After our Everglades and Big Cypress adventures we were ready to camp in a bit more style, so we used Miami-Dade County’s Larry and Penny Thompson Memorial Park campground near the Miami Zoo as a base for a few days. I’d never heard of Larry or Penny Thompson, but this fantastic travel value ($17 a night for tent camping!) honors a humorist and daily columnist for the Miami Herald (Larry) and his aviator wife. They used to take their family on regular camping trips around the country in the 1950s and 60s, and he wrote about their experiences in his column and a few books. So at least in the past you could pay the bills by being a travel writer. Could that still be possible today?
One interesting experience in this part of Florida is checking out the local food on the grocery store shelves. Many sauces, ingredients, canned goods and prepared foods I’d never heard of before are imported from Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and beyond. I was particularly intrigued by ackees (Jamaica’s national fruit somewhat related to lychees) until I saw the $8-a-can price tag and later read that, if improperly eaten, ackees can cause violet vomiting and even death.
We drove north to Little Havana and its renowned Calle 8, where old men (and women) play dominoes in the aptly named Domino Park. Small houses painted in pastel colors fronted by tropical plants fill the neighborhood around Calle 8, with the vibe being a mix of Latin and Caribbean. One thing that struck me was how many people smoked in this part of town. That’s the obvious influence from Cuba, which at least as of 2007 topped the list of countries with the highest rates of smoking. So of course cigar stores are plentiful here, along with travel agencies offering Cuba tours and Cuban restaurants selling mojitos, Cuban sandwiches and café Cubano.
We tried this high-octane espresso brewed with demerara sugar while we were waiting for a table at Versailles Restaurant, which claims to be Miami’s “most famous” Cuban restaurant, although not necessarily the oldest. The food was tasty and very reasonably priced, but Hector was not a fan of the café Cubano — too thick and too sweet was his verdict. I could take it or leave it.
We drove on to South Beach, where bikini-clad tourists filled the sidewalk tables at bars and restaurants on the developed side of Ocean Drive. The place was hopping on a Wednesday afternoon, with music blasting and large groups of people shrieking with laughter. We had wanted to take a stroll here and check out the Art Deco buildings, but traffic was nightmarish and parking was nonexistent, so we simply enjoyed the architecture through the car windows.
Back in the southern part of the greater metro area, we stopped in the next day at Biscayne National Park, which stretches from Key Biscayne in the north to Key Largo in the south and encompasses a large number of keys large and small. The only mainland-based way to visit this park is at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, not too far from the Larry and Penny Thompson campground. In fact, the camp’s proximity to Biscayne was the reason we chose it for our overnights in the Miami area.
At the visitor center we performed our standard routine — view the park film, get a park stamp in our 2016 National Parks Passport and (in the case of full-fledged national parks like this one) buy the official park pin. We also checked out the exhibits, which in the case of Biscayne were excellent, identifying the vast array of undersea life to be found in this principally aquatic park. Snorkeling and paddling in the turquoise waters surrounding white sandy beaches are major attractions here, and dozens of shipwrecks dotting the area make it a favorite for divers as well. Without motorized boat access, however, much of the park’s treasures are off limits.
And unfortunately for us, the day of our visit was windy, so boats weren’t running out to Boca Chita, Elliott, Adams or the other keys. We had read about Jones Lagoon at the southern end of the park being a major birding hot spot, but boats from Key Largo weren’t running out to there, either. And that turquoise water? Pretty murky. The most we could do here was take a brief stroll on the Dante Fascell jetty trail.
However, upon recommendation from the ranger if the water didn’t look too rough, we thought we’d try our luck at nearby Homestead Bayfront Park, where we could kayak out to the protected mangrove channel of Crocodile Creek (apparently not just randomly named). We put in and had to paddle hard, the wind pushing us backward and the waves rocking us like we were in paper boats. We chugged away at it for a good 45 minutes before deciding to turn around. At least on the return trip, the wind at our backs zipped us right along.
Not ready to completely call it quits, we changed into our bathing suits and spent the afternoon under the shade of a palm tree on the beach of the park’s natural atoll pool. Hector even went for a swim, although I was too much of a cold-water wimp to do more than dip a toe in.
In total it wasn’t a bad day. This was one of those times that we were simply at the mercy of the weather. You’d think that with a year-long trip like Project 100 we could just wait several days for the weather to improve, but not so. The next day it was time to move on up the coast and experience some of the southeastern United States’ other flavors.