We didn’t really plan on this becoming a “thing”, but then again that’s usually how all the best things start – by accident. My husband, Vince, and I trekked all over Florida on our honeymoon two years ago. That was our first experience in the Keys and we swore to go back one day. We hadn’t planned anything special for our one year anniversary (or “honeyversary”, as we now call it). Then, about two weeks beforehand, we realized that the kids would be gone to various activities for the long weekend and we had enough money in savings to take a trip. We said “why not?” and started planning. We couldn’t go far (say…. the Keys) due to time constraints, but we could go to Hilton Head and Folly Beach in South Carolina. So we did. Thus began our “honeyversary” trips. This year, however, we took ourselves up on the promise to return to the Keys. We also raised the bar quite a bit for future trips.
Unlike the Honeyversary 2015 trip to South Carolina, this trip was planned for a long time. A year, to be exact. We reserved and paid for our cottage rental in Marathon, Florida, shortly after we received our tax refund and we put ample funds aside in savings specifically for travel. Then life happened. We found ourselves in an emergency situation shortly before our trip and had to dip into our vacation savings. (By “dip into” I mean “use all of”.) I wasn’t happy, but I was still determined to make this trip happen. After some reconfiguring of the budget, calling in a few favors (namely a car to borrow instead of renting one, and a place to stay for a night or two free of charge), doing our best to save up more money, and having a last minute garage sale, I was confident we could make it work. We borrowed a Prius from family members (which would also save us a ton on gas money in the long run), packed everything we’d need for a week in about 3 hours, and hit the road at midnight the morning of Friday, May 13th, with only about $400 cash. This is the 8-day adventure that followed…
Day 1 – Friday, May 13th, 2016
After leaving Knoxville, Tennessee, we drove until about 4:00am and stopped to nap in the car just short of Atlanta. We snoozed for about two hours at a Love’s Travel Center somewhere around Marietta. I was still tired, but anxious to see the ocean. Plus, I wanted to make it through Atlanta before the morning rush hit.
By 9:00am we were on the other side of Atlanta and stopped at a rest area/welcome center in Dublin, Georgia. The woman working that morning was oozing with small-town, southern hospitality. She was adorable. She was also extremely knowledgeable about her town and it’s history and unloaded a semester’s worth of information onto us in about 10 minutes time. We will be stopping through this town again one day solely because of this woman and her enthusiasm for it.
After getting back on the road in Dublin, the plan was to head toward Savannah in order to keep close to the coast until we found the start of the A1A. There were no solid coordinates in the GPS, just “Savannah, GA”. The plan was to get there and then recalculate the GPS to the first beach town along the A1A. Usually this method works out well for us. This time, however, not so much. We ended up a tad turned around in a not-so-favorable part of Savannah. Between about 11:30am and 3:00pm, we drove somewhat aimlessly south into Florida until we finally found ourselves on the A1A thanks to some good old fashioned map reading. (Yay!)
We stuck our toes in the sand for the first time at Vilano Beach in St. Augustine, Florida, around 3:30pm. It was awesome. There is something about that first sight of the ocean that gets me every single time. Something about all that water, stretching as far as the eye can see, that just blows my mind. Seriously, ask Vince and he’ll tell you that for a solid five minutes or so I am a bumbling mess and all I can get out is “just look at all that water“.
Once I was able to peel my awe-stricken eyeballs away from the sight of “all that water“, I saw it. The storm that was descending upon us, and then proceeded to “chase” us down the A1A. As we were cruising along, trying to keep ahead of the storm, we spot a castle. Not a sand castle, a real castle. Pump the brakes, turn around, we had to check this out. (More about Castle Otttis here.)
We got back on the road and ahead of the storm again long enough to stop at our second beach at about 5:45pm. Marineland Beach was absolutely gorgeous with it’s orange-tinted sand, which was made even more vibrant by the dark, ominous thunderstorm that was lurking in the background. We still had a little time on the stalker storm so we wandered the beach for a bit, picking up all sorts of “goodies” along the way. That’s sarcasm, by the way.
Once the storm got a little too close for comfort, we set out southbound down the A1A to try and get ahead of it again. We came across the most perfectly defined rainbow I think I have ever seen in my life during this leg of our race against the storm. We pulled over for a photo and then watched in amazement as it fell away into thin air, starting from right to left, all the way across. Awesomeness, plain and simple.
Our next stop was at Flagler Beach around 7:00pm, and by this point the storm appeared to be retreating back out to sea. We ventured down the beach to the pier. As we walked down the pier, we noticed that every single plank had messages carved into them all the way down to the end. This was new to me, so I thought it was super cool.
We were back on the road and driving through Daytona Beach by about 8:00pm. We were getting hungry so we stopped off at a Boston Market for a quick bite. We got our food to go and ate picnic-style on one of their outdoor tables. Once we had some food in our bellies, we hit the road again. Next stop: Boca Raton.
We reached Boca Raton shortly after midnight and started looking for a good spot to snooze in the car. At this point I had been driving for 24 hours on only 2 hours of sleep and I wasn’t being too picky, but it still had to be a safe spot. We always look for travel centers or truck stops, 24 hour gas stations that are well lit, or, worst case scenario, a Walmart parking lot. We found refuge in the parking lot of a 24 hour Marathon gas station for the night.
Day 2 – Saturday, May 14th, 2016
At about 7:30am on day 2 of our trip (yes, this is only day 2) we woke up and took a drive through Boca Raton, pointing out all of the ritzy hotels, resorts, and houses. This is definitely a place to put on the list for our future “luxury” trips, but for now we’re moving along.
By around 9:00am we had found our way to Deerfield Beach. We went on a nice little morning stroll down the beach (accompanied by a litter clean up, of course), and then we were back on the road. We didn’t get too far before we were stopped again at Pompano Beach and out for some more wandering.
Around noon, we finally made it to Miami. We visited South Beach on our honeymoon two years ago, and while it was nice, I had no strong desire to revisit Miami. Not a fan of big cities and insane traffic. Moving along…
Shortly after 1:00pm we hit the 18 mile stretch into Key Largo. I get really excited when I see that blue median. We’re talking windows down, stereo cranked, dancing all around the car kind of excited. We were almost to the Keys!
By 3:30pm we were checking into the Tropical Cottages in Marathon, which would serve as our base camp for the next two nights. And what an adorably perfect base camp it was… except for the lizard… but we’ll get to that later. (Tip: For amazing rates on these cottages, or any hotel for that matter, check out Booking.com!)
Checked in, car unloaded, mattress comfiness levels tested. Now we need some food before heading into Key West for the evening. After a quick Google search (while further testing mattress comfiness levels), we were on our way to Burdine’s Waterfront Chikitiki Bar & Grille. (Good call, Google! You’ve officially made up for the Savannah/A1A ordeal!) Everything about this place was awesome. The service? Best ever. The food? Delish. The view? Forget about it! Highly recommended, enough said. On to Key West, we had to make it before sundown!
A Saturday evening, mid-May, Key West. To say it was crowded would be an understatement. There were people everywhere. Tourists on scooters for what appeared to be the first time in their lives. Drunken pedestrians stumbling out of the woodworks and into the street. Traffic in tight spaces, one-way streets, and $20 and up parking. This is what my nightmares are made of.
What were we thinking?!
Then we came to a dead end. A dead end with parking spaces. There was a uniformed man checking cars and writing tickets. This must be a parking lot for a particular establishment, but there’s no harm in asking.
“City parking,” the man said. He seemed terribly irritated. I can’t blame him. But he’s standing in the only open spot… and I want it.
“How much to park?” I asked.
“$2 per hour,” he replied, pointing down the street to the Pay-to-Park kiosk we had just driven past. Oh. Now I just feel stupid. I thanked the man profusely and gestured toward the open spot his body was occupying as if to ask, “May I?”. He nodded, waved us in, smiled and wished us a good evening. (He smiled, you guys! I’m counting that one as a win.) Plus, $2/hour parking for 2 hours means I just found us parking a block away from Mallory Square in Key West on a Saturday night for $4. (Shut your face!) I’m counting that one as a win, too.
After we paid for our parking, we ventured over to Mallory Square to catch the Sunset Celebration we had heard so much about. We grabbed ourselves a Key Lime Lemonade and worked our way toward the front line to get a good view.
The sunset definitely did not disappoint, but what really made Mallory Square such an interesting place were all of the performers that dominated the square. We saw a tightrope walker with a pretty hilarious routine, singers and musicians galore (one with a tip-retrieving Golden Retriever), artists, break dancers; you name it, there was likely someone there doing it.
Once the sun had gone down, the performers and the crowds started to disperse. Our 2 hour parking was almost up anyway, so we headed back to our rental cottage in Marathon for a little relaxing.
Or not… *enter lizard situation* (First, a little tid bit of info: Although I honor every living creature, I am terribly phobic of lizards. Now, resume current situation…)
I thought I would make us a little more at home and unpack a few things. When I went to put our toothbrushes up in the mirrored medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink, something came falling out when I opened the cabinet door. My first thought was a dead moth, or something to that effect. I was wrong. So wrong. It was a very much alive lizard. I am convinced that every other guest at those cottages heard me screaming that night. Vince came to my rescue, but the stealthy little critter escaped and disappeared… under the bed, of all places. I lied earlier, THIS is what my nightmares are made of. It was another 2-3 hours before I could bring myself to even try to go to sleep, so I ventured outside with the binoculars to do some star gazing… all the while making several threats to just sleep in the car again.
Day 3 – Sunday, May 15th, 2016
We woke up around 8:00am on day 3 and started packing a beach bag for our excursion to Bahia Honda. Guess who decides to pop out from under a suitcase? The lizard. Oh, me? I’m standing on top of the bed in a full blown panic. I had convinced myself that it had found it’s way back outside. Wrong again. Luckily, Vince was ready to pounce and caught the little bugger with a glass. Even though I am terrified of lizards, I still love nature and everything in it. So this little guy (or gal?) was released outside where he/she belonged. No harm done… except for everyone’s peace and quiet during my shrieking episodes.
After the lizard situation had been resolved, we hopped in the car and headed out to Bahia Honda State Park. We stayed and wandered around for about 5 hours, and would have definitely stayed longer if we hadn’t had plans. This was one of our favorite stops of the entire trip… possibly ever! Gorgeous doesn’t even begin to cover it. It was a truly breathtaking place that we seriously contemplated never, ever leaving. The water was super clear and just radiating various hues of blue, green, and aqua. It was also a perfect temperature for swimming – not cold, but not too warm either – and you could walk out 150+ feet into the water and still only be knee-deep.
I waded out to where the water darkened, assuming it was a drop off to deeper water. As it turned out, it wasn’t a drop off at all. It was a huge bed of seagrass. Of course, the environmental scientist in me was automatically intrigued. I had never seen a bed of seagrass this big or this close before, so I got out my GeekPro and got some video. (Be on the lookout for the stingray at the edge of the seagrass!)
Aside from stingrays, we also saw quite a few hermit crabs, a lot of different fish, and this blue coral that was washed up on shore (which I very intrigued by).
We also found plenty of litter to collect… (This was only our first – and probably smallest – pile.)
We left Bahia Honda around 3:00pm and headed back to base camp to meet up with an old friend of Vince’s that lives in Marathon. After some catching up, he led us to a secluded “locals” beach called Coco Plum. Other than getting eaten up by sand fleas, it was an awesome little spot. There were only 2 or 3 other small groups of people besides us on the entire beach. (For more info on sand fleas, as well as bite remedies and prevention, click here.)
Once we parted ways with our friend, Vince and I headed to the famed No Name Pub to grab some dinner. We got there about an hour and a half before closing, so it wasn’t terribly crowded (this is always a plus for us). Our waitress was fabulous, the food was definitely all it’s cracked up to be, and the atmosphere was amazing (minus the guy with a major bug up his butt over a couple ounces of beer that he felt his draft was lacking). This place is so cool. When you walk in, the very first thing you’ll notice is that the place is absolutely covered in dollar bills. (Seriously, you can’t see a stitch of wall or ceiling anywhere – just dollars.) We did some research to try and determine a ballpark estimate and have come up with amounts ranging from $90,000 to over $400,000. However much it is, it’s a LOT. Some boast signatures and messages, others elaborate artwork. We didn’t come all this way to leave without hanging a dollar, so our waitress brought us a basket full of markers and a staple gun.
While the pub itself was an awesome experience, the real excitement began as we were leaving the pub. No Name Pub is located on Big Pine Key, which is major Key Deer territory. We spotted two on our way to the pub and had hoped to see more when we left. But we didn’t expect to see so many more! Within only about 5 minutes of leaving the pub, we had already seen 12 more Key Deer. They were everywhere! It. Was. AWESOME! We talked about the Key Deer all the way back to our adorable little base camp in Marathon.
Day 4 – Monday, May 16th, 2016
We woke up at 8:00am on day 4 and started packing everything back into the car. We checked out of the Tropical Cottages around 10:00am, swearing to return soon. (We seriously loved this place!) After checking out, we headed to the Seven Mile Bridge for a stroll and (you guessed it) litter pick up.
Walking the Seven Mile Bridge is a beautiful sight. The water is so clear, you can see all kinds of stuff from the bridge. We saw 3 huge, bright pink/coral starfish out in the water, a large sea turtle, a few sting rays, and tons of long, slender, kind of pointy-looking fish (not sure what those were, but they were cool).
Around noon it was getting entirely too hot to keep walking the bridge, so we turned back toward the car. Plus, we wanted to have time to hit up Sombrero Beach in Marathon before we had to head back toward the mainland. Sombrero was our absolute favorite beach stop on our honeymoon two years ago, so we wanted to pay it another visit while we were there. It was just as amazing as we remembered. We hung out for a little over an hour and then hit the road again. There was more wandering to do and we had somewhere to be before dark.
During our last trek through Florida on our honeymoon, we inadvertently drove down Hwy 41 through Big Cypress… in the middle of the night… not having a clue where we were. It was a tad unnerving, to say the least. So this time we made a point to drive this route again, but while it was still daylight. We started down Hwy 41 just before 4:30pm, and then came across the Big Cypress National Preserve visitor center shortly after 5:00pm. The next hour or so was spent on the boardwalk watching all of the alligators in the narrow canal below. The final count was 11 alligators.
We spent the next few hours driving through the Everglades and then up the Gulf Coast to Sarasota. Fortunately for us, my aunt and uncle have a gorgeous little abode there called Casa Boheme, and they were kind enough to let us stay for a couple of days while they were out of town. We arrived shortly after 10:00pm and unpacked the car. We were starving, but we were way too exhausted to venture to the grocery store and then cook a big meal. But we were not going out to eat when we had a full kitchen at our disposal. Besides, we needed to save money. Luckily, I had packed a few things for a quick and easy meal along with our snacks when we started the trip. I packed some potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a pack of pre-cooked Hormel bacon (the microwave/oven-bake kind). I had also packed all of the necessary seasonings, plus olive and canola oil, white wine vinegar, honey, and grated parmesan cheese. So I whipped us up some bacon, oven roasted potatoes, and tomato-cucumber salad for dinner. It was fast, easy, cheap, and delicious. After dinner, we relaxed by the most amazing grotto pool ever for a bit before turning in for the night around 1:00am.
Day 5 – Tuesday, May 17th, 2016
On day 5, we were up and ready to go at 8:00am. We just couldn’t decide exactly where we wanted to go. Somehow we had gotten a tad ahead of schedule (we weren’t supposed to reach Sarasota until that afternoon), so I needed a little time to reconfigure our itinerary. We had planned on going to Anna Maria Island at some point, so we decided to venture on out there and just make a day of it.
When we got into Anna Maria Island around 11:00am, our first stop was Bean Point. We walked down the beach until we came to the Rod-n-Reel Pier. While walking down that pier, we spotted another one further down the beach. We decided to go back to the car and then drive it up to the other pier. Both the Rod-n-Reel Pier and the Historic Anna Maria City Pier also had messages carved into all of the planks just like the pier at Flagler Beach did. Very neat. We hung out on the Anna Maria City Pier for awhile watching the pelicans dive for fish.
After hanging out for a bit on the pier, we headed back to the car to drive around and see what else we could find. We ended up at Bayfront Park next, where we spotted a “Caution: Manatee Area” sign next to a small canal with a bridge going over it. We posted up on the bridge for about 15-20 minutes and searched the water for any sign of manatees. No luck. We walked around for a bit, and then came back to the bridge to search again. Now there was a boy, roughly 11-12 years old, standing on the bridge peering into the water. As we walked by, we asked if he had seen any manatees yet. He said that he had just seen one over by the rocks at the mouth of the canal a few minutes earlier. We rush over to the rocks and post up for another 15 minutes or so. Still no luck. Darn it.
That’s okay, it was getting late and we still needed to stop by the grocery store. Maybe we’ll see manatees somewhere else. We made one last stop at Manatee Beach Park for a short stroll on our way out of Anna Maria Island, then we were headed back to Sarasota. (Nope, still no manatees.)
We stopped by the Walmart in Sarasota on our way back to the house and picked up some groceries for dinner, as well as for the rest of the trip. On the menu that evening was Hawaiian BBQ chicken, mac-n-cheese, honey-glazed carrots, and foil packet parmesan broccoli. (Yum!) After dinner, we started washing the laundry and dishes to make our departure in the morning a little easier. Then we went for a night swim in that awesome pool before totally zonking out for the night.
Day 6 – Wednesday, May 18th, 2016
On the morning of day 6 we packed our stuff back into the car, got the house in order, and then hit the road again. Our next “official” stop on the itinerary was Clearwater Beach, but it’s never that easy when road tripping with us. Half of the places we’ve been to so far weren’t “officially” on the itinerary, and there are plenty of places still to go along the way. (That’s what wandering means, after all!) Besides, we didn’t need to be in Clearwater until just before sundown. The first stop on our way was the Ringling Bridge Causeway Park. No particular reason, it just looked interesting from the road. It proved to be a very nice walk with some beautiful scenery.
Our next stop was Joan M. Durante Park in Longboat Key. Once again, no particular reason other than it looked interesting from the road. This park ended up being a really cool place. It had a picnic area, playground (yes, we did), and winding walking trails that seemed to go on forever. And we were literally the only people there. It was all peachy keen until there were lizards falling out of the trees. Nope. That was our cue to to move on out.
Shortly after 3:00pm we stopped again in Anna Maria Island, but this time at Coquina Gulfside Park. If I had known for certain that we had time, we would have grilled up a late lunch/early dinner right there. It was a great spot. By 5:00pm we had made our way to Fort Desoto State Park and spent the next hour and a half exploring. We walked the pier, saw the historic fort, ate some quick sandwiches, and walked the beach. We also found a minefield of gelatinous blobs strewn across the sand on the south end of the park (I assume they were some sort of jellyfish, though I’m not sure what kind).
We arrived at Clearwater Beach around 8:00pm, which was perfect. We were able to find parking, walk the pier, and then wander the beach to find the perfect spot to watch the sunset. It did not disappoint. We sat in amazement at the vibrant colors in the sky and watched a pirate ship sail across the disappearing sun, followed shortly afterward by a couple of dolphins. When we turned to start making our way back to the car, we noticed that the hotel next to us was lit up in an array of colors due to the sunset reflecting off of the glass exterior. It was pretty phenomenal.
After leaving Clearwater around 9:30pm, we drove until we reached Chiefland. It’s a pretty small town and choices for sleeping in the car were limited, so we pulled over at the first 24 hour gas station we came to – our trusty Marathon.
Day 7 – Thursday, May 19th, 2016
We woke up just before 8:00am on day 7 and drove about 10 minutes down the road to Manatee Springs State Park. We spent the next two hours exploring the springs and watching all the wildlife. We saw eight white tail deer that didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence at all, about 20 turtles of various kinds swimming and sunning on logs, a water moccasin, and a baby alligator (bringing our total alligator count to 12 this trip). But still no manatees.
By noon we had made our way to Ginnie Springs (one of my personal faves). We spent the next 5 hours wandering around, taking a swim, and making some grilled cheese sandwiches and bacon on the grill using the cast iron skillet I had brought from home for the sandwiches and a make-shift aluminum foil cooking sheet for the bacon. (Yes, grilled grilled cheese and grilled bacon. It was seriously the best EVER!)
After we left Ginnie Springs, we were faced with a decision – head north toward home, or head west and hit one more beach. It was a really difficult choice. On the one hand, we probably have time. On the other hand, we might not have enough money (at this point, we only had about $30 left). We got back on the road with our minds still not fully made up. Obviously, neither of us wants to go home just yet. The exit to go west or stay north was quickly approaching. Decisions, decisions… My fingers tapped the steering wheel more rapidly with each passing mile marker.
There was the exit. It was now or never. Time to decide.
Well… nothing to it but to do it. I looked over at Vince, smiled, and hit my blinker. We were bound for the Emerald Coast.
We reached Mexico Beach around 10:30pm. We drove the strip along the coast for a little while looking for a good place to stop for the night. We found the perfect spot at a public beach access parking area right off the road. We parked facing the ocean, under a palm tree with a bright full moon hanging next to it, and after a night walk down the beach we fell asleep in the car to the sound of waves crashing. It was heaven.
Day 8 – Friday, May 20th, 2016
I had set my alarm to go off just before sunrise. I thought it would be super awesome to wake up and watch the sunrise over the ocean right in front of us. No such luck.
About an hour before my alarm was to go off we woke up to a raging thunderstorm that was showing no signs of letting up any time soon, so we rolled up the windows and went back to sleep. This was actually the only day that we “slept in”.
At about 9:30am on day 8, we woke up and ventured to the nearest gas station. (Any guesses? …. Yep, it was a Marathon.) Then we drove around a bit while waiting for the rain to stop. According to the radar, we would have a small window of relatively clear skies coming soon.
Just before 11:30am, that window came. We took full advantage and headed down to the deserted beach for a little wandering and a quick picnic lunch. Definitely worth it.
We left Mexico Beach a little after noon and headed north into Alabama, then cut east through the corner into Georgia. We had one last stop to make – the Alexandria Safe Zone in Senoia, Georgia. For fans of The Walking Dead like us, this is a HUGE deal!
We reached Senoia a little after 5:00pm and started searching for the Safe Zone. This town was tiny and adorably “old-school”. In such a small place, you’d think a town-within-a-town would be an easy thing to spot. Isn’t it odd how when you’re looking so hard for something, you completely miss it? We must have driven right past it 3 or 4 times before we finally saw it. (Go ahead, laugh it up. I know we did.) We parked the car and hopped out to walk around and see what we could see. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get too close because of the barricades, and with it being 5:30pm (and our being rather broke at that point) we weren’t able to go on a tour of the set. But from the road we could see some of the houses, the church, the outer wall (with and without support beams), and the main gate (minus the spiked cars), so we were good. We also walked along the railroad tracks to get back to the car, which we went ahead and assumed were used for filming at some point to make ourselves feel cool. If we had had a little more time and little more gas money, we would have driven around the rural area in search of Hershel’s farm (we read it was out there somewhere). But alas…. maybe next time.
We left Senoia around 7:30pm and headed home. We made it back into Knoxville just before midnight. The final tally was approximately 2620 miles (with a mere $103 spent on gas from start to finish – all hail the Prius!), 16 beaches, 8 state parks or wildlife preserves, 2 natural springs, and 1 TV/movie set. All in 8 days and with only $400 in our pockets. Now that’s wandering!