Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Bahamas, the Everglades, and the Florida Keys

For our 20th Anniversary, we decided to explore an area of the world we've never been to before.  We went on our first cruise, to the Bahamas on Royal Caribbean, and then rented a car and explored the Everglades and the Florida Keys. We had a great time and it was fascinating to learn more about the wildlife and plants of some new areas.  If you ask my husband, who grew up in California and loves the ocean, the best part was being on the water so much.

Is Cruising Really For Me?


I wondered before we went if we would really enjoy a cruise. We tend to dislike crowds and most of our trips consist of doing our own research and then seeking out the most appealing and interesting adventures whereever we go (all right, so when I say, "our own" research,usually it consists of ME reading the internet and a guidebook and then my husband saying, "Where to next?" while on our trip).  And we love to find new and different places to eat, with some help from yelp.  But the cruise sounded like a great way to explore places we wouldn't be able to get to by car, friends assured us we'd love it, and even if we hated being on the ship, we were going to be in a different port every day, so we took the plunge and bought our tickets.  

Did we love cruising?  Yes, but not more than we've loved other things we've done.  I think cruises are very good for people who want to visit somewhere but don't want to have to do the legwork of researching places to stay, where to go, and what to do.  Cruising makes it easy -- every day you are somewhere new (some cruises also have "at sea" days, which would probably be fun on a larger boat with more to do), and if you don't want to explore on your own, there are plenty of shore excursions to choose from.  The other nice thing for us is that all the traveling was done at night.  We go to sleep one place and wake up somewhere else. 

Our little boat.

The food was all right, but we both felt the cruise was playing it safe.  Everything was decent, but nothing was super spicy or unusual or interesting.  For breakfast and lunch, we'd eat at the buffet, which was like a good cafeteria.  The dining room at night had somewhat better food, but more like a Marie Callender's restuarant -- solid, good food, but nothing exciting.  One thing that surprised me was how much I enjoyed talking to our fellow passengers who we ran into at dinner each night.  We liked our waiter so much the first night that we chose to reserve that area and time again for the other nights, which meant the tables nearby had some of the same people too.  It was fun to compare notes about the fun things we did, talk to the Canadians about Quebec and the need to be bilingual, and if the French-speaking there are really serious about wanting to secede.

As for crowds, we really didn't notice them too much. There was a big celebration and a ton of people up on deck when we left port and at times the dining room and buffets were crowded, but otherwise, there were plenty of quiet places to be in.  Even our room, which was tiny by hotel standards, had a couple of nice chairs to sit in. We spent some evenings just relaxing and reading in a quiet spot in the solarium. We were up early most mornings using the fitness center, which was pretty empty at that hour.  It was also on the very top floor at the back of the ship, with glass walls, which made it a great spot for sunrise-viewing.   One big plus for a cruise is that there was more downtime than our trips usually have.  It was nice to have a balance between exploring and being active and just relaxing in the dining room or on a deck chair, with nowhere else to be.

So, all in all, I think for us, the four night cruise was definitely worth it and I could see us doing more cruises in the distant future -- Europe by boat sounds awesome, for example.  But if we don't go on more cruises, that will be fine with me, too.
Happy 20th Anniversary!  DH shaved for our trip.  I prefer him clean-shaven, but he has very sensitive skin, so it's quite a sacrifice.  

Our Trip


We left for our trip on Sunday afternoon and had an evening flight into Miami. We arrived around midnight and stayed at a Marriott right on South Beach. We used hotel points for all of our stays and most places upgraded us for free. Sunday night, we were given a nice suite with a beautiful view of the beach.

I left my best camera home and took my old, crop-sensor camera with an all-around 18-250 lens.  That turned out to be a good decision because it was a nice size to lug around and I didn't worry nearly as much about it had it been my expensive gear.  And for our water trips, we had a small underwater camera.  Between the two cameras, I was able to get some great photos and I thoroughly enjoyed myself the whole trip.  



On Monday morning, we got up to exercise.  DH tried to run outside, but the humidity was too much for him so he finished up on the treadmill. Meanwhile, I took an hour and walked along the beach.  I ran the last mile just to get my heart rate up.  It was beautiful and the waves felt so great on my feet. It turned out to be a mistake to go so long, though, as my feet got a bit roughed up from the sand and were sore for a good part of the week.  

After breakfast in the hotel lounge that had a great view of Miami and even the cruise dock, we went for a walk.


We didn't know it then, but our cruise ship is the one on the far right.


DH got a bit of work done while I read on our balcony, then we took a cab to the cruise dock.  We boarded and checked out our ship around 2:00 for our 4:00 departure.  

The ship was nice, nothing very special. This was our first time on a cruise so it's hard to know what to compare it to. The pools were small and mostly shallow, which disappointed me because I had wanted to get in some laps later in the week. But it was pretty, our room was nice (the beds were more firm than I like), and there was definitely a lot of food. 
Lots of people watching Miami slip away
.
We enjoyed watching Miami slip away as we embarked on our journey. We were on the ship from Monday afternoon until Friday morning. Each day was a different port. I brought some Dramamine just in case, but other than a bit of vertigo the first evening, I felt great and the boat movement didn't affect me.




It was fun to see all the expensive homes on private islands with yacht parking.

Nassau

On Tuesday, we landed in Nassau.  We got off as soon as they allowed us to, giving us an hour before the snorkeling trip we had booked. We had time to hike up the hill and over to the Queen's staircase.  Named in honor of Queen Victoria, the staircase was cut out of solid limestone by slaves and then bricked in.  



We loved seeing this little lizard near the fort above the Queen's staircase.  I've never seen one with a curly tail before.



Our snorkel tour took us past the famous Atlantis resort and out near a little island called Athol. The snorkeling was fun and the coral and fish different than what we've seen in Hawaii, though not as abundant. There wasn't a huge variety of fish, likely because our hosts fed the fish as soon as we got there to attract them. Fish that survive on humans tend to push out the other species.  I used our underwater camera to get some photos as we explored.


The dominant species of hand-fed fish









After the snorkeling, we went to the slave museum. The museum was mostly informational, with plaques explaining everything, rather than showing off artifacts.  Still, it was housed in a building that was once the slave market there and it gave some very interesting information. It seems that after the British outlawed the slave trade, they would intercept slave ships and they needed something to do with the slaves they "rescued." So many of them were brought to the Bahamas and put under an unpaid apprenticeship with the plantations there for five years and then left to fend for themselves afterward.  Other interesting historical background involved a shipwreck near Nassau of a slave ship and some mutinies.



We went back to the boat to shower and change, then explored the city. It was very hot and humid by then. Nassau itself is interesting. The buildings are very colorful, with lots of pastels. They drive on the left side of the road there, which is disorienting when you are trying to cross streets and can't figure out how to predict where cars are turning, etc.  We wandered the city a bit and went shopping for trinkets for the kids at the straw market there, where we were hounded by the merchants at hundreds of little stalls with a variety of T-shirts, bags, and other hand-crafted items.  We were able to find a cute little nativity for our collection and we bought some bags and various items, including a small straw basket with a minion on it for Cami. The gal at the stall stitched Cami's name on it for us. We also found some clever little walking turtles made out of coconut shells, spools and rubber bands, a carved lionfish for Joey and a carved dragon for Michael.



Before getting back on the ship, I had the front half of my hair braided. It cost more than I thought it should, but it did take 40 minutes or so and it is supposed to last for 4 to 6 weeks and you can continue to wash your hair as normal. It's been over two weeks and the braids have held up really well, even through several snorkeling trips and various other activities. The one negative I didn't anticipate was that it was a little tight and somewhat hard to sleep on at night. I had little beads put on the ends and since I sleep on my side, I was sleeping on those too. But as my hair has grown, it has gotten slightly looser and it only bothered me the first couple of days.


Little Stirrup Cay (or Coco Cay)

Sunrise on our ship

On Wednesday, we took small tender boats out to Little Stirrup Island, or what Royal Carribean calls Coco Cay. We had signed up for a snorkel trip there as well, but since we took the very first tender, we had an hour to explore the island before our trip. 


This little tender boat took us to shore.

The island is long and thin, with a very shallow beach side that faces two other islands. We took the nature trail that goes for about a mile to the other end of the island. We had it to ourselves the entire time. It was really fun. We were walking over all sorts of limestone that was once coral, and there were a few signs that explained some of the trees and things around us. We saw sea grapes and were warned about poison wood, which is a tree that causes a reaction like poison ivy.  I was surprised at how short the tree canopy was. Nothing there seemed to grow more than 15 feet in the air and though it was somewhat thick, it wasn't exactly a rainforest. 


We saw lots of lizards. The most unusual thing we saw, though, was a huge group of hermit crabs all traveling the same direction together. They were spread out over about ten feet or so and were about 5 to 10 inches apart, but they were clearly moving as a group -- see the video below. I read later that they hunt together, so that may have been what they were doing. I also found an article that explained a phenomenon of cooperative shell switching that hermit crabs will do. Fascinating little creatures!






The reef snorkeling was a lot of fun. It was only a small area we had to explore, but this time, there was a huge variety of fish to see. I took a lot of photos again. After the snorkeling, we went on the shallow side of the islands and hung out at what they called a "sandbar," which was really just an excuse for them to try to sell alcohol. The sand between the three or four islands there is very shallow all the way across. The boat employees told us you can walk from one island to another for miles. We saw several very large rays swim by and enjoyed the quiet.














After getting back to the island, we were getting pretty hot and were tired of the sun, despite all the sunscreen we'd been slathering on. We had a barbecue lunch provided by the ship on the island, then took the tender back to the boat, where we had a short nap, had dinner, and found a quiet place on the boat to read for a few hours. 


Key West

On Thursday, the boat stopped in Key West for the day. We were planning on driving the Keys later in the week, so we weren't worried about seeing everything then. We got off the boat as soon as we could, which gave us an hour to wander the famous and weird Duvall street before we joined up with 13 other people from our boat to do a kayak tour. Duvall street seems like a street dedicated to trinkets and vices. Amidst the regular touristy shops, every other building houses a bar, a sweets or ice cream or bakery, or a smoke shop.  There were also a lot of yummy eateries. We, of course, indulged only in the sweets, especially the Key Lime pie.









Kayaking the Keys

The kayak tour was one of my favorite adventures of our whole trip. We went through mangrove forests and canals between Key West and the next island and our tour guide, Jan, was great about showing off all the different kinds of wildlife there. We used a double kayak and with DH paddling in the back, that left me with our waterproof camera up front to really enjoy everything. We saw lots of birds, some nurse sharks, and a variety of sea life like sponges and anemones. 





But the most amazing thing was when we traveled to some areas with calmer, shallower water and found the foilage at the bottom covered like a carpet with thousands of the most beautiful jellyfish. Jan pulled one up for us to hold, saying that their sting isn't very powerful, but that "if you are sensitive, don't hold them." (How is one supposed to know if they are sensitive to jellyfish stings?).  DH touched one. I didn't, preferring instead to take dozens of pictures. 











These things move beautifully:






After kayaking, we had the best meal of the week so far at Kermit's in Key West. DH had a cuban sandwich while I had a Hawaiian chicken wrap.  Then we tried three different kinds of key lime pie at various places -- the basic one, one dipped in chocolate and eaten on a stick, and my personal favorite, one with coconut cream. Key limes are small limes the size of golf balls that used to be cultivated on the Keys. Their juice is more yellow than green, and the pie is famous.  We even tried some key lime pie ice cream before we got back on the ship.




Exploring the Everglades


On Friday, we landed back at the cruise port and disembarked around 9 a.m.  We took a cab to the airport, where we had reserved a mustang convertible for the rest of our trip (thanks to car rental points).  We drove from there straight out to explore the Florida Everglades. We went to a visitor's center on the north called Shark Valley, a 45 minute drive due west of Miami.  The weather was nice and clear but angry thunderclouds and rain started soon after we arrived at the visitor's center. They have a 15 mile path there and we had planned on renting some of their bikes, but the weather changed our plans. We figured the rain was okay, but that lightning would not be so safe when we were on metal bikes. Plan B was to get tickets for the two-hour tram ride. We had a bit of time before it left, so we walked two different nature paths and got thoroughly soaked.  




The tram tour was probably more fun and definitely more informative than biking would have been, especially as it continued to rain on and off through the duration of the trip. We learned all about the Everglades and the ecosystems there and we had plenty of opportunities to stop and get photos of alligators and birds.  We also learned fascinating things about the way life functioned in that "river of grass."  

One thing that I found fascinating was how the foilage depends on elevation. Sharp sawgrass dominates at sea level, but get two or three feet above the water line and certain types of plants and small trees will grow, providing cover for mammals and birds.  A few more feet above the water line and there are hardwood groves. These little islands -- and many of them were very little -- were everywhere.  Some were even created by alligators who dig out their own water holes to trap fish when the water levels are low (dry season is November to April). They dig in a few feet, leaving the mud up on higher ground and then the plants begin to grow there.  




We stopped at an overlook where a platform high above the trees gives great views. It was pouring, though, so we didn't linger there long.

  





  






We saw dozens of alligators up close, as well as several groups of alligator babies, who are able to hunt food on their own from day one but are protected from their mom for about two years.  At that point, they have grown big enough to eat their younger brothers and sisters and so mom kicks them out of the family.  Baby alligators are eaten by a ton of other predators so not a lot of a mother's yearly brood will survive.  The tour guide told us that alligators are not very aggressive to people, unless you threaten their babies or get too close, and that they really prefer other prey. The ranger at the station told me they've only had one incident in the 50 some-odd years at that visitor's center and it was a fluke. A young boy was riding his bike and fell off right into an alligator hole. He was attacked.  His parents jumped in and punched the alligator, who let him go. The boy survived.

Right as we were finishing the tram ride, the rains subsided and the alligators started coming out. We got some cute pictures of them right near the path and found a little group of baby alligators.















Our next stop was just down the street at the Miccosukee Indian Reservation, where we took a little tour on an airboat.  

While we waited for our airboat ride, I got photos of these little lizards that were all over.  They expand their neck flap when they want to look threatening.
 

  






The ride was really exciting. It felt like gliding above the water. Our guide did a lot of zig-zagging and we got to see a few alligators startled and rushing to get out of our way, along with many large and beautiful birds.









The boat took us to one of their Indian Camps to show us how their ancestors used to live.  It was interesting to talk to our guide. The thatched roof was up high on the buildings and I asked what the people did during the rainy season or during hurricanes. He said they can quickly take the thatched roofing and add it all the way to the ground. He says they have a 55-year-old mother alligator who "protects" the area for them.  The guide said there are about 700 full blooded members of his tribe and about 1200 or so mixed.  They like to come out to their traditional hammock homes for several days at a time to show their children the way life used to be.

Just before we left, the guide called out to one of his alligator friends.  "Jumper!  Jumper!"  This little gal came swimming right over, hoping for a snack.  The guide said he will feed them a piece of bread or crackers, but nothing bigger.  He said the saying goes, "feed an alligator a chicken and one day, when you don't bring the chicken, you become the chicken."

She just doesn't look like a "Jumper" to me.

After our airboat ride, we at lunch at Coopertown, a small restaurant attached to another airboat ride place further back down the road.  DH had alligator, while I had a chicken bacon sandwich.  The food was pretty good, especially considering how remote we were.

Driving the Keys

From there, we drove down to the top of the keys to our hotel in Key Largo. The Marriott there upgraded us to a two bedroom unit with a kitchen on the top floor.  It felt much bigger than we needed. I took a swim in the ocean, which wasn't the clearest -- the beach was manmade and various seawead and grass grew just a few feet out.  So I finished up by swimming a few laps in the pool.  


For dinner, we walked down the street to a Mexican place but the wait was going to be 45 minutes or more, so we went next door to a place called Sundowners, where there was no wait.  Both were highly rated on yelp, and it took us a few minutes before we realized that on the 5th of May, it might be a good idea to get a reservation if you want Mexican food.  We ate by the water at Sundowners and watched the sunset while we ate.

On Saturday, we ate a buffet breakfast at the hotel's restaurant and got an early start to driving down the keys. We had a snorkeling trip to Sombrero Reef booked in Marathon, in the middle of the keys for 9:30 or so. But halfway there, we got a call saying the wind was too high and they had to cancel the trip. So we scrambled to find a back up plan and ended up at Curry Hammock State Park, hiking about two miles through a nature trail.  The plant life was fascinating. There are three types of mangroves that live at various elevations. The ones closest to the water survive by growing half of their roots above the water line. The ones slightly further in escape the wet, salty soil, by sending up tons of roots like snorkels to help them breathe.  

The little brown shoots are the roots of the mangroves.
We hadn't gone far before DH, who was leading, walked right into two different spider webs cast across the trail, both with enormous spiders.  He picked up a thatch palm leaf and carried it in front of him the rest of the hike to keep from suffering that fate again.  



  

I loved looking at all the different rocks on the ground. The whole Keys (and much of the Everglades too, I understand) are basically built on fossilized coral, and the many and varied patterns of the once-living coral can still be found in the various rocks.  



Here, again, we were warned again about poisonwood, and another sign told us the pungent, sulfur-like smell in some places was actually caused by a shrub that thrived there.

The bark of the poisonwood tree
 


After our hike, we continued on down the Keys to Key West, the final key and about 3.5 hours from Miami. The Keys were really interesting to explore.  Most of southern Florida and especially the Keys, are really flat, so it's hard to see a lot from the car, except when we were crossing bridges. The same kind of subtropical 10-foot shrubs and trees seemed to line the whole highway, and rather than be cute stores and interesting things to see along the way, it mostly seemed to have non-descript strip malls and run down shops mixed in with lots of piers and boat docks. The middle keys are a lot more rural than I was expecting.

Starting with Big Pine Key, there is a species of deer unique to the Keys that has developed to be only about as large as a large dog. We drove down some back roads to try to spot some. There were several in one of the yards we passed by, and then when we drove on No Name Key, there were several more groups. They were very cute and fun.  





We stopped at the Key Deer Center to see photos and get more information, and then we drove to the Blue Hole, the only freshwater of any size in the Keys.  A former limestone quarry, the little pond is home to several kinds of turtles, a couple of alligators, and some beautiful birds.  I thought it was funny to watch a big turtle swim right up near the alligator, seemingly unconcerned.  


Yes, that IS a turtle swimming towards the alligator tail.
We got an early check in at our hotel on the north side of Key West, took a nap, and then took a shuttle the few miles to get to Duvall street in the late afternoon.  More bars were open and full than earlier in the week, but we were in search of more key lime pie and delicious food. We split a delicious chicken curry panini at a French bakery, then DH got a lobster roll. We walked by the Hemingway House, where we hoped to catch a glimpse of some of the six-toed descendants of Hemingway's cat that still live and dominate the grounds in large numbers. But the place had high fences and we didn't feel like paying just to look at cats, since we had very little interest in anything else there. We walked to the "southern-most point" in the continental United States, which isn't really the most southern point, which is actually at the naval base just down the street. But we got a quick photo there anyway. Then we walked to the Truman white house grounds to wander a bit (the inside of the house was closed by now). They were setting up for a fancy wedding there.  Truman spent a lot of time at the house during his administration.

We took the shuttle back to the hotel and enjoyed reading by the pool and watching the sunset from our balcony. We ate a take-out dinner of flatbread pizza and salad.


Sunrise from our balcony



I got to watch this bird fishing.

On Sunday morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we drove up the keys to go to Church in Marathon, in the middle of the Keys. There is also a branch in Key West, but we needed to be back in Miami that night, so we wanted to get an hour's drive out of the way before Church. On the way, we had some extra time, so we sought out another look at the Key Deer.  

When we arrived at the building, we were a bit concerned that there weren't very many cars in the small parking lot. We found ourselves in a tiny, tiny multi-purpose room that could be split down the middle, with less than 30 people in the congregation, many of them visitors.  The branch president was very nice and it was wonderful to meet together with such a dedicated group of people. They get a lot of visitors, particularly in the winter months when people come down to escape the snow.  They are used to people staying just a short time. If we were going to be there another week, it is likely we would have been invited to speak in Church. 

A senior missionary couple, the R's from Stone, Idaho, seem to do half the things in the branch.  It was wonderful to get to know some wonderful people in just the short time we were there.  We sat next to an older couple who overheard us tell the branch president we were from Provo.  "Oh, you're from Provo?"  they said, "so are we!  Which part?"  When I said our area, they said that was where they live as well.  The H's live just up the hill from us a few miles and know some of our neighbors.  They had recently gotten back from an 18-month mission to a branch in a South African village. Sister H talked later about how she didn't want to go at all and had to have the Spirit basically hit her over the head to make her go, but how now, she wouldn't trade that experience for the world. They went to Church with all black villagers and had 32 people coming when they started and something like 82 when they left. I got to hear more of her experiences later in the day.  

Sacrament meeting was fast and testimony meeting (the first Sunday of each month we fast for two meals and donate to help those in need.  Our sacrament meeting that day will have no assigned speakers, with members of the congregation instead invited to share their own testimonies of Jesus).  With so few people there, DH and I took a turn to share our testimonies. The branch president talked about his conversion story.  Twenty years ago, his wife met some missionaries at their door and told him, "Hey honey, the police are here!"  He said that the moment he heard about the plan of salvation in the first lesson, he knew it was true and wanted baptism right away. The missionaries made him wait until he'd read the Book of Mormon and had the rest of the discussions.  In contrast, the older gentleman who taught gospel doctrine had joined 12 years ago and told me, "First, I read the Old Testament, and then the New.  Then I read the Book of Mormon.  Then I read anything I could find by Hugh Nibley.  I wanted to make sure I could defend it if I decided to join."  

We had too many sisters to go in the tiny room they usually use, so the five of us -- yes, five! -- stayed in half of the multi-purpose room Relief Society they divided down the middle after gospel doctrine.  One of the branch members, a gal living there for six months while her husband finished his Ph.D., said they usually have only three members attending Relief Society.  It was one of the best Relief Society meetings I've ever been to. Sister R taught it last minute because the Relief Society president had surgery earlier in the week. There was lots of participation from all of us, of course.  Sister R told me later that they were assigned to help the branch there and do community service during the week.  The inactive members in the branch have mostly made it clear they want no contact at all, so they focus on the members who do come and helping the one set of Elders in the Keys, who serve in Key West.  There are no other missionaries there until the mainland and the Miami suburbs.

After Church, they had a linger longer pot-luck meal provided by the regular members, something they do every week. We didn't stay long, but we got a little bit of food and then drove north.  We had planned on visiting the John Pennekamp state park in Key Largo and then the Everglades, but backtracking to the Church to pick up the phone I left behind and an accident and backed-up traffic on the road made us decide to skip the state park and just see the Everglades.

Everglades again

We went to the southeastern entrance this time and saw a much different kind of ecosystem than on the north end of the park. Here, there are more spots of higher ground and large pine forest can grow. We walked through one on the Pine Key trail.




After that, we drove to another spot to hike two other easy trails, one of them the anhinga trail.  We saw a lot of alligators and birds, and the water there, which they called a slough, was packed full of fish and turtles. No wonder the alligators don't care to attack people -- there was more than enough food for them and all the large birds we saw.  In one section of the boardwalk, we saw a group of seven alligators all sunning themselves together.  The largest, in the middle, rose up while we were watching and opened his mouth really large, perhaps to remind the others that he was the biggest.





I had to get some photos of the abundant fish for Joey to see.



This tree was very unusual.



Even the grasshoppers were huge.



Our last Marriott hotel had "airport" in the name, but it was in a rather scary part of Miami where we were told not to leave any valuables in the gated parking garage and not to call anyone but approved take-out places to bring us food.  We had dinner in the cafe there and then did our final packing for the trip home.  

We woke up early in the morning and took and early flight home.  My mother-in-law had done a great job making sure everyone at home was taken care of, even bringing cookies to Katie's class for her 7th birthday and helping Michael celebrate his 15th while we were gone.

I had been missing Benji a lot and worried about him, but while he was excited to see me, he seemed to take it all in stride. He headed off to play with Cami soon after I got home and went about his normal routine all week without any of the clinginess I had expected.  Grandma was very good to him.

Here's to 20 awesome years and more to come!

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