A big family vacation planned – over a week in the Florida Keys!
Well, not so fast…
First a blown tire in Western Maryland – service station #1!
South of the Border, SC
When we finally got back on the road, we arrived at our first destination, “South of the Border.” “South of the Border” is located in South Carolina, just south of the border from North Carolina. Sure, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but anything that boasts of being “America’s favorite highway oasis and gateway to the southeast,” had to live up to some degree of the hype, right? I went here as a child back in 1975 (only a decade after it opened) and remembered it fondly.
We walked the sights. Climbed on the trademark cement animals, went for a swim in the pool, grabbed some Mexican food on the premises for dinner (well, kind of) and then went shopping later in the evening. As you can see in the pictures below, there was a lot to do with the wide range activities available right there on the grounds. Fun for one day, two could be a stretch.
Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park was an “add-on” as we were passing through South Carolina. Though doubtless one of the least popular national parks, Congaree gets its reputation for preserving the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. The place is basically a swamp with lush trees (some of the tallest in the eastern U.S.) that form one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world. As you can see in the pictures below, we walked the “Boardwalk Loop,” an elevated 2.4-mile walkway through the swampy environment.
Out first stop was in Sarasota, Florida, located on the Gulf Cost on the western side of the state. By biological mother, Grace Riker lives there and she was kind enough to put us up in a nice hotel not too far from her house. In the kids estimation, it was a good hotel because it had a pool! Look at Shane bolting down the hallway with his swim wings on ready for a morning dip in the water.
Julie took this picture below after I threw her really high in the air!
Kind of took over this pool!
For lunch we met up with Grace and her daughter, Sara. Sara also brought along her new fiance, Jeremy. After lunch it was off to the beach. These vehicles pictured below are nice because they afford you the ease of avoiding the fight for a parking spot. The whole gang was able to fit into one and off we went to the beach.
Siesta Key is the coastal island just off the mainland of Sarasota. The water was absolutely incredible! Warm, calm, and a turquoise in color – everything unlike the ocean where we live. It was definitely a more relaxing environment. In many, many ways, we had a great afternoon at the beach that day!
A picture with Grace and Sara.
The Everglades, FL
We spent another night at the hotel and then departed south early in the morning. Our destination was Key Largo, but we took our time to experience the unique and intriguing sights of Southern Florida on the way. When it comes to the destinations I’ve visited, this place is one of a kind. In the slideshow below, you can observe novel adventures we enjoyed – alligator viewing, strange native fruits, coconut trees and airboats.
Everglades National Park
After we passed through the Everglades from the west to the east, we entered the national park from the east and drove the main drive to the end where it terminates in Flamingo, right on the Florida Bay (the pictures of me by the palm tree and the girls by the sign were taken at this location). Everglades National Park comprises nearly the entire tip of Southern Florida. It’s the largest tropical wilderness in the U.S. It’s home to 36 threatened or protected species including the Florida panther, the American crocodile, and the West Indian manatee, and supports 350 species of birds, 300 species of fresh and saltwater fish, 40 species of mammals, and 50 species of reptiles. No, there were not alligators attacking our car and snakes slithering all over the road as most people assume. Actually when we were there, we didn’t even see a single reptile! Much of what we observed was a flat land with shallow water populated with occasional hardwood hammocks that served as little islands (as seen in a couple pictures below).
Congaree and Everglades National Park!
The Florida Keys
Dinnertime is pizza time!
Shane sporting his new shark tooth necklace!
Our primary campsite in Key Largo was at John Pennekamp State Park. It’s located in Key Largo, the first Key you reach when you enter the 113-mile chain of coral and limestone islands connected by 42 bridges. The Keys are all about the tropical experience!
A little football at the campsite when we arrived!
On the first night we drove down the road a bit to catch a nice view of the sunset. Within seconds everyone was attacked by mosquitoes. As you can see in the pictures below, we tolerated it as long as we could and then made a mad dash to the automobile. Even with the doors open for a brief period (and no doubt many mosquitoes already drawing blood from our bodies) the car was swarming with them! Thankfully it wasn’t this bad at our campground!
Our new toy, movies in the tent!
Number 12 wasn’t as excited as the rest!
The pictures below tell the story! This isn’t good. When we woke up in the morning excited to start the heart of our vacation, it was overcast. As the day went on, the wind intensified and the skies darkened. We waited around and walked around for a while hoping that whatever this was would soon blow over. I mean after all, this is the Sunshine State! This only got worse. We went inside the visitor’s center to get a weather update and the report even exceeded our worst case scenario – a tropical depression – strong winds, high seas and heavy rain for the next five days! We looked at the aquarium inside the facility and stumbled through the Mangrove Trail (seen in the set of pictures below) exploring alternative plans since snorkeling and laying out at the beach were no longer a possibility. Then when I considered sleeping in a tent in a hurricane and the best suggestion on the docket was a nice library and bowling ally in town, I knew it was time to leave. Thankfully we were able to get a full refund and we departed.
Just trying to keep a good attitude at this point!
I will not be denied!
Just before we departed (as other families too were milling around unsure of what to do), I put on my snorkeling gear and jumped in the water. Natalie was the first to join me. Hailey and Kayla were not far behind. It was choppy and murky, but at least we were able to say went went snorkeling. Seeing a few tropical fish was an added bonus.
Empty campsite? Wait, we just got here!
A final picture at the campground as we hit the road.
We weren’t sure how bad the weather was going to get. The rain was on and off throughout the day. Though we made the decision to leave the Keys and drive significantly north, we risked it and thought we’d attempt a trip to Key West, the final city at the end of the Florida Keys. In the pictures below, Hailey and Kayla are standing by the seven-mile bridge and Natalie found a patch of Mangrove plants.
This location in Key West marks the “Southernmost Point” in the Continental U.S.
Though it was overcast most of the day and “sweatshirt weather,” thankfully the rain held up and we were able to take in some of the sights in Key West. In the pictures below you can see the lighthouse, a decent sunset, a cruise liner that pulled up, an ice cream break and me holding a piece of chocolate covered frozen key lime pie on a stick (delicious!).
This is the first time I met Palmer, Grace’s brother.
Fort Matanzas National Monument
This national monument was built in 1742 by the Spanish to protect the southern mouth of the Matanzas River. The massive Fort Castillo de San Marcos was the primary defense for the city of St. Augustine, but this smaller unit was necessary if invaders sought to attack the city for the rear entrance. In 1966 the U.S. government recognized the significant of this building and declared it a national monument. Today, a small passenger ferry shuttles visitors across the river to explore interior of this ancient fort still standing strong.
St. Augustine, FL
After visiting the fort we drove to the beach in St. Augustine and spent some time swimming in the ocean. The undertow was one the strongest I have ever experienced. Even in the shallow water it was hard to maintain your position and not be pulled out into the sea.
One hungry family!
Julie said this was her absolute favorite campsite. The weather was beautiful and the setting was tropical (so glad we saw that massive snake on the way out!). We liked it so much there we decided to stay for a second night. Thankfully we were able to book a location just a few sites away. In the picture below you can see that we found it much easier to just move the entire tent down the road than transfer things the more conventional way.
Fun at the campsite!
Here’s Shane’s best renditions of “Lord’s Army” and “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.”
A small bay in-between the mainland and the ocean provided a great location to do some kayaking. Natalie and I paddled down a ways to see the St. Augustine lighthouse.
St. Augustine Lighthouse
They call it, “The Nation’s Oldest City” (September 1565). There is a downtown section in St. Augustine closed off from the rest of the town that provides a nice place to walk around. There were many gift shops, restaurants and even the nation’s oldest wooden school (pictured below). The day also resulted in the nation’s most exhausted son!
Castillo De San Marcos National Monument
This is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. Construction began in 1672. Located St. Augustine, possession of the fort has changed six times, all peaceful, amongst four different governments: the Spanish Empire, the Kingdom of Britain, the Confederate States of America and the United States of America (Spain and the United States having possession two times each).The fort was deactivated in 1933 and was turned over to the N.P.S.
Normalcy and weirdness!
More rain. Continually running from the rain!
The stop in St. Augustine was a logical one. We’ve heard great things about this city that none of us had ever visited. Furthermore, we just drove two fays to make it to Florida, we might as well take advantage of the investment we made to get here! St. Augustine was on the way as we were making our way back up north. But now where do we go with the final week we have remaining in our vacation? The options were Cape Hatteras or the Great Smokey Mountains. Popular consensus from the clan was the latter. So with no Internet access I called Anthony Marsango from church and he made arrangements reserving a campsite for us that would be the nearest to our entry point into the park.
At almost 10 million visitors each year, the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park and third most visited location in the entire park system (just behind “Golden Gate” and the “Blue Ridge Parkway”). Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, coming in at 187,000 acres, this park protects most the the “Smokies.”
Apart from the warrior, the pictures in the slideshow below show much of what we did for the four days we spent at the park. A lot of nice hikes, but for the girls nothing topped the couple hours they were able to go horseback riding.
More car trouble – service station #2!
Those it’s hard to see from the picture below, an older man accidentally got his car stuck when he drove over one of those concert blocks in the parking lot at the visitor’s center. He felt pretty good (I did as well!) that I was able to lift his car and set it free. Love this picture, I’m lifting with a whole lot of people watching! Perhaps they were cheering me on as I sacrificed my back for the sake of this stranded family!
Beautiful waterfall and beautiful family!
We were looking for a swimming place in the river and came across this location. The reason we stopped here was because there were a number of cars pulled over on the side of the road. We navigated ourselves down a hill and through some trees and found ourselves on a sandy beach with a couple dozen people – all of them to our surprise were Cherokee Indians! Across the river (pictured below) was a great rope swing. I swam over and assisted all the children for a while as they, and my three daughters, flew across the air and into the water. Later on a rather heavy Caucasian girl arrived and decided to give the swing a shot. She climbed out of the water and up the rocks stacked a few feet in the air (at take-off you’re up about five feet above the water’s edge). When she jumped her arms were not strong enough to support her weight and she came crashing down on the river’s bank, really hard. She started crying, but when into a mild shock when she looked down and saw her finger pointing in a direction it wasn’t intended to point. I swam her back across the river on my back and her mother took her to the hospital.
The following morning we returned to this area since we saw a church that we passed along the way. Upon entering there were about two dozen Cherokees there for worship. The pastor asked me to introduce my family. After doing so, much to my surprise he asked me to preach the morning’s sermon! As I walked up to the pulpit totally unprepared in my yellow tie-dye shirt, shorts and gym shoes I was praying, “What am I going to say to these people?” I believe the Lord gave me the right words – at least that’s what Julie affirmed!
Picnic at Taco Bell!
Shots at the campsite. Protein shakes with Shane!
The girls and I went tubing and were able to get a few more jumps on that rope swing!
Another day of cooling off in the river. Even Julie went in this time!
Blizzards in June!
A video from our time at the Smoky Mountains.
Just as we departed…
More car trouble – service station #3!
Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
Check out these facts about this amazing bridge that spans the opening of the Chesapeake Bay and connects upper and lower Virginia. Total length – 23 miles, depth of water along route – 25-100 feet, building time – 42 months (bridge 1) and 46 months (bridge 2), man-made islands – 4 with each over 5 acres, tunnels – 2 both over 5,000 feet long and cost – almost $500,000,00.
In the the recent picture above (2012), Natalie is trying to impersonate the pose that she struck when we were here eight years ago as seen in the picture below (2004).
Or how about my visit when I was here with my cousin twenty-eight years ago (1984)! Yikes!
One one of the man-made islands there is equipped with a parking lot, visitor’s center and fishing pier juts out in to the bay. Once again we were not a stranger to yet another rainstorm. This one was quite powerful. In the picture below showing the family we could see it coming directly at us over the water and it was moving rapidly! I yelled, “Let’s get out of here!” The moment we turned around it was upon us. In another picture you can see us running for shelter. I really felt like it was going to blow us off the pier. We went inside the visitor’s center and patiently waited it out (staring at the walls and eating soft pretzels). You can see the size of the waves that were generated from the picture I took through the glass right after we entered.
Here’s some video of that storm approaching us.
Assateague Island National Seashore
For the final night of the trip, we were now back on our itinerary. “The northern two-thirds of the island is in Maryland while the southern third is in Virginia. The Maryland section contains the majority of Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park. The Virginia section contains Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and a small part of the national seashore. It is best known for its herds of feral horses pristine beaches, and the Assateague Lighthouse” (Wikipedia).
A great campsite on the beach and some wild horses!
What an adventure!