Miami & the Keys

The United States is blessed in the sense that it has such a diversity of geographical and geological assets. From mountains to coasts, lush forests to deserts, the immense size of the country gives its inhabitants such a spread of choice of where to go, what to see and do. In fact, this almost means Americans do not need a passport at all!

And so it is with Florida.

Located in a sub-temperate latitude, it may not have the most number of sunny days of all US States but it sure is the one that is lower in latitude from all of the other lower 48 except Texas. Which means it is warm for much of the year. We had come into Florida to embark on a cruise in the Caribbean (here). However with the pre and post stay in Miami, we made full use of the opportunity to do a series of mini road trips.

To be honest, we were adverse to exploring US cities at that time. So you might be surprised that aside from little Havana, we had seen very little else of Miami! You see, before we came our research led us to an intriguing story.

A castle and a refuge

Coral Castle directionsThis story is about love. Like many of the great love stories there is a context behind it. Can you imagine being rejected by your fiancée one day before the wedding? Latvian American Edward Leedskalnin was said to have experienced this. He migrated to the US alone, apparently dejected and settled in Florida. It was said he had tuberculosis which miraculously cured.

In 1923, he began what would be 28 years of building a compound now known as “Coral Castle”. Using coral limestone, he at first built a castle building replete with rooms for daily living. From then on a host of carvings, furniture were added including a reclining chair. The tower to the castle also came later. We thought it might be hard to sit on those coral furniture but they were surprisingly comfy!

Coral castle10
Don’t get too comfy!

It amazed us that these stones were mostly large and said to weigh 14 tons. There is still a mystery over how Edward moved and constructed them on his own. Some said he had supernatural powers. And it did not helped that he was said to have remarked he had “found out the secrets of the pyramids”. On the other hand he did say he had good knowledge of gravity and leverage. If this piques your interest, look it up!Coral castle01

And remarkably you’ll have to know that no mortar was used to seal the gaps between stones. The structure is so strong that even a category 5 storm did not move them.

Now Edward actually lived in his “castle” until his death in 1951. And he did charge curious folks for entry and tours. It is not a very large place and could be easily seen within half an hour. But it was worth the effort getting there, because it might really had been constructed out of love lost. Who knows? Edward took it to the grave giving little clues.

Since that time the ownership of the attraction has passed through a few people finally ending with its current owners since 1981.

If one had lost love, would one then focus on creating a love,

Sanctuary for the wild?

Wow, who keeps a bear?

The refuge is a full volunteer center, and is a place for injured and sick animals. We were there at about lunch time, which meant that it was feeding time! Unfortunately, all the animals in the shelter are housed behind wire fences – to keep them apart and also to save on space. Sanctuary here does not mean a lot of space for the animals to roam about and the place runs on donations from the public.

Exotic pets he once was

We noted that the shelter has a large number of carnivorous animals: Tigers, Wolves and Bears. We saw a white tiger strolls about in his little pen while yet another tiger in his pen, lying about waiting to be fed. Many of the animals kept here were either abandoned or confiscated from owners that were abusing them. In the US, there are many people who keep such “exotic” pets. It does not cost a lot to visit the shelter (US$5pp at that time), but do not expect shows or the like when venturing there.We don’t really know what happens eventually to these animals. And that is one thing we have since been a little more skeptical about – such refuges that is. Just like the elephant sanctuaries in parts of southeast Asia being mere tourist traps, one need to do a lot more research before donating or visiting these places.

And speaking of research, did you know that the southern tip of Florida is a mere 60 miles from Cuba? That’s because Florida extend well into the sea through a chain of islands known as,

Key Largo, Montego, I could go to the key…

It is about 120 miles to drive to the keys from the center of Miami: specifically to the dolphin research center at Grassy key. The center has numerous dolphins, trained to perform jumps and hoops like they do at various marine centers or aquariums.MarathonLg

You see, Suan had signed up for a “splash” with the dolphins. It cost US$100 for a ½ hour at that time.

Dophin center11
Sealed with a kiss

Unfortunately Mel who did not participate, was placed a little far from where Suan was playing with the dolphins. Still the zoom up photos looked alright don’t you think? The “splash” consisted of the dolphin doing a number of tricks: waving, splashing, kissing and allowing participants to rub its belly. It ends with the group having a water fight with the dolphin. Guess who won?

Dophin center17
It was not a fair water fight

There are a few other pens, in which the dolphin(s) would be performing other “duties” – such as swimming with a participant. The dolphins cannot “work” for more than a specific number of hours per day and probably have minimum wage applied too…which might explain why it costs so much to get splashed by them. Oh did we mention the cheeky sea lions? Yeah, they play a part at the research center too, performing on stage for a fee of fish.

Dophin center01
See the dolphin peeking?

An essential activity to do while here in the Keys is to drive along to the 7-mile bridge. We drove both ways – meaning in different directions (and not against traffic flow) just to soak in the views. This is the longest stretch of bridge that was built to connect the keys. You might notice that we drove on the new bridge and the old one is running parallel along it. That old bridge is only open to pedestrians and cyclists.

We made a brief stop at Bahia key where we found many people having a grill session! Music blaring and food cooking, folks were wading into the sea from the soft sandy beach. In hindsight we realize we were just 30 miles from the end at Key west, but we had turned back! Well, reasons for us to return and complete the drive…

Then it was off for our cruise. The seven days were wonderful and you need to read all about what we did on the Caribbean islands! When we returned, it was straight into

The Wilds of the Everglades

Everglades Park directionsWe decided to join an excursion to the Everglades when getting off the cruise on our return to Miami. This meant that we had priority in getting off the ship being “guided” out to our bus. It is a good idea to beat the general disembarkation, which is very chaotic given that thousands of people are getting off!

Spanning the southern tip of the Florida peninsula and most of Florida Bay, Everglades National

Park is the only subtropical preserve in North America. Lifted information from the web: It contains both temperate and tropical plant communities, including saw grass prairies, mangrove and cypress swamps, pinelands, and hardwood hammocks, as well as marine and estuarine environments. The park is known for its rich bird life, particularly large wading birds, such as the roseate spoonbill, wood stork, great blue heron and a variety of egrets just to name a few. Honestly, we could not spot all of them, except the egrets…

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There is host of activities that one can participate in. From bird watching to kayaking on the estuarine waters, there is definitely much to do that would take up a whole day. We took the “airboat” with its large fans on the back. This one’s the bigger boat designed to carry a large group. We thought that 20 odd people could fit into this one!

Great way to get around Everglades

This “safari” took about an hour as it glided out of the visitor center towards the wild. It was windy, so much that you had to hold onto your hats all the time. Tip: don’t bother to put on a hat unless you have it secured to you. Put on lots of sunscreen as you are out in the tropics. You could get really burnt being out in the sun for an hour plus.

Wanna be Crocodile Dundee?

Included in our visit was a alligator show in the park. Fancy carrying an alligator? Since the alligator is a protected species, poaching it is illegal, which meant that it has proliferated. And it means they are not just in the Everglades but also outside of it. They do not need passports! Oone more thing, we sampled alligator meat at the small restaurant they had. Taste like chicken!

And with that it was time to return to Amsterdam.

This journey should demonstrate that there is more than just theme parks in Florida (see Orlando here). Of course we’ve barely touched Miami, though we had wonderful views of Miami beach as we sailed out of Dodge island. It’s a tropical paradise within the US, Florida that is. No wonder so many retirees flock here.

We explored Miami and keys in March 2005

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