(This is the first installment in a series of posts about our recent road trip to Key West.)

Ahh, Key West…one of those places that to many seems so out of reach. Such a long drive from everywhere north of Miami, and not a lot of good options for flying into. Although the flight options are about to improve, it can be daunting to even plan a trip there. Once there though, you’ll be glad you made it! Key West has a little something for everyone. An extremely rich history (probably my favorite feature), a laid back vibe, if you’re looking to relax, and excitement in the form of watersports and nightlife, for those that can’t sit still.

Because of it’s extreme location Key West is not as easily accessible as most other exciting Florida destinations. It’s actually much closer to Cuba than it is to Miami, so I thought it would be constructive to first talk a little bit about the options you have if you’re thinking of planning a trip there:

  • By car, of course, is probably the most common way to reach Key West. Approximately 160 miles (and 3+ hours) south of Miami, the only way in by car is US 1. In addition, many long stretches of US 1 are one lane in each direction, meaning any sort of highway construction, accident, or merely a slow driver, can back traffic up for miles. There are several passing zones, but it can seem like an eternity waiting for the next one if you get stuck behind Sammy & Sandi Slowpoke. On the bright side, parts of this drive feature some spectacular scenery as the road splits the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, on one of the most scenic drives in all of the United States.  Also, keep in mind that to save a little time, be sure to not travel in or out of Key West at night. The reason being that there is a 14 mile stretch of US 1 in the lower keys that has a nighttime speed limit of 35mph, as opposed to 45 mph during daylight hours, in an effort to protect the endangered Key Deer population.
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  • Another option for getting to the southernmost city is by boat. Most of us don’t have a cabin cruiser that we can leisurely set sail in, but probably the most relaxing way to arrive in Key West, is by cruise ship. Key West is a port of call for many cruise lines, and a quick stop allows time to experience the city without need for ground transportation, or a hotel room. For travelers in the Ft. Myers area, the Key West Express is a ferry boat that runs daily between Ft. Myers Beach and Key West. As of summer 2012, round trip adult tickets for the ferry run about $146, and travel time in each direction is about 3 1/2 hours.
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  • The quickest way to get to Key West, at least if you are leaving from Central Florida, is air travel. Several airlines service Key West International, but most flights will require a connection in Miami. This is because smaller planes are required when flying into Key West, due to the shorter than normal length of the runway. Starting November 4th Southwest Airlines will begin servicing Key West with a non stop flight daily from Tampa and Orlando, which is also a good option for out of state travelers who are spending some time in one of those two cities. I see non sale fares as low as $87 each way into December.
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There you have it…just a few of your land, air, and sea options for getting to Key West. I have personally driven from Brevard County to Key West several times. It’s a 6 to 7 hour drive and let me just say, I’m really looking forward to my first flight from Orlando into Key West in a few months!!

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Get those hotel points!

Most travelers know about airline frequent flyer programs, where you earn miles or points on each paid flight, which can later be redeemed for free flights. But did you know that all of the major hotel chains also have rewards programs?

Hotel loyalty programs are a great way to earn rewards toward future travel. Before your vacation be sure to enroll in the program for the hotel of your choice, and you will earn points based on the amount of money you spend. Once you accumulate enough points they can be used in a variety of ways, not the least of which are free rooms. Here is a quick rundown of the major hotel rewards programs:

Hilton HHonors
Priority Club Rewards (Holiday Inn)
Marriott Rewards
Starwood Preferred Guest (Sheraton)
Hyatt Gold Passport
Club Carlson (Radisson)
Wyndham Rewards
Best Western Rewards
Choice Privileges (Quality Inn)

If you are unfamiliar with what family of hotels your preferred hotel belongs, just look them up online, and be sure to enroll in the program. Last but not least, most hotel loyalty programs run very generous promotions which enable you to maximize your rewards, with bonus points, bonus airline miles, or free night certificates. These promotions normally require you to register, so be sure to check for that, and register your membership number so you don’t miss out!!

Today was certainly a day of mixed emotions here on Florida’s Space Coast. Setting aside the financial and political aspects of the program’s termination, many residents here felt an emotional attachment to the space shuttle, and all that it represented. Missions that began with launches utilizing mind numbing force, and ending with a shuttle gliding in for a soft landing, captivated millions over almost 30 years. Well, today saw a landmark day as Space Shuttle Discovery was flown atop a modified 747, to it’s future home at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. For the first ten years of the shuttle program, Edwards Air Force Base in California served as the landing strip at the end of a mission, but since around 1991 landings out there have been limited, mainly due to weather concerns in Cape Canaveral.

But for each of those Edwards landings, the space shuttle was ferried back to Kennedy Space Center on the back of a heavily modified Boeing 747 airplane. Usually Brevard County residents and visitors were provided an up close look as the pilots would fly low along the beaches, or I-95 as a courtesy before landing at Kennedy Space Center. Many times I was out to see and photograph this amazing sight, which to me was much more up close and personal than a launch could ever be, and usually I was surprised at how few other people were as interested. Not so today. I thought I would have an easy ride over to the beach by Patrick Air Force Base, in hopes of seeing Discovery as it turned westward before a final pass over Cocoa Beach and Kennedy Space Center, while beginning it’s journey up the east coast, but I was shocked to see traffic on Pineda Causeway backed up all the way to US1. I didn’t want risk getting stuck in traffic, so I settled into a spot at the boat launch next to the causeway, and waited. The lighting was a little tough with the sun just coming up, but I got a few shots. Hope you enjoy.

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With the Daytona 500 just around the corner, I wanted to share a few photos from last summer’s Coke Zero 400, at Daytona International Speedway. For anyone that has never been to one of the major races at Daytona, I highly recommend you get to one. The level of entertainment is unmatched. From the pre-race music and pageantry, to the track access, to the main event, it is an all day spectacular. For those that can’t wait for the race at the end of February, you can get your NASCAR fix at the Pre Season Fan Fest on January 12th & 13th. Enjoy the photos!!

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The Thunder was back at the Beach last month as the Space Coast SuperBoat Grand Prix returned to the Cocoa Beach coastline, drawing a huge crowd to watch the powerful speedboats roar just offshore!! Enjoy the photos:IMG_1198 - Copy IMG_1224 - Copy IMG_1230 - Copy IMG_1241 - Copy IMG_1248 - Copy IMG_1266 - Copy IMG_1291 - Copy IMG_1298 - Copy IMG_1308 - Copy  IMG_1338 - Copy IMG_1352 - Copy IMG_1374 - Copy IMG_1536 - CopyIMG_1793 - Copy IMG_1700 - Copy IMG_1713 - Copy  IMG_1797 - Copy IMG_1847 - Copy IMG_1881 - Copy IMG_1886 - Copy IMG_1910 - Copy IMG_1915 - Copy IMG_2001 - Copy IMG_2007 - Copy IMG_2049 - Copy  IMG_2251 - Copy  IMG_2356 - Copy  IMG_2407 - Copy IMG_2457 - Copy IMG_2466 - Copy IMG_2535 - Copy IMG_2317 - CopyIMG_2215 - CopyIMG_2403 - Copy

Here are the Blue Angels pictures from the Sun ‘n Fun Fly In in Lakeland this past Saturday. Hope you enjoy!! See photos of the other performers in the previous post.

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Severe spring storms ripped through much of Florida on Thursday, March 31, but much of the focus on the damage was centered around the annual Sun ‘n Fun Fly In taking place at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland. The aviation supershow was struck by severe thunderstorms, and possibly a tornado, damaging approximately 40-50 aircraft, and causing thousands of dollars in damage to property and exhibits. We ventured out to the grounds on Saturday to check out the air show headlined by the world famous US Navy flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels. We arrived 2 ½ hours prior to the scheduled 1:30 start to the air show, but just made it to the viewing area as the show began, after fighting traffic, trudging through the still muddy parking area, and standing in a long line to pay our $25 per person entry fee. The air show got off to a rocky start when the parachute team jump was canceled due to reported radio communication problems, and the highly anticipated F-22 Raptor demonstration was shortened for a mechanical issue. The heritage flight featuring the Raptor was then a casualty as the powerful Raptor was taken out of commission. The rest of the air show was great with several incredible aerobatic pilots, a fantastic demonstration of WWII warbirds, the Heavy Metal Jet Team, and of course, the precision and power of the Blue Angels. The Blue Angels portion of the show was kicked off with a short demonstration of their support plane dubbed “Fat Albert Airlines”, a C-130T Hercules piloted by an all Marine Corps. crew. As Fat Albert finishes its short, but impressive program, the Blue Angels incredible precision is put on display with the six F/A-18 Hornets criss-crossing the sky in various formations, with the two opposing solos performing breathtaking maneuvers right in front of the crowd. The awesome power and precision of the Blue Angels, that at times brought goose bumps, rescued an otherwise disappointing day. The admission fee was excessive, especially since there are several regional air shows each year that are free of charge, but if you’re a pilot, or a die hard aviation fan, this may be the event for you. The first set of pictures will be the early performers, click on a picture to enlarge.

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As a destination for travelers worldwide, the 2011 version of Busch Gardens in Tampa is quite different from the 1959 version. Today, Busch Gardens encompasses 335 acres of modern day theme park rides, exhibits, shows, and conveniences. With seven roller coasters and three water rides, there is plenty to occupy the time of the thrill seekers, while animal lovers will have more than enough exotic animals to marvel over. Visitors in early 2011 will find it hard not to notice a new roller coaster currently under construction. Set to open in May of 2011 is Cheetah Hunt, which will be a 3 ½ minute thrill ride traversing through much of the park. The popular African Themed Animal Theme Park has evolved from its early days as a hospitality facility for the adjacent Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and had no admission fee. Eventually, as the brewery closed down, and times changed, more attractions and exhibits were added, as well as admission fees, and the park has become the destination for over 4 million people from around the world. If you’re planning a visit to Busch Gardens, get there early, and expect a full day of rides and exhibits. Hop on SheiKra for the 90 degree drops, slip from one end of the park to another aboard the steam engine propelled Serengeti Express, or cool down on a hot day riding the Stanley Falls log flume. There is something for all ages at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay!!

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As we enter the new year, the countdown begins to some of Florida’s most exciting events. Of course there are many more throughout the state, but here are just a few of my recommendations for fun and exciting things to do in the first few months of 2011!!

  • Daytona 500 – February 20

February 20th is the date for the 53rd running of the “Great American Race”, but the action starts on January 20-22 with the Preseason Thunder Fan Fest, and continues right up to the big race with many other exciting races and events!! Daytona International Speedway is the venue!!

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  • Downtown Art & Living Expo, Orlando – February 19,20

If NASCAR is not your thing, check out the Art & Living Expo at beautiful Lake Eola in Downtown Orlando for great music, art and food!!IMG_2688

  • Bike Week, Daytona Beach – March 4-13

Daytona Beach and sites throughout Volusia County will be buzzing with the sights and sounds of the World Famous Rally!! Main St. in Daytona Beach and Daytona International Speedway are two of the major sites for all the great action!!IMG_9136 - Copy

  • Pelican Island Wildlife Festival, Sebastian – March 19

Indian River County is the location for the celebration of America’s very first National Wildlife Refuge. 2011 marks the 108th anniversary of President Theodore Roosevelt’s designation of Pelican Island as a federal bird reservation, which eventually became a National Wildlife Refuge!!

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  • MLB Spring Training, Throughout Florida – Mid February thru March

See major league stars up close as another great season gets under way with Grapefruit League action in cities and towns throughout Florida!! Catch Jeter, A-Rod, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and many others as they prepare for the 2011 Major League season!!IMG_7421a

  • Easter Surf Fest, Cocoa Beach – April 22,23,24

The Cocoa Beach Pier and Shepard Park are the venues for some of the best surfing on the East Coast!! Come out catch some rays, eat some great food, and watch all the surfing action!!

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If you’re looking for a quiet place to relax, a quaint little town with not much going on, South Beach… is not it!! This southern section of world famous Miami Beach is a mecca for shopping, dining, people watching, and excitement in general. Relaxation is certainly possible, by the hotel pool or at the beach during the day, but you will be compelled to maybe do some parasailing or jet skiing, take a sightseeing tour of Art Deco hotels or Star Island, shop and eat along Lincoln Rd. or Washington Ave., rollerblade, jog or walk along the beautiful beachside boardwalk, or people watch along Ocean Drive. If the club scene is your thing, make sure to plan ahead. There are more than 150 clubs and bars in South Beach, but many can be pricey and difficult to gain entrance to, if you don’t have some sort of connection. For shopping and dining, make your way over to Lincoln Rd., South Beach’s popular open air, pedestrian only, shopping area. With restaurant seating outside where the roadway once was, lunch or dinner here makes for an ideal spot to eat and people watch. Ocean Drive features many of the hotels, restaurants and street scenes used in marketing worldwide, can be seen in many television shows and movies, and is the site of the famous Versace mansion. With daytime temperatures averaging in the 70’s, South Beach is the perfect winter escape from your everyday life.

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