American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
Exploring the Lower Keys with Strike Zone Charters
Photo courtesy of Daniel Martone
While preparing last week's post about terminology unique to the Florida Keys, words like “chum,” “grouper,” “patch reef,” and “skunked” brought back memories of my most recent trip to the Lower Keys. While down there, gathering research for my latest travel guide, Moon Florida Keys, my husband, Dan, and I decided to take an island excursion ($55, reservation requested) with Strike Zone Charters (29675 Overseas Hwy., Big Pine Key, 305/872-9863 or 800/654-9560), an outfitter and tour operator based near mile marker 29.5 on the bay side of U.S. 1.
The day of our adventure dawned sunny and mild, but as with most days in this year's unseasonably cold January, the afternoon turned gray and chilly – not the best way to start a trip that combined a breezy boat ride with snorkeling, fishing, and wading through the water. Nevertheless, just before 1 p.m., we boarded the catamaran with 10 other passengers, plus the three staff members – Samantha, Megan, and Captain Larry Threlkeld. After finding our seats and securing our bags, we listened to Larry's explanation about the upcoming trip, including important details like the location of the bathroom, the life jackets, and the lifeboats above the canvas covering. “Two rules,” Larry quipped. “I get the first one. Then, the bidding will start for the second one.”
As we headed away from the dock and into open water, Larry forged ahead with his ecology lesson, sharing facts about fossilized coral, sargasso seaweed, mangrove trees, Key deer, and other aspects of the fascinating Florida Keys ecosystem. We learned a bit of the area's history, too – including the origin of some island names as well as stories about Spanish explorers, Haitian pirates, enslaved Indians, Henry Flagler's ill-fated railroad, the tragic 1935 hurricane, and Key West's colorful past. As Larry spoke, the boat continued past several patch reefs and small islands in the Atlantic Ocean, including the exclusive resort of Little Palm Island.
By the time we reached the living coral reef, I was ready to snorkel. Of the dozen passengers, I was only one of three who were willing to get wet, but we had fun nonetheless. We each borrowed a snorkel, mask, and pair of flippers, then I jumped into the water while the other two climbed down the ladder. Despite the cloudy skies and choppy seas – which can certainly affect underwater visibility – we saw lots of tropical fish and some wonderful specimens of brain coral. After a while, we were called back to the boat, where a fellow passenger kindly offered me a tablecloth to block the wind.
Soon afterward, the boat stopped again, and it was time for some light-tackle fishing. Samantha tossed some chum into the water, then we were each handed a fishing pole, instructed to bait our hook with a piece of squid, and turned loose for a bit of catch-and-release fishing. In these waters, anglers usually search for bonefish, permit, tarpon, shark, and barracuda, but we were aiming for much smaller fish. Although some of us would return to the dock skunked, as the saying goes, most of us – Dan included – caught at least something. I was particularly proud of hooking a sizable grouper – though, admittedly, it seemed that the same fish was caught by a few of us.
Some time later, we relocated to the shallow waters beside a small island, and several of us – including Dan, who got a bit wetter than expected – waded through the water to explore one of the smallest keys I've ever seen. Despite some interesting conch shells, the island mainly contained the remnants of previous human visitors, from beer cans to tent stakes. Back on the boat, we were offered free soft drinks and a cookout of sorts – which included grilled fish and hot dogs, plus picnic-style dishes like potato salad and green beans. While the cookout was definitely not the highlight of the trip, I was incredibly hungry after my frigid snorkeling experience, and I still enjoyed sitting on the open deck of the catamaran, watching countless pelicans circle a couple of nearby mangrove islands.
Following the meal, we bundled up and returned to the dock. Along the way, several passengers – especially those from northern states – joked about the cold, gray weather, something they'd come to the Keys to escape. But, despite the chilly experience, I enjoyed being out on the water – and looked forward to trying a more focused excursion the next time.
Luckily, Strike Zone offers a number of other adventures ($25-850) – including inshore and offshore fishing charters, glass-bottom boat tours, snorkeling and diving trips to the Looe Key Reef, as well as private, customized trips – such as a diving trip to the Adolphus Busch, an artificial reef between Looe Key and the American Shoals. If you've come without equipment, no need to worry. All necessary gear can be rented for snorkeling, diving, and fishing trips. Plus, the on-site store offers a wealth of handy items, including wetsuits. For those new to scuba diving, Strike Zone even provides PADI instruction ($175-395).
Other diversions in the Lower Keys include Big Pine Kayak Adventures (Old Wooden Bridge Marina, 1791 Bogie Dr., Big Pine Key, 305/872-7474), the National Key Deer Refuge (28950 Watson Blvd., Big Pine Key, 305/872-2239), Fantasy Dan's Airplane Rides (Sugarloaf Key Airport, MM 17 BS U.S. 1, 305/745-2217), and the Looe Key Reef Resort & Dive Center (MM 27.5 OS U.S. 1, Ramrod Key, 305/872-2215), which offers scuba-diving instruction and trips to nearby coral reefs and shipwrecks. Additional accommodations include the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge (33000 Overseas Hwy., Big Pine Key, 305/872-2351), The Barnacle Bed and Breakfast (1557 Long Beach Rd., Big Pine Key, 305/872-3298), Dolphin Marina and Cottages (28530 Overseas Hwy., Little Torch Key, 305/872-2685), and Parmer's Resort (565 Barry Ave., Little Torch Key, 305/872-2157).
For more information about Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys, consult the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (800/352-5397) or the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce (31020 Overseas Hwy., Big Pine Key, 305/872-2411).
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
© 2010 Laura Martone