Boaters are never supposed to have a schedule, but when we were headed to Key West, I asked Rob “so, after we leave Key West, are we just bouncing around the Keys for a few weeks?”. That conversation was punctuated with a high five and a happy dance, because, yes, we were going to do exactly that! Our dear friends Mike and Lori McKean, were scheduled to be in Miami in late April, and we wanted to be sure to see them, so we had plenty of time to explore the Keys. We happily left Key West for further exploration on February 15. Our first stop was Looe Key, one of several stops along the coral reef that lines the state of Florida, where boaters can grab a mooring ball and jump into the water to dive or snorkel. We saw beautiful coral, colorful fish, a huge barracuda and not one, but TWO SHARKS!!
Enroute to Looe Key, and grabbing a mooring ball
From there, we went to Bahia Honda Key, where we threw an anchor between the overland highway bridge and part of Henry Flagler’s old railroad bridge. This Key is largely uninhabited, as it’s home to the 524 acre Bahia Honda State Park. The park boasts a 2.5 mile natural, white sand beach, a small marina and camping facilities. Unfortunately, much of the park and the trails were destroyed during Hurricane Irma, but the beaches remain pristine. We were the only boat at anchor there, and we relaxed and enjoyed a spectacular sunset.
Magnificent Bahia Honda anchorage and sunset
We moved into the State Park marina the next day due to high winds, and enjoyed the easy access to both the beach and the railroad bridge, where we watched another lovely sunset. We did snorkel a bit off of the beach, but saw nothing! We were advised NOT to snorkel off the beach by the bridge, as it’s a popular spot for the sharks to hang out. We don’t need to be told twice!
The beach and the railroad bridge at Bahia Honda State Park
On the 17th we were off to Marlin Bay Marina in Marathon. We were super excited for this stop, as we had heard wonderful things about this marina, and we were going to spend time with our friends Joe and Rhonda Tignor aboard Bandwagon 3, who we had met in Portsmouth, VA. back in May.
Beautiful Marlin Bay Marina, Marathon, FL
We absolutely loved Marlin Bay Marina! It was originally built as a private community, but new owners have taken over and are expanding it to accommodate transient boaters. The facility is gorgeous! There’s a fabulous pool, clubhouse with luxurious bathrooms, game room and captains lounge, a pool bar and an incredible staff.
There were a number of other “Looper” boats there, and nearby, so we enjoyed “docktails”, fun days lounging in the pool and making new friends.
Docktails with fellow Loopers, and the pool gang: Terry (AKA Captain Crusty)/Magic, James & Mary Jane/Late Harvest, Joe & Rhonda Tignor/Bandwagon 3, Don & Jan/ Time to Breathe
We had spectacular weather while in Marathon, and enjoyed a beautiful full moon.
Joe & Barbara’s Balahula under the full moon
The only meal we ate out in Marathon was breakfast at the aptly named Stuffed Pig. The food was good, not great, but the portions are enormous!
The Stuffed Pig
We ended up extending our stay until the 21st at Marlin Bay Marina due to high winds. As much as we hated to go, we were heading up to Mangrove Marina in southern Key Largo. After the fabulous Marlin Bay Marina, Mangrove Marina was a real let down. It’s a very basic marina, with a tricky entrance through a narrow path in the mangroves. The location is good if you have a car, but there is really nothing around. But, we were excited to connect with our friends Julie and Dean, who we met last March at Trawlerfest. They live in Islamorada, and are selling their home and looking for a boat to do the Loop. Dean is a builder and Julie is a decorator, and they remodeled a home on a canal there to flip. Both are incredibly talented, and their home is spectacular! We enjoyed a great visit aboard Misty, then drove to their home to enjoy the sunset from their roof deck.
Visiting with Dean and Julie in Islamorada
We decided to rent a car while there, as there is much to see in the Keys by land. So we took a day to head south on the overland highway down to Big Pine Key and No Name Key.
On our way, we stopped at an amazing farm stand in Marathon, where we picked up a bunch of oranges, Japanese eggplant, and squash blossoms. While they’re delicious, it’s a lot of work! Next time I’ll just order them in a restaurant!
The “overland highway”, or Route 1, is the main artery through the entire Keys. There’s not much to see when the road is on land, but crossing the bridges….that’s another story!
Route 1, The Overland Highway
Big Pine Key is known for both The Blue Hole and The National Key Deer Refuge. The Blue Hole is an abandoned rock quarry that was used for nearby road fills and Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. It’s large freshwater pond that is home to several alligators, turtles, snakes, iguanas and birds. There’s short path where you can wander through the woods, but only to a point, as there’s a large male alligator that likes to sunbathe on the path opposite the observation deck. We were very grateful for that information from the docent!
The Blue Hole, where we saw a small female alligator hiding in the shallow water and weeds, and turtles
The majority of the endangered Key Deer can be found on this island, and we saw a few wandering along the road. To protect the deer, there are signs along route 1 informing drivers that they are entering Key Deer habitat, slower nighttime speed limits and a portion of the roadway is elevated and fenced off to allow the deer to pass under the road. They’re smaller than the deer we lived with in the northeast, about the size of a large dog.
Just before the bridge over to No Name Key is the infamous No Name Pub, where we stopped for a delicious lunch. For over 10 years, Zagat has rated the No Name Pub the best casual dining in the Florida Keys. It was established in the 1930’s as a general store and tackle shop, had a brief period when the upstairs was a brothel, and eventually evolved into a full time restaurant. They’re rightfully known for their delicious pizza, which we thoroughly enjoyed! Every single wall and ceiling in the pub is plastered with decorated dollar bills. The origins of patrons stapling the bills is unclear, but it’s rumored there was so much illicit money passing through the Keys during the 30’s that people started hanging it on the walls. We had two small pizzas: Key Shrimp and Buffalo Chicken. Key Shrimp is plumper and sweeter than any shrimp you’ve ever tasted, and not to be missed!
No Name Pub
Delicious Key Shrimp Pizza
When you cross the bridge to No Name Key, you find a fairly small island that’s sparsely populated with only 43 homes. It is known for not being connected to the commercial power grid until 2013!
No Name Key
We made a stop to see Bahia Honda from the other side of the bridge, and took a look at Robbies Fish Camp, where for a fee, you can feed the tarpon. We skipped that, as we saw plenty of them in Key West!
On the other side of the bridge, Bahia Honda
Robbies Marina, market and restaurant…quite the scene!
Islamorada is known for fishing, and it’s talented artists, many of whom show their work at the Rain Barrel Sculpture Gallery. It’s a wonderful little enclave of shops and galleries on route 1, and is easily found due to the huge lobster sculpture out front!
Rain Barrel Sculpture Gallery’s Lobster, fondly nicknamed Betsy
A lovely courtyard of galleries and shops at Rain Barrel Sculpture Gallery
Before we left Mangrove Marina, we enjoyed a quiet evening on the boat, and a beautiful sunset.
The next morning we worked our way up Florida Bay (AKA The Gulf) to spend the night at anchor in Tarpon Basin in northern Key Largo. Our goal was to take the dinghy through the mangroves, but unfortunately the dinghy motor wouldn’t start, so we just spent the afternoon relaxing on the boat.
Navigating the narrow passage through the mangroves leaving Mangrove Marina
The beautiful waters of the Gulf enroute to Tarpon Basin, northern Key Largo
Goodnight, Key Largo…and a jelly visitor!
The next morning, February 25, we left the Keys, to begin our trip north. Our first stop…Miami!
Leaving Tarpon Basin
Dolphins greeted us when we arrived in Key Largo, and they bid us farewell when we left!