Adventures of an Editor: Florida for Days

Some say if you’re not lucky, marry someone who is. I can tell you in all confidence that I married lucky, because with my wife and her family, I was able to spend a week in Florida before the major shutdowns of COVID-19 disrupted many’s vacation plans.

Now, before I get too harsh judgment, you should know that at the time of our trip, COVID-19 hadn’t yet reached the United States. We were there from March 4-11, and the only thing that had happened affecting students was the cancellation of spring break study-abroad trips.

Though it didn’t take long after for the virus hysteria to escalate, we were traveling at a time when it wasn’t yet taboo to do so. Having established that, let’s get into the sweet details of sunshine and frivolity that was my life for seven days.

A highly anticipated Christmas present

Christmas 2019 was the in-law’s turn for our gracious presence, yet the most gracious present was revealed to be a vacation to Florida in early Spring, including time in the Keys and three days at Universal Studios.

Considering my voracious disdain for the wintry season, I was very much excited for the warmer weather found in the southernmost state in the U.S. Soon, the time for our departure to the sunshine state arrived.

The reason I mentioned we were lucky is because this trip was planned the week before SUU’s spring break. Though I missed classes and had to have all the assignments done early, if we had planned it for spring break it wouldn’t have happened.

Universal Studios closed on March 16, and many of our destinations would be affected shortly after that. We made it just in time though, and touching down in Miami, our adventure began.

No time for relaxation

You should know that while most people consider R&R a big part of vacationing, the Kellers do not. My parents-in-law like to get in as much fun as possible, even if it means waking up at 5 a.m. to get a head start on a day filled to the brim with activities and no breaks in between.

We did so many things it might be hard to sum them all up in this column, but I will certainly try.

Arriving about 8 p.m., we had a two-hour drive ahead of us to Tavernier, just south of Key Largo, where we would be headquartered in the Ocean Pointe Suites as we explored the Florida Keys for the next three days.

Finding ourselves hungry after 6 hours of flying, we had a bite at a Cuban cafeteria in Miami–a traditional pit stop for my father-in-law, Rob, on his scuba trips–before heading south in our rented minivan.

Open water certified

Our days in the Keys kicked off with a couple of open-water reef dives of the eastern coast of Key Largo chartered with Horizon Divers.

Our party consisted of myself, my wife Maddie, sister-in-law Ashley, and father-in-law Rob. Lorrie, my wife’s mom, hung back at the condo due to some claustrophobia associated with scuba diving.

The dive boat took us a few miles out to Christ of the Abyss and Dry Rocks North North, both about a maximum depth of 30 feet/9 meters.

This would be my second time ever to the ocean, and my first ocean dive. Though relatively new to the scuba scene, I’m hooked. The ethereal experience in the turquoise waters among the brightly colored sea creatures has me longing for the Keys even now.

Words alone can’t adequately describe it, so here’s a video I shot on my GoPro:

The water temp was 77 and it was a sunny 82 degrees outside, the perfect introduction to a week of play.

That afternoon was spent in John Pennekamp State Park kayaking among the mangroves hoping for a manatee sighting. We capped the evening with a hearty seafood dinner and key lime pie at Mrs. Mac’s, a local chain.

I’m a big seafood guy despite living in a landlocked state, and the fresh Florida catches-of-the day did not disappoint. I was in absolute heaven dining at the local eateries, feasting on mahi-mahi, fresh shrimp and yellowtail parrotfish.

I also enjoyed ranking the pie at each establishment from Key West to Key Largo. As of right now, Mrs. Mac’s holds the number one spot.

Margaritaville

Even if you’re not a fan of Jimmy Buffet, the song inspired by the Florida Keys is the implicit vibe from Key West. That or “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys. Either way, we spent an entire day in the waters off of Key West with the watersports tour company, Sebago.

The all-inclusive package included sailing the tropical waters in a 60-foot catamaran, with stops for snorkeling, parasailing, jet-skiing, kayaking, and paddle-boarding, and they even had a water trampoline. Breakfast and lunch provided!

I must’ve had me about 20 cocktail shrimp on that excursion.

When we returned to port, we walked around some of the historic locations in Key West and spent time wandering the famed Duval street where the Margaritaville Restaurant resides along with numerous gift shops and cafes.

Before heading back up to Key Largo, we drove past the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (drove because the marker was swamped with tourists) which is just 60 miles from Cuba.

Gators and the ‘Glades

Saturday was supposed to be another dive day for our crew, this time to the wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove laying on the ocean floor at a maximum depth of 130 feet.

Unfortunately, the wind kicked up swells too large for any chartered vessels and the Coast Guard called boating for the day. Though a bit disappointing, we made up for it with a host of other activities beginning with feeding tarpon at Robbie’s of Islamorada.

Then we drove up to mainland Florida to visit an alligator farm where we were treated to an airboat tour, holding a baby gator, and a feeding demonstration.

Of course, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Florida Everglades, a national park spanning 1.5 million acres.

Here, we saw about five alligators in the wild from the viewing areas and took in the vast expanse of grassy marshes, mangrove forests, hardwood hammocks and standing pine forests dominated by wetlands.

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I was surprised to learn that the Everglades is not a swamp, contrary to most assumptions. The entire area is actually a big river, as the shallow water flows continually south to create a unique subtropical wilderness. The elevation change is only about 12-14 feet from Lake Okeechobee to the coast.

Universal Studios Orlando

I’ve never been to Disneyland, Disneyworld or even Six Flags (listen, I’ve been to Lagoon plenty, all right?), so I don’t really have a good base of reference for a theme park of this repute.

Boy, did I have a blast! And a giant pink donut from The Simpsons Land – Springfield USA.

I love movies, and some of my favorites are featured rides at Universal Studios, like Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk Coaster and The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman ride.

Jurassic Park lived up to expectations, as did the thronging Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure ride was my group’s unanimous favorite after three days in the park.

Our third and final day was filled with body plunges and waterslides in Volcano Bay, Universal’s island-themed waterpark.

We lucked out that day too. The slightly overcast skies must’ve warded off most people, despite 80-degree weather, because we basically had the park to ourselves. The longest wait was about 10 minutes for the largest four-seater water coaster.

I could go on and on about Universal, but it wouldn’t do it justice. Let’s just say between the thrill of stomach lurching coasters and ferry rides from the Loews Royal Pacific Resort where we stayed, it was bliss.

Did I mention we also had fast passes? Can’t get much better than that.

Aside from the many, many things we got to experience in a week, what made this trip so good was the company. I learned how much Rob is a scuba enthusiast. I got to tease my mother-in-law and crack jokes with Ashley the whole trip.

And few memories are more cherished than those spent with your significant other. Getting to vacation in Florida with my wife Maddie was the cherry on top of a perfect week.

Great time, great family–like I said, I married lucky.

Story and Photos by: Reyce Knutson
outdoors@suunews.net

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