Saturday, May 11, 2013

Camping in the Keys – Three Sites to Save Money

How can you not love the Florida Keys?  Unlimited sunshine, strong drinks, and beautiful sunsets.

Oh, I know… the prices.  Especially the cost to stay the night in a hotel.  A few months ago, I reviewed the cheapest places to stay in Key West.  But you know what’s even cheaper than $105 a night for a hotel room?  As low as $36 for a campsite.  So, without further adieu, three campgrounds with unlimited sunshine and beautiful sunsets (you’ll have to bring your own drinks!).

Bahia Honda State Park, Mile Marker 37 (between Marathon and Key West)

Many of the campsites here are on the water, providing either a view of the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, or the bay.

For $36 a night, we snagged a site on the bay.

Across the way, cabins that will set you back about $122 a night

Bahia Honda State Park is beautiful and provides activities like snorkeling, swimming, and wildlife viewing.

My first warning?  A lot of the sites are gravel so beware. 

If you have an air mattress, now is the time to bust it out.
This gravel is no bueno for a good night's sleep.

My second warning?  Even with 80 campsites, this park still sells out quickly.  A quick check of
Reserve America (how you book a night of camping in all of the state parks) shows nothing is available, not even in the month of May, which is traditionally “off season” in the Florida Keys.  Book as far out as possible.

Total Cost: $36/night + $8 vehicle entrance to the park = $44

John Pennekamp State Park, Mile Marker 102.5 (Key Largo)

This park is considered “America’s First Undersea Park.”  John Pennekamp has only 47 campsites and they sell out very fast.  Since it, too, is a state park like Bahia Honda, a night of tent camping will run you $36. 

The main allure of John Pennecamp is the snorkeling and diving – the boat trips from Pennecamp almost always take you to Christ of the Abyss.

(Courtesy of You Tube: CyclingWorks)

This underwater statue was the third sculpture cast from the same mold that created the original Christ of the Abyss in the Italian Riviera.  The second sculpture is located in Grenada (thank you Wikipedia).

Total Cost: $36/night + $8 vehicle entrance to the park = $44

Kings Kamp, Mile Marker 103.5 (Key Largo)

Frank and I stumbled upon this campground a few weekends ago when we went hang gliding and couldn’t find a single place to stay all the way from Islamorada to Key Largo.  Even the nearby campgrounds were booked.  So, we had no choice but to stay at Kings Kamp, and boy, were we glad!

Frank's setting up shop at our campground -
with the Florida Bay in the background

Not only was this private campground cleaner than most state parks, it offered spectacular views of the sunset.

To make matters even better, it was just a short walk to Key Largo “nightlife” like Senor Frijoles, Sundowners and Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill.  Though the price is more expensive than camping at state parks, the convenience factor of being able to walk places.

Total Cost: $50/night

Other campgrounds where I haven’t stayed (but want to) include:

As long as you are a prepared camper (like a wrote about a few weeks ago here), you’ll have a blast in the Keys and save a bundle.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Magic Carpet Ride – Hang Gliding at 2,500 Feet

I'm not really one for adventures where I have the possibility of dying. Heck, I don't even like flying. But my excursion last weekend blew my mind.

I went hang gliding.

I have to say: this was one of the best experiences of my life. 

After I stopped shaking, I was soaring at 2,500 feet in the Cotton Key Basin near Islamorada. Above me, clear skies. Below, nothing but miles of blue waters.

Alex, from Paradise Hang Gliding, took me on this radical ride.  I was a little frightened at first, especially because the takeoff happens so quickly.

I actually felt very stable as we rocketed into the sky. Once in the air, it was just Alex and I, looking out over the glassy water, on patrol for turtles, sharks, and maybe even a pod of dolphins.

Unfortunately, I saw none of the above mentioned wildlife, but it didn't matter because I was so consumed with the view.

I even got to steer the glider a bit, which probably made Alex nervous because I wasn't very focused on driving, just soaring.

After about 15 minutes airborne, it was time to come down.

And with that landing, I left my heart in the sky, even though my feet were back on the ground.

How did this fantastic flight take place? Frank found a deal on Living Social! The economical explorer is wearing off on him apparently! 

We paid $100 for a 15+ minute flight at 2,500 feet. The regular price was $200. We also had to pay $20 in fees per person, and $45 for a video, making the grand total $165 each (still a $100 savings).

It may not be the most economical thing on earth, but it was worth it to pay so much green and see so much blue.

Plus, that $45 for the video helped create this awesome footage.

Frank got his hang gliding experience on camera as well.

Total cost: $165 each (with Living Social), $265 without (plus a $5 credit card fee)

Best Deal: Saving $100 with the Living Social deal - it's an experience definitely worth full-price!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Getting a Grip – Rock Climbing

It’s nothing like scaling El Capitan, one of the most famous rock climbs in the world, but at a local place, you can get a taste for what it’s like to dangle without spending too much dinero.

Here I am admiring a giant rock near El Capitan in Yosemite
National Park, not knowing I would attempt it myself one day.
In a safe environment.  In a gym.

Coral Cliffs in Fort Lauderdale offers several different options for those wanting to scale – from climbing to belaying to bouldering.  We started with the “Intro to Climbing/Belay” class for $40.

Here I am attempting one of my first climbs!

A hands-on introductory class from one of the instructors showed us the basics of rock climbing and belaying – that is, securing the rope for the climber.

Here, Frank belays, while I climb to the top

Once you have the essentials, you have your choice of almost 100 courses.  All of the courses are marked with colored tape and a grade that shows the difficulty of the course.  The easiest grade is 5.5 (easy).  The grades at Coral Cliffs go all the way up to 5.13 (fucking hard).

I chose to stick around the 5.6 range, which was slightly challenging for a girl with no arm muscles.  But I still rocked it!  Check it out while I scaled this wall:

I’m not too bad at belaying either! 

Too bad we didn’t have the videos caught on tape where Frank fell and it lifted me up about three feet in the air!  Luckily some other gym patrons were there to help me get down and then belay Frank to safety.

I did get a little crazy… Frank wanted to attempt a 5.7+ though, and who was I to have him show me up? So I did it too.

It's the climb marked by orange tape

I was partially upside down for a moment, and even though someone is holding you with rope, it’s still a little scary.

If you’re not one for heights, bouldering may suit you – and it’s just $15.  You don’t need any ropes for that, as you are just moving from side to side.

Also, you don’t need as much gear when you boulder.  When you climb, you need the following gear, which you can rent at Coral Cliffs:

You can get all the gear for a special rate of $10.

When you boulder, you only need the shoes ($6) and the chalk bag ($1), which would bring a day of bouldering to just $22. 

Because a day of climbing (assuming you brought a climbing partner and have already taken the class) is $19, that will cost $29 per visit with the gear.

Coral Cliffs also offers team building classes, which would be really fun to do!  I wonder if my school will spring for it… 

Total Cost: $40 for a class and unlimited climbing that day
Best Deal: $135 for 7 visits, including gear (must be used within 3 months) – I’m totally doing this over the summer!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Camping – How to Cope When You Don’t Like Getting Dirty (and Other Camping Advice)

Don’t let the title of this post trick you.  I actually like camping.  In fact, I spent this past weekend camping in Key Largo.  And camping normally has the right price: cheap.  But, I don’t like getting dirty.  So, I’ve developed some foolproof tactics to make sure the great outdoors doesn’t stand in my way of sleeping under the stars.

First, you’ve got to come well-prepared.  I remember my first camping trip with Frank.  We brought a tent, a sleeping bag, and a 24-pack of beer. 

Apparently we also brought a bottle of
champagne.  A true camping necessity.

This was actually a really good plan until the raccoons started rummaging through our trash at 3am and woke us up from our passed out slumber.  We were hot, uncomfortable, and annoyed.  This is where I learned Rule Number One of “camping when you don’t like to get dirty.”

Rule One: Consider the Weather

My best advice: don’t camp when it’s hot outside.  I know, this seems like common sense, but this is Florida and it’s rarely ever not hot outside.  So, don’t pick September like we initially did, when it was sweltering hot.  I recently went camping at Flamingo when it was 40 degrees out, and believe it or not, it was much more pleasant.  Not sweating = less dirt.

Rule Two: Have a List

The more prepared you are, the more comfortable you feel.  Again, on that first camping trip, I learned a lot.  Like, bring a wine bottle opener.  In addition to normal camping gear, like a tent and sleeping bags, here’s my Official Camping Checklist:

·         Pillows
·        Lighter
·        Bottle/wine opener
·        Cards
·        Sheet
·        Lantern/headlight
·        Bug spray
·        Sunscreen
·        Charcoal/firewood
·        Marshmallows/chocolate/graham crackers
·        Radio
·        Roll of paper towels
·        Anti-bacterial gel
·        Batteries
·        Beach towels
·        Chairs

Nothing from this list should be omitted.  You think you don’t need the beach towels?  Don’t forget, you have to wash your face in the bathrooms and most times, park bathrooms only have an air dryer.  Don’t want to bring a full roll of paper towels?  Worst case, you can use them to start a fire.  And while a fire may actually bring dirt, it will also bring fun (see Rule Number Four).

Rule Three: Make “Camping” Food

On that first trip, we didn’t bother bringing any food (clearly no room with all the booze).  We ate dinner at a restaurant (how rustic of us!), but when we got hungry later, didn’t have much around.  It wasn’t until I went camping with some other friends that I realized the importance of an all-out feast.

Here I am shucking corn for our dinner back in 2009

When Frank and I went to Flamingo last month, I came prepared with a great dinner idea.  Camping tacos!  I actually stole it from Pinterest, but it’s so basic and was quite delicious.  First, crunch up some Fritos in their bag (aka, your bowl).  Then add some beans and “meat” (I’m a vegetarian, so we used soy), cheese, lettuce, salsa, and voila!  You are reading for your camping taco.

I thought it was pretty good, and while Frank agree, he also said he had never felt more homeless in his life.

Whatever you decide to cook, bring the equipment necessary.  For my camping tacos, we needed only a pot (to cook), a serving spoon (to serve), and forks. 

I also had a really good idea for eggs in a orange for breakfast, but unfortunately, we  ran out of firewood and had already ripped down several nearby trees.

Rule Four: Build a Great Fire

More than once, our fire has faltered.  Frank was never a Boy Scout, but he does a pretty good job manning the flames.

Even if it’s 100 degrees outside, you’ll need a fire to roast marshmallows, cook dinner, and stare into while you drink a beer.  I found great tips to starting a fire here that I will definitely be using on our next trip.

Rule Five: Baby Wipes are Your Best Friend

This precious item isn’t on my Official Camping Checklist, mainly because we keep them around all the time.  But you need them like a fat kid needs cake.  Baby wipes will give you a quick shower, help you wash off that sticky marshmallow substance, and clean up any dishes you have.  They will also, obviously, be your best friend in the bathroom.

Rule Six: Book in Advance

You think, in your head, “I’m going camping, certainly there will be room for me to set up a tent in the wilderness.”  Wrong.  Campsites, especially in South Florida, book up.  If you try to camp during “season,” (namely November through April) you’ll have a tough time getting a site.  Book ahead of time, especially during holiday weekends.  Most campgrounds let you reserve through Reserve America.

Rule Seven: Buy Good Gear

Even though this blog is a strong advocate for being economical, don’t confuse economical with cheap.  We bought a huge tent on eBay a few years ago, which has become known as the “orgy tent,” and it was a super purchase.

It’s large enough for eight people, has a tarp bottom (which prevents any moisture) and could probably accompany a dance party of about 15 ravers.  It cost approximately $70.  We also bought sleeping bags made for temperatures as low as 30 degrees, which we snagged on clearance for $9.99 and we’ve been extremely pleased.

In order to have fun camping, you don’t need to break the bank, but you do need to be comfortable.  Following these seven tips will get you started on loving camping instead of loathing nature.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Flamingo – The Southernmost City in Mainland Florida Part II

Earlier this week, I told you of the many cool adventures at Flamingo.  Though you could definitely take a day trip there, I recommend staying the night.  There are six options when it comes to sleeping in this southernmost city.


You can park your car right next to your campsite and set up your tent.  This is the option we chose.

I let Frank set up shop while I took pictures and had a beer

Cost: $16 per night


You can park your car and walk up to your campsite in a tent only field.

This way you can camp with all your closest, and not-so-closest
friends - a great option if you have a huge group of people.

Cost: $16 per night


You can rent an eco-tent.

Right now, only one eco-tent exists, so you have to book early

An eco-tent is a cabin-like structure that can easily be broken down in the event of a storm.  This sole eco-tent is part of a pilot project to bring similar tents to the area.  You can learn more here.

Cost: $16 per night, until a special lighting system is installed when the price will go up to $30 per night


You can stay in a houseboat.  There are a few houseboats in the marina at Flamingo and even though they cost a pretty penny, you are staying in a houseboat (see my Amsterdam experience on a houseboat for more information), which is just plain awesome.  The houseboats sleep six people, have air, showers, stoves, bedding, and kitchen goods like pots and utensils.  You can book a houseboat through this website.

Cost: $350 per night plus fuel


For the truly adventurous, you can stay in a chickee.  You can either bring your own kayak, or rent one, and set off on one of the many nearby bodies of water until you reach this raised platform.

Courtesy of Tristan Loper, via Wikipedia

You’ll have to get backcountry permit in order to camp in a chickee, but it’s a little cheaper than camping on a regular campground.

Cost: $10 for a backcountry permit, plus $2 per person per night


If you’re not into boating to your campsite, you can also hike to a backcountry spot.  Again, you’ll need to get a backcountry permit to do this, and you’ll have to really like hiking, as the most popular spot, at Clubhouse Beach, it 15 miles roundtrip.

Cost: $10 for a backcountry permit, plus $2 per person per night

No matter which form of camping you pick, dozing off in Flamingo is like being 1,000 miles from reality, with the stars above you and no sounds of traffic - and that alone is priceless.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Flamingo – The Southernmost City in Mainland Florida, Part I

The number of things to do in Florida just astonishes me.  You can drive two hours and feel like you’re in a completely different country.  That was exactly the case when we set off for Flamingo, FL.

This is looking south from Flamingo into the Florida Bay

There’s only one road into Flamingo and one road out – it’s the road the leads you into Everglades National Park.  While there are plenty of things to do inside the park (like visit Anhinga Trail), if you drive about 35 miles down the main park road, past the “panther crossing” signs, and winding amongst the swamplands, you’ll find the little town of Flamingo.

There’s not much in Flamingo.  People used to live here in the early 1900s, before it became part of Everglades National Park.  Park rangers used to live here too, until 2005 when storm surge from Hurricane Wilma destroyed much of the area.  Today, it’s a great place to take a hike or three.  Here are some of the ones I traversed on my time there, without paying a dime.

Eco Pond Loop
Distance: ½ mile

This trail was one of my favorites, namely because it was only half a mile and we got to investigate lots of nooks and crannies off the main trail.

Although this isn’t really the spot to see alligators, we did see two vultures getting into a fight.

Guy Bradley Trail
Distance: 1 mile one way

We took this trail to the Flamingo Visitor Center and back to the campground amphitheater, making for a two-mile hike.  The trail is named after the Audubon warden, Guy Bradley, who died while trying to protect birds from plume hunters back in 1905. 

I used to secretly wish I had a hat with
bird feathers.  I don't know what I was
thinking, I don't even eat meat!
Courtesy of United States Library
of Congress under the digitial ID

Much of the trail is along the Florida Bay.

The scenery is not too shabby!

This trail was heavily biked and walked, and here, we saw a bird munching on a fish about 50 feet in the air.

I like my dinner table a little closer to the ground

The campground amphitheater is pretty cool itself, right on the water, and at night, a ranger gives talks about the National Park system.

Coastal Prairie Trail
7.5 miles one way

We also started this trail, but stopped when we realized it was 7.5 miles one way.

Frank would totally have dragged me along for
7.5 miles, but it was getting ready to storm

If you’re hiking, you might as well walk your way to Flamingo’s one and only restaurant/bar – The Buttonwood CafĂ©.

There’s not much on the menu at the Buttonwood, but beers are only $3, which is about as economical as it gets!

Cost: $10.68 for three beers
Best Deal: Seeing so many cool things in nature for free!  Plus, even though there is normally a $10 charge to get into Everglades National Park, for some reason, the ranger waved us through without paying a penny!

For a list of all trails in Flamingo, click here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Food Truck Connection

Do you have a hankering for a hot dog? A craving for conch salad? Or do you go gaga over gelato?

I'm not sure there's a restaurant in town that would meet all three of these desires, but the Food Truck Connection can.

That's right, the food truck craze has come to Boynton Beach, and it stopped right in my backyard.

On the left, the food trucks, on the right, my neighborhood.  I took both
photos from the same spot in the parking lot.

This Wednesday, for only the fourth week ever, you can catch more than a dozen food trucks, lined up for your dining pleasure, at Harvey E. Oyer Jr. Park (most Boynton residents know this as Boat Club Park), just south of Federal Highway and Gateway Boulevard, on the Intracoastal.  As you walk around, you can sample everything from ordinary the extraordinary.

That, my friends, is a veggie dog loaded with
spicy mayo, barbecue sauce, relish, and crushed
potato chips.  They call it the "Substitute
Teacher."  I call it "insanely delicious!"

That little piece of scrumptiousness came from P.S. 561.  We paid just $9.50 for two dogs.  And it doesn’t stop there!  Over the course of two weeks, we also had conch ceviche from The Daily Special...

Just $10 for this huge serving!

Shrimp summer rolls from Spring In, Roll Out...

Again, I was astonished at the large portions
and the small price tag of just $9!

And sweet potato fries drizzled with marshmallow fluff from Lucille’s on Wheels.

Get. In. My. Belly.  For real.

My husband also decided to partake in bacon doughnuts, with maple bourbon jam, from Dough, which he was not very good about sharing.

Lucky for him, I'm a vegetarian!

But by far, the best truck was Hip Pops, where you pick your gelato bar, dip it in chocolate, and pop it with toppings.  Holy moly.  My inner fat girl wanted, like, thirty of these.

This little piece of heaven was priced at $5.  I would have spent $500.

The Food Truck Connection takes place every Wednesday from 5pm-9pm.  Next week, I'll be there, again.  For the third week in a row.  And I’ve got my eye on you, Hip Pops.

Total Cost: About $25 for two “main courses” and one dessert
Best Deal: Even the fish dishes are under $10 – we paid just $9 for salmon sausage from Pescados Unidos (