We just completed a trip to Florida in March of 2001 that included some diving in the Florida Keys.
This years trip was a little different for us, because instead of flying we decided to drive down in a new camper van I bought last fall. So this report will be on the diving and on some of our camping experiences and our disappointment with Wal-Marts. For those of you divers that just thought, "Oh, no boooring" I will discuss the diving first followed by some things you can do and see when you arenít diving and then some of our camping experiences. I will be adding some pictures of our dives as soon as I can find the time to convert them from my video.
This year we again dove with Middle Keys Scuba in Marathon. As usual we had a very good dive with them. Our dive was at a place they called "Yellow Rocks" I believe. Although the reef wasnít very good in this area we saw a lot of fish. Blue parrot fish were very large, the usual schools of yellow tail snappers, some gray angel fish, barracuda, grunts, stoplight parrot fish, blue headed wrasse. The highlight, though, was the appearance of the nurse sharks that joined us. While taking pictures of a rock fish, the first nurse shark, unexpectedly, swam between my wife and me. I actually recorded her "scream" of surprise on the videotape! At one point there were four of them (sharks, not screams). They stayed with us the whole dive. We still have all of our fingers, too! We also saw an octopus which is unusual in the daytime. It changed color and squirted ink - got some really great pictures of it. There were a few stingrays and lobster. Because the dives were shallow, we were down about an hour each dive which gave us lots of opportunity to look at the sharks and octopus. The first dive was so productive we did the second dive at the same location. The sharks joined us again and we saw a large green moray eel.
The Keys themselves donít impress me much, mainly because they are too crowded, but get in a boat and off shore itís great. If you plan on staying in a motel, during what they call their high season, plan on paying $69-$79 per night in a room worth about $30. The Holiday Inn. was about $139.00 per night. In my opinion high for divers on a budget and just looking for a place to sleep. But we had our new camper van so having a place to sleep wouldnít be a problem, right? Wrong!
There are state campgrounds on the Keys and the are reasonably priced. If you are going to use them to camp make sure you make reservations up to 11 months in advance. There are some private campgrounds but their prices per night were about the same as the less expensive motel rooms. Even for a rig as small as mine. The Jolly Roger was the least expensive $39.00 the sites were small but that was OK, but we use the facilities at campgrounds and frankly theirs were below our standard, so we opted for the motel room.
If you arenít going to spend all your time underwater and you have a car, I would recommend a trip to the Everglades National Park (southern end). On you way there, stop by a roadside stand called Robertís and try their key lime milkshake, Sooo Good. There is also an alligator farm just past Robertís that is worth a visit and you can also take an air boat ride there. On your drive through the park there are places to stop where you can observe the wildlife.
Another interesting place to visit is "Coral Castle" located in Homestead. Coral Castle has been seen on TV programs such as "In Search Off" and "Thatís Incredible." If you havenít heard of the Coral Castle before, itís a sculpture garden and castle made from huge blocks of coral. It was built in the early 1900ís over a 28 year period as a tribute to the mans lost love. The amazing thing about this is, it was built by a 100-pound man five-feet tall without any human assistance. Incredibly, he moved over 1100 tons of rock by himself. As you look about the castle you will be asking yourself questions like "How could he make a nine-ton coral gate so perfectly balanced it swings open with the touch of a finger?"
When we originally decided to use our new camper van for this trip we decided we didnít want to make any advanced reservation. We wanted to travel at our own pace and if we couldnít find a motel room we could use the camper to spend a night or two in. Our intent was to drive down the east coast of Florida to the Keys, do some diving and come back up Floridaís west coast. We werenít too concerned about places to stay because we could always find a campground and if not, we had heard that Wal-Mart welcomed campers to spend a night in their parking lot if need be. Spending a night in Wal-Marts parking lot wasnít high on my list to do, but it was comforting to know if we had a problem finding a place we had somewhere to go. After all Paul Harveyís radio advertisements about all the friendly folks at Wal-Marts couldnít be wrong could it?
Everything went well getting to the Keys we stayed in a few nice campgrounds on the way down. After we left the Keys we stayed in a nice campground called the Gold Coaster in Homestead. After our stay there we decided to head north take rt. 41 and drive through the Big Cypress National Preserve which borders the northern part of the Everglades.
We spent a nice day along the Tamiami Trail, stopping to take a walk on a boardwalk through a grove of large Cypress trees. We then moved on to Fort Meyers/Naples area. By now it was getting a little late and we stopped at a few campsites along the way and all were filled. Most of the moderately priced motels all had no vacancy signs lit. We decided to stop for dinner and while there got some information from the waitress on some possible places to stay. Unfortunately, as before, all the moderately priced motels were full and the oneís that had vacancies we in the $130 to $200 per night range. A little high for our budget.
By now it was about 9PM and we were both fairly tired. It looked like it was time to use our fall back plan and look for "our friends at Wal-Marts" and get a few hours sleep in their parking lot. So we got directions to the nearest store and headed out. We found the store without a problem and saw a camper in the back part of the lot so we went over there. We were greeted by NO OVERNIGHT PARKING signs and we werenít there two minutes when the Wal-Mart security car went by. I stopped him and told him our problem and asked if we could stay and we would be gone early. He told me no, that they had some problems with some campers staying and they no longer allowed it.
To his credit he did explain the problems they had. One guy parked and stayed three weeks, bought a generator when he got there and returned it when he left. Another supposedly dumped this holding tank there. He also mentioned that the local campground owners werenít happy that Wal-Mart allowed overnight parking for campers. Now Iím not saying that these things couldnít happen, but it doesnít sound like the type of things the campers that I know would do. I am disappointed that Wal-Mart didnít make a better management decision and instead of eliminating the overnight camping limited it to one or two nights. This store has a pretty good supply of camper needs so I guess itís still OK for campers to go there and buy what they need. The guard gave me the address of a local campground to try and sent us on our way, but that one was filled or closed for the night it was now 10:30PM.
By now I was fed up with the traffic and people in general and decided I would rather spend the night with Alligators, so we drove another hour or so back to the swamp found a parking area and spent the night.
Wal-Mart certainly has the right to decide how their parking lots can be used. It is a shame that they penalize all campers for the actions of a few. That would be like someone not going to any Wal-Marts again because they had a problem in one.
The one thing that should be known by campers is NOT ALL WAL-MARTS WILL ALLOW YOU TO SPEND THE NIGHT IN THEIR PARKING LOTS, SO DONíT COUNT ON THEM IF YOU GET IN A BIND.
If you are looking for a destination that is varied and not too far away, the Florida Keys might be a good choice. We were there late November/early December a couple of years ago. The time of year is not optimum for diving, which we found out the hard way. We were told that summer is really the prime time to go. However, even though we were shut out of a couple of days of diving because of very high winds and extremely rough water, we were able to get in about eight dives. We moved around the Keys and went out with several different operations.
The people at Looe Key Reef Resort were much nicer on land than on the boats. They have a fairly nice facility for diving and lodging. We also stayed at and dove with Amy Slate's place in Key Largo. Her operation was well run. Accommodations were a little expensive but the diving rates were comparable to others in the area. We did the most diving with Middle Keys Scuba in Marathon. If your looking for a different type of diving adventure, check out Middle Keys Scuba. A link to their web page is below.
Most of the diving we did was pretty shallow which allowed a lot of bottom time. Perhaps because of the time of the year and the weather, none of the boats were crowded at any of the locations. The reefs were good and there was a lot of fish and coral. We did notice that there was quite a bit of damage from anchors where we dove outside of the marine parks.
There's not a lot to do in the Keys if you aren't diving or fishing so if you are thinking about going, it would be wise to plan a trip there when the weather is usually good.