The Ocean at Jensen Beach
I just got back about three weeks ago from my first-ever vacation: an epic Florida road trip! It was the kind of vacation that changes you for the better, not only because of the things you see, but because of the unshakable confidence & determination you develop when you’re off on your own for the first time ever & you realize this: you can take care of yourself.
I conceived the idea of going on a road trip several months ago. Being free on the open road, making everywhere I went my home, the transformative effect of spending a week in total freedom were things I knew I needed to experience. Originally, I wanted to go on a road trip out West. Soon, I realized that I could spend more time exploring & less time driving, save money, & cover more ground by going on a road trip in Florida, where I live. This is especially logical, as I live in a suburb of Tampa (which is in Central Florida) & therefore, almost all of Florida is equally close to me. I decided that was a much better plan of action.
Over the next weeks, I obsessively planned my road trip. I read books about places I might go. I Googled “Best places to see in ——“. TripAdvisor was my most visited website. I made lists, narrowed them down, added to them, & narrowed them down some more. I planned what supplies I would need to bring, what food I would eat, how I would sleep. My dad & I built custom screen windows so we could turn my Smart Car into a miniature camper. I prepared in every way possible.
Sunset from Naples Pier
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the day I was leaving arrived. When I pulled out of the driveway early that Saturday morning, I was terrified. I was going on this road trip all by myself! I had never even been on vacation before with my family, much less alone. But going it alone though turned out to be the best possible thing for me.
One thing that scared me was the knowledge that I wouldn’t be the same person when I returned. When I looked in the mirror the day I left, I knew it was going to be the last time I saw myself before my road trip transformed me & played its part in my own personal evolution. I was equally scared that my road trip WOULDN’T change me, that perhaps I was too bitter & cynical & unhappy to be touched by the magic & by the freedom. I was afraid that it wouldn’t change me at all, & that I would return home as the same person I had been when I left.
But I was changed. I came back as a different person, a better person.
Here’s how my trip unfolded.
Meadow of Yellow Wildflowers at Myakka State Park in Sarasota
Sarasota, Sanibel Island, & Naples
I left my house at about nine in the morning, & headed south to Myakka River State Park, near Sarasota. I hiked a really beautiful nature trail there. They also have THE BEST observation tower, called the Canopy Walk. The Canopy Walk is a 25-foot tall observation tower that connects with a 74-foot one via a suspended wood bridge. It was really fun to climb, & so beautiful to see over the top of the forest. Other highlights of the park? A pretty picnic area, a log cabin with picnic tables, a huge meadow of small yellow flowers, & a river filled with alligators basking in the sun.
Next, I drove to Sanibel Island. I wanted to go to the beach there, mostly so I could see their awesome lighthouse up close. You can’t go in the lighthouse but it is pretty to look at, & the beach is really nice. There were lots of nice shells, the sand was soft & clean, & the beach wasn’t too crowded. I went in the water & photographed pelicans. I drove around Sanibel Island a little bit too, & I love its cute, quaint small island atmosphere. The most adorable, tiny Chevron gas station ever is a prime example.
When I was done there, I continued heading south to Naples & I watched the sun set from the Naples Pier. I got to the end of the pier just in time, & wonderfully, there was an empty spot right in the corner of the pier closest to the sunset where I got to watch it from. It was one of the best sunsets I’ve seen.
I wanted to camp as much as possible on my trip & avoid hotels (because I wanted to camp, & also to save money), but as the Naples area isn’t the most campsite-themed place in the world, I opted for a hotel. I stayed in a VERY nice Comfort Inn in Naples, which I was very impressed by & absolutely loved.
Everglades Shark Valley Observation Tower
It was Everglades day! The Everglades was one of the places I was most excited about seeing, just because it’s so big & so important to the natural world. On the way there, I went through Ochopee, which is home to the smallest post office in the US, & the Skunk Ape Research Center, where I bought some cool gifts.
When I arrived at the Everglades, I entered through the Shark Valley entrance, which is on the Northern side of the park. I rented a bicycle (which costs $9 an hour) & biked the 15-mile bike trail. I’ve never biked that far before, but I survived! Along the way I saw a TON of wild gators, herons, egrets, turtles, fish, & other swamp critters. I feel like it’s a good way to see a lot of the Everglades habitat in a relatively short period of time (the whole thing took me about 2.75 hours) – both the lushly-mangroved swamp area, as well as the drier grassland fields.
In the middle of the trail is the Shark Valley Observation Tower, which was epic. It’s a 45-foot tall observation tower that has a huge spiral ramp leading to the top. The view from up there was beautiful! Along the bike trail, I hiked two small trails that branched off the bike trail. One was the Otter Cave Hammock Trail, a marvelous narrow pathway through the trees. It has a little bridge & was beautiful. Along the trail, I saw a group of tiny baby alligators, all only about a foot long, & they were in the water only a few feet away from the trail! I also did the lush Bobcat Boardwalk Trail, which only took maybe 10 or 15 minutes to walk, but leads through beautiful trees. Before leaving the Shark Valley entrance, I went to the gift shop, where I purchased three beautiful enamel Everglades-themed pins for my collection.
I then went in the Ernest F. Coe entrance to get to the Flamingo campground & drove the 35 miles from that entrance to get to the Flamingo campground. It was after five in the afternoon by this time & I was afraid the park would be closed & I wouldn’t be able to camp there. Thankfully, it was open, & after a while of driving, I arrived at the campground.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the most fun night of camping as there were tons of mosquitoes, no-see-ums, & biting flies. In fact, there were so many bugs there that the ranger booth was closed down for the season due to bugs & the ranger who cleaned the bathroom had to wear a mosquito net over his face. “A lot of bugs” means that biting flies constantly PELTED my car as I tried to put my campsite deposit in the box. Once it was dark out, I had to open my doors & put my screen windows in. This resulted in my car becoming FILLED with mosquitoes. By “FILLED”, I mean there were literally at least 70 of them in there. The high-pitched buzzing turned into a deafening roar. Despite a fresh application of 25% DEET Off, during the brief seconds I sat in my car after putting the windows in, they were still trying to bite me. I fled from my car & ran around in circles outside of it trying to keep the mosquitoes off me. That was probably the worst part of my whole vacation. My dad told me I had to go back in there & kill all the mosquitoes in my car, simply because I didn’t have a choice.
You don’t know horror until you’re forced to lock yourself in your tiny car with 70 hungry mosquitoes when you’re more than 35 miles deep into the woods & you have to sit in the car with all the mosquitoes until you’ve squished all of them & they are trying to bite you. It was only when I was done killing all the mosquitoes & realized how quiet it was that I became aware of how loud it had been when I started.
The campsite was pretty though, & very peaceful at night. Aside from the no-see-ums, which came in through my screen & bit me at least 60 times during the night.
Alligator Feeding at the Everglades Alligator Farm in Homestead, FL
Homestead & Key Largo
I went to the Everglades Alligator Farm, which had really awesome alligator shows. I got to hold a baby alligator (which was so adorable!) & watch a huge group of alligators get fed! It was so cool. I love alligators. They had plenty of them, & I got to satisfy my desire to see gators. I also got to feed & pet emus (something I’ve always wanted to do) & Silkie Chickens. They were the best. One of my favorite animals there was their rescued owl. Anyone who knows me knows that owls are my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE.
While I was there, I went on an airboat ride in the Everglades, which was really cool. I’ve never ridden on an airboat before. The driver was cool & did some circles in the airboat so we’d all get splashed. I sat in the second row because the first row was full.
Next, I went to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. I’ve really wanted to go there ever since I was eight years old & learned about it on a video tape. That was back when I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to go there because their mascot was a giant aquatic hermit crab. When I got there, I booked my snorkel tour & explored their visitor center, which has a HUGE fish tank. I also ate a miniature key lime pie.
It was so cool going on a snorkel tour of the coral reef! The snorkeling adventure guides take a group of people out to one of the park’s reefs on a boat & they teach you how to snorkel. They were nice & gave me a snorkel clip for free because I had no idea where mine was. Snorkeling was beautiful, & seeing a coral reef in real life was outstanding. Because it was a nice day, they were able to take us to visit the famous underwater Christ of the Abyss sculpture at the Dry Rocks reef.
While snorkeling, I saw tons of beautiful fish, like parrotfish and angel fish. It was amazing to see all the types of fish that I’d been so obsessed with as a kid in real life. The reef is the type of beautiful thing you’ve got to see in person to understand how amazing it is. I got freaked out when I suddenly saw a 4′ – 5′ long shark. It was probably only 20 – 25 feet away from me! This caused me to frantically swim back to the boat after informing the person snorkeling near me I’d seen a shark. On the way to the boat, I swallowed several not-so-tasty mouthfuls of saltwater.
When I got to the boat, I (surprisingly calmly) asked the snorkel tour guide if it was normal to see a shark in the reef & what kind of shark it probably was. He described a shark & asked me if that’s what it looked like, & I said yes. He told me it was a Caribbean Reef Shark, which almost never attack people. Him & the captain said it was awesome that I saw it because it’s not the kind of thing they see there every day. Needless to say, I stayed a lot closer to the boat after that!
That night, I camped at the John Pennekamp park, which was really nice with lots of amenities. They had a communal washer, dryer, miniature library, & sink to wash dishes in. The campsites are beautiful, with trees between each campsite. I had my own charcoal grill & my own picnic table. There were a lot less no-see-ums there & very few mosquitoes. I got bug spray with Picaridin at Walmart that morning instead of DEET, & it seemed to work better.
Nurse Shark Encounter at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters in Marathon
Marathon, Key West, & Key Largo
I went to Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, which is an awesome marine park with lots of types of animals. They had a huge touch tank full of sting rays, some of which were almost three feet across, & I got to pet them to my heart’s content. They feel like wet mushrooms & are so adorable. They were my favorite animals there. While I was there, I got to feed parrotfish, barracudas, & a snapping turtle. I also got to feed tortoises vegetables, & they were so cute when they were earing.
I did two of the animal interactions that they offer – the Nursery Encounter & the Shark Encounter. For the Nursery Encounter, I got to touch, feed, & help train the baby stingrays, which was so cool. The Shark Encounter consisted of me getting to pet & feed a 4-foot-long nurse shark! They even rolled the shark over so I could pet his underside, & showed me how they trained the sharks to touch the target stick that had the symbol assigned to them on it. I never knew sharks could learn things like that, so it was awesome.
Baby Sting Ray Nursery Encounter at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters in Marathon
They also had a huge tank of big fish, turtles, and other fish. Wild (invasive) iguanas walked around their property, one of which was probably four feet long & orange. The staff at the park had named the big orange one Pumpkin. It was such a cool place.
Next, I went to Key West. In Key West, I went parasailing at Sebago Watersports, which was really cool! I was probably 150 feet or so up in the air, & it was beautiful to see the Keys from that high up. It was a little bit creepy being suspending by what was pretty much like a giant kite, but it was really quiet & peaceful up there. I’ve never done anything like that before, & I would definitely do it again.
The Southernmost Point in the United States in Key West
The only thing I didn’t like about my trip to the Keys was when I went to the restaurant Blue Heaven. I’d heard from several sources that it had the best key lime pie & was an awesome place with cats & chickens roaming all around. I was disappointed by the fact that, despite its reputation, there were no cats or chickens roaming around the restaurant. More disappointing than that was the fact that when I walked inside to ask for a piece of key lime pie to go that I was charged $10 for ONE SLICE OF PIE, which I only paid for because I thought they were charging me the whole pie price & that they’d had to cut a whole pie to give me my slice. I thought “Maybe they don’t sell it by the slice.” Later, on Google Reviews I learned that is the normal pie price. The pie was good, but no better than the Key Lime pie you can buy from the Publix Bakery*.
Walgreens in Key West on Duval Street – The BEST Walgreens
In Key West, I walked around downtown Key West, mostly on Duval street. They’ve got the BEST Walgreens ever, & the outside of the Pegasus Hotel is beautiful. I visited Mile Marker 0 & took a selfie at the Southernmost Point of the United States. It was cool to be in such a geographic location. I went to the beach real quick, then left to go back to Key Largo. Hotels down there cost too much for my budget, & Key Largo is home to the Key Largo Kampground & Marina. I got to watch the sun set, neon warm bright orange over the ocean, as I drove across the Overseas highway. The Key Largo Kampground & Marina was really nice, with lots of amenities including badminton courts, a pool, boat docks, & a playground.
Giraffe Feeding at Zoo Miami
Miami, Jensen Beach, & Palm Bay
I went to the Miami Zoo! It was the best zoo I have ever been to. It’s 280 acres, which was amazing. It took about five hours to look at everything, & I loved every minute of it. The zoo is divided up into different geographical locations, like “Everglades“, “Asian Riverlife“, & “Amazon Rainforest“, & more. While I was there, I saw tons of awesome animals. I saw lions, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, parrots, tigers, hippos, koalas, dingoes, tapirs, lots of cool frogs & reptiles, monkeys, anteaters, flamingos, otters, eagles, & lots more. I had never got to see tapirs or anteaters before in real life, & they are some of my absolute favorite animals. They were awesome!
While I was there, I got to feed parakeets, cockateils, & rosellas in their aviary. I also got to feed a giraffe lettuce & feed a rhinoceros plants. It was so cool seeing those animals up close. The giraffe licked my face! They also had a huge, stunning aviary with plants, waterfalls, & tons of tropical birds that you got to walk among. It was really beautiful. I also got to pet baby goats at their petting zoo.
Ancient Spanish Monastery in Miami
In Miami I also visited the Ancient Spanish Monastery, which was stunningly beautiful & had a profound sense of peace around it. I think it’s amazing how they can deconstruct a building, ship it across the ocean, & rebuild it again somewhere else. Inside the monastery, it almost felt like I had stepped back in time. It was amazing to stand there & imagine what the building was like a few hundred years ago, what the walls had seen & heard.
Jensen Beach – Sand & Lifeguard Tower
I headed north to Jensen Beach, which is by Port St. Lucie. It was a beautiful beach, & reminded me of the great beaches near Panama City in Northwestern Florida. I watched the sun set there & went in the ocean. The sand is a pretty dark-gray color, & they’ve got lifeguards, which is nice. After the sun set, I drove to Palm Bay & stayed in another Comfort Inn there. After two consecutive nights sleeping & living inside my tiny Smart Car, it was nice being in a hotel.
Baby Armadillos at Fort Mantanzas Park in St. Augustine
I visited the Fort Mantanzas park, which is free to get into & is filled with old, beautiful oak trees with branches stretching & curving out over the ground. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the monument because the ferry that leads to it isn’t running right now. The docks that lead to the ferry are considered unsafe due to damage they sustained in Hurricane Matthew last year. While I was there, I walked their boardwalk trail through the forest & got to watch four baby armadillos digging through the leaves to find bugs to eat. They were adorable, & it felt so special to be able to see something like that so close. They were only about a foot off the boardwalk, so I got to take really close pictures of them without them being worried about me. All of them were small enough they could have fit in the palm of my hand, & even the ranger said he’d never seen baby armadillos. Seeing the baby armadillos made up for not being able to see the fort. The armadillos were definitely one of the highlights of my vacation.
Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine
In St. Augustine, I visited the Castillo de San Marcos, a national monument & fort that was used by the Spanish, British, & later, the Americans. It was built in 1672. It was really cool to see something that was such a part of history, & to walk around inside it knowing that hundreds of years ago, other people had stood in the same place I was. Going places like that feels like you’re reaching your hand back out into the past & touching all the things that no longer are, & they are reaching forward & touching things they never could imagine would exist. I toured the fort it & learned a lot about forts, cannon balls, & how they defended Florida from their enemies. I thought it was really interesting that the fort belonged to three nationalities at different times, but was so sturdy it was never taken by force. Each time it changed hands, it did so by treaty. I also visited the old city gates, which it was also cool to think about how long ago they had been built.
St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum
I visited the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, which was amazing. At the lighthouse, I climbed 219 steps to the top (140 feet up), & the view is AMAZING from the top. On a clear day, you can see for 25 miles! It was beautiful, & they said it’s the second-tallest lighthouse in Florida. I’ve never got to explore a lighthouse before, & that was one of the things I wanted to do on vacation. I also got to eat a really awesome piece of maple fudge that I bought at their gift shop. The fudge is made by the person who owns the lighthouse. I think it’s wonderful that they still light it up every night even though it no longer guides ships.
I went to the St. Augustine beach, which was nice except for there being a really strong current, something which prevented me from being in the water too much. That evening, I stayed in a really nice local Inn, called Jaybird’s Inn. It was a really nice place.
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park in Gainesville
The last day of my trip, I had a really good omelet at Jaybird’s Restaurant, the restaurant that belongs to the hotel. My omelet had smoked salmon, ham, & tomatoes in it. They also gave me potatoes & toast along with it.
Then, I headed west & went to the Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park in Gainesville, where you take their boardwalk trail 236 steps down into a giant, ancient sinkhole canyon. It was very beautiful. The path itself was beautiful, & there were tons of pretty trees, natural waterfalls, & mossy stones. The walls of the canyon were covered in ferns, like a miniature rain forest.
Tree Frog – Frogs: A Chrous of Colors Exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville
Later that day, I visited the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida’s Gainesville campus. They had a special butterfly rain forest exhibit where you walk through a beautiful aviary filled with tropical butterflies, orchids of all colors, & lush green plants. The butterflies there were amazing. They had a huge number of stunning Blue Morpho butterflies, which were amazing to see in real life, as well as a variety of other beautiful species. They also had a really neat frog exhibit (Frogs! A Chorus of Colors) with different types of frogs you could look at, from colorful poison dart frogs to gigantic toads. It was really cool. They also had a bunch of cool exhibits about the early peoples & Native Americans in Northern Florida, replicas of prehistoric animal bones, like a mammoth, and neat old pottery that they found in Northern Florida.
Later that day, I came home. I arrived in late afternoon. My family stood on my driveway, waving. My dog jumped around & climbed into my car when I got there. I hugged everybody. It was great. I’d missed all of them so much.
As I unpacked & told my family all about my vacation, & as I got back into my normal routine, the memories I’d made became even better. I reflected upon everything that I’d learned, & what I walked away from my vacation with. I had walked away with numerous memories, ideas, & experiences fresh in my mind.
But what made learning all those things relevant & worth it was the knowledge that I am capable.
*Disclosure: I am employed by Publix, but I would still feel the same way about the pie even if I didn’t work there.