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The Lavenders explore the Florida Keys

Apr. 14, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Finally the sun has shone, dandelions have popped up onto shaggy green lawns and West Virginia's ski resorts have not had to announce they are extending the season into July.

It was only weeks ago though when skies were smeared with black and gray, and cantankerous morning clouds coughed up endless snow and cold and misery.

With spring having a harder time starting than a 1978 Ford Pinto, the Dave Trippin' crew could take it no more -- we broke the emergency glass and reached for four cheap tickets to paradise for a much-needed Spring Break getaway.

Thanks to those cheap and easy two-hour direct flights to Fort Lauderdale (www2.allegiantair.com/) Tri-Staters can be roaming the wilds of Southern Florida faster than we can be watching those million dollar thoroughbreds run over at Lexington's Keeneland Race Course.

And as we found out, if you're not eaten by gators in the Everglades or carjacked in Miami, you can be sitting way down in the heart of the Florida Keys in as much time as it takes to drive to Cleveland.

Since we were meeting up with a slew of family a day later, we rented a car in Fort Lauderdale and popped down to Florida City/Homestead, located just east of Miami and just a stone's throw from the Everglades.

Since I've been a lifelong sucker for roadside attractions such as our beloved Mystery Hole and Ripley's Believe It or Not, our first stop was at The Coral Castle (28655 South Dixie Highway, Homestead, Fla.).

Often called America's Stonehenge, the inspirational Coral Castle is the mind-blowing work of Edward Leedskalnin, a 100-pound Latvian immigrant who from 1920 to 1940 used his ingenuity, junkyard car parts, pulleys and the abundant coral to carve and place massive monuments to his life's love who would not marry him.

Pretty impressive since most of us only built beer can pyramids to our long gone teen angels.

Now oddly surrounded by strip malls and on a busy road, The Coral Castle was the site of Billy Idol's video, "Sweet Sixteen," which he wrote about the couple and the refreshingly odd world of coral that includes a 25-foot-tall, 40,000 ton telescope, stone rocking chairs, a table carved in the shape of Florida, and of course, the three ton gate that the tiny builder could push open with his little finger.

While Miami is also just a quick shot east from Homestead/Florida City, we nature lovers turned our rental horseless carriage (both coming and going from the Keys) to the river of grass, the Everglades National Park, only 11 miles away from Homestead.

With strawberry season just on in vast farm fields we twice had to hit the epic fruit stand, "Robert Is Here," (www.robertishere.com) where Robert Moehling (who checked us out) has been running this super-sized stand since 1959 -- when he was 6-years-old and convinced his pops to let him sell their fruit.

Packed with fresh produce from the nearby fields and more than 30 kinds of tropical fruit, "Robert is Here" was a fam favorite.

Fueled up on their famed fruit shakes, we drove to the Royal Palm Visitor Center home to two drastically different trails.

After wrapping our rental car in tarps (Florida buzzards will literally eat every scrap of rubber, e.g. tires and windshield wipers), we popped onto the shady Gumbo-Limbo Trail for an easy 30-minute hike through the canopy of hammock trees with their sprawling roots, royal palms and ferns a plenty.

On the other side of the visitor center, and just a few feet lower in elevation is the Everglades that is advertised. The Anhinga Trail, named for the fine-feathered local bird, snakes along the Taylor Slough on paved sidewalks and boardwalks packed with a near Disney-like amount of wildlife.

Just half a mile long, the boardwalk winds past more animals and birds than I've seen anywhere. It's dang near a gator convention that also happens to be attended by many herons, egrets, turtles and fish.

While we love a good canoe trip, seeing one too many gators and hearing about three too many python stories, we decided to let the pros do the "paddling" and by paddling we mean revving up an airboat to slip out into the heart of the Glades.

Taking the Shark Valley entrance (U.S. 41 which connects Miami and Naples), we motored over to the Miccosukee Indian Reservation for the Buffalo Tiger's Everglades Boat Tours (http://buffalotigersflevergladesairboattours.com) where an older couple from England walked up to me (sporting my camo hat and my obvious need of a good haircut) in a huff and asked me what time the boat rides started.

While there's an airboat tour every mile or so on the old Tamiami Trail, we enjoyed this one driven by one of the young men of the tribe. In the tour, he drove us back some 3 1/2 miles into the Everglades, pulled up some of the sawgrass for us to taste the roots that the Miccosukee would eat, would call in the birds and called a gator over to the boat as well. The trip also took us back to a traditional Indian camp on a tiny island (filled with very, very squishy soil) where we gingerly walked around before being blasted back through the mud and the grass.

While we could have easily bummed around Miami and the Glades for a week, with a family full of writers, we were anxious to get to down into the Keys where Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey would go to write, hang out and hide out.

It is 106 miles from Key Largo (at the top of the Florida Keys) to Key West and from Key Largo's Christ of the Deep (the 9-foot-state of Jesus sank into the waters of John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park) to Key West's slew of watering holes like Sloppy Joes and the sunsets at Mallory Square. There isn't hardly an inch of those islands that is not off the charts interesting.

Supporting our sister-in-law (a mama-to-be and editor at Fodor's) we went armed with their new pocket-sized "Florida Keys" planner that helped us find some awesome family-friendly joints, such as The Hungry Tarpon at Robbie's Marina (www.hungrytarpon.com) and educational outings, such as the incredibly fascinating, Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla. (www.turtlehospital.org).

The drive down through the Keys -- in particular the famous 7-Mile-Bridge -- was one that noticeably lifted all spirits. Mile by mile our eyes were awash in eight shades of blue and green as we made our way down to Big Pine Key surrounded only it seemed by shallow sea and sky.

While we had friends from Huntington staying on other keys (the rowdier and more historic Key West) to the also bustling Islamadora in the Upper Keys, we, rolling with a more outdoorsy crew and even a scientist on board (picture Bob Weir or Gen. Robert E. Lee armed with a microscope and insect net) stowed away on Big Pine Key, which is called the natural key. It is home to the National Key Deer Refuge, a 84,824-acre refuge that is the hangout to the tiny-legged Key Deer, the runt cousin of the whitetail deer we all know and love here in West Virginia.

Offered up instead of Christmas and birthday gifts, my wife's, (Toril) folks graciously anted up to pay a week rental for us and her brothers. Like a tropical postcard, the house's back lawn of sand and palms was located across the bridge and bay from Bahia Honda State Park (36850 Overseas Highway). Bahia Honda is home to what Fodor's calls "the Keys' best white sand beach," the remains of Henry Flagler's railroad bridge (that once linked to Key West) and home to great snorkeling and swimming since unlike most of the Keys, it's home to some deeper waters right off-shore.

Unfortunately, it's also home to plenty of dangerous wildlife too as my brother-in-law Aaron's foot found the working end of a surely Confederate stingray who did not seem to take too kindly to Yankee tourists rolling in from the Jersey shore. Howling, rightfully so like a house full of Hemingway's six-toed cats, Aaron toughed out stitches and soaking his foot in near boiling water (yes, that's the recommendation for stingray stings). A few medicinal brews and a couple days later, he was snorkeling with his foot wrapped in gauze and duct tape.

Thanks to Bill Keogh, a longtime Big Pine Key resident and author of "The Florida Keys Paddling Guide," we rented two double sea kayaks for the week for the price of one guided trip (www.keyskayaktours.com). It was great to be able to slide them into the water a couple times everyday for sunset paddles (where we saw a shark feeding just feet from our boats) and for exploration of the mangrove-rooted islands where schools of fish, rays and horseshoe crabs slid beneath the boat in the see-through shallow water.

Although our lily white red-headed freckle-faced crew had to slather on enough 100 spf sunscreen for an army, it was hard not to overindulge in this strange orange orb shining like a crazy diamond.

Since I always think it's fun to prep way in advance for a trip, we'd been swimming the boys all through the winter months at the YMCA with the neighbors each Wednesday (swimsday). So when we were in what is often called the Diving and Snorkeling Capital of the States, everyone in the fam got on board with Strike Zone Charters (www.strikezonecharters.com) for a snorkeling day trip ($35 a piece) out to Looe Key Reef, which is part of the expansive Florida Reef Tract that runs 358 miles off the Keys coast from the Dry Tortugas National Park off of the Florida Keys to the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County.

It's a good thing we'd built up some strong swim strokes, even though it was relatively calm, waves crashed high over us as we fought into the current (all swallowing our year's allotment of sea water) to look down into the color-splashed fish frenzy below -- everything from rainbow, midnight and blue parrotfish to large predators including a school of Great Barracuda prowling the reef.

Although we wanted to chill on the quiet side of the Keys in Big Pine Key, whose only night spot is the famed 1936-built No Name Pub (www.nonamepub.com), whose wallpaper is $75,000 in one dollar bills, by mid-week we figured we should roll down to the tourist Mecca of Key West, and the Conch Republic that's been rounding up the "unusual suspects" since the 1800s.

With three generations of folks walking through the Old Town with us, we smartly took two cars so that after a long day some of the fam could roll back, then others could stay to see a slice of Key West's legendary nightlife that begins each sunset with the human carnival at Mallory Square and Pier. It is probably one of the few places where you can see a sunset and a full moon (about 20 folks on a sunset sail dropping drawers at us gathered on the pier).

Meeting up with one of my son Jake's friends from Huntington Middle School, we watched some mind-boggling circus sideshow madness from sword swallowers and acrobats to a salty and hilarious British street magician whose final act was pulling a series of oranges out of a tiny bowler hat he'd been wearing the entire act.

With never-waning long lines at the Hemingway house, we let the boys pick a museum to ramble through and dove into the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (www.melfisher.com) that tells of Fisher's quest to dive for the 1622-shipwrecked treasure-laden Spanish galleons.

We really dug the museum which not only had such stunning artifacts as the 77.76-carat emerald crystal, but also had a neat Harry Potter exhibit as well as a moving exhibit of the excavated 17th century slave ship, The Henrietta Marie that featured parts of the ship as well as such things as the iron bars they used to actually trade for human beings.

Thanks to the Tuckers, a Key West-loving couple from Proctorville, Ohio that we met on the plane ride down, we noshed at the funky, junkyard-chic B.O.'s Fish Wagon (www.boswfishwagon.com) that they rightfully described as the Hillbilly Hotdogs of Key West. Also on their recommendation, we had a neat visit to the secret tropical courtyard (where Hemingway stayed when he was first in the city) tucked inside the art and gift shop, the Pelican Poop Shoppe. I'm pretty sure we would have never found that.

Gliding back down at Tri-State Airport with skies still spitting cold and snow, we were glad to be back home, miraculously not sunburned and carrying back only memories of a Spring Break that was just what the doctor ordered.

With cheap direct flights from the Tri-State down into the heart of South Florida and a fam on board for new adventures beyond Orlando's mighty kingdom, here's hoping that we've all only yet begun to explore the Keys.