“Let’s Drive til it’s Warm!”
Our Family’s Road Trip to the Florida Keys
Article and photography by Jennifer Merrick
Take the kids out of school for a vacation? Not anymore.
Exams, part-time jobs and school projects mean it’s a high season family vacation or stay at home. And winters are long. And cold. But four flights during high season for some fun under the sun is prohibitively expensive.
Our solution? Let’s drive til it’s warm! We had ten days, two teenagers, snorkeling gear and a cooler filled with food. Time to hit the road!
Four states (New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia), 13 hours and 1086 km later, we were at our first destination: Mooresville, North Carolina, 40 minutes north of Charlotte.
Why Mooresville? Well, it’s about the halfway point on our trip, accommodation is right off the highway and most importantly, it’s the heart of NASCAR racing. And so if you’re a racing fan, like the two y-chromosome members of my family definitely are, it’s like being a kid in a candy story. There are so many car treats to choose from in the vicinity: high-speed go-karting at GoPro MotorPlex, numerous NASCAR shops and museums and the hometown of the legendary Dale Earnhardt.
What to do? We only had one day in the area, but we squeezed in visits to Lake Norman State Park, NASCAR Hall of Fame, Charlotte Speedway (where we drove along this famous track for the Christmas Speedway light and sound installation) and some of the best ribs ever at Lancaster BBQ.
Our Fave? Not being racing fans ourselves, my daughter and I thought we were taking one for the team when we agreed to this pit stop. But we ALL had a blast at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, especially at interactive exhibitions like the car race simulation and the pit stop demo, where my daughter’s hair was flying as she raced to fill up the tank and change the tire to beat her brother’s time.
Sixteen hours of driving and two more states (South Carolina, Georgia) later, we found our Holy Grail. The warm temperatures in Florida were a tonic for our winter weary bodies, and our dry, pale skin thirstily soaked up the moist, salty air. And it only got warmer the farther south we drove. By the time we arrived in the Florida Keys, it was a blissful 27°C.
Why the Florida Keys? It’s like driving to a Caribbean Island. In fact, the archipelago consists of approximately 1700 islands, 43 of which are connected by 42 bridges on the Overseas Highway. Key West, Florida’s southernmost point, is only 150 kilometres to Cuba. It’s a road tripper’s heaven. One minute we were driving down what looked like an ordinary highway, and the next, we were cruising on a bridge with a front-seat panoramic view of the most inviting turquoise water imaginable.
What to do? The keys have a laid-back vibe so some of the best moments involved a beach blanket or lounge chair and a view of the water. But there was lots to explore, too.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater park in the USA, has 170 acres of land and 48,000 acres of protected ocean. The Mangrove Trail was a great boardwalk that offered an introduction to this long-rooted species of trees that are often submerged in water. We spotted a very cool looking bearded iguana hiding among them, too. But most people come here for snorkelling. Besides the coral, fish and sea turtles there’s the famous Christ of the Abyss, an over eight-foot tall bronze sculpture of Jesus. Bahia Honda State Park was another gorgeous spot to spend an afternoon with its long white-sand beach on both the ocean and gulf side. For a view of both, we walked along the old Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, which is now just used for pedestrians. We also explored a little of colourful and historic Key West, tasting the best Cuban sandwich ever at Cuban Coffee Queen. And, of course, there was the Key lime pie, which we may have sampled a few times during our time here.
Our Fave: Aptly named, Sundowners in Key Largo has a large patio overlooking the water, delicious seafood and the best show in town – a Florida Keys sunset. A tradition at this restaurant is to feed the fish down at the docks, so off with their bucket of fish food the kids went. At first the cheeky pelican stole it all, but then came the big fish –a tarpon and a nurse shark –and the pelican backed off. It was amazing to watch but still not as enthralling as the sunset. We basked in the brilliant oranges and reds that reflected off the sailboats and palm trees. Happy. And happy at the same time (which is not always the case on a family vacation).
I now have it on my screensaver so that when it’s -10°C or when we’re arguing about homework, I can think back to this memory. It came in handy on the two-day drive back, too.
Click on cover to view published article