|Gateway to the Florida Keys
Monday Morning we loaded grandkids Austin and Kielyn into the motorhome, and we took off on a five day camping trip to the Florida Keys - a chain of islands made famous over the centuries by many people and events.
From Parkland we took the Florida Turnpike south, skirting Miami and then Homestead on our way to the southernmost town on the mainland - Florida City. There the turnpike ends and you continue south on U.S.1, a two lane ribbon of highway that crosses flat marshland for another twenty minutes before bringing you to the jumping off place you've been looking for - a short bridge to the first island, Key Largo.
Key Largo - a name synonymous with romantic visions of the past. Key Largo - the hot steamy place where Bogart met Bacall. Key Largo - a place that haunted Sarah Vaughn in the dreams of her song. (A song, the lyrics to which, you will not find anywhere on today's all-knowing internet)
But regardless of what personal visions each of us may bring to Key Largo - the reality that greets us is sure to be different. Very different. Long gone is the mystique of 1948 - if it ever existed at all - and in it's place stands a touristy collection of homes, shops and businesses having little romance to offer.
Leaving us with a choice to make. We can be disappointed and feel cheated out of our dream - or we can concentrate on the beauty still to be found here - and start a new collection of experiences to remember.
The choice is ours and on this day beauty won out - the beauty of mangroves and waterways, the beauty of egrets and hermit crabs, the beauty of turquoise shallows and a salty musk on the freshening breeze. The beauty of our country's only living (and dying) coral reef, and the salt water high of watching two grandchildren learning to snorkel. Beauty is there if you're willing to look for it.
And you don't have to look very hard if you're looking in John Pennekamp State Park. Pennekamp is a remarkable park, in a state famous for the quality of it's parks. The thing that makes Pennekamp unusual is that a large part of the park is underwater! John Pennekamp State Park is home to the only living coral reef in the continental United States - and they offer glass bottom boat rides out to see the reef in all it's natural glory.
We booked a boat ride and since conditions were 'moderate' Madolyn took a Dramamine tablet just to be safe. The kids played on the beach until time to go, then we boarded the Pennekamp and headed out the waterway to the sea. Once you reach open water it's a twenty minute ride out to the reef and as we got farther out the swell became rougher. By the time we were over the reef Kielyn was feeling a little queasy, so Madolyn sat out on deck with her while Austin and I checked out the reef through the glass bottom of the boat.
With the boat pitching it was hard to focus on the bottom, and the lighting is typically dim - so the photos are not a good representation of what we saw, which was a wonderful display of coral and fish that was always changing. There were yellowtail and barracuda, sea turtles and brain coral, even a rusty old winch from a wreck long ago.
I went up and sat with Kielyn so Madolyn could go below, and after another half hour over the reef we finally headed for shore.
Back ashore Kielyn's stomach recovered fast and she was soon ready for ice cream. To the kids delight Madolyn found some snorkeling gear in the gift shop, and it added another whole dimension to the day. The pictures above speak for themselves, but even they don't convey the fun and excitement of watching a five year old becoming one with the sea.
By the end of the day Kielyn and Austin were both snorkeling like pros - assuring us that Key Largo will remain in our memories, untarnished and a place of beauty and wonder for a long time to come.
A final note: Reef experts believe that if nothing is done to save it, the reef will be dead in fifty years - a victim of waste and pollution that have become the signature characteristics of our arrogant self absorbtion. Again - the choice is ours - but our track record is not encouraging.