We still have some more frequent flier miles to burn before the U.S. Airways/ American merger messes them up, so we decided to drive down the Florida Keys. We had visited Key West before on a cruise ship stop, but had never really had the chance to experience what the Keys are really like. Geologically speaking, they are the southernmost reaches of the Appalachian Mountains. I decided to try to stay away from cookie-cutter chain hotels, and go for a more local feel. Thus, I booked mostly a series of B&Bs, which got successively larger and more feature-rich as we went along. All of them had microwaves and refrigerators, and all offered breakfast, so we didn't eat out that much except at lunch. I scored exit row seats, so we had a pleasant flight down. About 6 or 7 plain clothes secret service types got on with us and travelled to Miami in their suits and earpieces. We picked up the car at MIA and started a drive down to Key Largo. Miami looked like a typical congested city with a lot of construction on the roads. As we travelled down the highway all that fell away and it was like entering another world. Thank goodness for the GPS feature on our cell phones, as it led us everywhere we wanted to go. Like after a while we felt hungry, so we turned on the "Local Scout" and it gave us a list of nearby eateries. This little feature we've named "Winnie," as it's a Windows Phone, lead us right to a place called "Shipwrecks," which we never would have seen without her. Shipwrecks is a little out of the way joint with a real island style menu. Our first conch fritters. Check. Our first mahi-mahi. Check. Our first key lime pie. Check. Since we are in Key Largo, visions of Bogey and Bacall keep flashing through our minds Using Winnie, we easily find our first B&B. We have a cute little room which opens out on a garden with orchids, pineapples, coconut palms, you name it. The garden was alive with butterflies, birds, and lizards. I have seen lizards dozens and dozens of times, but they make me laugh every time with their wide-legged scampers, and the little push-ups and puffing of the gular sac which seems to be to intimidate me. It doesn't work. The B&B is right on the water and we watch our first magnificent sunset. Check. In the morning we wake up early and take some fruit, yogurt, and tea we picked up out on the picnic table outside our room. No one else is up and we have the garden all to ourselves. At the appointed hour the B&B sets out coffee and scones. We find some packs of hot chocolate and add them to our coffee and head down to the patio overlooking the water. We shared our scones so we could each have some key lime and pineapple-ginger flavor. We could have used the furnished paddle boats or kayaks, but I had seen a sign for the African Queen (yes, THAT African Queen) up the road, so we cranked up Winnie to get us there. This is the same boat that was in the movie with Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. They made a "stunt" boat for some of the more dangerous scenes, but this is THE boat, and it is available for going out on a little cruise. We go up to the ticket kiosk, but it turns out the captain needs a little notice before taking her out, in order to get the boiler going and all. He asks if we can wait until noon to go out. We say yes, and run over to the captain of a glass bottom boat to see if he can squeeze us on in the meantime. He agrees to do so. During this glass bottom boat tour, we see the third largest living reef in the world, and the only one attached to the continental United States. Iguanas. Check. Reef. Check. Pelicans. Check. White crane. Check. Cormorants. Check. Frigate Birds. Check. I am so excited by what I am seeing, I forget to properly brace myself against the motion of the boat, and hurt my knee. After the glass bottom boat tour, we got on The African Queen. Check. We both got to steer the Queen. [/Hepburn font on/] I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating.[\Hepburn font off\] The captain gave us a recommendation for someplace for lunch. Keys Pink Shrimp. Check. Crabs. Check. Another slice of Key Lime Pie. Check. Back in the car we decide to make a run up to John Pennekamp Reef State Park. Mangroves. Check. Poisonwood. Check. Miami Blue Butterfly. Check. Lots of walking along seeing other plants and animals. We do some geocaching and just generally appreciate nature. We head back down to our B&B and take a rinse. We then head for the saltwater pool. The water is just the right temperature and there are some noodles available. After doing a few exercises for my knee, I know why my Arthritis Water Exercise students say this helps them. After about an hour we make some tea and go over to the waterfront to watch the sun plunge into the gulf. On our way back, we see that there is an orphan scone still in the front office that needs a home. Hubby and I split it before bed. I look at my by-now thoroughly frizzed hair and decide any further styling would be a waste of time. The next morning I just shampoo and let it air-dry while we have our yogurt, tea and V8 juice at our picnic table. We get our mocha and scones at the front office, eat them by the water and pack up the car. They "force" some more scones on us for the drive down to Big Pine Key. We take a nice leisurely drive down the two-lane highway. We visit the Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center and visit many birds being nursed to see if they can go back to the wild after injuries. The most common way they are injured is by getting tangled in fishing line or eating plastic items. When we stopped for lunch we had Conch Bisque, split a sandwich, and had more Key Lime Pie. I had selected our next B&B because it adjoined the Key Deer refuge. Just as we turned off the main highway, a large white heron walked out of the brush on the side of the road and used the road as a runway to take flight. What a sight. Another few yards up the road we saw our first of many Key Deer. Check. They are an endangered species that lives only in the Florida Keys. They are small, about the size of a large dog. Adult males stand about 30 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh 55-75 pounds. Females weigh between 40 and 65 pounds and stand about 26 inches at the shoulder. We saw several more as we got closer to the B&B. I'm gonna love this place. The lady who runs the B&B gave us a tour of the place. Our room once again looks out on a garden, and we have a screen porch. She and her husband are not only vegans, but are also green environmentalists. They are involved with the Sea Shepard. We had a long day, so we changed into our swim suits and sat in the salt water spa for a long time, as it was only pleasantly hot. About 6:30 the pet cockatoo in the nearby gazebo began making quite the racket. She was fussing at a deer that was eating up seed that she had scattered just outside her gazebo. The owner soon rescued her from being "eaten" by the deer and took her to her indoor roost for the night. The offending deer pushed open the door to the gazebo and helped herself to the spilled birdseed. We laughed, dried off and took a well-deserved nap after seeing a sunset over the marsh. There was a meteor shower predicted, and we wanted to see it if possible. At about 0200 we went to the beach and looked for meteors. Hubby spotted one, so we lay down on chaise longues to see the show. No more meteors, but we had an outstanding view of the Milky Way and a number of constellations in the inky dark. At about 0400 we went back to bed. We both woke up about 7:30, showered and went up for our vegan breakfast. We had versions of chocolate chip muffins, pineapple slices, frittata, juice, coffee, and potatoes. Wow, it was good. During breakfast we and the other couple staying there had a lively discussion with the owners about veganism, environmentalism, sustainability, GMOs, whaling, turtles, etc. The owners gave us passes to Bahai Honda State Park which was once named the best beach in the USA. We first walked out to a portion of the old railroad bridge. An industrialist and the founder of Standard Oil by the name of Henry Flagler built a railroad to move products and tourists to and from the Keys and his many holdings on the mainland. The railroad ran successfully for several years until partially destroyed by a hurricane. Then the roadbed and standing bridges were sold to the State of Florida which built the Overseas Highway connecting the Keys to each other and the mainland using much of the remaining railway infrastructure. After walking on the old bridge, we did several nature trails, a butterfly garden, and walked along the surf to see the birds. Afterwards, we drove up the road to a Cuban restaurant. Cuban Sandwich. Check. Cafe Cubano. Check. We next visited a turtle hospital where injured and diseased turtles are being treated before being returned to the wild. This was fascinating. The hospital used to be supported by a hotel on the grounds, but a hurricane damaged them both. The owners only collected enough insurance to restore either the hospital or hotel, and opted to spend it on the hospital. Trying to make it a very productive day, we next sought out Blue Hole. This is an old quarry mined for materials to build the railway where numerous turtles, birds, fish and even alligators live. Alligator. Check. We next drove over to No Name Pub for some key lime pie and scored a geocache. On the way back to our B&B we saw twenty or more Key Deer and a beautiful sunset. This, regretfully, is our last night at this B&B. As we pull in, the owner meets us with a takeaway breakfast for the next morning, as we have to leave early and drive to Key West to catch a ferry out to the Dry Tortugas. This is the last of the Appalachian Mountain chain and is about 70 miles off the coast of Key West. Our breakfast consists of an apple a muffin and a vegan yogurt to take with us. Dang, we won't see whatever yummy treat they have in store for our full vegan breakfast. We get up early the next day and pack the car for our approximately 30 mile trip to Key West. We were afraid that since it is a holiday weekend, there would be heavy traffic, but we get there in plenty of time. Before we left I had ordered a CD called "Florida Keys Road Trip," and it has been entertaining and informative. It has points of interest by mile marker, history, flora, fauna, music, etc. We are sorry to say goodbye to it. Winnie leads us right to the municipal parking garage close to where we will be boarding the ferry "Yankee Freedom." The only way to get to the Dry Tortugas is by boat or seaplane. The boat departs promptly at 8 a.m. Many of our fellow passengers seem to have been up all night partying in Key West, as they are snoozing everywhere one goes on the boat. It can take as many as 150 passengers. We went through the breakfast buffet line and picked our way back to the table amongst the snoozers. The main place we are going is Fort Jefferson, which served as both a fort and a prison. Its most infamous prisoner was Dr. Mudd, who was imprisoned for setting the leg of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln. The Dry Tortugas are in actuality practically devoid of a supply of fresh water. Through the years, a series of measures (mostly cisterns) were set up to capture and store rainfall. This led to mosquitos, which led to Yellow Fever. While Dr. Mudd lived there, there was quite an outbreak. It was thought to be contagious by human-to-human contact, and the afflicted were moved to a nearby island. That didn't help, and soon, even the medical personnel at Fort Jefferson died. Since Dr. Mudd was a physician, his status was changed and he became the resident doctor. He lived out his sentence, but was never pardoned until after his death. The troops who ran the fort had nearly as bad a life as the prisoners, due to the isolation and lack of water, food and supplies. We got about 4 and one half hours on the island, which we devoted to touring the fort, walking around looking at the birds and lizards, and spending sometime in the water. Some people came to camp. A seaplane captain injured his hand while we were there, and our ferry ended up transporting his passengers back. We got back to Key West about 5:30 p.m. We took our carryons out of the car and left it in the garage while we walked to our B&B. This gave us a chance to see a little of Key West along the way. There are chickens running loose all over the town. We were pretty tired and sweaty when we reached the B&B, and the front office was already closed. As we sat on the front porch, we spotted an envelope with my name on it. Inside were some notes, and best of all, a key. Oh joy, oh rapture! We will be able to shower and sleep somewhere! The room was right on the pool area, which was full of young hardbodies smoking a hookah. We got cleaned up and struck out for the Southermost Point, so named because it used to be the site of the southernmost lighthouse in the continental U.S. It was about 10 or 12 blocks from our B&B. We had been there before, but it was many years ago. This is one of the hot photos to take when visiting Key West. Tonight was no exception. There was a (fortunately orderly) line of people down the block waiting to take their picture in front of it. We actually made it to the front of the line before sunset. Photo at Southernmost Point. Check. Lots of folks were driving by on the street leaning out of windows to take a selfie. There were pedestrians, tricyclists, cars, vans, SUVs, and various electric vehicles like golf carts and club cars. We sat a few minutes to people watch and enjoy the sunset. My knee was aching, so we hailed a pedicab to get a ride back to the garage where we had left the rental car. We wanted to move it closer to the B&B so we could pack it in the morning without having to traipse all over town at an early hour. The parking situation wasn't as hopeless close to our B&B as we had feared. Riding the pedicab gave us another chance to see some of the goings-on in Key West. The next morning we were awakened early by the incessant crowing of the town roosters. We got ready for the day, then went down to have our continental breakfast on the porch in front of the office. Some of our fellow residents looked like they needed a cup of coffee but good. We took the quick walk to the Hemingway House. Hubby somehow manage to talk the ticket seller into giving us a $3.00 a piece discount. Perhaps the glint of the early morning sun off his bald head temporarily blinded her. Hemingway House. Check. There were signs all over the place not to sit on the historic furniture, but one couldn't do so anyway, for it was all taken by the 45 cats which live on the grounds. Hemingway had a six-toed cat, and all these polydactyl kitties are his descendants. Hemingway had four wives. His second, wealthy, wife bought this mansion from the leading "wrecker" of his day. Wreckers would go to the shoals when a ship would go aground, rescue the crew, gather up the cargo, then sell the cargo back for many times its worth. For a while Key West was the most prosperous town in the USA, based mostly on this "profession." After the Hemingways owned this house, Mrs. Hemingway (Pauline) replaced all the ceiling fans with lovely chandeliers and bought magnificent furniture on their many trips to foreign lands. While Ernest was away on one of his trips with one of his tootsies, Pauline tore out his boxing ring and replaced it with a swimming pool. When he saw this extravagance, he took a penny out of his pocket and threw it at her, saying she might as well take his last cent while she was at it. She picked up the penny and embedded it in the still-hardening grout, where it remains to this day. It was getting pretty hot and humid, so we left Key West after the Hemingway house and went back and got our car and started driving back towards Miami. All the traffic we had missed driving down we managed to experience driving back. Along the way we stopped at the Hurricane Monument. It is a memorial to the many service members and civilians who died in a storm in the 1930's. It was decorated for Memorial Day. One of the most interesting things about it was that it was built of fossilized coral, and one could read a lot of geology by just looking at the stone. Re-entering the Miami area was like going to a different world after a week of so much nature and history. Our hotel was close to the airport. We got there for their happy-hour, but it was more like a dinner, with free wine, salad, chili, bruschetta, etc. We then took a little soak in the hot tub. We hadn't seen TV. for a week, and attempted to watch, but couldn't figure out how to make the set stop speaking Spanish. The next day we drove out to the Everglades. We had seen them a couple of trips ago to Miami, but that time it was an airboat ride and alligator show. This time I wanted it to be a little more natural and wild, so we went to a National Park entrance, instead. This National Park was fortunate enough to have been once owned by Humble Oil. The oil there was of poor quality, so the oil company sold the tract to the federal government. The oil company had already built some roads and a tower, so they run trams there for us to go out to see the sea of grass and alligators. Much of the Everglades is pretty dry right now due to lack of rainfall, but the oil company dug out quarries and canals to build their roads, and the alligators live in these. We saw plenty of alligators, turtles, fish, birds, butterflies, etc. There were some baby alligators in a canal, and we were warned not to get too close taking our pictures. Sure enough, momma's head poked out of a pipe checking to see if we were endangering her babies. We drove back to our hotel and tried for a few geocaches in the area. Hubby took the rental car back to the early so we wouldn't have to rush the final morning. Another nice hot breakfast buffet at the hotel (they even include an omelet station) and then we took the hotel shuttle back to the airport. I scored us some exit-row seats, so it was a pretty pleasant trip home.