Get Artsy in St. Petersburg, Florida

One of the great things about the sunny city of St. Petersburg is its artsy vibe. Walking around downtown you are bound to notice a speckling of colorful murals.

I felt like I spotted a new one each time I was there. Along with the free displays of art, there are a number of fantastic art museums in the small city. One of the reasons I wanted to visit to begin with was the Salvador Dali Museum [1 Dali Blvd, St Petersburg, FL 33701]. This is the largest collection of Dali works outside of Europe. The building itself is a work of art from outside and within.

Dali’s obscure surrealist work has always been intriguing to me.

I am continually fascinated with his ability to create pictures within pictures.

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A free audio tour is offered with admission, it was something interesting to take advantage of – it pointed out features I would have never picked up on and tells the story of each painting. Possibly the most iconic of Dali works are his slithering clocks

and dripping images from the 1940s dubbed as the “nuclear mysticism” phase.

There were so many paintings I was excited to finally see in person – and one of the best things about visiting a focused artist museum is learning new works. New favorites include skeletons riding bikes around a piano fountain

and sardines on a platter with a telephone.

But looking deeper as you always must with Dali, there is so much more. One extra bonus – during the time I visited there was an extensive exhibit dedicated to Frida Kahlo – the famed Mexican painter known best for her folksy self portraits.

Quick tip! On Thursday evening the museum offers discounted ticket prices. Another exciting, yet totally different museum is the Chihuly Collection [720 Central Ave, St. Petersburg, FL 33701]. I first discovered Dale Chihuly during my trip to Seattle, and realized I had seen his works in many places and truly came to appreciate it. I was excited to see a great display of his exquisite glass sculptures in little old St. Pete’s. Some unique items in this gallery were incredible flowers,

a boat filled with balls,

squiggling rainbow chandeliers,

and a forest of eclectic shards.

The museum itself is not very big, but you can extend your time by watching the many videos and with admission you get a chance to watch a glass blowing demonstration.

Looking for more artsy activity?

+Check out the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg

+Try out another close by city such as the Tampa Museum of Art, Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, or head to Sarasota for the Ringling Museum and Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy

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Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Picture yourself on a secluded island, seventy miles off Key West at one of America’s most remote National Parks. You can be snorkeling, sunning, and swimming in the most inviting turquoise ocean. On land you can tour a 19th century fort, hike out to a bird sanctuary, or discover purple coral and pink conch shells.

Whatever your interests are, Dry Tortugas National Park is an incredible adventure, well off the beaten path.

How to get there?

You can only reach the island by ferry, seaplane, or private boat. This is a pricey trip – I almost skipped it in efforts to be thrifty, but in the end the splurge paid off because this is a memory that will last a lifetime. The most affordable way to visit is by making a reservation via Yankee Freedom’s ferry service leaving from Key West. The ride to the island is just over two hours long, keep your eye out for sea turtles – you’ll have four hours to explore on the island. It’s a full day trip including breakfast, lunch, and snorkeling gear.

What is there to do?

+On the ferry you can sign up for a time-slot to tour Fort Jefferson. It’s a brief introduction to the history of the Guardian of the Gulf, but you can read more in the Visitors Center and walk around the grounds. It’s amazing that something so self sufficient existed in the middle of nowhere. There is no natural source of water on the island, so fort engineers designed a system to collect and tore rainwater. A walk on top of the fort yields infinitely beautiful views.

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+Snorkel gear is included with your trip and if you are lucky enough to get a calm day this is an remarkable spot. You will see tons of sea creatures – coral and fish, which get much bigger as you head out to the pylons around the corner. Even if you don’t like to snorkel, just wading in the water you will encounter schools of fish.

+The water was perfectly warm and calm to swim in, and there is a lovely slice of sandy beach to sun on. Just keep your eyes peeled for the resident American crocodile that I really wished to see, but eluded me.

+Hike out to bird sanctuary and look for magnificent frigatebirds soaring above, the only year long nest colony in the US.

There are approximately 300 specifies of birds that visit the island. Look for an assortment of intricate and vibrant coral (there are 30 species on the island) – who knew they would be bright purple?

There were piles of conch shells, some fresh and pink – others blanched from the sun.

You are asked not to collect anything from the island, just take away pictures and memories.

+Only a few camping sites exist, so reservations need to be made way in advance. I imagine this would be one of the most dazzling places to camp in the world when the day trippers leave – the dark sky would be magical at night.

Tips

+The entrance fee for the park is $10, which should be deducted from transportation ticket price if you have NPS pass

+Make sure to ask for any discounts including student or military

+Grab a free parking spot instead of paying extra for a garage all day in Key West

+Wear your bathing suit, pack a towel, sunscreen, hat, and pack a change of clothes, and a sweater (the ride home is freezing with the AC)

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A Weekend in the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys is an archipelago of over 1,700 islands connected by a series of bridges, including the southernmost part of the continental US.

A trip to the keys is synonymous with day drinking and beach lazing – but if you’re feeling more active there is so much to see and do! Here is my idea of the perfect weekend in paradise:

Robbies Marina, 77522 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036

Pull in and you’ll find a whole little world including a restaurant, bar, market, kayak/boat rentals, fish, and snorkeling.

I wasn’t looking for any of that at the moment, my sole purpose was to feed the tarpon. It’s $1 to watch out on the dock and $3 for a bucket of your own fish. A group of over 100 fish visit the marina looking for some easy pickins’. These fish are believed to weigh up to 300lbs, they are massive!

On the dock you can timidly toss a fish to the beasts, or hold it a few inches above the water and make um leap for it!

The latter is a huge adrenaline rush, and somehow the wide mouthed fish weighing more than I do myself did not clamp on to my fingers and take me into the depths….I couldn’t help but scream with excitement every time I lured one out of the water. Beware of the pelicans while you’re having fun. They hurt if they grab a hold of your hand trying to get the fish!

Hit the Beach

+Anne’s Beach, Overseas Hwy Mile Marker 73.5 Islamorada, FL 33036

You won’t find long stretches of sand here, but you can find your own little enclave off the boardwalk if you’re willing to take a look. This is a scenic beach with shallow waters that stretch for a long way. It may not be the typical beach, but it’s gorgeous, and free to walk around.

+Bahia Honda State Park, 36850 Overseas Hwy, Big Pine Key, FL 33043

Popularly touted as the best beach in the Keys, I was curious to check out this park. You will have to pay admission, but I think it is worth it if you plan on staying a few hours. There are a few short walks you can take before hitting the sand, start with an old section of the Bahia Honda Bridge. You will be treated to a tremendous vista.

On the other side of the park is the Silver Palm Nature Trail, more off the beaten path and only .2 mile. Learn about the flora in the area including sea lavender and silver palm.

From here you can head out to the beach and if you’d like keep walking to find some seclusion – the water is blissfully clear and gorgeous.

You can really get some mileage in, it is a long beach plenty of room for laying out and nice for swimming. It is a natural beach and the shore has a lot of seaweed – but it is for the benefit of the seabirds so I didn’t mind a bit.

National Key Deer Refuge, 179 Key Deer Blvd. Big Pine Key, FL 33043

Could there be anything cuter than a MINI-deer? No, I really don’t think there is. The lower Florida Keys is home to an endemic species, the key deer, and it is positively adorable. At one point they were nearly extinct with a population of only 25, and although they are still endangered today populations are on the rise possibly up to 800. You first stop should be to the Visitors Center, address above located in a shopping center. Here you can get a map of the refuge and some tips on where best to see the deer.

Our first stop was to the Blue Hole, a short paved trail to an observation platform where we saw two gators, a balancing turtle act,

and most exciting of all – the key deer!

This is a full sized adult even though it looks like a fawn, they are usually 30 inches tall and weigh 55lbs as adults…swoon!

Other places to spot deer:

There are two other hiking trails to try spotting the deer: Mannillo Trail a short out and back trail and Watson Trail a 2/3 mile loop trail. Since we had already seen them, we decided to skip them – so let me know how they are if you go! Also, the deer are more commonly seen around the roads at dusk. Do not speed on Big Pine Key, where the deer live for their safety and your wallet, you will get a ticket!

Sugarloaf Key Bat Tower, 4 Bat Tower Rd, Upper Sugarloaf Key, FL 33042

A quick roadside attraction, on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1929 to help control mosquitoes, however it didn’t work because the bats flew away never to return.

Just a quick stop, but a cool bit of history. Also – on this quiet back road we spotted an osprey with the fresh catch of the day.

I’m thinking that was it’s nest on top of the tower. You never know what you may encounter!

Go Kayaking!

The reason I booked my AIRBNB was for the specific perk of the two complimentary kayaks. There are plenty of places to rent if you don’t have the same deal going on, but really it is so nice to explore the shallow turquoise waters of the keys by paddling.

We saw so many birds – including the white variation of the Great Blue Heron, and some really interesting sea creatures along the way.

Key West

Baby’s Coffee, 3180 US-1, Key West, FL 33040

Having left at the crack of dawn from Hollywood, FL – we were despondent by mid-afternoon, but had so much more to see! This wonderful local establishment revived our entire existence with their excellent iced coffee and local biscotti. If you need to fuel up, this is the place!

Duval Street

The happening spot on Key West, lined with shops, bars, restaurants, and great people watching. We walked up and down checking out the scene, but it was a lot to handle for low-key peeps. Our favorite place on the street? The walking dead pinball machine at Angelina’s Pizzeria [208 Duval St, Key West, FL 33040]!

I loved spotting the funky cars that post up around the area as well.

Southernmost Point, Whitehead St & South St, Key West, FL 33040

Another quick roadside spot, unless there’s a line, and totally free.

Spot a Key West Gypsy Chicken

Hogfish Bar and Grill, 6810 Front St, Stock Island, FL 33040

I loved this place because it was casual, on the water, and faaar away (yet so close!) from the hubbub of the rest of Key West. It has a much more local feel, and the hogfish sandwich is stellar.

Other local specialties including conch fritters, gulf pink shrimp, and a traditional key lime pie were solid.

B.O.’s Fish Wagon, 801 Caroline St Key West, FL 33040

Cool dive-y vibe going on, live band, this is a great casual place to grab dinner.

Killer fish tacos, hand-cut fries, yummy beans.

A real winner in my books!

Pro tip: There IS free parking on Key West! Find a spot at the Court House [302 Fleming St, Key West, FL 33040] after 6pm on weekdays and all weekend. There are plenty of spots near St. Mary’s Church [1010 Windsor Ln, Key West, FL 33040] for all day – any day parking.

Day two: Dry Tortugas National Park

A day trip to this NP is pricey, but absolutely worth it to experience one of the most beautiful places in the world oozing with history. Look out for the full trip account tomorrow!

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Shark Valley, Big Cypress, and Everglades City, Florida

The North entrance to Everglades National Park is Shark Valley, just under an hour from Miami on the historic Tamiami Trail. Here is a 15 mile paved scenic loop trail and there multiple means of exploring it. You can take the two hour tram ride, bicycle – bring your own or rent, or set out on foot. It is hot and exposed, so whatever you are doing be sure to wear a hat, sunscreen, bug spray, and bring water.

It is excellent for wildlife viewing, you will see HUGE gators, baby gators, gator scat – ALL THINGS GATOR.

Also plenty of birds and turtles.

There are two short trails spur off of the loop – Bobcat Boardwalk which goes through a sawgrass marsh and Otter Cave Hammock Trail which has neat solution holes and a tropical hardwood hammock.

There is a 65-foot observation tower that allows you to see for miles and miles.

Outside of the Everglades National Park border, there are other preserves well worth visiting in the area:

Big Cypress National Preserve

Oasis Visitor Center is a good place to start your exploration, grab a map and go! I highly suggest the safari-like experience on the 26-mile well maintained gravel Loop Road. You will see incredible vista strands of cypress trees, countless wading birds, and of course more gators all without leaving your car.

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If you’re looking for a hike there are a few options to get outside of your car on the loop:

Tree Snail Hammock Trail was wild early in the morning, we heard the splashes and squawks from the car. Gators and wading birds were present on the .3 mile hike, but the big draw was the colorful tree snails!

We saw so many of the pretty creatures. The trail is easy to miss, look for signage across from the Loop Road Environmental Education Center.

Gator Hook Trail is an old logging road that travels through dwarf cypress trees goes out 2.4 miles one way.

The trail is unique though a bit rough on the feet, you’ll be walking over logs and limestone bedrock, it can be very muddy as well.

Along the way are gorgeous wildflowers and plenty of birds.

The trail can be narrow and a bit overgrown at times, it is very exposed so dress appropriately. Eventually, the it became too watery to continue for us folks not in waders!

Along the Tamiami Trail

Kirby Storter Boardwalk is a one mile round trip trail through a cypress strand – still a part of Big Cypress National Preserve. Expect beautiful air plants, bromeliads, and keep on the look out for gators.

H.P. Williams Picnic Area is a scenic spot to take a lunch break. You can also spot gators and wading birds here.

Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

Check out the works of a world renowned photographer who takes impeccable black and white shots of the landscape using an 8×10″ view camera. The gallery offers guided swamp and cottage rentals. Although I didn’t get to visit, this is on the top of my list for next time! If you go, tell me how it is.

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

Not a part of the National Parks System, and completely free (aside from any donation you’d like to make). This 2,000 foot boardwalk is very scenic and has panels teaching about the flora.

You are likely to see gators and a variety of birds. The end of the trail is a swamp vista where I saw my first wood stork in a dramatic display.

I have seen many since, but none so close and hunting in this manner.

Where to get dinner?

Triad Seafood in Everglades City was a perfect end to the day. Right on the water we watched the pelicans hunt as we waited for our food. The local stone crabs were divine, the meat was undeniably fresh and sweet.

We also tried gator bites and had a killer blackened fish sandwich. Key lime pie was homemade and super tasty too. Service was fast and friendly, this casual spot was a favorite meal from our entire trip!

*If you made it all the way out to Everglades City are staying north of Miami, it may be quicker to take Alligator Alley (I-75) back home.*

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Everglades NP South Entrance, Florida

An hour south of Miami, but an entire world away, is the main entrance to Everglades National Park. A great place to start your exploration is at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center [40001 State Hwy 9336, Homestead, FL 33034], grab a map and begin your journey. There is one central road running through this portion of the park 38 miles long that leads to Flamingo Visitor Center – which is the end of the line, be sure to have enough gas in your tank. Along the drive you will find vistas and trailheads for both hiking and paddling. The hikes in the park are flat, many are paved or use boardwalks, only a few are a natural ground. If you’re heading out on foot, here are my recommendations for which hikes to take:

Anhinga Trail

The premiere trail of the park just .8 mile on a paved surface is for everyone! Before you set out, you need to do an obscure task to protect your vehicle. Vultures are abundant in this area and they have an odd attraction to the rubber strips that line your car.

Tarps and bungee cords are available to cover it up. You really should do this, because I noticed whole groups of the birds on top of uncovered cars pecking away – they can do some noticeable damage. Weird, but funny! Anyway, this trail is unbelievable gorgeous.

You will see plenty of gators basking in the sunshine.

A colorful array of birds that may include: the namesake anhinga, heron, purple gallinule, and grebe.

It was pretty cool to see the grebe carrying around vegetation, a behavior I haven’t witnessed elsewhere. There are also some sizable fish in the waters.

Best at dawn or dusk (possibly twice – once on your way in and out!), because the animals are more active. In the same parking lot is the short Gumbo Limbo trail, just .4 mile. Learn about the namesake tree and other flora of the Everglades.

Pinelands Trail

A short .4 mile walk to see a different habitat filled with pines. More of a draw for me, this is a great place to go hunting for tree snails – there were once 52 variations of these colorful mollusks.

The informational panels will also show you what Poisonwood looks like – a plant whose name would suggest you steer clear of.

Pa-hay-okee Trail

Meaning ‘grassy waters’ this may look like a prairie, but the shallow sheet of water is the Shark River Slough eight miles wide flowing slowly towards the Gulf. Just .2 mile to reach a vista where you may see gator and certainly some birds.

The boardwalk is surrounded by Bald Cypress trees – if you are visiting in the winter they are dormant and lose their needles to cope with seasonal drought.

I loved the aura of their spooky sleeping state, but am curious how different it would be in the wet summer season.

Mahongony Trail

Another boardwalk .4 mile long, a good place to see larger trees and learn more about flora of the region – was not particularly active when I visited in the middle of the day.

West Lake Trail

More boardwalks and additional .4 mile this time to see a mangrove environment. Once again, not particularly active by midday.

Snake Bight Trail

It was hot and sticky by the afternoon, but I wanted my long sleeve sweat wicking jacket to protect from the bugs. DEFINITELY coat yourself with bug spray – even in the middle of winter. This trail is on natural ground 1.8 miles one way, an out and back design. Your route is beside a muddy creek lined with mangroves.

Keep an eye out for herons hanging onto the roots looking for prey.

Other than pretty air plants and an occasional butterfly, it was quiet.

And hot. After a bunch of previous trails on top of the weather, this was a bit grueling and I was really hoping for something spectacular at the end of the line – I wasn’t disappointed. You dead end at a vista which is very different from everything else at the park – almost a pink hue.

We saw some roseate spoonbills fly overhead, surprised by our presence. We had it all to ourselves except for one heron and a pair of horseshoe crab lovers rustling around in the muck.

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Flamingo Visitor Center

When you reach the end of the line – the fun doesn’t have to stop. You can rent kayaks at the Flamingo Marina – you may want to make a reservation with them. We were unfortunately shut out because a whole troop of boy scouts got there before us renting the entire fleet! However, the employee said that is a rare occurrence. Lucky us ;). We did see an osprey in its nest though!

If you’re looking for more to do on the way back to Miami, you can have plenty of fun in Homestead!

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How-to on visiting Everglades National Park, Florida

The Everglades is an expansive 1.5 million acres of wetland, the third largest National Park in the lower 48, and it’s only 20% of the original tract. At one point there was a plan to drain the entire swamp, which would have been devastating to the environment. It’s the largest subtropical wilderness in America home to 36 threatened/protected species including the manatee, American crocodile, and Florida panther. It is a birdwatchers heaven, with 350 different species.

Not only an area of significance for wildlife, but this Wetland of International Importance purifies the majority of water for South Florida – it is essential to all of us. So when visiting this place of consequence tread with care!

Outdoor opportunities are plentiful, you can hike one of the many trails, paddle the 99 miles of wilderness waterway, bike miles of paved trails, drive and take in the view, or hop on a guided tour. No matter what you do you are bound to see alligators and amazing swamp scenery!

There are multiple entrances points into the park which are hours away from one another, so therein lies your first decision – where to start:

+Royal Palm is the south entrance is outside of Homestead, this is the main entrance to the park. Here you can find the famed Anhinga Trail along with plenty of other hikes and two visitors centers: Ernest F. Coe at the beginning and Flamingo at the end of the road – try renting a kayak out here!

+Shark Valley is the north entrance closest to Miami and is different because it offers a 15 mile paved road for wildlife observation. This is great for people who don’t want to walk who take a tram tour and extremely popular with cyclists. Right next door is Big Cypress National Preserve, which should be visited as well!

+Gulf Coast in Everglades City is for those coming from the west and looking to engage in water activities. It is the jump off point for exploring Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove islands.

What to bring:

Sunscreen, bug spray, a hat, sweat wicking clothing, your own water and food

Good to know:

Unless you have the NPS pass, private vehicle entrance fee is $25, good for 7 consecutive days

Other things to do:

+Take a popular airboat ride

+Visit the Native American reservation of the Miccosukee Indian

+Stopping in Everglades City? Be sure to try some fresh seafood

+Coming from Homestead? Plenty of things to do on the way there or back.

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Grab a bite at Shiver’s BBQ, Florida

Florida isn’t the first state I think of when it comes to BBQ, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some seriously kickin plates in the state. When in the Miami area Shiver’s BBQ [28001 S Dixie Hwy, Homestead, FL 33033] is an institution for the cuisine.

It gets packed at dinner time so expect a wait, and seating is communal at picnic tables. We decided to just grab our food to go, so I can’t speak to the service. The chicken was tender and moist with great seasoning, excellent execution for Jeff’s brisket. However, the shining star of the show were the out of this world sides! I mean these were incredible and worth going for alone. Collards and BBQ beans were PERFECT, the cornbread soufflé and sweet potato soufflé were INSANE.

I’ve never had anything like the latter two sides, buttery, sweet, velvety, smooth. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. PS if you’re a cat lover, don’t forget to drive around back.

This place is the cat’s meow.

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