Tuesday, December 26, 2017

USA Part 3A: Florida Travels

After an incredibly exhausting three days of full-on wedding activities we set sail for our "honeymoon", which included both sets of parents, all of our siblings, three nieces and a nephew.  A communal honeymoon - the romance is not dead with us!

But don't cry for me; we knew what we were getting into from Day 1 which is why we declared our only other trip this year, New Caledonia, as our pre-honeymoon, because we knew that's all we were going to get in terms of alone time.

I've learned, over my ten years of living overseas, that if you're going to go home and visit family you should also visit fun places while you're there.  Family obligations plus vacation = oblication!  Because when there's an opportunity to visit somewhere besides North Dakota I intend to seize it!

I crammed in a lot of really cool places into a short period of time and since I'd never been to Florida before (or anywhere southern) I made it my business to cover a ton of American soil.  But first, on the drive between Key Largo and Key West:

Feeding tarpons at Robbie's

Robbie's in Islamorada is a marina and restaurant that appears most popular for selling buckets of fish to tourists, who holler and squeal with delight as gigantic fish called tarpons leap out of the water for a free snack.

It is an enormous amount of fun, yet scary to dangle your fingers above the gaping maws of fish that can grow to be 280 pounds.  None of Robbie's fish are quite that large but there were some Big Berthas among the bunch.

Robbie's is absolutely a must do if you're driving to Key West (which you probably will, since flying directly there is wildly expensive).

Key West

I can't even find the words to describe Key West, besides, "it is such a cool place".  That sums it up succinctly and accurately.  It's like nowhere I've ever been before and I'd bet it's unlike anywhere else on earth.  It's got a really funky, fun 24/7 party vibe but has found a way to retain its charm.  It's what Vegas could have been had it not sold out to overweight Midwesterners.

When we got there we quickly realized something was going on around the marina.  Apparently there was a "super boat" race happening featuring the craziest colorful, loud and dangerous boats I'd ever seen.

It was not my cup of tea (have I mentioned Key Lime pie on every corner?  Because that's my cup of tea) but the menfolk had a blast gawking at boats worth more than they'll make in a decade.

There's so much to love!  And see!  And chase around!

To my infinite delight there are free range, communal chickens running around everywhere.  I honestly have no idea where these originally came from but it's amazing and they're just as much a part of the landscape as plastic takeaway margarita glasses.  By that fact alone this is one of America's finest cities.  Fun for all ages!

We did a ton in our weekend there, which I think is a perfect amount of time to visit.  The fact that it's super expensive means you'd be wise to keep your visit short and sweet.

Sunset cruise

We took to the sea on our first evening there to see the sunset up close and personal.  Naturally the boat featured a live band and all the booze you could drink for the duration of the trip.  Once we got back to land they even encouraged us to take one for the road, informing us "It's legal in Key West!"

An Extended Family Affair
I learned something really, really clever on this trip, born out of necessity but something I think I'll carry into the future.  Because we were so occupied with family during the day we didn't have a ton of time to see the tourist sites that one must see.  When the sun goes down there's plenty of time to hit the tourist trail (assuming sleep isn't that important to you)!  It's much cooler and pleasant to walk long distances when the sun isn't beating down on you, and you have the once crowded sights virtually to yourself.

Mile Marker 0

This oft stolen sign marks the beginning of US Highway 1 which spans the entire height of America from Florida to Maine.  2,369 miles!  Hoards of people by day, nobody there at night.  Genius.

Southernmost Point

This concrete buoy is the southernmost point of the continental United States (or symbolizes it, it isn't technically) and is 90 miles to Cuba.

This is what it looks like during the day:

You would be wise to take my advice!

Hemingway House

Author Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West in the 30's, which I don't find particularly interesting.  But what I do find interesting is the population of 6- and 7-toed cats that live on the property to this day that are descendants of his cats.  The New York Times even reported on them after Hurricane Irma!

I saw two of the kitties waltzing around the property through the gates, but this being nighttime we couldn't get in and my pictures didn't turn out.  Such is life when you choose to be a tourist at night.  I would like to see freak show felines up close!   

Mallory Square

If you're not out on a boat during sunset then this is the place to be.  There's so many people!  But despite that fact at no point did I feel like there were too many people or I was being swallowed by a crowd.

Must be those island vibes, man.

Charming pastel Key West houses
I was not aware until I was there eating a literal mountain of nachos that Key West is home of the original Margaritaville chain of restaurants, which was a must do for those in attendance who don't even have regular access to a Dairy Queen.

If you've come as far as Key Largo and don't pop down to Key West I'm convinced you've wasted your time.  It is a long, slow (45 mph maximum speed limit!) drive between the two but the pot of gold at the end of the archipelago is well worth it.

At that point it was time to part ways with my family (for the time being) and continue back up north with Martin's parents.  Next stop: the bayou!

Everglades National Park

The Everglades (or at least the part protected by the national park) are 1.5 million acres of swamp.  And what is the one and only thing one must do on 1.5 million acres of swamp?  Ride one of these bad boys:

And before you ask, yes, we saw gators!

But they were cleverly hidden and/or not more than a foot long.  Nothing massive but still fun to see!

We stopped back in Miami for the night, and I was excited to get out and see South Beach a little bit, but Mother Nature had other plans.

We got 4 blocks from our hotel and it started pouring rain like I have never seen in my entire life.  And I live in a sub-tropical climate!  Holy smokes it was insane, and it did not let up for a second.  We sat undercover and try to wait the rain out, but after 15 minutes called an Uber whose driver spoke literally no English to drive us the 30 seconds back home.  Never change, Miami.

I'll happily take an urban rain shower if it means perfect weather for my #1 priority for this trip (yes, even above getting married).

Seeing manatees in the wild!!!

So exciting!!!  I would've been so heartbroken if we didn't see any.  Luckily my dreams came true!

Photographing manatees is no easy feat, as they do literally nothing.  They don't ever stick their whole face out of the water and when they pop their nose out for a quick breath it's back in underwater in a flash.  So this is the best shot I got of the gang.

Lumps of back fat.  They don't call them "sea cows" for nothing!  So here's a picture I pilfered from National Geographic:

They are so great!  Thankfully they're no longer endangered, as their numbers have gone from a few hundred to over 6,000 after decades of conservation efforts.  A world without manatees is not a world worth living in, so I hope they continue to improve their numbers.

Where can one find manatees in the wild in Florida, you ask?

Merritt Island

What's wild about Merritt Island near Titusville is that it's half pristine wildlife refuge and half launching rockets into outer-freaking-space.

On the wildlife side of things we did the Black Point Wildlife Drive, which is a 7-mile gravel track where you drive through at 15 miles per hour and gawk at nature.  Mainly birds, to Martin's great pleasure.

But there is also wildlife of a more reptilian persuasion.

The ones we saw here were much bigger and gnarlier than the ones we saw in the Everglades!  We had a gay old time at dawn driving at a glacial pace, enjoying the vast wetlands and searching for gators.

Then, on the very same island:

Kennedy Space Center

NASA, featuring a real live space shuttle!  Retired now, of course, as they all are. 

When I was about 10 I saw the movie SpaceCamp for the first time (of many) and loved it so, so much.  I even had a NASA poster on my bedroom door, which is deliciously ironic considering I grew up with only the barest minimum of science education.

I've literally never met anybody else who has seen this movie.  It was a huge box office flop because it was released just a few months after the Challenger disaster, but make no mistake this movie kicks a large amount of ass.  This long winded tale of 80's cinema history is for the purpose of telling you that this shuttle, Atlantis, is the one used in that movie.  Fun for me [and absolutely nobody else]!

Moon rock you can touch
Shuttle landing simulator
You could spend days on end here, but we had to cram it all into one.  We took a tour of the launching facilities which are disused by NASA but still very much in operation by Space X and anybody else requiring the infrastructure to launch rockets into outer space.

Dude on left, above the grey rectangle, for scale

Were you aware that each shuttle mission had its own logo?

I was not aware of this.  This wall of plaques features each shuttle flight logo, along with their take off and landing date, for those lucky enough to have both.  It was really nifty.

Most places I visit I realize that I likely won't ever expend the time, effort and money to visit that place again in my lifetime (assuming I remain a pleb wage earner).  But Florida?  Not true at all.  I know with absolute certainty that one day I will be back in the future, with kids.  

I can think of nowhere else that has more or better attractions so close together that kids will love.  At that time I will no doubt have to substitute Key West for Disney World, which is nothing short of a tragedy, but that'll be a different me at a different time and I fully expect to enjoy Florida just as much then as I do now! 

After driving from the literal tip of Florida to the northern border it was time to head north, bizarrely, into the Deep South.

USA Part 2: Key Largo Wedding

I got my professional pictures!  I was quoted 4 to 6 weeks and they arrived six weeks on the dot. 'merica!

I'll keep commentary to a minimum so enjoy these lovely photos of the two of us sexy beasts.

Pre-ceremony pictures


Group Shot

Cocktail Hour

Sunset Photos




Photo booth

First Dances

Dancing the night away