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Family and Solo Travel Adventures of 2017

As we step into 2018, I’d like to take this time to thank you for following along and for your comments and questions on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and email. I hope that I’ve helped to answer all your mobile photography, camera and tech gear, and travel related questions.

I had some incredible family and solo travel adventures in 2017! I explored 2 new countries – Israel and Japan, returned to British Columbia, The Florida Keys twice, South Africa and Australia and visited new places at home in Ontario like Tobermory and Manitoulin Island, and we also saw the solar eclipse in totality on a spontaneous road trip to Kentucky and Tennessee.

We also returned to our favourite close-to-home destination, Niagara Falls. We spent time on both sides of the border. While my boys love playing the redemption games, we also enjoyed walking through Dufferin Island on the Canadian side in the Spring as well as chasing cherry blossoms, found some! In the summer, we ventured to the American side and visited Goat Island. It is a great place to visit as it gives you close-up views of both the American and Canadian Falls.

It was very much a year of incredible snorkelling adventures in the barrier reefs of the Florida Keys and Australia as well as the Red Sea in Eilat, Israel. My 7yo snorkelled for his first time, in Eilat and loved it. We ended our travel year with a trip to The Florida Keys where he embarked on his first open water snorkel trip. We went on 2 snorkel trips from Key Largo and one in the backwaters of Key West. Our favourite experience was our snorkel trip at Molasses Reef where we encountered sea turtles, Caribbean reef sharks and nurse sharks. He was over the moon with excitement and can’t wait to snorkel again. You can read more in my guide to snorkelling the Florida Keys here.

To recap and close out 2017, here are some of my favourite Instagram and mobile camera photos that were all shot on my iPhone 7+. In 2018, I look forward to continuing to inspire your family travels, solo trips and photography and show you more beautiful, nature and culture-rich destinations.

JANUARY

bahia honda tide
Moving tides at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys. A trip I did with my niece.

FEBRUARY

St James Beach Cape Town
Dusk at St. James Beach in Cape Town, South Africa. A solo trip to South Africa for The Heart of a Woman Project.
Penguins at Boulders Beach
Penguins at Boulders Beach in Cape Town, South Africa, Playing with portrait mode on the iPhone 7 plus.

MARCH

zebra in Kruger
A Zebra in Kruger National Park, South Africa. A self-drive trip I did with my South African travel writer & travel blogger friend Anje Rautenbach of Going Somewhere Slowly in March 2017. Check out her video here.
tea at mahane yehuda jerusalem
Tea at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. A family trip with my husband, 2 sons and father in March 2017, I travelled there after my trip to Kruger Park.
My oldest son and the Eilat Mountains in Southern Israel. We could see the Sinai Desert when we climbed a bit off the dusty road.
old town warsaw
Old Town Warsaw, Poland. A layover on my home way home from Israel.

APRIL

cherry blossoms canada
Found cherry blossoms in Niagara Falls, Canada.
Maid on the Mist in Niagara Falls. A family day trip from Toronto.

MAY

cherry blossoms Kariya Park Mississauga
On the hunt for more cherry blossoms. Found these at Kariya Park in Mississauga.

JUNE

Enchanted Forest
My son at The Enchanted Forest in British Columbia. A family trip to BC with my youngest son, father, aunt, and uncle to see relatives.

JULY

Beautiful art on the arena in Wikwemikong, the unceded territory on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. A trip with my best friend who was visiting Ontario from British Columbia with her family.
Balm Beach Ontario
Sunset in Balm Beach. Some of the most spectacular sunsets in Ontario happen right here, on Georgian Bay, traditional territory of the Anishnaabeg people. Balm Beach is our fave family beach in Ontario. A trip with my family and my best friend and her family who were visiting Ontario from British Columbia.
Tobermory Ontario
My oldest son on the rocks near the Big Tub Lighthouse in Tobermory, Ontario. My sons and I went on a spontaneous 2-night trip on the shores of Lake Huron chasing Aurora. We didn’t find her but found Tobermory.
Bruce Country Ontario
My oldest son in the canola fields of Bruce County, Ontario. This is part of the same trip with my 2 sons.

AUGUST

Manitou River Manitoulin Island
A peaceful spot by the Manitou River near Michael’s Bay on Manitoulin Island. A trip with my 2 sons and father to take in the annual Perseids meteor shower.
Sunflowers in Caledon, Ontario. Random Sunday drives with my husband and 2 sons.
clarksville tennessee for the solar eclipse
A spontaneous road trip to the USA where we experienced our first solar eclipse in totality. We found this spot in Clarksville, Tennessee by the Red River. This was
the light about 30 minutes before totality. The birds flocked, and the cicadas sang. It went to darkness and planets you don’t normally see, were seen. Hard to describe the feeling but we were in awe.

SEPTEMBER

Lakeside Park Oakville
Revisiting one of our favourite family parks in the Greater Toronto area, Lakeside Park in Oakville. September was all about back to school and TIFF. At the end of the month, I returned to Vancouver to visit my best friend before my trip to Australia and Japan.

OCTOBER

Heron Island Queensland Australia
Reef walking at low tide in the Great Barrier Reef off Heron Island in Queensland, Australia. Heron Island is a Coral Cay with the reef as your playground. I saw sharks, sea turtles, stingrays, many species of fish and sea cucumbers. I even found Nemo’s cousin. It was a return to Australia but this time as a solo traveller and my first time exploring Queensland and the GBR.
koala on the great ocean road
Rainforest views on Grey River Road in Kennet River. This was my favourite stop on the Great Ocean Road. Can you find the sleepy koala?
The 8 remaining limestone stacks of the Twelve Apostles. This is probably the most popular stop on the GOR drive and worth seeing in person.
The 5-story Yasaka Pagoda in Kyoto, Japan is surrounded by quaint narrow streets lined with cafes, restaurants and a variety of shops. Loved wandering through here after most people had left the area.

NOVEMBER

palm tree bahia honda state park
A broken but not battered palm tree at Bahia Honda State Park after Hurricane Irma blew through. A trip to the Florida Keys with my oldest niece and 2 sons.
sombrero beach views in Marathon Florida
My boys enjoying a sunset swim at Sombrero Beach in Marathon, Florida Keys.
So not a winter person but I can appreciate the beauty of snow especially with a setting sun. No travels in December.

VIDEOS

Wishing your many photographic opportunities and travels that fulfil your soul in 2018.

A Guide to Snorkelling the Coral Reefs of the Florida Keys

A GUIDE TO SNORKELLING THE CORAL REEFS OF THE FLORIDA KEYS WITH KIDS
last updated: December 2017

Click to jump to the related section in this post.

The first time I snorkelled, I was 16 years old and in Barbados with my dad. I picked up some gear from a kiosk on the beach of our hotel in Christ Church and swam to the reef not far from shore. I didn’t know how to snorkel or knew what I would find there. Every time I saw a fish, I went the other way. True story.

I’ve since snorkelled many times including in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the remote Mergui Archipelago of South Myanmar. My appreciation and love for the ocean have grown over the years, and my fear of its inhabitants has dissipated. Not to say that poking my head underwater still doesn’t give me pause, but I no longer swim the other way. I love to travel to destinations that offer opportunities to see marine life in their natural environments. It is important for me to be able to share those experiences with my two sons in hopes that they too will love our natural world and appreciate the ocean.

The Florida Keys are home to the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world and is the only tropical coral reef in the continental United States. The reef runs the length of the Keys and can only be accessed by boat. Numerous tour operators from the upper to lower Keys offer trips to the reef. The tours vary, and some reefs and operators are better than others. It’s approximately 3-6 miles offshore depending which Key you’re leaving from. With so much talk of the damaged and dying coral reefs around the world, it is hopeful to see the abundant coral and marine life in the sites we visited.

After 7 snorkel trips to the reef from the Upper to Lower Keys, I’ve compiled a list of tips and sharing what I experienced with 6 different operators.

  • Most variety of colourful tropical fish: Sombrero Reef (Marathon)
  • Reef shark, nurse shark and sea turtles: Molasses Reef (Key Largo)
  • Goliath groupers: Looe Key Reef (Ramrod Key)
  • Shallowest coral reef: Grecian Rocks (Key Largo)
  • Backcountry snorkelling: Key West

TIPS TO PREPARE CHILDREN FOR A SNORKELLING TRIP

  • Enroll your children in swim lessons so that they are comfortable in the water and have basic swimming skills.
  • Invest in a dry top snorkel set with just the mask or a set that can grow with them. A dry top snorkel helps to keep the water out of the top.
  • Practice swimming in lakes close to home, so they get used to the open water feel.
  • Practice snorkelling in swimming pools.
  • Practice snorkelling from shore before your snorkel excursion. Sombrero Beach (Marathon) Bahia Honda State Park (after the 7-mile bridge towards Key West) and Clarence Higgs Memorial Beach Park (Key West) are our favourite beaches in the Keys.
  • Research what marine life you will see and get them involved and excited.
  • Talk about all the colours of the marine life.
  • Learn the hand signals for some of the marine life or make up your own.
  • Discuss rules and safety.

 

GENERAL TIPS TO PREPARE FOR A SNORKELLING TRIP

  • Check out the Tropical Snorkeling blog for fantastic information about snorkelling in the Florida Keys and other destinations around the world. I’ve taken their advice for snorkelling in Aruba.
  • Always use only reef-friendly sunscreen
  • Take anti-fog solution (toothpaste also works), so you can snorkel before or after your snorkel excursion
  • Consider a long-sleeve UV protected swim shirt or rash guard; the Keys has Moon jellyfish
  • Take an easy to pack a wet bag. It’s especially helpful if you have to fly out the same day, and your swimwear hasn’t had time to dry.
  • I recommend a small dry bag to keep your valuables dry, great for car/hotel room keys, money and cell phones.
  • Bring water shoes for shore snorkelling if you need to walk in a bit. I have a small, lightweight mesh drawstring backpack that I use to carry a small dry bag in with valuables, extra batteries and water shoes.
  • Consider bringing a snorkel vest for kids to snorkel from shore.
  • Don’t forget insurance and make sure it covers adventure travel insurance. Also, check what your credit card covers.
  • Consider an anti-nausea medication if you ever feel queasy on rides or road trips. It can take 30-60 minutes to get to the reef.

All tour operators included masks, snorkels, fins, snorkel vests and offered water noodles. Some offered wetsuits. They all had an anti-fog solution and a rinse bucket available. We brought our dry top snorkel and mask but borrowed fins. The snorkel vests were mandatory, but you could inflate/deflate as much as you wanted. I also enjoyed the use of the noodle as it helped keep my hands free to take video.

 

NOVEMBER 2016 – 3 TOUR OPERATORS IN THE MIDDLE & LOWER KEYS

SUNDANCE WATERSPORTS – departure from Duck Key 

We spent two nights at Hawks Cay Resort (read our experience here) on Duck Key and booked our first snorkelling trip in the Keys with Sundance Watersports.

After a friendly check-in, we boarded Blue, a 65-foot catamaran, on a beautiful sunny day. Blue is a perfect boat for snorkelling trips as it has sturdy ladders off the back for easy entry, seats along the perimeter, wide open space in the middle, and shower heads on board to rinse the salt water off after snorkelling.

We arrived at the Stake and were greeted by small flying fish. After instructions from the Captain and staff, we took to the glistening azure waters. The waves were a little choppy, but visibility was good. We saw French, Queen and Gray Angelfish, Blue and Stoplight Parrotfish, Great Barracuda, Blue Hamlet, Wrasse, Trunkfish, Sergeant Major, Yellow Jack, Butterflyfish and countless other tropical fish species.

Thanks to the team at Sundance and their helpful instructions on how and where to snorkel, my son had an incredible first experience snorkelling; we were the last ones back to the boat.

Coffins Patch reef fish Sundance Watersports
Snorkeling at Coffins Patch with Sundance Watersports
Coral at Coffins Patch with Sundance Watersports
Snorkeling and coral at Coffins Patch with Sundance Watersports

Who: Sundance Watersports – https://sundancewatersports.org

Where: *December 2017 – Sundance is now departing from Robbie’s of Islamorada due to rebuilding at Hawks Cay Resort after Hurricane Irma.

Note: My experience is based on a departure from Hawks Cay Marina at mile marker 61. I visited Robbie’s in November 2017; there are restrooms on the premises. From Hawks Cay Marina – you travel about 4 miles offshore to The Stake at Coffins Patch. You don’t have to be a guest of Hawks Cay to snorkel with Sundance. However, it did make it convenient to be a guest there as you can enjoy water activities in the morning, have brunch at the resort, relax and change in your room and then take the tram to the marina for afternoon snorkelling. At the marina, there is a store called the Dockside shop, and it has change rooms. You can purchase snacks and drinks to take on board.

Snorkeling with Children: Coffins Patch appeared to be the most shallow of the three reefs which brought us closer to the reef and made underwater viewing easier. My son had no problem snorkelling there. I recommend this for children 6-7 years old+ who can swim, are comfortable in the water/salt water and with getting splashed as there will most likely be some waves even if the waves are small. Consider your children’s personality and abilities. There was a young child about 4-5 years old on board; he was in the water for only a few minutes as he was afraid. It’s a fantastic beginner reef with much to see.

About Coffins Patch from Franko Maps:

To 25′ Beginner. Southern stingrays, brain coral, fire coral, and pillar coral are common here. Visibility is sometimes good here, sometimes not so good. A great place for snorkelling. Caution: Surgy, fire coral. 

Blue at Sundance Watersports
Blue, a catamaran with Sundance Watersports in Duck Key, Florida

On the snorkel boat with Sundance Watersports in the Florida Keys

The view off of a catamaran in the Florida Keys

Hawks Cay canal view Duck Key, Floria
Hawks Cay canal view in Duck Key, Florida.

 

SPIRIT SNORKELING – departure from Marathon 

When I called to book with Spirit Snorkeling, they weren’t sure if they were going out as the forecast had called for high wind. Fortunately, it wasn’t windy, and we were off to Sombrero Reef for our second snorkelling excursion in the Florida Keys.

It was another sunny day, and the ride to the reef took us under the 7-mile bridge to the Sombrero Lighthouse. It was a smooth ride out, and visibility was good. We saw a variety of fish and coral, much like Coffin Patch plus some marine life we hadn’t yet seen such as Blue Tang, Banded Butterfly, Scrawled Filefish and Jellyfish. Some snorkelers in the group saw an eel, sea turtle and nurse shark. Sombrero is a spur and groove coral reef and was deeper than Coffins Patch, but we could still see the marine life, just not as close. With calm seas and good visibility, it is a special place in the Florida Keys.

Kim (divemaster) was friendly and helpful. The boat was equipped with ladders off the side and back. It also had a rope platform to sit on in the front of the vessel. After snorkelling, we were given lollipops to help get rid of the saltwater feeling on our lips. What a great idea and it worked.

Spirit Snorkeling Sombrero Reef
My son entering the water at Sombrero Reef
A spur and groove Sombrero Reef
A spur and groove reef and tropical fish at Sombrero Reef in the Florida Keys

Who: Spirit Snorkelling –  http://captainpips.com/snorkeling/

Where: Depart from Captain Pip’s Marina at mile marker 47.5 and travel about six miles offshore to Sombrero Reef at the Sombrero Lighthouse

Notes: There is a change room/bathroom available at the marina should you need it. There were plastic round tubs to keep our bags dry. They also offer snacks and sodas on board, and you can bring alcoholic drinks.

Snorkelling with Children: My 11-year old son had no problem snorkelling there. It is deeper than Coffins Patch, but some parts of the reef came closer to the top which made it easy enough to see the fish. There was a 6-year old girl on board who snorkelled for an hour; I don’t know her previous swimming or snorkelling experience. I recommend Sombrero Reef for children who can swim, are comfortable in the water/salt water and with getting splashed as there will most likely be some waves even if the waves are small. Consider your children’s age, personality and abilities as it is further out and deeper.

About Sombrero Reef from Franko Maps:

To 35′ Beginner-Intermediate. Marked by the 142-foot Sombrero Key Light, built in 1858. This classic spur-and-groove reef system provides sand channel alleys and finger reefs just loaded with fish and giant brain coral, which make for cleaning stations for barracuda, turtles and other customers who come to be picked clean by the tiny cleaner wrasse. This site is terrific for snorkelling. Caution: Currents.

Sombrero Lighthouse and snorkelling with Spirit Snorkeling
Snorkelling with Spirit Snorkeling and a view of Sombrero Lighthouse
7 mile bridge Florida Keys
Under the 7 mile bridge in the Florida Keys

 

LOOE KEY DIVE CENTER – departure from Ramrod Key

We moved to Key West for our last night in the Keys. Our final snorkel trip was to Looe Key Reef with a fully outfitted dive centre, and we had several divers on board. In my research about Looe Key, I kept coming across the phrase “not for the faint of heart”.  My understanding is that Looe Key is on the edge of the barrier reef. The reef was deeper than the previous two reefs we snorkelled, but with the large reef patches that came close to the surface, viewing was great. If some members of your group or family scuba dive, this is a fantastic reef for you. So much to explore. It’s an exciting reef.

We lucked out with the third day of sunny skies and good visibility. This time we were aboard Kokomo Cat II, a 45-foot Catamaran with ladders on the side. We saw many of the same fish we had seen at the other two reefs and others I haven’t ever seen before like the Horse-eye Jack and Black Durgon. We saw a lot more Great Barracuda and the ones we saw were larger and swam closer to the surface. We also saw moon jellyfish and had an incredible sighting of three goliath groupers, one in the first location and two in the second. The moon jellyfish and groupers made my son a bit nervous, but he handled it well and again we were amongst the last to get back on the boat. The goliath groupers are a protected species, and they had to be about 150-200 lbs or more. I was secretly hoping for a sighting of a nurse shark. Others in our group saw a reef, hammerhead or nurse shark.

Looe Key Dive Center is an excellent, friendly and professional snorkel and dive operator. The staff were knowledgeable and helpful. They also have a motel and tiki bar on-site.

Snorkelling Looe Key reef with Looe Key Dive Centre and Resort
Snorkeling the Looe Key reef in the Florida Keys
Goliath Grouper at Looe Key reef
My son snorkelling with a Goliath Grouper at Looe Key Reef
Great Barracuda at Looe Key reef
Great Barracuda at Looe Key Reef
Goliath Grouper Looe Key reef
Goliath Grouper at Looe Key Reef
Tropical fish at Looe Key Reef
Great Barracuda and Horse-Eye Jack at Looe Key Reef
Jellyfish at Looe Key reef
Jellyfish at Looe Key Reef

Who: Looe Key Dive Center & Resort – http://www.diveflakeys.com

Where: We departed the Looe Key Dive Center Marina at mile marker 27.5 to Looe Key Reef, about 5 miles offshore. We snorkelled in two locations for an hour each.

Notes: Arrive a little early to browse the shop, and you need to sign a waiver before boarding. You can purchase reef-friendly sunscreen here. It’s the closest operator to Looe Key reef, so you spend less time on the boat and more time in the water. The captain cooks hot dogs between snorkel spots; my son loved that. They also sell snacks and soft drinks on the boat.

Snorkelling with Children: My 11-year old did well at this reef though he was a little nervous about the moon jellyfish. Admittedly, I was a bit too as I hadn’t ever snorkelled with jellyfish before. However, they are slow swimmers, so there is time to move away from them. Be aware if you’re snorkelling in August and September as I understand that is moon jellyfish season. I recommend Looe Key Reef for children with intermediate swimming skills, are quite comfortable in the water/salt water, with marine life and with getting splashed as there will most likely be some waves even if the waves are small. The fish were more prominent here than the fish in the previous two reefs. There is a possibility of seeing sharks as well as the giant groupers. My son was also nervous of the groupers, but they didn’t come too close. Consider your children’s personality and abilities. There was a 10-year-old on board who was audibly nervous. He didn’t have previous snorkelling experience but snorkelled for about an hour. He didn’t snorkel in the second location.

About Looe Key Reef from Franko Maps:

EAST END to 35′ Intermediate.  “The name comes from the British Man-O-War, HMS Looe, which ran into the reef here and sank in 1744.  The reef is made up of parallel limestone ridges that come within 10 feet of the surface.  Looe Key dive is brilliant over an 800-yard stretch.  Here you will find a variety of soft and hard corals, sea plumes, sea fans, sea rods, and sea whips.  A good snorkelling site.  Caution:  Surgy.”
WEST END  to 35′  Intermediate.  The Looe Key consists of 800 yards of magnificent underwater variety, which is perhaps equal to the entire Florida Keys’ collective assortment.  In fact, a common nickname for this reef is the Jewel of the Middle Keys.  The west end is a classic spur-and-groove reef formation where you will find brain, star, and giant star corals, brown tube and orange elephant ear sponges, elkhorn coral, yellowtail snapper, sergeant majors, surgeonfish, French grunts, damselfish, barracuda, mutton snapper, and Nassau groupers.  This is also a good snorkeling site.  Caution:  Surginess can make for an added challenge, but the Gulf Stream Current can be very difficult.  The current sometimes rips along at over 3 kts., making this a great drift dive, but it is very demanding on the dive boat operator to make sure you don’t wind up heading for Europe.

Look Key Dive Centre and Resort
Kokomo II at Looe Key Reef
Looe Key Dive Centre and Resort Marina
Looe Key Dive Center and Resort Marina
Canal near Looe Key Dive Centre and Resort Marina
Canal near Looe Key Dive Center and Resort

 

 

JANUARY 2017 – A return to the Florida Keys and windy days

I returned to the Florida Keys in early January, this time with my adult niece in hopes of snorkelling again. We spent 1 night on Long Key and 2 nights on Little Torch Key. Here are my follow-up experiences with the same three snorkelling tour operators:

Sundance Watersports

We attempted to book a snorkelling trip with Sundance, but unfortunately, all excursions were cancelled due to the expected high winds. I have to shout out to Fourie (sp?) at Sundance as he was extremely helpful in explaining the situation and pushing our reservation to the following days while we were in the Keys in hopes the winds would die down, sadly, they didn’t.

Spirit Snorkeling

This time there were high winds as mentioned above, and the Captain decided to go out. As we made our way past the 7-mile bridge, the seas were rough, and the waves got increasingly bigger as we got closer to the Lighthouse. I wondered if we were going to turn back because as the front of the vessel dipped into the waves, water spilt into the boat. The guests seated at the front were soaked. The boat filled with some water, fortunately, the boat is made for that, and the water quickly flowed out of the drainage holes. I wondered about visibility in the water and was also concerned about the senior snorkelers on board as it was hard to walk around the boat and navigate the ladder. Visibility was not good, at maybe 3-4 feet. Despite that, I managed to see about five different species of fish in the ten minutes we had in the water before we were abruptly called back to the boat due to the black clouds and the storm rolling in. We got caught in the rainstorm on the way back to the safe harbour.  The ride back in was smoother than the way out to the reef due to the wind being at our backs instead.

I believe the Captain did the best job he could, given the conditions. However, I feel a partial refund should have been offered as we only had ten minutes to snorkel and many had less than that. I don’t think I would have allowed my 11-year old son to get in the water had he been with me that day. Once my head was down and looking underwater, the waves didn’t bother me. My issue was poor visibility.

I would still recommend a trip with Spirit Snorkelling on days that don’t have strong winds as my first experience with them was perfect. I would have preferred to have been told that visibility would be poor and that the seas would be rough when I called or at check-in with the option to cancel or reschedule. I feel that we should not have gone out that day because what is the point of snorkelling in such poor visibility and rough seas. We were told that the storm was due to arrive at 4 pm and we were to be back at the dock by about 3 pm. It came early.

Tip: If there is a visible sway of palm trees (wind) and you are at all concerned, call another operator to see if they are going out. Make your decision based on that, if you could handle rough seas and your abilities.

Looe Key Dive Center and Resort

I stopped at the Looe Key Dive Center and asked if they would be going out that day or any dates that week. All excursions were cancelled due to the high winds expected for several days/weeks but recommended we check with an operator that has a larger boat in Key West, to see if they would be going out.

I hope this guide will help you experience the best snorkelling the Florida Keys has to offer. Stay tuned for video footage.

 

 

NOVEMBER 2017 – A re-do, 3 operators and a visit after Hurricane Irma

I returned to the Florida Keys with my 12-year-old son, my 7 year old son and my niece. After my trip in January, I knew I needed to return with my niece as she didn’t see the Keys and snorkel it the way I did in November 2016. I had hoped to snorkel in the middle Keys again as we had planned to stay on Cudjoe Key. Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma had other plans, and our accommodations were cancelled due to damage. The lower keys were the most impacted by the hurricane. I struggled with the idea of whether to cancel the trip or to go ahead with it. I didn’t want to get in the way and wasn’t sure how to feel about going on holiday while others worked to rebuild or lost everything. I followed the rebuilding closely and finally decided to continue with our visit as I wanted to support tourism and the independent smaller businesses in the Keys. Key Largo in the Upper Keys and Key West at the bottom end didn’t suffer as much as the rest of the Keys, so we stayed for 4 nights in Key Largo and 2 nights in Key West.

There were visible signs of damage and US 1 was lined with debris from the length of the Keys with the lower Keys having significant more damage as I had heard. Most of the restaurants, hotels and attractions in Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and Key West were reopened.

Although I couldn’t compare the state of the reefs from before and after Irma, it was my understanding that most of the reefs faired well.

KEYS DIVER – departure from Key Largo 

Our first snorkelling excursion of our trip began with Keys Diver in Key Largo. I called the office to inquire about the trip and ask some questions. I wanted to know what the process was if my 7yo old son wanted to get out of the water and stay on the boat in case I needed to stay in the water with my 12 yo. Whoever answered the phone answered my questions, and I booked the 3 location trip. I was concerned about how my 7yo would feel being in the open ocean. It wasn’t about him being far from shore but how he’d be able to handle the waves if there were any as my oldest son and I had experienced the year before. Keys Diver allows children to stay on the boat without parental supervision.

It was a sunny day, and visibility was great. We snorkelled in three locations starting with Grecian Rocks. The waves weren’t bad at our first stop. We saw a variety of fish and coral as well as a large barracuda. The water was shallow which made visibility even better. Some snorkelers saw Conch. We then went to the Christ of the Abyss statue for about 20 minutes and ended with Dry Rocks. The boat was equipped with ladders off the back of the boat and a small restroom. They sell snacks and soft drinks on the boat. Wetsuits are available.

On the way to Grecian Rocks and his 1st open water snorkel.

Who: Keys Diver – http://www.keysdiver.com

Where: We departed from the docks near the Holiday Inn in Key Largo. We snorkelled in three locations starting with Grecian Rocks. We then went to the Christ of the Abyss statue for about 20 minutes and ended with Dry Rocks.

Notes: You have to go to the shop first. There they give you directions as to where to board. As with other operators, you need to sign a waiver.

Snorkelling with Children: My 7-year old snorkelled the shallow Grecian Rocks for almost an hour and then ingested some salt water as he looked straight below him, the top of his snorkel dipped forwards into the water. We swam back to the boat, but it was near the end of the first stop. He decided not to snorkel the other locations and did well for his first open water experience.

Conditions were rough at the statue as it’s not a protected spot, but my 12 yo and niece seemed okay with it but tired from the swim to/from the statue. You could feel it on the boat as we rocked side to side. My 7yo and I could’ve used some anti-nausea medicine while waiting for the snorkelers but we managed to fight it off. Others on board were not so lucky. Tip – Stare at the clouds or into the distance at the horizon if you feel queasy. We also chewed some peppermint gum I happened to have with me. Captain Bedford was great, and brought my son to the upper deck to blow the horn at the end of our second stop. Unfortunately, none of us went in the water for Dry Rocks so I can’t speak of the conditions. My 12yo did well at both locations he snorkelled.

 

SAIL FISH SCUBA – departure from Key Largo

I can’t say enough about Sail Fish Scuba. I wanted our first trip to be with them, but they were booked until a few days into our trip. From Holly in the shop answering all my questions and concerns to Glenn our snorkel guide to Captain John, we had a fantastic experience. Glenn was hands-on with my 7yo as he snorkelled the Winch at Molasses Reef. There was a current but having Glenn with us was a welcomed relief as it allowed me to enjoy the experience thoroughly.

Glenn not only helped my 7yo son in the open water but also guided my niece through a group of moon jellyfish as she was nervous. He calmed any of our fears we had about the jellies. He helped us see and identify a variety of fish and sea turtles. We saw a Caribbean reef shark, nurse sharks and several sea turtles.

Having a guide in the water with you is wonderful. It’s also fantastic to have someone else to take the photos and give you access to Dropbox. Photos were also taken by the diver’s guide that was on the boat. It was a treat to be welcomed back with some snacks; my sons loved that.

My 7yo snorkelling Molasses Reef.  Photo courtesy Sail Fish Scuba
A sea turtle and jellyfish at Molasses Reef. Photo courtesy Sail Fish Scuba

 

 

Our view of the nurse shark and the dive guide below us at Molasses Reef. Photo courtesy of Sail Fish Scuba.Who: Sail Fish Scuba – https://sailfishscuba.com

Where: We departed from the canal behind the shop. We snorkelled in two locations on Molasses Reef.

Notes: As with other operators, you need to sign a waiver before boarding. Wetsuits are available, and the dive shop is well equipped. There is a restroom to change as well as a variety of hair care products you can use should you need to.

Snorkelling with Children: Molasses Reef is a deeper site, ranging from 16 to 40+ feet in depth. It is closer to the edge of the barrier reef which brings larger fish, sharks, sea turtles and stingrays. Visibility was great, and the current wasn’t too bad. We did see a variety of fish, but with the excitement of our shark and turtle sightings, I can’t recall what else we saw.

My 7yo decided not to go back in the water after we returned to the line in the water for a break. Captain John kept him company and took great care as he hung out at the back of the boat. I highly recommend Sail Fish Scuba to anyone even if you are an experienced snorkeller. A guided snorkel is especially fantastic for beginner-intermediate snorkellers. They have a 6 to 1 ratio, so all trips are small groups. This is the best tour operator for snorkelling the Keys with children because of attention from the guide. We were the only snorkellers, but there were also 2 divers and their guides on the boat.

My 7-year loved this experience. He was so happy to have seen a shark and sea turtles. He decided not to snorkel the second location; Captain John was happy to hang out with him on the boat while the rest of us snorkelled in relatively close proximity to the boat. Visibility was great, and the current wasn’t too bad. Because of our experience the day before, we all took anti-nausea medicine, and it seemed to work well. We didn’t feel the slightest bit queasy.

 

FURY ISLAND ECO ADVENTURE TOUR – departure from Key West

We booked this tour to experience snorkelling in the backcountry of the Florida Keys and its biodiversity as well as the sandbar. The trip also included kayaking in the mangroves. Unfortunately, due to the speedboat races in the area, we couldn’t visit the sandbar.

It is more expensive than all the other tours, but with the kayaking, sandbar experience and food, I was okay with that price. I did feel overcharged since we didn’t get to go to the sandbar and wish we were told that we weren’t going to the sandbar and had the option to cancel, reschedule or get a discount.

The water was shallow and calm and filled with sponge gardens where we saw many spiny lobsters, angelfish, porkfish, crabs and sponges in a variety of shapes. The boat was well equipped with a ladder off the side, a restroom, noodles and all the equipment for snorkelling.

Overall it was a good way to spend a half day and take in the sunset on the way back. The Captain and crew were wonderful and went above and beyond to make our experience a good one despite not being able to go to the sandbar.

Sponge gardens in the backcountry of the Florida Keys.
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A spiny lobster hiding in the backcountry of the Florida Keys.
My 7yo snorkelling in the backcountry of the Florida Keys.

Who: Fury – https://www.furycat.com

Where: We departed from the seaport in Key West.

Notes: If you book online you have to check it at the kiosk near the where you board the boat. The island eco tour included snack foods, sandwiches and drinks,

Snorkelling with Children: If you want to introduce your children to snorkelling in open water, this is a good tour for that. The water is calm, water and shallow. If you’re looking for a wide variety of colourfish fish, this is not that tour. It was interesting to see lobsters, starfish and the sponge gardens. Many of the marine species here like to hide so take your time passing by. I would recommend trying to hover over a spot to wait and see what might appear. There was a bit of a current which could be a challenge with beginner swimmers/snorkellers. My sons did okay with it once they got some fins on.

 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary snorkel trip for two from Sundance Watersports as part of my stay at Hawks Cay Resort. As always, choice of activities as well opinions are strictly my own. Some photos are screenshots from video captured with a Go Pro Hero 2

 

 

First experiences and happy memories of Hawks Cay Resort

After driving the palm tree-lined road of Hawks Cay Boulevard, past the Calm Waters Spa, the children’s Coral Cay Club and tennis courts, my 11-year old son let out a “wow, mom” as we pulled up to the circular driveway of the Hawks Cay Resort.

With a smooth check-in behind us, we drove to our villa. You know that anticipation you feel when you enter a hotel for the first time? Double it, and that’s how we felt as we opened the front door of our two-bedroom, two-story marina village villa.

I fell in love with the retro feel of the olive green painted walls (my favourite colour) and florals of our accommodations. It was a series of ‘ooohs and ahhs’ as we moved through the villa from the modern kitchen to the dining area, past the bathroom, towards the living room and onto the porch. My son excitedly raced up the stairs to check out the bedrooms.

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Hawks Cay Resort Villa

Hawks Cay Marina Villa

Hawks Cay Marina Villa

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Hawks Cay Marina Villa

Having driven in from the Everglades National Park that day, we just wanted to relax and enjoy the villa though we were tempted to go to the hotel and attend the live music performance by the firepit. Instead we soaked in the fresh air of a beautiful November Keys night on the porch, ordered in-room service, and settled in.

After a comfortable sleep, we awoke to a beautiful day in South Florida. I had just received an email from Hawks Cay detailing the day’s activities and noticed a kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding demo that was to start in the lagoon in 30 minutes.

Knowing my son wanted to try kayaking, we quickly got ready and off we went to the hotel. You can take a leisurely walk or drive as there is a self-parking lot nearby. There is also a tram shuttle service around the resort taking you from your villa to the main hotel or to the marina with stops at the various buildings around the property.

We arrived at the saltwater lagoon to children stand-up paddleboarding, sunbathers and a swimmer. Marc, the resort staff working the watersports rentals helped my son get started and offered some tips. He took to the water in a blue kayak and paddled all around the lagoon on his own. With pride in his smile and a sense of accomplishment from first time kayaking, he then wanted to try to paddleboarding. After a short time with the paddleboard, he decided he preferred kayaking but wanted to practice snorkeling one more time before our afternoon snorkel trip with Sundance Watersports at the Hawks Cay Marina. He put on the snorkel and mask he brought from home in Canada and discovered the lagoon had some small colorful fish.

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Hawks Cay Resort child paddle boarding

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Hawks Cay Resort child snorkel in the lagoon

It was 10:30 am, and we were both feeling hungry, so we decided to have brunch with a view at the on-site restaurant, Ocean. We had a choice of buffet or a la carte. With about forty-five minutes before we needed to leave for our snorkel excursion, we went back to the villa and relaxed on the porch. We watched the boats from the marina go by on the canal that takes you to and from the open water.

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After checking in for our snorkel excursion, we picked up fins and boarded Blue, the beautiful snorkel-ready 65-foot catamaran. The Captain and crew explained that we were going out to the ‘stake’, a marker in the water at Coffin Patch at the nearby Florida Reef.

We couldn’t wait to get to the reef but enjoyed our ride on the open ocean and the canal, past the villas and Hawks Cay Lagoon. The clear turquoise water was almost hard to believe, and on our arrival, we watched as fish jumped out of the water behind the catamaran.

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With it being my son’s first open water snorkeling experience he was a little slow to get in the water, but once he did, we were the last to get back on the boat. We saw a host of colors and spotted 25-30 varieties of tropical fish. We were thrilled to see French and Queen angelfish, parrotfish, blue tang, snapper and trunkfish. He was a little nervous when he saw the great barracuda but it and the several other ones we came across kept their distance as expected. With helpful snorkeling tips and the watchful eye of the crew it was a great first snorkel experience for my son. We had a fantastic time snorkeling and can’t wait to return with the rest of my family.

After the snorkeling excursion, we changed back to our street clothes in the change room in the Dockside store and drove off to explore the surrounding Duck Key area and the nearby city of Marathon. Duck Key is at mile marker 61 and is halfway between Miami International Airport and Key West. It’s a perfect place to spend a few days if you’re traveling the length of the Florida Keys or if you’ve already been, a great place to vacation. So much to do, so little time.

My first mistake was to arrive so late in the day on our first night so we couldn’t take advantage of activities the resort had to offer the next morning. My second mistake was not staying more than two nights as there simply is not enough time to enjoy all the resort has to offer in two nights and one full day.

Lesson learned. We will be back. I know my youngest son is already looking forward to the pirate ship pool and spending time at Coral Cay club.

Thanks for the memories, Hawks Cay.

Until next time,

Andrea

 

Information: 

 

Check out this short video of our family trip to Hawks Cay and see if you can spot the flying fish. 

 

Disclaimer: I received a media rate for my stay at Hawks Cay Resort and complimentary snorkel excursion from Sundance Watersports. As always, choice of accommodations and activities as well opinions are strictly my own.

California in 9 squares

This week I’m starting a new series on the wanderingiPhone blog ‘in 9 squares’ with a focus on a destination I have travelled to and my favourite 9 Instagrams.

The weekend of April 22, 2016 I went to California with my father to meet relatives I had never met and up until about a 2 years ago didn’t know existed. After some research and DNA Ancestry, we connected. I’ll save that story for a later post.

Between family dinners, lunches and discovering Burmese restaurants in Palo Alto and Berkeley, we saw a bit of San Francisco and Palo Alto and drove the infamous Pacific Coast Highway from San Luis Obispo to Monterrey, California after driving down to Santa Barbara to meet more relatives. Here are my favourite 9 Instagram photos from that trip. Click on the 9 squares below to see a larger version.

To see the photos on Instagram along with their detailed captions, visit wanderingiphone on Instagram

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Stanford Memorial Church, Pacific Coast Highway, Elephant Seals, Stanford University Quad, McWay Falls, Golden Gate Bridge

 

If you’re looking for a Burmese restaurant in the San Francisco area, check out Burma Ruby. It’s been my mission to find Htamin Lethoke (rice salad) like the way my grandma, grandaunt and I make it. I have to say Burma Ruby is the closest I’ve come to that taste. So good.

Incase you’re wondering, my father, grandmother, some great and great great grandparents come from Burma or what is known as Myanmar and I still have over 100 relatives there. Read about my travels to Myanmar in The long road to Mandalay and my Myanmar travel tips in 6 things to know about travelling to Myanmar in 2016. I’m a first generation Canadian and have a very ethnically diverse family who moved around a lot. I swear I come by a ‘travel gene’ honestly 😀

Unity Through Art and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico

I am drawn to learning about the world’s cultures. It is the reason I travel and attend events that focus on art, music and dance. I believe artists and performers are the keepers of traditions, stories, cultural beliefs and the identity of people.

The Folk Art Alliance brings this together beautifully as they play host to the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In one weekend in July, you meet artists from around the world and learn about their art and culture. It is also an opportunity to make a difference with your purchase. In 2015 there were 173 artists from 57 countries represented at this truly international market.

Mariano’s Tree of Life yarn painting (pictured below) was chosen as the theme image for this year’s market. I had a chance to speak with his son Cilau about this piece.

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Tree of Life and Abundance by Mariano Valadez Navarro of Mexico

 

 “On the left side we have the feminine side, on the right side, we have the masculine side they represent the balance of the opposites and how it always takes two opposite forces to create life. In this case, it’s a girl that’s also following the traditional path. When we see the tree, representing the tree of life and its abundance, it’s abundance is represented through the different living creatures that are living on the tree. Small things such as the bees are important because the bees are a metaphor of ourselves, the bees are hard-working animals, they live in the community, and they are the caretakers of the queen bee. In our case, we work really hard in the corn fields, we live in the community, and we are the caretakers of Mother Earth as if it was the queen bee. When we see the moon, the moon is the biggest feminine figure, the fire represents the masculine figure, again two opposite forces that unite and create life. The ones that are in the hands of the male represents the prayer wand that is used for healing physically and spiritually, but also for channelling the healing energy. This is mainly to honour life, and it’s duality.” – Cilau Valedez

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Yarn painter Mariano Valadez Navarro of Mexico demonstrates his art at his booth at the market. Mariano’s art focuses on the Huichol culture. I would never have believed that his art was created with yarn if I hadn’t seen it for myself. It is full of detail and colour.

 

 

Grandfather Fire guides initiates on their Shaman path to higher knowledge, a yarn painting by Mariano Valadez Navarro.

 

I noticed the art of Manisha Mishra and was particularly drawn to her Tree of Life paintings. When I was in India in February, I met an artist whom I commissioned to create a Gond art painting of the Tree of Life and animals I had seen on my visit to India. Manisha’s paintings reminded me of it, so I stopped to chat with her about her work and purchased a tree of life with a peacock. Manisha is a Madhubani painter from Behar in North eastern India.

I’m not sure what it is about the Tree of Life that I love, maybe it is the fact that it is an important symbol in many cultures around the world. I wear a pendant of one around my neck, and it has become a part of my logo.

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Here’s what Manisha says about the piece I purchased, pictured below:

“This painting is showing the peacock on the tree of life, the peacock is a symbol of love, and we say that all your wishes come true under the tree of life. In our tradition, we get married to the tree before getting married to the groom. So we say that the tree takes on all the bad omens, so you live happily ever after. That is a Hindu philosophy” – Manisha Mishra

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Mudhubani artist Manisha Mishra
artist Manisha Mishra from India

 

Wandering the market, I came across these forged-metal cow bells made by Janmamad Salemamad Luhar of India. Knowing that every piece at the market is handcrafted, I was intrigued to find out a bit more about them. I learned that each bell has its unique sound and that cows were outfitted with them so their owners would find them again just by recognizing the sound. This is an ancient art in Janmamad’s community.

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Janmamad Salemamad Luhar of India.

Being from Canada, I was happy to see the Indigenous culture in Canada represented at the market. I met up with Haida artist Gwaii Edenshaw of Haida Gwaii and learned about his art. Haida Gwaii is an archipelago on the North Coast of British Columbia and is made up of about 150 islands.

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Portrait Moon, made of abalone and silver by Haida artist Gwaii Edenshaw. The moon is Gwaii’s father’s crest and is significant in his culture as it governs the seasons.

 

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Dogfish Mother made of 22kt gold, platinum and abalone by Haida artist Gwaii Edenshaw. He says “It embodies the dignity of our women”.

 

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Haida artist Gwaii Edenshaw

 

With my 2nd visit to the market and with many of the artists returning, it’s also a reunion of sorts. I was happy to see Khin Maung Htwe of Myanmar again. I wrote about his puppetry after the market last year. If it wasn’t for the market, I might not have known about a 600-year-old tradition and his puppet theatre in Yangon. I can’t wait to attend a performance when I visit my paternal ancestral home of Myanmar in Yangon this October.

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Khin Maung Htwe and Tin Tin OO

 

I followed the sound of the djembe, a drum that originated in West Africa and came upon a booth of Nigerian drummer, Akeem Ayanniyi. I was reminded of his performance on the market stage last year.  It was wonderful to see people joining in and making music together with the drums at his booth.

Drums

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Akeem Ayanniyi makes traditional West African drums that are played for ceremonial occasions and religious functions. Traditionally drums were used to communicate between villages. Various beats were meant to communicate birth, death or celebration. Akeem is from a highly respected family of drummers and drum makers, going back nine generations.

 

I couldn’t help but feel like I was travelling the world as I saw a diverse display of folk art and heard a myriad of languages spoken. When I hear languages from around the world especially ones I recognize from places I’ve travelled to, it brings me back to those places like India, Cuba and Morocco.

I was especially happy to see returning artists from South Africa Xolile Ndlovu and my dear friend Lulama Sihlabeni. If you knew me, you would know about my special connection to this beautiful country and people that began with a chance visit to eKhaya eKasi Art & Education Centre in Khayelitsha in December 2012. It has since deepened through 4 more visits to South Africa and by spending time with the women of eKhaya eKasi after starting a mobile photography program there. Hearing isiXhosa in a place, I didn’t expect to hear it brought me right back to my times spent in Khayelitsha.

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Bead and wire art from South Africa as represented by Lulama Sihlabeni of eKhaya eKasi Art & Education Centre.

 

Nowhere else in the world can you experience this under one ‘roof’, the Santa Fe sky. If you are ever in Santa Fe in July, make it a point to attend. It is truly a one of a kind market that unites people through art.

Family Travel: A Day Trip to Clearwater from Orlando, Florida

It was a last minute decision to Visit Florida over March Break and our family’s 5th visit to the sunshine state since 2010 when we first travelled to Orlando with my 5 week old and 4 1/2 year old sons. March Break (March 16-20) is a notoriously busier time to visit as many families from Ontario and other parts of Canada venture south in search of warmer temperatures, sunny skies and family fun.

My sons at 4.5 & 5 weeks old in 2010, our 1st visit to Florida.
My sons at 4.5 & 5 weeks old in 2010, our 1st family visit to Florida.

 

Our plan for the 5 days/nights was to enjoy as much swimming as possible and to go on a day trip to Clearwater. We wanted to visit Winter, the dolphin made famous in the movies Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2 at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA). We based ourselves in the Orlando area because we were still able to find a house with a swimming pool at the last minute on Homeaway.

I love to connect with nature and wildlife and support initiatives that help them, learn about things that are more unique to a destination and visit lesser known and unusual attractions. I was able to connect with Leroy of Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater who offered some great ideas for our day trip to Clearwater:

 

We had hoped to visit Caladesi Island State Park as recommended by Leroy, but we had a late start and spent so much time at CMA. We booked the sunset trip on Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise as a surprise for our boys so it didn’t leave us enough time for a beach trip. Caladesi looks stunning with its white sandy beaches, shelling and nature.

I was thrilled to find out about the non profit Clearwater Marine Aquarium and their mission of rescue, rehab, and release. Unfortunately, some of the marine life such as dolphins like Winter and some sea turtles are too injured or lack the skills to survive and cannot return to the wild. In this case, I believe CMA is a perfect home to care for them as they are also a working animal hospital. You might even have the opportunity to see the professionals at work in the surgical suite in the lower part of the aquarium.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Winter is a female dolphin that was injured by a crab trap line when she was just a few months old. She unfortunately lost 2 vertebrae and had to have her tail amputated. She learned a new way of swimming and has a prosthetic tail that she wears at times. She is an inspiration to many.

Winter of Dolphin Tale & Dolphin Tale 2
Winter of Dolphin Tale & Dolphin Tale 2

 

My boys enjoyed seeing Winter and other dolphins Hope and Nicholas as well as sea turtles, otters, nurse sharks and stingrays. CMA boasts an impressive list of rescue and releases. It is certainly not your regular large aquarium filled with colourful fish and marine life and we like it that way! We admire the work being done at CMA by the caring team of staff and volunteers. It was an educational and inspiring afternoon.

I believe this is Stubby, a green sea turtle with a buoyancy disorder.
I believe this is Stubby, a green sea turtle with a buoyancy disorder.

 

After spending a few hours at CMA we drove to the Clearwater Marina for the pirate cruise as we weren’t sure about traffic. We arrived early so we picked up a quick dinner to go, drove around the area, ate dinner by the beach and did a little shopping.

With an hour to go, I checked in and picked up a parking pass at the Pirate cruise kiosk for the marina as the pass extends past the 2 hour limit on the coin meters, the pass is $3. The popular Pier 60 and Clearwater Beach are across the street and many shops including Ron Jon Surf Shop are nearby. It was only after checking in that my sons learned that we were going on a pirate cruise.

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We boarded Captain Memo’s pirate ship and the boys were immediately outfitted with a pirate hat and wooden gun. As we stepped on board we were shown to the bar area where we were offered a complimentary drink right away – water, soda, beer and wine and could return for refills throughout the night. Shortly after leaving the dock, the children were whisked off to the lower part of the ship.

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Little did we know that the wooden pistol was actually a water gun until all the kids appeared again with smiles on their faces from ear to ear and the water guns pointed at us. They could barely contain their laughter and excitement, a ship-wide water fight ensued.

The pirates were fantastic at entertaining the children for the whole cruise with stories, a treasure hunt, games, face painting and a dance party.  We got to sit back and enjoy the cruise, beverages and scenery. My youngest son’s birthday was only a few days after the cruise so he was given a special birthday button and the pirates sang Happy Birthday to him and the others who also celebrated their birthdays.

The sunset on the Gulf of Mexico was stunning and the cruise was full of smiles not only on the faces of the kids, but the adults too. We had a truly wonderful day and night in Clearwater.

sunset on the gulf of mexico

 

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Until next time,

Andrea… and my wandering iPhone

 

While I learned about these activities through Visit St Petersburg Clearwater, tickets were paid for by us and opinions are entirely my own.