet the Gulf of Mexico.

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After the tour I headed back through Everglades City, and north toward the Tamiami Trail that would take me east through the Everglades.

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This Everglades City train depot stopped serving passengers in 1957 according to Wikipedia.

My next stop was the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center, which has a short boardwalk trail behind it where I saw a gator gliding by a group of manatees.

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The afternoon was waning as I continued east, with another 60 miles of glades between me and Miami.

I stopped at the Shark Valley Visitor Center hoping to do another quick boardwalk hike, but the ranger at the entrance told me they were about to close, so I turned around and pressed onward.

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As you get closer to Miami, the tourist attractions start to increase, with roadside signs luring visitors to safari camps, gator shows and airboat tours.

I emerged from the Everglades and headed south through farmland toward my hotel in Florida City (38k Hilton points/night), which is nestled beneath Homestead, and the closest I could get to the Keys without breaking my solo travel points budget.

I left the next morning for a 30-minute commute to Key Largo where I’d booked a 2.5-hour snorkel trip at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

The park costed $4 to enter, and the snorkel trip was $30.

When I got to the dive shop, there was a sign outside the door announcing that all snorkel tours for the day were canceled due to choppy conditions.

I went in and signed up for my refund, then signed up for a kayak rental ($12/hour).

The kayak trail through the mangroves passed by a marina and was quiet other than the rowdy shrieks of some spring breakers.

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I finished the mangrove loop with enough time to do another trail that takes you around the park’s Far Beach and Cannon Beach.

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Cannon Beach as seen from a kayak.

I returned my kayak then walked to Cannon Beach to try some snorkeling.

I left my phone and keys in my hat on a picnic table and got into the chilly water with my snorkel and mask.

I saw some fish, but the snorkeling was mostly shallow and sandy, or deep and murky.

I walked over the bridge to try my luck at Far Beach, which has a buoyed-off snorkeling and swimming area, but there was no one else in the water there when I got in.

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Signs at the beach alert you to possibility of crocodiles in the water, which made snorkeling alone in the murky water slightly more tense.

I would scour the internet later that day and find no evidence that anyone had ever been bothered by a croc at this park.

I couldn’t find too much to see underwater, so I rinsed off and walked over to the park’s aquarium, where two rangers were doing one of the twice-per-week feedings for the aquarium’s three types of lobsters.

One shrimp per lobster.

I hiked the park’s Wild Tamarind Trail, which has descriptions of the various plant species along the trail.

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For lunch I went across the street to the Lazy Lobster and got some fresh, fried mahi-mahi, then headed nine miles south to the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary in Tavernier.

This haven for injured wild birds does not have an entrance fee, but there’s only about a dozen parking spots.

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At the end of the boardwalk through the sanctuary is a trail along the water that I barely resisted sloshing into like the biologists on Animal Planet.

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My last Key Largo stop for the day was at a strange, peaceful place called Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park ($2.50/person, cash only honor system dropbox).

It’s a huge failed condo development that was turned into a state park in the 80s before any buildings went up.

The trail through the park made me feel I was in some version of Jurassic Park, where “area closed do not enter” signs tempt you to explore the overgrown side trails.

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I headed north up the Overseas Highway back toward Florida City, only stopping at one of my other Florida chain staples — the Sonny’s BBQ drive-through near my hotel, for a turkey on garlic bread barbecue sandwich, with Sizzlin’ Sweet BBQ sauce and baked beans.

My last morning in Florida before my afternoon flight from MIA to Texas, I took a short drive from Florida City to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, which is at the eastern entrance to Everglades National Park.

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The visitor center had an exhibit with photos and a timeline of how native Americans and maroon communities were harassed and displaced throughout the history of Florida’s settlement.

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While I didn’t get to hike and kayak the Everglades like I fantasized about while reading this NY Times article, I got a taste of it and look forward to returning.

I checked out of the hotel and headed north for the airport, full up on the warmth and wild that I miss about living in Florida.

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