We crossed the Skyway Bridge for the last time and headed south as we began our whirlwind two week road trip around the rest of Florida. Some Florida vibes to get you in the spirit before you read on:
Easter was a day away so we just drove an hour south to the Sarasota area, where the legacy of John Ringling (of the Ringling Bros) lives on to this day. The beaches here are reputed to be some of the best in the country. A big reason is that they’re made up of pure crushed quartz that’s trickled down from the Appalachians and been smoothed out over time. So the sand doesn’t even get hot during the day and you can step on it at peak heat without burning your feet. It’s like walking through a field of powdered sugar and so, so beautiful!
We found parking at one of the beaches along the way and spent an afternoon into the night, so that we could enjoy some beach time under the light of the full moon.
We decided to spend the holiday at Siesta Beach because we just wanted to spend the day swimming, relaxing and eating good food. We parked by 8 am and made a mimosa brunch, then bopped back and forth for the rest of the day between the truck and the beach. We made our Easter dinner, donned the bunny ears and hit up a drum circle. We also somehow got talked into heading up a conga line, true story. We couldn’t dream up a more perfect Easter if we tried.
We hit the road the next morning and headed towards the Fort Myers area. First we refilled our propane tank and bought wood pellets for the litter box at Tractor Supply Co. We’d been tipped off that they have some of the cheapest propane around, plus a 40 lb bag of wood pellets cost a mere $6.95. (For those of you who sometimes ask how we cat people handle the litter box in a small space, we find that wood pellets are amazing and there’s very little smell.)
We decided to next visit Captiva Island after reading lovely things about it, so we crossed the causeway onto Sanibel Island and headed north from there. Unfortunately Captiva, while lovely to look at, consists mainly of private beaches. And when we got to the literal end of the road and maneuvered into a tiny parking area by the public beach, we quickly discovered that the cost for two hours of parking is $25. So we turned right back around and headed back to the Sanibel causeway and parked on the beach for free. That way Xiaozhang could enjoy the beach with us and Shane had space to tune up our bikes as prep for the following day’s adventure. Causeways are just the best.
We woke up super early the next day because we were headed to the Everglades, something that had long been on our bucket list. We were most excited for two things: the first was visiting Shark Valley. We drove in from the Naples side and arrived at the park within a couple of hours. Shark Valley has a big 15-mile loop to the observation deck that towers above the trees, with plenty of alligators and other wildlife to see along the way. There are three options for you to travel the loop: bicycle, a very long walk or a tram with a guided tour. We opted to ride our bikes and were treated to alligators swimming and sunning themselves (they almost don’t look real in person!), beautiful birds and a sweeping, romantic landscape that was like something out of a movie.
The second thing that we were excited about was our pre-booked 45-minute airboat tour, an experience that you just don’t want to pass up if you ever find yourself in the Everglades. We went with Buffalo Tiger tours, which is run by a Miccosukee family. The Miccosukee tribe has inhabited the Everglades for ages, and a brief and fascinating summary of their history is here:
Our guide knew this land and the habits of its creatures inside and out. It was so cool hearing him make the same noise that mama alligators make to soothe their young so that he could summon them to our boat. He showed such genuine respect for these amazing creatures and the tour didn’t feel at all hokey or exploitative. We highly recommend touring with them if you get the chance.
What a treat to finally experience this amazing and breathtakingly beautiful corner of the world. We have some very special memories that we’ll never forget for the rest of our lives.
We could easily have stayed longer to explore the entire park but we were short on time and we really wanted to see the Keys. So we spent a night in Florida City, which is kind of the gateway, and staged ourselves for the next day’s departure.
Our first pit stop in the Keys was at the Key Lime Pie Factory for what rumor has it is the best pie in the Keys. We kind of have to agree! Their back garden is just as much of a slice, with beautiful plants and flowers and equally colorful, heart-shaped love locks everywhere.
We then stopped in Islamorada at Rain Barrel Village, a charming collective of artist studios and home of Betsy the lobster, aka the world’s largest lobster. She was sculpted in the 80’s and survived Hurricane Irma without a scratch. Their whole back area is like an enchanted garden, with lots of great art and souvenirs.
We also had to hit up the Florida Keys Brewing Co for a local beer. Their beer garden is too lovely, and completed our unintended tour of enchanted gardens of the Keys.
So as far as vanlife goes, the Keys are kind of like the hot spots on the Gulf Coast but with even more severe crackdowns. While some of the reason stems from the haves not wanting to share with the have-nots, a lot of it more likely comes from the fact that, as with everywhere these days, the place is overrun with people making the pilgrimage here to get a taste of paradise. The Keys are more or less tiny islands with limited infrastructure. So we made sure to book a couple of campsites for the several nights we’d be down there because a) we could afford it and b) when you consider how much tourism puts a strain on already limited space and resources, you really just want to be a good guest and help ease the burden while supporting the local economy. Oh, and be sure to book ahead if you can!
We booked one night at the Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key. Bahia Honda is also one of your best bets for cheap van camping in the Keys at just $36 per night, and they don’t hassle you about being a conversion and plugging in. Your cost of the site also includes the price of admission into the park and it’s a great last stop before Key West.
At that point, it had been so long since we’d pulled into a real campsite and little Xiao was too happy, as were we. We set up and then explored a bit. There’s an old bridge here that was once a part of a railway that was washed away in the 1935 hurricane. The state then turned it into a part of Hwy 1, connecting the Keys to the mainland. A new bridge was constructed in ’72 but you can still walk a portion of the old one. We later watched the sunset and three of the park staff showed up with a bunch of conch shells. So we were treated to a conch sound bath at sunset, which was amazing!
We arrived the next day at our final destination of Key West, where we’d booked a couple of nights at Boyd’s Campground on Stock Island, which is just on the outskirts of Key West. We had to negotiate over the phone to get a spot since they’re a little leery of DIY conversions potentially blowing the electrical system. We just had to promise not to plug in while at the site in exchange for entry (totally not a problem since we run on solar). And while not cheap as far as campgrounds go per se, this is Key West after all and in the bigger pic Boyd’s costs roughly the same as a Holiday Inn. But it’s a beautiful campground that’s right on the water and we even had roosters, hens and baby chicks running around our site. It’s about a 25 minute easy bike ride to downtown Key West, which is how we got around, but you can also take the bus or a Lyft.
Key West has a little bit of Charleston vibes mixed with New Orleans, if she were to tone down her wild side a tad and trade in her jazz bands for Jimmy Buffet. That famous 5 o’clock somewhere starts and ends here and Cuba is closer than the nearest Walmart. We knew we were in for a good time when we crossed paths on Duval Street with “the world’s longest parade – from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico” on our first night and had beads and condoms thrown at us. (The parade was a part of Key West’s annual independence celebration of when they “seceded” from the union in 1982 and became The Conch Republic.) We quickly fell in love with the colors and laid back vibes, plus the music everywhere we went. We also found the Keys weather to be a lot like Newfoundland’s, as we experienced many phases and seasons within the course of an afternoon.
Another pro tip is that Key West happy hours are legendary, so you want to strategize accordingly. It’s amazing how far your money will go with all of the available cheap food and drinks! Our favorite hands down was Martin’s, a fine dining restaurant that was recommended to us by someone we’d met at the parade. Normally Martin’s would have exceeded our budget but during happy hour their tapas and martinis are all 50% off, so we had quite a nice meal for not a lot of money.
We of course had to take the requisite pic by the Southernmost Point.
We gave ourselves the day to drive back to the mainland from Key West so that we could make some pit stops and take in the stunning scenery.
Islamorada once again became our hub. We spotted Anne’s Beach Park from the side of the road and parked in a narrow lot across the highway. We were rewarded with a gorgeous swimming area that felt like a private lagoon.
We also tried the other brewery on the island:
And then it was time to hit the road and make the final push to Miami…