Florida’s Fossil Reef Park

A Short Story

Discovering Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

Over the past few decades when visiting the Florida Keys we would drive past a dirt road with a locked chain link fence on Windley Key in the upper Keys. A number of years ago the gate, while still locked, displayed a new sign that read “Windley Key Fossil Reef”. Today it is open to the public as a state park. On our recent Keys drive we stopped in and spent a couple of hours visiting the Visitors Center and hiking the park.

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park  is between mile markers 84 and 85.5, between Plantation Key and Upper Matecumbe Key.

If you’re planning a trip to the Florida Keys this often overlooked park is really worthy of a visit. Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park provides an interesting exposure of a geological formation known as the Key Largo Limestone. This is a limestone rock fossil quarry; and the material is known locally as “keystone”. The entire quarry is comprised of a Pleistocene fossil reef, estimated between 100-125,000 years old. A majority of the keys are formed on this fossil reef system. The ocean levels rose and fell multiple times after the last Ice Age, and stabilized over the last 5,000 years. The top 25 feet of the old coral reef became exposed, died and laid the foundation to form Windley Key Fossil Reef .

Want to go exploring for fossils? Oddly one place to look is your nearest mall or new hotel or office building. On the floor of many of these places is polished limestone made mostly of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of the minerals calcite or aragonite, that contain an abundance of fossils or fossil traces. The fossils under your feet may be macroscopic or microscopic. The macroscopic fossils often include crinoid stems, brachiopods, gastropods, and the remains of other hard shelled mollusk. In Florida the main form are the remains of these ancient coral reefs.

So next time you’re in Florida, visit a coral reef without even getting wet.

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Paradise with a Twist – Key West

Key West Florida

Key West is the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that is the Keys. This town has been a magnet for adventurers, the famous and fortune seekers for well over a hundred years. Over the years it has attracted a number of the rich and famous including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Kelly McGillis, Jimmy Buffet, Calvin Klein, Shel Silverstein, Truman Capote, Winslow Homer, Ralph Lauren, Robert Frost, Kenny Chesney and Harry Truman (his winter White House). Not too shabby for a city of 20,000.

Its residents have been navy men, shrimpers, fishermen, cigar makers, treasure hunters and more than a few people seeking a place to get lost. Today Key West is known for history, bars, its Cuban heritage, bars, great seafood, bars, water sports, bars and more than a few traditions.

Crowds & performers gather for sunset at Mallory Square

How many places do you know where they celebrate sunset with a festival every day? The sunset celebration is downtown at Mallory Square where musicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers, crafters, food vendors, locals and tourists gather to celebrate the end of another day as the Sun sets behind Sunset Key. It is such an institution that cruise ships that frequently dock next to Mallory Square are required to leave before sunset so they don’t block the view for the celebrants.

The town has also become famous for a number of annual events like Fantasy Fest in late October an annual 10-day party in paradise for grown-ups. Started in 1979 by a group of Key West locals, the party was created to bring visitors to the island and has completely grown out of control. Pay attention to the word “adult” in the description, cause this town that gets pretty crazy on a normal day for Fantasy Fest is over the top. There are also Hemingway Days where Ernest look-a-likes come from all over for a chance to claim the title of Papa for a year. Check out the calendar and you will probably find very few weeks with nothing going on in this town.

Key west also has a number of worthy attractions and a few less so. John J. Audubon lived here and his home is maintained as a museum along with Hemingway’s house and Harry Truman’s Winter White House all open to the public. There is also a really nice aquarium, Mel Fishers Maritime Museum, the Shipwreck Treasure Museum and believe it or not a Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Keno Sandel shop

In addition to the festivities there are a number of other things you will find Key West famous for. First is key lime pie, a delicacy invented in the keys. Be sure to take a bottle of key lime juice and a recipe with you when you leave. The city is home to a large Cuban population that brought their cigar making skills with them. There are a number of hand-rolled Cuban cigar makers in Key West. It is also famous for leather sandals (flip flops) and the oldest manufacturer is Kino located right downtown. Their leather sandals sell for $10 to $20. I’ve rarely gone to Key West without taking home a pair or two.

This town is also is famous for its seafood (fish, Florida lobster and shrimp), snorkeling and diving and its bars. Perhaps its most famous is Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street where Ernest Hemingway hung out,  southwest of . Tony’s where Jimmy Buffet was a regular (it was actually the original location of Sloppy Joe’s) and Hogs Breath Saloon. Hogs Breath probably sells as many Tee Shirts as beers and who doesn’t want a T that says “Hogs Breath is Better than no Breath at All”.

Key West is also a U.S. Navy base with a Naval Air Station and research facilities. When I was in the Navy we stopped in Key West a few times. There were submarine pens right near downtown and evenings at Sloppy Joe’s was a study in white with wall to wall sailors in bright dress uniforms.

When visiting there are a number of opportunities to do some snorkeling or diving along with a trip to the Marquesas Keys with the Key West National Wildlife Refuge and the Dry Tortugas National Park between fifteen and thirty miles out to sea. Key West was also home base for Treasure Salvors the operation headed by Mel Fisher that found the wreck of the richest Spanish treasure galleon, the Atocha, just to the southwest  in fifty-five feet of water. Be sure and visit their museum.

Eating the Florida Keys (Part 3)

Part Three – Restaurants in the Keys

The Florida Keys
The Florida Keys

Coming to the Keys most people are looking for Sun, sand and water with fresh seafood being a good expectation. Our suggestion is to approach Keys seafood with a simple rule – “the simpler, the better”. Florida’s waters are famous for Florida lobsters (also called spiny lobster or Caribbean lobster) crab, shrimp, grouper and dolphin, and on and on. No it is not the Flipper kind of dolphin but a name for a popular fish. Because of the name issue you will probably find it more often referred to by the Hawaiian name mahi-mahi but whatever you call it it is a beautiful mild-flavored white meat fish.  Most locals have favorite hangouts often with picnic tables on docks or decks, cold beer and fresh-caught fish on the grill. Maybe throw a lobster on the grill too or a bucket of peel-n-eat shrimp.

One problem is you will find a lot of good places to eat but unfortunately there are probably more mediocre to bad restaurants around. In the past we had come to believe that one of the problems is the tourist character of this chain of islands. With an estimated number of visitors to just Key West exceeding 2.5 million and a local population of under twenty-five thousand it isn’t hard to see where the foundation of the economy is. Generally, in the past, restaurants in the Keys were high priced with little dependence on return customers which is a terrible combination. Over the years we had developed our list of favorites with the majority being local places and a few with long histories and reputations.

On returning after over a decade we were hopeful that the internet had helped to fix this restaurant problem. In this modern age it is very difficult for even small restaurants to escape the comments of thousands of online reviewers. After a week of reading reviews and eating around the Keys we decided that, unfortunately, not much has changed. While you can find great seafood still you really need to know where to look, read reviews and ask locals for advice.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Lorilei’sa bar in Key West in Islamorada is another institution in the Keys and a favorite for watching sunsets.

Sid & Roxy’s Green Turtle Inn located in Islamorada has been a Keys institution forever. Sid and Roxy bought the place in 1947 and the current owners work hard at keeping up the reputation. The originator of Key Lime pie.

Herbie’s in Marathon has been in business forever and is a favorite with locals. There have been new owners for a few years but everyone says they’re doing a good job of keeping up the reputation. And don’t get put off by the outside appearance.

Hurricane HoleHurricane Hole bar & grill Key west is just north across the bridge going out of Key West on Stock Island. This is a typical Keys place on a marina with lots of outdoor tables. The food is fresh and good and the prices very friendly.

Ship Wreck Bar & Grill in Key Largo is a little off the beaten path but worth the look. Again this place is a solid favorite with locals and while a little unrefined serves good, fresh Keys seafood and cold beer. Enough said.

In Marathon is Sweet Savannah’s a bakery and ice cream shop. If you are looking for a great slice of Key Lime pie – this is the place. An award winner for five years. 8919 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050

Island Fish CompanyIsland Fish Company in Marathon was just an open-air Tiki Hut on the water a decade or so ago. Even then they grilled up some good, fresh seafood at reasonable prices and featured live music in the evenings. We were amazed how they had grown since our last visit. You can’t do that unless you’re doing something right.

Islamorada Fish Company

Islamorada Fish Company, like the Island Fish Company started out by just open-air grilling fresh seafood out on the docks. A while ago the got a new neighbor, Outdoor World, that started bringing in traffic and their business exploded. Now they are all grown-up, were taken over by Outdoor World and have over a dozen locations around the country. They still serve solid seafood.

Sloppy JoesKey West is ground zero for good restaurants in the Keys and you could spend a couple of weeks eating out and still have more to try. Like the Keys in general, some of the best food in Key West is served thru a window and enjoyed at a picnic table so keep that in mind as you decide where to eat.

Conch Republic SeafoodConch Republic Seafood Company in Key West is a good choice for seafood and at a good price. While it is a favorite with the tourists and the waterfront location offers good scenery it is still a solid choice.  Tip: The happy hour buy one get one beer tokens don’t have to be used on the same day.

Key West Port of Call

Many western Caribbean cruises include Key West, Florida as one of their port visits. This city has much to offer a one-day visitor from history to shopping to just soaking up the atmosphere of Americas most southern place.

Where You Dock – Cruise ships dock along the waterfront right at Mallory Square in the heart of town. While there is no cruise terminal there are plenty of facilities with a short walk.

A five block walk to the left down Front Street takes you past Duval Street, home to a number of shops, bars and restaurants to A&B Docks with its array of restaurants and shops next to Key West Bight. Walking down Front Street in the opposite direction takes you past the Truman Winter White House and Whitehead Street the address of the Audubon House and the Hemingway House.

Transportation – Key West is not a very large city with the center of town just steps away. Getting to the other side of the island is a few miles but without a specific interest in mind probably not worth the walk. Sightseeing is easy with the Conch Train and the Trolley one to three block from the ship. There are also a few less conventional modes of transportation available like street legal golf carts and miniature two-seaters you can rent.

Money – The US Dollar

Attractions – If you are interested in history there are a number of attractions for you. From the Ship Wreck Museums to the homes of famous Americans like President Truman, Hemingway and Audubon. There are also an assortment of water activities like snorkeling and diving trips along with sailing excursions available. Key West is also popular for shopping, seafood and bars. Be sure and visit Sloppy Joe’s Bar, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite. There is little in the way of attractive beaches nearby but there are excursions down to the Dry Tortugas and the National Park and historic fort.

Key West is also famous for its sunset celebration at Mallory Square but unfortunately because of local regulations cruise ships must depart before sunset so as not to block the views.

 

Key West, The Historic, Exotic Island You Can Drive To

Part Two – Key West in the Florida Keys

  1. An Introduction To The Florida Keys
  2. Key West, A Different Sort of Place
  3. Where to Dine In The Keys (coming soon)
  4. Is It Time To Visit The Keys Again? (coming soon)

Key West is the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that is the Keys. This town has been a magnet for adventurers, the famous and fortune seekers for well over a hundred years. Over the years it has attracted a number of the rich and famous including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Kelly McGillis, Jimmy Buffet, Calvin Klein, Shel Silverstein, Truman Capote, Winslow Homer, Ralph Lauren, Robert Frost, Kenny Chesney and Harry Truman (his winter White House). Not too shabby for a city of 20,000.

Its residents have been navy men, shrimpers, fishermen, cigar makers, treasure hunters and more than a few people seeking a place to get lost. Today Key West is known for history, bars, its Cuban heritage, bars, great seafood, bars, water sports, bars and more than a few traditions.

The Sun sets behind Sunset Key off Mallory Square
The Sun sets behind Sunset Key off Mallory Square

How many places do you know where they celebrate sunset with a festival every day? The sunset celebration is downtown at Mallory Square where musicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers, crafters, food vendors, locals and tourists gather to celebrate the end of another day as the Sun sets behind Sunset Key. It is such an institution that cruise ships that frequently dock next to Mallory Square are required to leave before sunset so they don’t block the view for the celebrants.

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Crowds and entertainers gather at Mallory Square to celebrate sunset

Getting around Key West has a number of odd options
Tourists cruising around Key West

The town has also become famous for a number of annual events like Fantasy Fest in late October an annual 10-day party in paradise for grown-ups. Started in 1979 by a group of Key West locals, the party was created to bring visitors to the island and has completely grown out of control. Pay attention to the word “adult” in the description, cause this town that gets pretty crazy on a normal day for Fantasy Fest is over the top. There are also Hemingway Days where Ernest look-a-likes come from all over for a chance to claim the title of Papa for a year. Check out the calendar and you will probably find very few weeks with nothing going on in this town.

Garden at the Audubon House
Garden at the Audubon House

Key west also has a number of worthy attractions and a few less so. John J. Audubon lived here and his home is maintained as a museum along with Hemingway’s house and Harry Truman’s Winter White House with all open to the public. There is also a really nice aquarium, Mel Fishers Maritime Museum, the Shipwreck Treasure Museum and believe it or not a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum.

Souvenir options by the bushel
Souvenir options by the bushel
Sloppy Joe's Bar
Sloppy Joe’s

In addition to the festivities there are a number of other things you will find Key West famous for. First is key lime pie, a delicacy invented in the keys. Be sure to take a bottle of key lime juice and a recipe with you when you leave. The city is home to a large Cuban population that brought their cigar making skills with them. There are a number of hand-rolled Cuban cigar makers in Key West. It is also famous for leather sandals (flip flops) and the oldest manufacturer is Kino located right downtown. Their leather sandals sell for $10 to $20. I’ve rarely gone to Key West without taking home a pair or two.

Key Lime Shop
Key Lime Shop

This town is also is famous for its seafood (fish, Florida lobster and shrimp), snorkeling and diving and its bars. Perhaps its most famous is Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street where Ernest Hemingway hung out,  southwest of . Tony’s where Jimmy Buffet was a regular (it was actually the original location of Sloppy Joe’s) and Hogs Breath Saloon. Hogs Breath probably sells as many Tee Shirts as beers and who doesn’t want a T that says “Hogs Breath is Better than no Breath at All”.

Key West is also a U.S. Navy base with a Naval Air Station and research facilities. When I was in the Navy we stopped in Key West a few times. There were submarine pens right near downtown and evenings at Sloppy Joe’s was a study in white with wall to wall sailors in bright dress uniforms.

Market Square at Front and Wall
Ship Wreck Museum
Ship Wreck Museum

When visiting there are a number of opportunities to do some snorkeling or diving along with a trip to the Marquesas Keys with the Key West National Wildlife Refuge and the Dry Tortugas National Park between fifteen and thirty miles out to sea. Key West was also home base for Treasure Salvors the operation headed by Mel Fisher that found the wreck of the richest Spanish treasure galleon, the Atocha, just to the southwest  in fifty-five feet of water. Be sure and visit their museum.

Back To The Florida Keys? (In 4 Parts)

When I was a kid growing up in the Northeast more than a few years ago, I thought Florida was the promised land, paradise and the most exotic place I could imagine – all rolled up in one. I was in my twenties before I ever made it there but I had long dreamed of turquoise water, coral reefs, palm trees and warm tropical weather. Later I visited Florida a few times on business and on a vacation and my dreams remained intact. About forty years ago we relocated to Ft. Lauderdale with a job. While there are more than a few people who don’t care for Florida, we loved it.

At the time we moved to Florida, Ft. Lauderdale airport was a single, one-story cinderblock building with twelve parking meters out front. The movie “Where the Boys Are” was still inspiring spring-break college students to the degree that we wouldn’t even try to get to the beach during spring-break because of the traffic and mobs. By late June each year many neighborhoods were all but abandoned and restaurants, if they were open, had few customers. Jump ahead a couple of decades and things have really changed. More business meant more employees. More employees meant more families and that meant more children and all that meant a growing year-round economy. Things were changing and not all for the better.

When I was in the Navy I was a diver and fell in love with coral reefs. In all the forty-eight mainland states only Florida offers coral reefs. If you’ve never glided over or thru a coral reef you have missed one of life’s great experiences and you should try it as quickly as you can. Many people plan trips to tropical places for the beaches and warm water but for very little extra money and effort a coral reef is only a short swim away.

The main attractions in Florida are fishing, boating, beach-combing and diving. Everything is focused on the water. After we moved to Florida, for a number of years every Sunday morning would find us at the beach. It started with breakfast and the Sunday paper, progressed to beach combing and sunbathing and ended with an onshore dive at a nearby reef. It just didn’t get any better than that.

Soon we discovered the Florida Keys and now we had a get-away place for weekends. In those days summer was the best time to go to “the Keys”. Like the rest of Florida, summer was off-season and hotels were cheap. As Florida residents we could frequently find deals at four star hotels that included breakfast and dinner for two for less than a hundred dollars a day! The Keys were everything we loved about Florida and more.

Just recently we spent a week in the Florida Keys. With the exception of Key West it has been over ten years since we’ve been in the Keys and that was way too long. Last September hurricane Irma rolled over the southern Keys as a category four storm. That explains the question mark in this title. Category four hurricanes are incredibly destructive and it always takes time to recover. Part of this trip was to see what progress has been made. This post is presented in four parts:

  1. An Introduction To The Florida Keys
  2. Key West, A Different Sort of Place 
  3. Where to Dine In The Keys (coming soon)
  4. Is It Time To Visit The Keys Again? (coming soon)

Legoland Florida For The Younger Crowd

Less than an hours drive from Disney World is another theme park with a lot of appeal for the three to eight year old set and it won’t bust the budget. Located on the grounds of the old and iconic Cypress Gardens this Legoland has a decidedly Florida flavor.

 While it has a few nice thrill rides like an old fashioned roller coaster and a drop tower ride, the bulk of the entertainment isintended for a more timid crowd. Lego cars and a Lego train ride. A 

 

 

mechanical Lego horse track and bumper boats and even a pretty tame coaster. On the first visit our grandson was six and he had a great time.

 

Everybody loves Legos and the senior citizens in the group were drawn to the Lego constructed settings. They included the monuments of Washington D.C., Key West Florida and the Kennedy Space Center. In addition there were pirate fleets and Star Wars scenes all amazing layouts. As you travel thru the park there are Lego built full size animals and characters at every turn. Monkeys sit in trees, deer and otters stand in a woodland with a lake and waterfalls. It really is a lot to take in.

 

There is also a water show at the lake where the water-skiers of Cypress Gardens preformed but this time it is Lego characters on skies and in speed boats . A fast paced action story that kept the kids attention. All in all a good time was had by all.

Legoland also has two themed resorts attached to the park with one focused on the thrifty traveler. We spent a night there just to see what the resort was all about and it more than gains the approval of its intended guest demographic – young children aged two to ten.

The rooms are in cinderblock duplexes that, with the bold painting scheme, look just as if they are made of giant Legos. Each room has a king bed along with a kids room with bunk beds. Decorations are all Lego and beach themed. The duplexes are clustered around villages with a playground in the center and a central lighthouse

 

 

building with a restaurant and swimming pool. In the evening the restaurant features photo ops with meet the Lego character times.

Some adults might be critical of the discount character of the Lego Beach Resort but the intended target customer seemed thrilled with their time there. It was like kindergarten recess during a vacation…