(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!!

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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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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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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Mystery surrounds this small attraction just off US1 between Miami and Homestead. Latvian immigrant Ed Leedskalnin is said to have carved and assembled the tons of coral rock forming the walls, tower, and interior pieces of the castle and garden singlehandedly, using only primitive hand tools. He went to great lengths to ensure that no one observed him working, and most often worked at night, with only lanterns to provide light. Leedskalnin began his creation around 1920 in Florida City, but seeking more privacy, in 1936 he moved north to Homestead, and spent the next 3 years transporting the original coral pieces the 10 miles to his new home, where he continued what is said to have been a tribute to a lost love. Only 5′ tall and 100 lbs., Ed would work all night and conduct tours during the day for visitors paying the 10 cent admission fee. The engineering feats of some of the creations are astonishing, including a 9 ton gate that could originally be turned by a child, and amazingly rotated within a quarter inch of it’s surrounding walls. There are conflicting theories of how and if one man could create such a monumental structure alone, but you can draw your own conclusions as you tour this South Florida treasure.IMG_0414 - Copy IMG_0425 - Copy IMG_0426 - Copy IMG_0427 - Copy IMG_0430 - Copy  IMG_0436 - Copy IMG_0437 - Copy IMG_0438 - Copy IMG_0443 - Copy  IMG_6827 - Copy IMG_6828 - Copy IMG_6829 - Copy IMG_6840 - Copy IMG_6850 - Copy   IMG_6825 - CopyIMG_6853 - CopyIMG_6854 - CopyIMG_6858 - Copy IMG_0431 - Copy


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From the Castillo de San Marcos, to the St. Augustine Lighthouse, to the mythical “Fountain of Youth”, history lovers will find a bounty of spots to explore in America’s oldest city. One of the first stops should be the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Black and white and visible from across the river, it was built in 1874 on Anastasia Island to help mariners navigate the treacherous waters off the coast of North Florida. Visit the museum, watch a short documentary about the history of the Lighthouse, and climb to the top for a spectacular view of the coastline, and back toward the Old City and the fort. Your exploration of St. Augustine is just the beginning, but the St. Augustine Lighthouse is an ideal place to start!!

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The new All Access Tour at the Daytona International Speedway is just the ticket for a Saturday afternoon, whether you’re a NASCAR fan or not. Race fans and sports fans alike will enjoy the tram ride along the road course and pit road, with stops at the Sprint Fan Zone, Victory Lane, the Driver/Owner meeting room, and the press box in the Sprint Tower. The “World Center of Racing” becomes more personal as you are guided on a narrated tour in and around some of the most restricted areas of the historical racetrack. With only the apron remaining in the track repaving project, now is the time to get a close up look at the brand new surface and start/finish line. The 2011 Daytona 500 is just around the corner, so get all the inside dirt before you get ready to cheer on your favorite driver!! And before its gone, make sure you get a picture of the actual winning car from the 2010 race, Jamie McMurray’s Chevy Impala!!IMG_3314 - Copy IMG_3320 - Copy IMG_4828 - Copy IMG_4852 - Copy IMG_4855 - Copy IMG_4862 - Copy IMG_4863 - Copy IMG_4868 - Copy IMG_4882 - Copy IMG_4888 - Copy IMG_4889 - Copy IMG_4908 - Copy IMG_4909 - Copy IMG_4913 - Copy IMG_4916 - Copy IMG_4919 - Copy

Of course, the ideal visit to Port Canaveral would be for the reason of leaving the Port on one of the many ships that call it home, for a multi day trip to the Bahamas or another exotic destination, but it’s also a great place to visit for an afternoon. Jetty Park, at the eastern end of the Port, offers campsites, a fishing pier, and one of the best views of the enormous cruise ships, coming and going from the Port, that you will find. Make plans to eat at one of the fine restaurants in The Cove, on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll be able to watch the Disney, Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships from up close, as they leave. You’ll be so close you can pick out your friends as they wave from the deck. So pull up a chair, drop a line in the water, and relax while the calm excitement of Port Canaveral happens all around you!!

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As you walk along the elevated walkway to the viewing deck for the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Sebastian, the scenery is breathtaking, but it’s difficult to look at anything but the walkway. The reason for this is that the planks that make up the walkway are engraved with the names of each wildlife refuge in America, with the name, location, and year designated. The NWR’s are listed by year, starting with the newest wildlife refuge, and ending near the viewing platform with the name of the oldest, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1800’s bird feathers were extremely valuable due to their use in the fashion industry, leading to the slaughter of many pelicans, as well as other types of Florida birds. Through the efforts of several conservationists, including a German immigrant named Paul Kroegel, who stood guard over the nesting habitat with a shotgun, Pelican Island was named by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 as the first federal bird reservation, which began the national wildlife refuge system. Today Pelican Island is a nesting ground for 16 different bird species, and can be viewed by boat, or from the platform at the end of the walkway off of State Road A1A, just minutes south of Sebastian Inlet State Park. So next time you’re heading to the Inlet for a day of beach fun, due yourself a favor and take a detour on the little dirt road back to the Pelican Island Viewing Area and Centennial Trail, and you’ll be glad you did!! Enjoy the photos!!

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 IMG_5716IMG_5709 Begun as a roadside attraction in 1949 by Owen Godwin, and still owned by his family today, Gatorland, located between Orlando and Kissimmee, will take you back to the simpler days of Central Florida attractions. Thousands of alligators and crocodiles inhabit the 110 acre theme park and wildlife preserve, known as the “Alligator Capital of the World”. Take a stroll along the boardwalk overlooking the breeding marsh, check out some alligator wrestling or watch them being fed in Gator Jumparoo. Gatorland offers families a glimpse into “Old Florida” at very reasonable prices.IMG_3086 IMG_3091 IMG_2154 IMG_3098 IMG_3100 IMG_3101IMG_3128 IMG_5707

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