Mangrove trees, turquoise-blue water, frigate birds flying overhead – they would be the backdrop as we rang in 2020, and we saw them all when we stopped in to visit the visitors’ center at Biscayne National Park. The grounds of the visitors’ center were beautiful, with shaded patios, picnic tables with ocean views, and a mangrove-covered jetty with a walkway that ended with a panoramic view of the glittering Atlantic, Keys, and Miami.
As we strolled around, a snorkeling tour group received a gear tutorial before boarding their boat, and I wished I could have gone with them. Most of the park is water, so snorkeling and boating are the best ways to explore and see what it has to offer. Of course, Loki and Pippin probably wouldn’t appreciate that very much, so we’ll save that for another trip.
We enjoyed a leisurely picnic lunch, took a look at the educational exhibits in the visitors’ center, and saw an art installation about plastic waste in the ocean before heading back on the road.
We were headed to an RV resort on Long Key, which is located at the halfway point on the Overseas Highway (Route 1).
When we crossed off the mainland and onto Key Largo, my first impression was that it wasn’t much different than most other beach communities we’ve driven through on the east coast, except that there were more shops dedicated to diving and snorkeling. The red and white SCUBA flag was displayed flying on many flagpoles.
The communities on each key were all a little different, but one thing was the same: when you looked past the buildings and marinas, there was always a backdrop of beautiful turquoise-blue water. This was especially evident on the keys with preserved land or which were not built up. I recognized mangrove trees (which I had just seen for the first time at Biscayne NP) on many of these islands as well as many sea birds.
When we arrived at the RV resort, we groaned a little, because it was a dense grid of RVs packed in next to each other like sardines, which isn’t the out-in-nature experience we prefer to have. But because our journey has been spontaneous and reliant on factors like weather and our health, we hadn’t made reservations at one of the local state parks months ahead of time, and we had to take what we could get. (Camping options were also more limited than usual due to business and park closures from hurricane damage.)
The first major plus for this resort was that it had a pool. As soon as we parked and hooked up, I put on my swimsuit and headed over for a swim. It’s not every day that you get to go swimming in December. I made friends with some pelicans, the pool had beautiful views, I felt great swimming some laps, and I got to watch a magnificent sunset over the water (all while George made friends with another Surly fat bike enthusiast who was camping near us).
It happened to be New Year’s Eve, and the resort hosted a party in the rec room with a broadcast of the ball dropping in New York, but we chose to skip the festivities and spend some time outside by the ocean. The crescent moon was a beautiful shade of orange, and we stood out on the edge of the campground for about a half hour watching it set over the dark water.
When 2020 dawned the next morning, George took the dogs for a morning walk but came back minutes later and told me that I had to come see something. He kept an air of mystery about what it was until we approached the fish cleaning station by the resort’s marina and I saw it in all of its round, ridiculous cuteness: a manatee!
A couple who had seen the manatee before had turned the hose on at the fish cleaning station and positioned it to spout fresh water down for it to drink. The manatee was far larger than I imagined (maybe 9 or 10 feet long) and was incredibly cute (in a blubbery, whisker-y, barnacle-covered kind of way). Sometimes it stuck its broad snout out of the water to achieve the best angle to drink, and other times it rolled over and let it pour straight into its mouth. I was in love.
George left to continue walking the dogs, and the people who had turned on the hose left, but I stayed for about 15 minutes watching the blissed out sea cow until one of the resort staff members came over and turned off the hose. I expected him to say that it wasteful to let the water run like that, but instead he gave me an irritated look and told me that too much fresh water would make the manatee sick. I immediately felt horrible for sitting there for all of that time allowing the hose to run, and I guiltily slunk off back to the camper.
I wondered just how sick manatees could get from fresh water, so I did some Googling and came up with a different answer than I expected. I couldn’t find anything supporting the claim that fresh water itself is unhealthy for manatees, but feeding them water does habituate them to dangerous places like marinas where they can be injured or killed by boat propellers. I even found a few websites that stated that it is illegal to feed, water, or touch them because of this. I felt so very bad for being part of the problem, as this manatee was clearly habituated to coming to the marina for water, so I ended up mentioning this info to people the next few times I saw the hose on. I tried not to make it sound like an accusation or anything, because I was really just hoping to spread the word and prevent more people from being taught to give the manatee water when it came around.
If you ever get to see a manatee, please don’t feed or water it!
That night on the pre-bed dog walk, we noticed that the manatee was back drinking from the hose. I turned the hose off, and the manatee sunk below the surface and seemed to hang there, drifting away with the current. At least, I thought it was drifting until I realized that it was turning itself around with almost imperceptible movements of its front flippers. Once turned around, it glided languorously down the inlet to the sea with only the tip of its tail moving to propel it forward. I couldn’t believe that something that large could move seemingly without effort and without stirring the water around it. I think that instead of sea cows, from now on I’ll think of them as stealth cows.
After the excitement of meeting a manatee for the first time, we drove the rest of the way down Route 1 to Key West where the highway ended and we were greeted by hens, roosters, and lots of other tourists celebrating the New Year. We were only walking about 3 minutes when I saw the first rooster. And then 3 minutes later we saw another, and then they were everywhere! The chickens are supposedly descendants of domestic chickens and roosters that were set free when cockfighting was outlawed, and boy have they flourished. Key West locals must be must be very laid back to put up with all of the crowing.
Our plan for Key West was to walk around with the dogs and just get a sense of the place. George had recently read a Harry Truman biography, so one of the places we aimed for was Truman’s Little White House.
We also found the Hemingway House, and although George offered to take the dogs so I could go in, the line was out the door and I opted to continue our walking tour.
We had lunch on an outdoor patio, and sometime in between the fish sandwich and the key lime pie, I spotted a chicken crossing the road – in the crosswalk. It may have been a fluke, but I like to imagine that Key West has produced sentient chickens.
We certainly didn’t see everything that Key West had to offer, but it was a fun day trip, and we headed back to the RV resort in the late afternoon/early evening. Maybe next time we’ll time it so that we’re heading west at sunset instead of east, but we were still able to enjoy the gorgeous scenery.
Maybe someday we’ll be back (without dogs in tow) to go snorkeling and visit Bahia Honda State Park or Long Key State Park, but for this trip, we spent one more night at the RV resort (and said goodbye to my manatee friend) before heading back to the mainland.
We came, we saw, and now it was time to head north for the first time yet. We were beginning to miss the mountains. The general plan had always been to drive south and eventually hit the Florida Keys. With that behind us, the next goal would be “out west” (after we traveled the whole length of Florida, that is).