Visiting the Keys, Florida

12/11/2022 Sunday, 30-40F in NJ, we took off with Lyft service ($35 including tips) at 10AM heading for Terminal C United in Newark. 40 min ride. Texted our neighbor Joe about it, we had back and forth about why we didn't want to trouble him for the ride. He suggested visiting The Hemingway Home & Museum $17 (I guess I'll do that with or without Nadia, since this is at least the second time someone telling me about it). Truman Little White House is close by for $23, wonder if I could make that one, though less popular than Hemingway's (according to Google review #).

We have 1 luggage around 50lbs, and each has carry-on (me, a backpack).

Arrived on time around 4:30PM in Key West. 70+F sunny temperature. Picked up from Enterprise a rental car (Audi Convertible - for $20 extra) which was our first experience with convertible. Headed to 24 North Hotel - 4 star. ($130 base / night - totaling to $158 + $45 resort fee = $203). Rated 4 star hotel on Google Map, so is the Gates Hotel next door which we will be staying on our last day, which has similar price rate and both of these hotels maybe partners. Looks like my note was noticed when I made online reservation for 24 North (I did the same for the other two hotels: Pelican Key Largo Cottages and the Gates Hotel: please give us room with good view and high floor if possible). This room #318 at 24North is a corner (though nothing special about the corner part) room yet facing the mangrove ocean view.

On the 3 hour flight, I finished the 1948 Humphrey Bogart's film Key Largo, which I thought would be relevant to where we were headed. I do love the film and the philosophy in moral of that simple film. I could also detect the modernist's struggle to do away God in their pursuit of moral, the transition is obvious. Some good quotes in there however. It's a keeper.

Right out of the small (I only saw 2 small baggage claim areas and the car rental companies were just across from the baggage claim in 10 or so steps) airport in Key West. Everything was smooth and not much wait time (Nadia headed to car rental first while I waited for the luggage). After figuring out how to use the car (particularly the convertible part - getting the top open and close - apparently you cannot leave anything in the trunk while opening the top/roof of the car), Nadia drove I navigated. 6 mins to the hotel. The drive scene was superb. Ocean view (even from the flight looking down - clear reef-like green patches in the sea below the plane). We tried to make the 5:30pm sunset at Mallory Square, but we were late by a few minutes. We parked at Whitehead St & Greene St for an hour ($2.50 / 30 mins), paid via app. Admired some apparently Christmas green lights decorated palm/coconut trees between Key West Museum of Art and Sunset Waterfront Shoppes. Nadia bought some cheap shirts as gifts from a giftshop.

For dinner, we ordered takeout from Garbo's Grill @ Hanks!
I had the UMAMIBURGER - $14.75 (full of umami taste); While Nadia had CAYO FISH Burrito - $14.75 (seems less taste - less salty). I've since removed this mark on my google map, as I could only give it 3/5 rating. Its popularity is probably due to its on site serving as well as music concert. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by Publix Supermarket at Searstown Shopping Center to get some water for the road.

After dinner, I told Nadia to go check out the hotel's nice pool (7am-11pm), she could peacefully do her thing on the beach bench by the pool, while I went walking around night touring the neighborhood. We were in high end resorts area on East of Key West while most fun stuff are probably on the West side (i.e. Mallory Square), which is a short 12 min drive from the hotel. I walked along the mangrove filled edge of the road north of the hotel and went into Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel's water front. It was the first time since arriving Florida, that I get close enough to the waters and see how clear it was, but at night with artificial lighting. Someone asked me what fish (20-30" long) were those swimming by the green lights in the sea floor by the dock, I couldn't tell at the time, but I think they were barracudas.

I plucked a sprouting mangrove seed from the tree across from the hotel, hoping to bring it home (without trouble for plucking from environmentalist authority). Amazing how mangroves propagate via viviparity (seeds start to sprout while still attached to the parent).

After transferring photos and videos to the media drive, finishing this journal and tomorrow's plan, I'm turning to bed at around 1AM.

12/12/2022 Monday
Nadia woke first before 6AM and bought breakfast from El Mocho Restaurant. Got me some sort of omelet.

We then took a walk at the beach by Marriott's across from us. On the pier, I showed Nadia the fish I saw in the water the previous night, which I believe now is likely barracudas. Water was clear enough (greenish) to see fish and the floor wen it got shallow. That's when I told Nadia about the only Skydiving place I found along the Keys. Lower Sugarloaf Key, 20 mins from where we are. Ernest Hemingway can wait because Nadia was all exited about it. I called to make reservation for 12:30pm (instead of 1pm because they want to put her together with one other jumper).

With a precipitated plan for the day, we checked out of the hotel around 10AM and headed towards the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A. for a photo selfie of the famous "90 Miles to Cuba" marker (there should be more than one location for this around Key West, but this one seems to have the most reviews on google). Parked nearby for a $2.50/30 min fee (I was beginning to wonder how strict this is watched by the ticketing cops, if any). Tried a $7 young green coconut (the seller just drill a hole and put in the straw). Then went in line (there were already more than 10 people lined up in front of us for the Marker photo selfies.

After asking for advice from the coconut seller about how I could crack the coconut up myself by slam throwing the bottom against hard concrete, to get to the meat, we headed to our first daylight beach in the Keys, Higgs Memorial Beach. I tried snorkeling. Not much to see until I swam around the small pier where there were hundreds of fish hanging around by the poles and I think I even came a cross a rather large 4-5 foot barracuda who just stood still between the bridge's poles. I didn't get a clean video shot of it and was later a little worried as I learned of barracuda attacks (though rare) online.

At 11:45pm, we drive towards the Skydiving site. Paid $245 in cash ($265 otherwise with credit card), $120 extra for the photos/videos. After the other party, who happens to be a lady jumper for her 21st birthday paid by her two friends, has arrived, they strapped both of them up with harness which would be connected to their instructors before they jump, instructed them to hold on to the harness as they jumped from the plane (which Nadia forgot to hold during the 40 second freefall and thus making the fall unstable and spinning), picked a goggle which fits even her glasses in, they took off in the small airplane. I and the other two girlfriends of the other jumper waited by the office for about 15 mins, then we were driven in a long golf cart to the drop site. We could even hear Nadia shouting from the sky where I caught on camera but couldn't see them with my naked eye at the time (large sky, small people). The golf cart driver then flew is own homemade drone (with what looks like Go Pro cam attached to it)and put on his drone goggle, as a hobby. We should have paid him for some of that drone footage which he likely recorded following the two jumpers as they landed. I put $20 each (one for the pilot which was suggested, one for the instructor though not as encouraged as the pilot's during the briefing but apparently subtly implied) into the tipping jars (since they were all $20 bills in the jar), wondering how much they actually make in this line of work.

Nadia's fine but she felt a bit dizzy (pressure in the head) as we drove (I drove for the first time this convertible) for a quick lunch at Morita's Cuban Cafe (pulled pork & steak sandwiches $12 each) with a $2 can of grape soda for Nadia's head. Food's good, but like all restaurants in the Keys, I do think it is a little pricey. Then again, what isn't, post-COVID. Their chihuahua dog looked hungry but we were advised not to feed their dog.

After lunch, around 2:30PM I drive us to (skipped Bahia Honda Beach for now due to time) Anne's Beach, which I heard was a nice short boardwalk by the mangrove beach. I flew the drone first time in the Keys there. Water there was very shallow and though very clear, did not seem encouraging for snorkeling, so I did not (I was a bit paranoid about dangerous creatures such as that barracuda and crocodiles which were said to be in Key Largo's John Pennekamp State Park, plus the sign said "swim at your own risk").

we stopped by Robbie's of Islamorada because of its fame around 5pm where Nadia bought $4 root beer to better clear her head from the jump. Nothing much there other than some restaurants, gift shops and tour center for boat chartering which apparently has closed for the day, and we were not fans of feeding the pelicans by the dock, which was the fame on google map photos. Entrance to the pelican dock was about $2.50 per person, we didn't go.

By the time we got to our 2-star "hotel" the Pelican Key Largo Cottages, it was past sunset already. But I loved the Pineapple room (reminded me of my first Langkawi resort with family long ago where we had a whole hut to ourselves), which was sort of a small brick house joined with two-three other rooms. They have a few such units on their 3 small beach property. Paid around $390 for 3 nights, a very cheap deal I found on What's even cool about it is the 2 hour limit free kayak usage they claim to provide. Beach front chairs and tables, a peaceful relaxing place at night. I called Mrs. Mac from the hotel's recommendation for dinner, but because their menu has changed the pricing and they took their buffalo wings off their menu, I tried the alternate restaurant: High Tide which was also on the recommendation sheet "John" from the hotel provided. Ordered $8 bowl (which is a regular coffee cup size) of conch soup (very good, lots of conch out of my expectation), $8 bowl of lobster bisque (since they were out of homemade chili soup for Nadia) and 8 piece tasty wings for $13.

Then I went to the private wooden chair and table just outside of our door for some quiet moment of transferring the days' photos and videos to the drive. I failed to read the books I brought and also to write the diary (this day's entry is entered in the morning) due to bug bites and sleepiness and slept at around midnight.

Now I am going to plan for this new day.

12/13/2022 Tuesday, These whole week (with the minor exception of possible rainy Friday) has been great weather. 70s F and rather sunny, water's quite calm most of the time as well. We woke up rather late, around 8am. Also, there's no issue with the phone's network coverage (T-Mobile) on the Keys so far. The Pelican's wifi's great as well, though Nadia said that back at the previous hotel (24 North) at Key West, the wifi was slow. Here at one of the 3 piers owned by the Cottages, I am having great wifi service while typing yesterday's (12/13) diary in the 7:30am morning, as I couldn't stay away at 12am to focus on the diary after looking into snorkeling trips as well as finishing on video/photo transfer.

I tried to get just conch soup at Mrs. Mac next door after waking up. But apparently that's too early for breakfast. So we decided to wait for the big buffet lunch/brunch instead we had planned, and went kayaking, for the first time since we've arrived. One of the perks of staying here, 2 hour free kayaking after depositing my license with them and both of us signed the form. Took one oar (Nadia wouldn't want to row) and no vest (with the nice water we have, just really don't need it and I believe it would also be a hygienic issue with Nadia), and I pulled out one of the two person kayak to have Nadia hopped on first in the back wile I jumped in the front after as the boat drifted away from the shore. We were told if we rowed further towards the trees towards our 10 o'clock, we would see dolphins and manatees. I believe now that patch of trees would be what is known as the Pelican Key. Too far at the time, thought about kayaking there the next time. We did about 1.5 hour kayaking around the shore and the boats parked around us.

Before the big meal, we stopped by (8 min drive away) Laura Bird Sanctuary which is free with donation, it's a good hour of wait time at around 11am. This place is basically a sanctuary for all injured birds and most of them would end up staying here permanently due to their handicapped. They have all sorts of local birds from crow to marine birds and eagles, and some foreign birds from West coast. They were caged in natural beautiful environments within the swamp land which was also visitor friendly with clean boardwalk.

The it's the 20 min ride to the Whale Harbor All you can eat buffet at $40 each. It's probably the only all you can eat I know of in the Keys. Seafood (seafood soup which tasted like lobster bisque, raw oysters, octopus salad, ceviche, etc.) is the main theme, though no lobster. Some of the dish though fresh, but could use some MSG is what I think. the unlimited soda/coffee drink would be $3.50 extra so only Nadia got it for her coffee while I just drink free ice water refill (should have gone with no ice and perhaps with a lemon). We were even offered fried fish, a great look, included in the buffet. I don't mind returning again, but just once a while, as this was definitely fresh seafood, but it was no match for Las Vegas' Wicked Spoon in price (minor difference), taste and variety.

Then we headed to the main park, John Pennekamp State Park. Of the 3 swimming areas, Cannon Beach was the better of all of them. Though still a bit disappointing, especially the $9 entrance fee (They've changed to $4.50 a person, $2 if walk/bike in, so it's no longer $7-8 a car with two people with $0.50 additional head). Apparently, if you want good snorkeling view with colorful reefs and fish, you do need to take a boat tour out several miles for their barrier reefs, which I made reservation for at the end. All I could find in the small snorkeling area is tons of upside down jellyfish which only I was bold enough to touch and played with while when I showed one folk, he appeared to be afraid of its poison. No corals, no colorful fishes, that's from around 2-3pm - 5pm.

They have a small but nice free aquarium at the visitor center, we visited it in the last 10 minutes, after I booked for myself the snorkeling tour for $41 total (but looks like the additional park entrance fee is unavoidable for this, according to the tour company as well as the park ranger I asked). And there's no clue as to which reefs (Grecian reef, Christ statue reef, etc.) the captain would take us. There was already 9 (as long as I'm not the only one - don't want to snorkel in the scary middle of the ocean by myself) registered for trip at 1:30pm, a 2.5 hour tour all together (30 min boat ride to destination - only one - and 1.5 hour of snorkeling time with no touch emphasized for their protected reef). They claimed that these reefs are better than those non-protected ones down South in the Keys because of more live corals instead of dead dull ones. I haven't come across such claim in my research.

After that, we skipped dinner as we were still full from the big lunch. Nadia and I stayed in the resort watching a few episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, after enjoying the sunset by our beach (I even did a last snorkeling before it gets too dark around 5:30pm by the shore). Nadia lost interest in the sitcom from a while back but when I explained how this is about psychology (in-laws, sibling rivalries, pride, etc.) she got into it and we watched probably for about 3-4 episodes, then I got tired of it as I feel it's the same theme over and over again despite Nadia's persuasion to continue watching. She slept while I did the file transfers and reviewing the snorkeling trip for the next day. I turned in feeling sleepy at 12:30AM not able to follow through writing this diary.

And now (12/14 Morning at 8:21AM), I'm done with writing this for now and ready to go for another Kayak.

12/14/2022 Wednesday (A little cloudy)

8:20am: Kayak again for the second time. This time, we (I) rowed closer to Pelican Key (as far as half way there), but no dolphins. Some guy on his kayak claimed he saw manatees near the resorts but I followed as he guided and I don't see any, only some sand got kicked up at the bottom that may look like manatees activity. We did a good little more than an hour of kayaking. Water's especially calm today, no wave movement near the shore, it was a very smooth kayak cruise until you reach the deeper end.

9:30am: Mrs. Mac's breakfast by our resort's beach. I ordered Mac Breakfast Attack (sausage, two sunny side up eggs, bacon, toasts, etc. $14) while Nadia ordered Mrs. Mac's Famous Mornwich, similar deal, $8, and a coffee. We ordered to go so that we can enjoy our breakfast by our resort beach.

11:30am: I swam for the second time by the beach, but first time having clear brightness, the first time being in the late evening, when nothing much can be seen clearly.

1pm: Head to the snorkel tour. I drove myself while Nadia stayed behind by the beach since snorkeling/boat ride was not her thing. Due to traffic, I arrived 1:20pm instead of 1:15pm as instructed for the 1:30pm tour on my supposedly 8min drive from hotel to the park. They were in the middle of briefing by the dock so I wasn't late (probably the last 3 person). There were at least 20-30 folks. Our boat went through the swamp river and off to Grecian Rocks about 3-5 miles away from shore. The water's clear but not as clear as I would hope. I remember back when I first saw something like this in Pulau Pangkor, the water was so clear you can see the shadow of the boats on the bottom sand as if the boats were floating. However, the reefs and rocks were definitely better than any near beach snorkeling (though I haven't tried Bahia Honda Park yet which I don't think would match this anyway). Lots of sea fans. Fishes were easily spotted, blue, parrots were rare. Biggest I've seen was about 14". The reef rocks were not a large area (I would give it 30-50 sqft.) while there were deaf corals between where the boat dock and the reef pole sign.

walked to the SNOOK for dinner though slightly expensive.

bought a bowl of conch soup from High Tide (different server, younger lady, this time) while Nadia got their chocolate fudge.

I went stargazing, testing out how well my Samsung S21 Plus handle astrophotography as well. Online research indicated that the best spot for star gazing (least light pollution) is Bahia Honda State Park (probably Bortle class 3), which we eventually went, but not for stargazing.

Astrophotography using the S21+ is best done in the More > Pro. With ISO set to the highest (3200), Manual Focus set to 0.8 (I assume this is the value for infinity as it is the sharpest view of stars when zoomed in). The best exposure length is between 2 - 4 seconds. The steadier the tripod/holder of the camera/phone, the better. It was rather windy, so I don't think the slight jitters were star trail as 4 seconds were too fast to generate any trails. However, at Bortle 4 (I found a little corner near the RV trailer park at 2nd Ave (near the Mandalay Restaurant), about 5 mins drive from the Pelican), the camera could at least detect blurry Andromeda without any aid of a scope or extra adapter. I tried to take as much of the sky as possible, while patiently avoiding patches of passing clouds. After about an hour or so, I was ready to head back, hoping to identify the whole sky that I took.

12/15/2022 Thursday (Slightly cloudy, rain in the morning, windy)
Last day at the Pelican. Woke up to buy breakfast at Keys Bite. I drove there myself, ordered shrimp quesadilla for myself $13 and beef burrito $10 and coffee for Nadia. She complained that I took less half & half milk/creamer and less sugar but should not have taken the unhealthy sweetener. The food's quite good.

After eating in our room, I flew the drone around the area. The drone caught a couple of manatees swimming towards the Pelican docks but not close enough. The drone app then warned me about serious strong wind and I started to even (for the first time) experience lost of control of my drone due to the wind apparently. Hence I quickly bring the drone back and that was it. Not sure what happened to the manatees.

Then I tried a quick swim again in the sea in front of the Pelican before checking out. Before arriving our Key West hotel (the Gates, next to 24 North, the sister hotel) we stopped by Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park ($2.50 per person) and then Bahia Honda State Park ($9). The fossil reef park though not as popular, was educational for me. It was a quarry and one get to see walls of cut slabs filled with fossils of star corals and brain corals, etc. The Bahia Honda swim however, was not great. The turquois green swimming areas were nice to look at from the surface, but it's murky white underwater, no clear sight at all. I don't know if this was due to the storm (water's a bit rough especially on the East/South coasts, unlike those clear water photos on Google Map). Calusa Beach/Loggerhead Beach was the most popular one, everyone swam there. The Old Bahia Honda Railroad Bridge was a good short walk for a scenic look back at the bay from the top. After checking out the supposedly great view both over and under water, which did not turn out great due to heavy waves, at Sandspur Beach, we took off for dinner to Square Grouper Bar and Grill (recommended by Greg) in Cudjoe Key. Arriving at 5pm, when they just opened, we were impressed by the line waiting to go in and though it's a high end restaurant with bar, the place filled within an hour. Nadia had the fish of the day (sword fish) $42 while I had the small seafood stew $29. We also shared Flash Fried Conch (Ponzu and Wasabi Drizzle) $10-$15 from the starters menu. They served free bread and butter which we refilled 3 times. We loved the food.

After dinner, it's time for the Gates Hotel in Key West. We made it just in time (the lobby's the same lobby as 24 North) to check in and join in to our church's regular Thursday Bible Study at 7pm. It's the first time we show both our faces on Zoom for this and Nadia got shy and distanced herself from the camera and impatiently yelled (playfully) for me to log off when the meet ended with the prayer by the pastor not knowing that I had turned off mute right after the prayer. I do this usually to be able to say Amen and Good Night to everyone. It's possible that nobody was aware that we were zooming in from the Keys, because it looked like we were in a normal hotel room, and none of us said anything to each other during the entire Zoom meet. It was the last chapter on Ecclesiastes. Ezekiel was suggested by the pastor but it sounded like there were some push back. I wouldn't mind Revelation again or Daniel as suggested by Joy. It seems that we may do Habakkuk due to it's shortness.

Back to the issue with the Gates Hotel: We were assigned second floor, no elevator (out of order), not facing the front ocean like when we were at 24 North. And this time, they remembered to charge $16/night for parking. I wish it was that Russian/Turkish looking guy from 24 North rather than the black lady (though she seemed nicer while we were staying at the 24 North before). Could it be because I asked her if the water bottles (nice white aluminum bottles) were free and then verified again later with another staffs, as if I didn't trust her? No, it couldn't be, she wouldn't have been that sensitive nor that good of a memory. Apparently Gates has its own pool as well. Bottom line, if I had to choose between the two, I would choose 24 North.

12/16/2022 Friday (Rain from time to time)

With the time and weather we had left, definitely cannot do Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. But after checking out at around 10AM, we stopped by Ana's Cuban Cafe and Southernmost Grocery for a breakfast bite (cheap and delicious), free parking on South Street nearby, before walking over a few blocks to visit Earnest Hemingway Home and Museum, privately owned by Beatrice, good friend of Pauline (second wife of Hemingway). Duval Street was the famous one where shops were. Learned quite a bit about Hemingway's life and home (bought by Pauline's uncle for $8000 as wedding gift) there with the guided tour (tips suggested but Nadia didn't let me pay). The entrance fee was $17 each. After the tour, I asked and learned from the tour guide that weddings are open to the public to host there and that Beatrice's 2 nephews apparently were still working there. I snapshot the entire house and gift shop with books so that I could one day look up all of Hemingway's works.

Then we walked on Duval Street, stopped by Banana Cafe for a quick (but not so quick due to sudden rain) lunch (La Glacee Crepe $10.50 and a couple of coffee). We visited the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory gift store, not interested to pay $14 for the butterfly farm entry, they do have nice but expensive (i.e. $75 for a couple of blue winged) collection of butterflies.

We walked pass the Southernmost Point of the Continental USA again where we once took photo of the 90 mile to Cuba monument and apparently the line's always there for photos. We checked out the resorts on each side of Simonton Street by the beach. The Reach Key West 4-star hotel has a nice The Reach Gazebo for good photoshoot as well as giant chess sets (so does 24 North) with some human statues that looked real.

At around 3pm, we returned the Enterprise convertible car after filling full tank of gas at Orion Fuels at First St. & N Roosevelt Blvd (around $3.30/gal). Flight was delayed an hour due to rainy weather and so by the time our Lyft took us home, it was already 11pm instead of the planned 10pm. Also we almost didn't sit together due to poor system management of the flight check-in. The seat next to Nadia was labeled as reserved (possibly for upgrade). It's a good thing I was able to keep refreshing the seating site online to learn that by the time we were boarding, no one has apparently taken that seat, so I just sat next to Nadia right away (she had my window seat ticket while I ignored the other ticket's seating #). Apparently all the open seats but seemingly reserved (the staff claimed that she couldn't do any seating changes due to full booking - I didn't really believe her but what to do), were still available after boarding. But it's okay, Nadia couldn't have me away from her side, I took that isle seat next to her instead of a window seat, as usual.

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