7 Night ESC (Eating/Stand Up Paddling/Camping) Trip to the Florida Keys with Tim, Sylvie, and Keith
Day 1, Wednesday, Oct. 23
We left St. Petersburg late morning heading south to our first camping spot, the Bahia Honda State Park located in the lower Keys. South of Miami we stopped at a great fruit stand named Margarita’s near Homestead where we stocked up on fresh fruit for the road including plantains, star fruit, and tangerines. We also treated ourselves to tamales, guava flan, coconut water, and some delicious mamey shakes. One sip of this shake transports you to the tropics. The mamey sapote, a sweet, salmon-colored fruit native to tropical climates, is high in potassium, vitamins A and C, and dietary fiber and is delicious to boot.
Later in the day we stopped in Key Largo at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen for her world famous conch chowder and real key lime pie. The chowder was spicy and the pie was light yellow and creamy. We were not disappointed!
Bahia Honda State Park is favorite camping destination in the Keys. Once a remote island, this southernmost state park is known for its beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets, and snorkeling at nearby reefs. It is located on Big Pine Key, south of Marathon. The park is almost always booked to capacity, so, if you can, book in advance. If you can’t, keep trying because they do have cancellations.
On our first night, we had an RV site right across from the bathrooms which were well lit—a bit too bright, actually—so we arranged to switch to a more primitive site the next day. Rain came in early and stayed late. We set up a tarp, with netting if we needed it, and two of us slept on the Coreban BG inflatable paddle boards while our third camper slept on two stacked sleeping pads. It was cool and breezy and sometimes downright windy. We didn’t have no-see-ums or mosquitos, but we did have a family of raccoons stop by.
Day 2, Thursday, Oct. 24
We woke up early and caught the sunrise over the Atlantic. Before breakfast we decided to walk the remains of the overseas railroad bridge, nicknamed Flagler’s Folly. Henry Flagler, an oil tycoon, failed in his efforts to build an overseas highway from Miami to Key West, including a span of 7 miles of open water. The bridge was completed in 1912 but was a commercial failure, falling to the 1935 hurricane which destroyed most of it.
After a breakfast of boiled eggs and vegetables for breakfast, we broke camp and moved to a much more primitive site right across from the water. We had very clean bathrooms and our neighbors were much quieter.
Unfortunately, our plans for stand up paddling were sidelined by offshore winds gusting to 30mph. We headed off to the pedestrian walkway alongside the 7 mile bridge. The pedestrian walkway was actually 4 miles long, but we did get to see a huge southern ray and a giant sea turtle.
Dinner of grilled steak and vegetables were prepared on site, and afterward, we played Uno by the fire. The campground caretaker, Mona, made sure that we had plenty of wood and was extremely helpful during our stay.
Day 3, Friday, October 25
This day began with a beautiful sunrise of oranges, purples, and red! Before breaking camp and heading about 20 miles south to Sugarloaf Key, we treated ourselves to a breakfast of eggs, bacon, avocados and assorted vegetables.
The short trip to the Sugarloaf Key KOA was uneventful. We found a great site and set up the Megamid tarp without the netting. Our second trip to this KOA was similar to our first—noisy! If you need to sleep, you’ll need earplugs and a bit more patience than usual. While the caretakers do an excellent job of keeping the campground clean, many of the campers are less careful. We actually witnessed one camper using Styrofoam to start his campfire.
We took ourselves to lunch at Mama’s Kitchen, a restaurant conveniently located right across the street from the campground. Conch chowder was excellent!
After lunch, we took the bus to Key West for Fantasy Fest. While it was only 20 miles to Key West, the ride took an hour. The party began on the bus, with revelers unaware of how loud the human voice can be. Once in Key West, we walked Duval Street where Fantasy Festers were in abundance. Costumes, body paint, various degrees of nudity, are all standard fare at this yearly celebration. Fantasy Fest is Key West’s version of Mardi Gras and Carnival combined! You can always expect the unexpected at Fantasy Fest. For example, we wondered where the fully naked, body-painted revelers carried their money.
We had an amazing dinner at El Meson de Pepe the oldest Cuban restaurant in Key West. Family owned, consider it the perfect location for watching the nightly sunset celebration on Mallory Square. We loved our Cuban pork and awesome snapper dishes. After dinner, we wandered south on Duval and ended up at Captain Tony’s, the officially oldest bar in Key West! After a few drinks, we made our way back to the bus for the hour and a half ride back to Sugarloaf. The revelers were much quieter on the way home. . .
Day 4, Saturday, October 26
We woke to another spectacular sunrise! But the beauty of the morning sky belied the winds. No stand-up paddle boarding today. . . The winds were up, or should I say still up, to 30mph offshore. We simply hung out and did nothing all day. The highlight of this day was dinner prepared by Keith, our camping master chef, who prepared chicken curry for dinner—another culinary delight.
The no-see-ums were not out, so we went down to the KOA bar area and enjoyed some local musicians for a while. We turned in early, around 9 pm, but were awakened shortly after midnight by some of our less than considerate neighbors. The last time we checked the time, it was 5 am.
Day 5, Sunday, October 27
Once again, we took a few moments with some great coffee and watched the beauty of the sunrise before breaking camp. We’re on our way to Geiger Key, an RV and campground that sits right on the water a few miles to our south. We had a camp site that faces the water and has a traditional tiki hut for shelter.
Finally, we were able to paddle! The key is protected by an abundance of mangrove islands which provided a buffer from the still gusting offshore winds. We followed the mangrove trails, weaving in and out, for the most part protected from the 22mph gusts. We tested out the Carbonerro El Doble paddles and found that we loved them right away. Keith, as a less experienced paddler, tried out the Coreban Mammoth and found that even fully loaded with camping gear, it was an easy board to paddle.
Geiger Key also offered us another exceptional dining experience. The on-site restaurant had mahi mahi, shrimp, and barbequed ribs which were excellent. Their side dishes included barbequed beans, cole slaw, cornbread, and the best key lime pie ever!
The camp sites were well maintained and provide electric and water. That night we slept under the stars without the tarp—no noise and no bugs made for great sleeping.
Day 6, Monday, October 28
Sunrise told us that today would be a beautiful day. The winds were down to 20mph, so Tim and Sylvie got the boards ready while Keith made breakfast of scrambled eggs with vegetables and bacon.
Our day’s plan was to take off for Boyd’s RV campground on Stock Island. Our paddle was partially downwind, and we could run along the shoreline. The water was beautifully clear, so we could see what was swimming below us. We saw fish balls, sea turtles, and several bonnet head sharks. We found a beach with a driftwood “fort” where we settled down for lunch.
The last mile of the paddle was directly into the wind, but the entire paddle from camp site to camp site was just under 3.5 hours.
When we arrived at Boyd’s on Stock Island, we were starving, so we headed over to the Hogfish Bar and Grill for awesome hogfish sandwiches, conch salad and conch fritters. This restaurant prides itself in its truly local fare and unpretentious, friendly atmosphere.
After setting up our camp, we headed over to Key West for the evening. One of our first stops was Flamingo Crossing on Duval Street where we had some amazing homemade ice cream made with mango, papaya, guava, and mamey. We strolled around Old Town and picked up some great supplies at the Sugar Apple Health Food Store located on Simonton Street which runs parallel to Duval.
Back at our Stock Island campsite at Boyd’s, we slept under the stars, arguing about the location of Orion’s Belt and Cassiopeia. As usual, and of course, Tim was right!
Day 7, Tuesday, October 29
Our final day in Key West, the sun rose with subtle colors of mauve and gold and pink. With the winds back up to 30mph and paddling out of the question, we headed into town to the Banana Café on Duval Street for breakfast. We enjoyed fruit filled crepes then wandered down Duval. Sylvie discovered the Lush Organic Chocolate & Wine Bar, which looked promising, so we set up an appointment for a 4pm later that day for a tasting of organic beer and chocolate.
With a few hours to kill, we decided to check out Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. This National Historic Landmark is actually Florida’s southernmost state park which played important roles in both the Civil and Spanish-American Wars. We took a guided tour and learned about the history of canning in this area.
We headed back to the Lush where Mark Certonio, a local food and wine expert, paired five pieces of organic chocolate with five great organic beers. It was four hours later when we said goodbye, but during that time we watched a chocolate making experiment which was deliciously successful!
While our trip did not include as much paddling as we had hoped, we felt as if we had discovered some excellent camping locations, many fantastic restaurants, and the best beer and chocolate tasting you could ever imagine.
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