The Road to Padre Island

One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was figure out where good places for Nic and I to stay weeks on end were.  If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you would know that I am primarily looking for free camping next to a city with a Planet Fitness in it.  Padre Island and Corpus Christi fit that description perfectly so we had that as a destination, but we wanted to find more spots on the way.

Our first stop was to be near the Suwannee River in the Florida panhandle.  It was about a 4 hour drive from Bradenton and the last stretch of road to the campgrounds was the roughest we’ve ever been on.  I really appreciated the offroad suspension and lift.  

One spot in the road looked impassible.  Water covered the entire road and spanned about 20 feet of it.  I dipped the from tires in to see how deep it was and we went for it.  Water came up to the bumpers and the tires spun a little, but we didn’t have any trouble making it through.  We figured we should at least have some privacy if you had to traverse a road like this to get to the campsite.  What we ended up with was a mixed bag.

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The view of the river was pretty nice.  You could tell that campground was beautiful at one time.  The problem was that it had been completely trashed.  The grounds were torn up by 4×4’s and picnic tables burned.  

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Due to the vandalism, the place had a sundown curfew.  Since it was close to sundown by the time we got there and we were tired, we decided to stay anyway.  Besides, the campground was at the end of that crazy road and the government was still shutdown.  Who’s going to bother us?

A state ranger in a 4×4 pulled up right after Nic and I got settled in and started reading our books.  She wasn’t amused to see us after sunset and pointed to the big sign with red lettering that we had chosen to ignore.  I decided to not play dumb and just told her we had been driving a long way and would be gone first thing in the morning.  She wasn’t having any of it and ran our drivers licenses and plates.  In the end she was cool and let us off with just  a warning citation.  According to her, the campgrounds had actually been cleaned up before we got there.  The vandals had also chained up the port-a-potties and dragged them around in addition to all the damage we saw.  I’d like to eventually visit again after they get it straightened out.

With no place to sleep, Nic and I decided to head to Apalachicola National Forest over by Tallahassee, FL.  It was only about another hour drive or so.  The campsites weren’t very nice.  They were basically just open spots in the woods with dumpsters and port-a-potties brought in to support the deer hunters.  The only thing interesting about Apalachicola was that the hunters brought their 4×4’s in on flatbed trailers because they broke them hunting deer so much.

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I wasn’t really impressed with Apalachicola and it wasn’t close enough to Tallahassee to make the trip in town to the Planet Fitness worthwhile, so we left there and headed toward our next prospective campsite.

The next national park in Alabama we went to was closed down due to the government shutdown.  The one we drove to after that didn’t exist anymore.  I’d finally had enough.  Out of the last 4 free campsites we had been to, only one was open and that one sucked.  We decided to drive straight through to Corpus Christi.

Bradenton, FL

Our next stop after the Everglades was Bradenton, FL.  I wanted to stop and visit with some friends that had a winter home there.  Friends is probably not a strong enough word.  Second set of parents would be closer to my relation ship with Chuck and Barb Willkomm.

Throughout High School and College, Chris (their son) and I were pretty much inseparable.  We lived together, partied together, and hung out at each others parents houses.  More often than not it was at Chris’ parents house that we ended up.  If it was late at night and Chris and I (often with other friends in tow) were hungry, we would raid his parent’s kitchen.  Barb, rather than yell at us for waking her up and stealing her food, would visit with us and even cook for us.  I even went with them on a family vacation to Wisconsin once.  I have many fond memories of the Willkomm family.

I hadn’t seen Chuck and Barb in over a decade since Chris and I grew up and moved away from each other.  It was a more emotional reunion than I had prepared my self for.  Barb hugged me and burst into tears.  I got a big lump in my throat and hugged her back.

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The Willkomms have their main home in Branson, MO.  There they see shows daily, even sometimes multiple times, a day.  Barb was bringing a little of that with her to the Bradenton park community they lived in with a Neil Diamond tribute act.  The performance was the same day that Nic and I got there and Barb was busy preparing for it, but not too busy to make us a homemade spaghetti dinner.  It was amazing.

The next day, Barb and Chuck took us to see the manatees at a local power plant spill basin.  The manatees like the warm water coming out of the power plant and it makes for good viewing.

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They even had a petting zoo for stingrays.

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After we saw the manatees, we drove out to Ana Marie Island and had a late lunch at The Rod and Reel Pier.  It was a restaurant at the end of a fishing pier that had an amazing view of Tampa Bay.  The food was awesome.

By the time we got back from Ana Marie Island, we were all wiped out and crashed for the night.  The next morning, Barb was up bright and early and cooking us breakfast.  After breakfast and having some coffee and visiting, Nic and I got ready to leave.

We had an amazing time hanging out with the Willkomms and will be trying to visit them in Branson next time we head that way.  After we left Nicole told me that it felt like she had known Barb and Chuck forever and that we should stay longer next time.  Many thanks to them for hosting us and showing us around Bradenton.

Everglades

We left Key West after only a couple days.  Looking back, there was more we would had liked to done there and probably should have stayed for another couple days.  But, we prefer to camp in the wilderness and so we got back on the road and headed to the Everglades.

When we entered Everglades National Park there was no one at the entrance or the campsite checkin.  It looked to us like it was unmanned because of the government shutdown.  We have an Annual National Park pass, so it didn’t really matter to us.  We wouldn’t have had to pay to get in anyway, though we would have to pay for a camping spot.  We drove around the park and it looked to be in good condition considering the shutdown.

As we made camp someone asked me how to identify the camping spaces (they had the number painted on the slabs) because he had to got back to the checking building and tell them which campsite he was in.  After helping this guy, I walked back to the checkin and paid for the campsite we settled into.  They must have just been away from the desk when we drove through before.

Nicole and I decided to take a hike while we were there.  We only got about a 1/4 mile in before being overwhelmed by mosquitoes.  These suckers where huge.   Like, steal your girl and fly away huge.  Nic wasn’t having any of it so we turned around and went back to the campsite.

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These guys were hanging out in the trees when I got up the next morning.

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We only stayed in Everglades National Park for one day.  It was hot and muggy.  The bugs were crazy ferocious.  I would have liked to do a canoe rental, but Nic was not going to get into a canoe with alligator infested waters.  

So we hit the road with Bradenton as our next destination.  Crossing Florida from Miami to the western side of Florida is a highway nicknamed “Alligator Alley”.  It is well named as it has a canal running next to it that alligators have infested.  I saw one roadkill alligator getting eaten by vultures on the way.

We didn’t make it all the way to Bradenton and stopped for the night at a State Park.  We don’t like to pay for camping and that made two days in a row for me.  Unfortunately, there just isn’t any free camping in the Everglades like you would typically see around a National Park.  One thing that was cool about this campsite was that it had one of the walking dredgers that was used to make Alligator Alley.

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This thing actually drug itself along the ground and scooped out mud and stumps so that the Everglades could be drained enough to build the road.

There isn’t much to say about this campsite.  We just had a peaceful night camping before it was time to move on the next day.

Key West

Parking in Key West was very challenging.  We got there late and there were few parking lots that didn’t have no overnight parking signs.  We did finally find a place close to the beach that had an awesome view of the ocean and settled in for the night.

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The next morning Nicole and I got up and Nicole asked me if I’d heard that bird that sounded just like a rooster this morning?   I told her it was a rooster, but she wouldn’t believe me because the crowing was coming right from beside the van and there was no way that it was someone in town keeping chickens that close to us.  I decided to get up and walk down the street a little and sure enough, roosters everywhere.  They freely roam the streets of Key West scratching and crowing.

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Nic and I spent the day bumming around in the van and at the beach.  That evening we decided to checkout the shops and nightlife.  We saw an original painting that Nic fell in love with.  Thank goodness it was already sold, so there was zero temptation to buy it.  It seems that people Key West really like their chickens.

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The next day we walked to Hemingway’s House/Museum.  One fact that was new to me was that Hemingway married into his money long before he was a successful writer.  In fact, the Hemingway house was where he wrote all his novels.

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The pool his wife put in while he was away corresponding for WWII to spite him.  It really pissed him off because she donated the boxing ring he used to have there to the local brothel and she spent a small fortune building it.  Everything under Key West is coral so digging a hole there is a real enterprise and very expensive.  In the end there wasn’t much he could say about it (although he did) because it was her money.

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This room above the carriage house is where Hemingway did all his writing.

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Everything you see there is actually Hemingway’s possessions.  His family sold the house with the furnishings in tact to the family who currently owns it.  They had the foresight to preserve everything and eventually turn the home into a museum.

We spent the whole morning doing a guided tour and then touring the grounds.  After that, it was time to jump in the van and head towards the Everglades.

Diagon Alley

Universal Studios was directly on our way to Key West.  Since Nic is a huge Harry Potter fan, we thought that we would stop there so that she could see the new Harry Potter World that they put up there.  

They divided the Harry Potter World across two different theme parks, Universal Florida and Islands of Adventure, so that you would have to pay for both worlds to get the full Harry Potter experience.  It didn’t much matter to us, since the Islands of Adventure part of Harry Potter World is a roller coaster.  Nic hates roller coasters, so we opted for just the Universal Studios theme park.  That side has Diagon Alley.

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Diagon Alley is a (I think) full size reproduction from the movies.  It has shops where you can buy wands and use the wands to interact with various bits of scenery throughout the park.  It also has the usual gift and food shops.  You can even get Butter Beer!  To help adults keep their sanity, they also had Wizards Brew, a fairly strong stout and other adult beverages.  Butter Beer tastes like a buttery cream soda.  It is really good and if they don’t bottle it to sell it, they should.  Nic really loved the stuff.

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Gringotts Bank has a cinematic ride inside of it that puts you in the middle of a 3D movie scene with the original Harry Potter actors as holograms.  Escape from Gringotts was impressive and a lot of fun.

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For lunch we ate at a Harry Potter favorite, The Leaky Cauldron.  It served traditional British fare.  I had fish and chips and Nic had a shepard’s pie.  The food was good, but as you might have already guessed, it wasn’t cheap.

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There was a lot more to universal than just Harry Potter world.  I solo rode a couple of roller coasters.  The Fast and Furious made me wish I had my nephews with me.  It was full of fast cars, girls, and explosions.  All the best stuff.

At about 2 in the afternoon, we had seen all of the park that there was to see and so we hopped back in the van and got back on the road toward the Keys.