Posted in North American Travel

How to Have a Romantic and Affordable Weekend in Key West

“Affordable” is not a word that’s usually associated with the Florida star of drunken nights and steamy days (prepare for an endless amount of romance puns in this one). I debated calling this weekend “affordable”, because, compared to my other adventures, this was definitely not on the cheaper end.

One of the most expensive parts of visiting Key West is the steep cost of accommodations. Even during the off-season, a weekend in a hotel within walking distance of Duval Street will run about $300-500 a night. But if you’re willing to accept that most of your expenses will come from where you sleep (or at least rest between bar hopping), then the rest of the weekend can be easy on your wallet without skimping on the romance or experience.

Cheers to going big for the weekend!

So, join me, your self-appointed Romance Connoisseur, on my top tips for How To Have a Romantic and Affordable Weekend in Key West, Florida.

Tip 1: Drive

Nothing says romance more than driving past palm trees and blue water with the windows down, especially when you get to hear that motor purr at 45 mph (the top speed on the US 1 from Key Largo to Key West).

Two lanes, the whole way. Photo credit: hoctcars.com

I currently live in Fort Myers, so driving to Key West is usually the easiest option for me. However, even if you’re visiting from the Great North, flying into Miami or Fort Lauderdale and renting a car is still your best bet. The Florida Keys are scattered with small airports, including a commercial airport located in Key West. While this may seem convenient, a quick Google Flights search shows that not only is Key West airport typically very expensive to fly into, it is also coupled with multiple layovers and connections. (If you’re located near a major airport hub for Frontier, Spirit, or JetBlue, you have much better prices and connections. These airlines provide multiple nonstop services to Key West at a reasonable rate, but are very limited.)

Nonstop flight options for a random weekend in November.

Opting to drive Highway 1 through the Keys comes with additional bonuses. As mentioned above, accommodation in Key West is extremely pricey, regardless of the season. If you’re looking to book an extended weekend with that special someone (or yourself! #treatyoself), renting a car gives you the option of staying in the Upper Keys for some of your stay. While they aren’t cheap, the Upper Keys offer a wider area of hotels, Airbnbs, and campgrounds, bringing costs down to as low at $100 a night, depending on where you stay. The Upper Keys are also less crowded than Key West, granting you a bit more serenity and privacy if you want to take a dip into the ocean with your lady lover under a full moon (just don’t watch Jaws before this trip).

Bahia Honda is a great stop to spend a half a day enjoying the “beach”. Heads up, if you’re looking for the typical white sand beaches, these don’t exist in the Keys. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

The Upper Keys also provide some great stops for sightseeing along the way that shouldn’t be skipped over. Some of my favorites include:

  • Keys Chocolate and Ice Cream on Key Largo- Best stop for key lime pie on a stick, ice cream, and gourmet sweets. If you go at night, you get the added bonus of enjoying their delicacies under a patio of twinkle lights, and what says romance more than twinkle lights? Nothing.
Aw, sweet diabetes.
  • The History of Diving Museum on Islamorada- Okay, so this one may not get you a lot of romance points, but history can be sexy, right? Regardless, this is a great stop for any dive, ocean, or history enthusiasts, and is also a great option to escape the rain. Tickets are $15 a person, but you can easily spend a couple hours here.
Gotta love that 60’s vibe. Photo credit: divingmuseum.org
  • Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key- You can think me later when this stop pays off in your favor (insert winky face). This park is definitely a major reason for driving. Located just under a hour from Key West, this park provides one of the best beaches in the Keys, as well as a great place for snorkeling, boat tours, paddle boarding, and kayaking. The old railroad bridge at the park also offers one of the highest vantage points in this area, so you can get sweeping views of the ocean as a backdrop for the cute couple photo that will be your phone’s background for the next 7-10 months. You can also reserve a campsite here if you want to see the bridge under the Milky Way. Nothing says “eternal love” like 10,000 no-see-ums and 10 billion stars.
Insert cheesy romance line here. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography
  • Florida Keys Cafe on Big Pine Key- If you’re driving into Key West in the morning, this is a definite stop to grab a much needed coffee and delicious breakfast. Not only is the food divine, but this family-owned and operated restaurant is also very affordable (under $15 a plate, which is affordable in this territory). It’s not much to look at on the outside, but the inside is full of charm, sweet servers, and the nice aroma of salty fishermen. No one is feeling very loving when they’re hangry, so be sure to stop in here, pack in some grub, and continue on to the Southern Capitol of Debauchery.
Beauty is on the inside for this one.

Tip 2: Opt for the Nice Hotel

Now that you’ve made it to your destination, picking out the perfect place to call home for the weekend is going to impact the rest of this lovecation. Hotels in Key West are pricey (if I haven’t said this enough), but if you’re smart in your selection, then the cost will be worth the experience. Hotels are the most expensive close to Duval Street; however, if you’re banking on getting your plus one hammered with frozen cocktails, it works in you favor to stay within walking distance of the bars and attractions. Anything over half a mile from Sloppy Joe’s, and you’re officially too far to stumble your way home.

The Old Town Manor. This used to be a doctor’s residence and office. If you stay inside the house, it is supposedly haunted. I did not stay in the house.

We stayed at the Old Town Manor, just around the corner from the main road. At $400 a night, this hotel was one of the most expensive I’ve ever stayed in, but it was more than worth the price (and still on the cheaper end of Key West accommodations). This B&B offered everything required for a weekend of romance, and relaxation. A converted residence from 1886, we had the option to stay inside the main house or in the converted carriage house outside (we chose the carriage house). Because we weren’t right on Duval, we were able to enjoy the party scene, but retreat to the quiet serenity of our own garden. Breakfast included a buffet of salmon, homemade jams, fruits, and a variety of bagels and freshly-pressed orange juice (with the added bonus of baby chicks running around). We stayed in the Jarcada Room, and we had our own patio overlooking the beautiful gardens and breakfast area. The house was also available if we wanted to pop in for some refreshing fruit-infused water, chat with the incredibly helpful staff, or escape the heat in the charming parlor or on the front porch. If you’re trying to convince your significant other that you need a trip here pronto, I will provide some extra photos to seal the deal.

Tip 3: Find Free Activities for the Day Time

Because you might be experiencing sticker shock over the price of your hotel, spend the day enjoying the town without opting for the expensive excursions. Key West has a lot of offer to the hardy traveler who isn’t afraid to brave the heat and put some miles on their shoes. The neighborhoods spanning out from Duval Street are filled with colorful, historic homes and Spanish-moss draped avenues. You can easily spend a lazy morning strolling down the sidewalks and just taking in the sights.

Just don’t check Zillow. It will make you feel poor.

If you’re more of a destination person, check out the West Martello Tower and Garden. This Civil-War era fort turned botanical garden is free to the public (open 9:30am-5:00pm, 7 days a week).

Not featured: the hoards of chickens running around. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

Ferns, trees, flowers, butterflies, chickens, and beautiful views of the ocean make this a great place to spend an hour or two. Most of the paths are shady, so it is also a good place to escape Florida’s oppressive heat. Pack your sunhat, sunscreen, and skip the cute shoes for something more comfortable as this spot is about a 30 minute walk from Duval Street. However, it brings you closer to the Southernmost Point of the US marker, so you can knock off two things on your “must-see” list.

Just a small sample of all the beautiful flowers to see here. Photo credit: Nicholas Larghi Photography

From here, you can make the short 10-minute walk to the Southernmost Point of the US. This marker is a fan-favorite for all visitors, and your trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick selfie. Try to get here early, as a line does form for pictures and the heat can be rather dreadful. There’s a great little grocery story just across the street where you can pick up some key lime pie on a stick or a cold drink to make up for the long jaunt.

This is not a diet-friendly destination.

At the end of the day, head over to Mallory Square for the daily sunset celebration, courtesy of the more colorful residents of Key West. An hour or so before sunset, this square starts to fill up with visitors, exhibitionists, and the occasional chicken. This is one of the better places on the island to catch the sunset over the ocean, and there’s plenty of places to grab a delicious cocktail to sip on while you wait. (While a lot of people watch the sunset right at Mallory Square, if you walk Harbour Place Condos, you can get a better view and a bit more privacy).

I like pretty views next to boats I can’t afford.

The real attraction though comes from the assortment of freelance performers who put on free shows around the square. You can catch everything from an old guy walking a tightrope to a kid spinning fire– it just depends on the day. Be sure to bring some cash to show your appreciation for your favorite performers.

Be careful. You might be volun-told to join the show.

Tip 4: Splurge on Food and Drinks

If you’re in Key West, chances are very high that you’re here to have a drink or two. Since you’ve opted for a hotel with breakfast and skipped the expensive tours, you have a bit more room in your budget to splurge on some yummy drinks and food. Restaurants can get pricey here, so it helps to do a bit of research if you want to be more strategic in your approach. One of our favorites was Garbo’s Grill at Hank’s Bar. This low-key, outdoor bar offers free, live music and an affordable happy hour ($5 beer in Key West, anyone?).

Nothing like beer in a plastic cup to get the romance flowing.

The best part of this place though is the food truck behind the bar, named Garbo’s Grill. They feature a variety of bar food, including fish tacos, beef tacos, hamburgers, hotdogs, and poke bowls. However, the true winner of the show (and the reason we kept coming back to it the entire weekend) is the Korean Bulgogi Burrito. Unless you’re a monster, you love Korean Bulgogi as much as the rest of the world, and this place does not disappoint. Food costs $10-$15 a plate, which is much cheaper than many of the sit-down restaurants in the area.

Marry me, sweet burrito from heaven.

Spend your evening checking out the colorful and unique bars that fill Duval Street. Like everything else here, drinks aren’t cheap in Key West (most cocktails will cost around $10-$15, depending on how fancy you are), but you’re here for the experience. To save some money, check with your hotel to see if they have coupon cards for some of the bars. We were able to snag a couple Buy One, Get One coupons for some places, which saved us about $10 for each order.

Nighttime, when Duval comes alive. Just remember to hydrate.

Tip 5: Opt for the Off-Season

Key West shines when the rest of the country is buried under ten feet of snow. December through April is peak tourist season for this tiny town, meaning prices for hotels skyrocket and everything gets a bit too crowded for comfort. Remember, there is only one road leading down to the keys, and it can quickly turn into a traffic nightmare on a busy Friday evening.

Starting in May, the tourists start to disappear, as temperatures in the rest of the country start to rise and those poor, pale Northerners get to peak out their front doors and see the sun for the first time in months. While it is hotter and way more humid in the summer, hotels get to be a bit more reasonable and you won’t feel like you’re fighting crowds everywhere you go.

If you are visiting during the summer months, be sure to pack clothes that breathe easily, a good sun hat, and lots of sunscreen. It is also smart to do most of your exploring in the early morning and late afternoon, spending the hottest part of the day by the pool of that adorable hotel you opted for.

I come, I insta, I leave.

Final Thoughts

Key West is definitely one of America’s more unique destinations, but it is also definitely not for everyone. I’m spinning this to be a weekend for couples, because this really isn’t the best destination for kids. Girls weekend, Lonely Boys Days Out, and romantic escapades are all great fits for this colorful destination, but Key West lacks the beaches and kid-friendly attractions that are typical in the rest of Southern Florida. Not to mention the hoards of drunken debauchery that descends upon this town once the sun goes down…

The face of drunken debauchery.

While it doesn’t fit the tune of our normal, budget-friendly destinations, Key West can still be done on a rather affordable budget. It is a great destination for a long weekend with your amore of the hour (or life, whatever floats your boat). Just be smart in your planning, be willing to cough up a bit more for a nice hotel, and most of all, get drunk, make-out in public, and have a great time.

Happy trails, everyone!

Posted in Budget Tips

How to Pack Light Without Actually Packing Light

Confession: I am an over-packer. I believe in being prepared for anything while traveling. Have I worn this dress at all in the 3 years I’ve owned it? No, but let’s bring it anyway just in case I get the urge. Do I need to bring a pair of nice sandals on my hiking/camping trip? Of course! We might stop for a nice dinner on the way home.

In the past, this meant that no matter where I was going, I always checked a bag. I needed that stuff. But my wallet doesn’t always agree. Budget airlines (such as Allegiant, Frontier, Ryanair, and Spirit) love to advertise incredibly cheap tickets. We once flew from Brussels to Budapest for $12 on a budget carrier. But those tickets only stay cheap if you play by their rules. One of their rules? Avoid checking a bag if you can.

A checked bag can cost anywhere from $30 to $60 EACH WAY. American domestic flights have also started charging for checked items, so flying a larger carrier (such as United or Delta) won’t save you. However, most tickets do include a carry-on. Want to save money to spend on that awesome boat tour? Skip the big bag and throw everything into something small.

The thing to remember is, even if you’re only traveling with a carry-on, whether that be a small suitcase or a backpack, you can still fit everything you need (and then some!) with some strategic packing.

Here are some tips that I’ve learned along the way that help me look like I’m packing light, while really still over-packing:

  • Roll roll roll. Roll your clothes. I’m sure you’ve seen this advice before, but there’s a reason everyone suggests it. Rolling your clothes makes them small and easily stackable, meaning you can fit more while enjoying a fun game of clothes-tetris while you pack.
  • Go monotone. Pack similar colors for everyday wear, this way you can mix-and-match, and use the same shoes. This also cuts down on stress. If everything is mix-and-match, all you really have to do is reach blindly into your bag and pull out any shirt and pants, and you’re good to go.
  • Pack your socks and underwear into your shoes. This one might seem a bit odd, but trust me, it works. If you are taking multiple pairs of shoes, especially if they are sneakers or boots, roll up your socks and underwear and shove them into the shoes. You won’t believe how much space this can end up saving. Your shoes are already going into the bag, and it is amazing how much space bulky socks can consume. Shove those babies deep into the far recesses of those cute Allbirds, and you have shoes that won’t get squashed plus more room for cute souvenirs!
  • Be careful with fabrics. Not only is the amount of clothes you take important, but the type of clothes you take is also something to consider. Stay away from bulkier fabrics such as wool or fleece, and opt for synthetic-blends that pack down nicely. If you’re going somewhere cold, look for options with down-interiors. Down is a great insulator and won’t take up much room. Fleece-blends are better than pure fleece, which can be hard to roll. This also goes for denim. While those jeans are cute, leggings or jeggings pack way better. Determined to pack the jean jacket and wool sweater? Make that your plane outfit, and keep the lighter clothes in the bag.
  • Underwire free bras. This is related to tip 4, but directed at our female travelers. Most stores now will sell soft, well-made bras without any wires in them. They roll up as small as a pair of underwear with no fuss or struggle, and take up way less room than a bra with wires and a full shaped cup. They are comfortable, offer great support, and are the perfect travel companion, especially when you’re trying to keep things light. Here’s my favorite.
  • Wear your biggest shoes to the airport. Even if they are your hiking boots, and you won’t be hiking straight from the plane, wearing them instead of your comfy sandals or sneakers will save so much extra space in your bag. I cannot tell you how many times I had to unlace and lace back up my muddy hiking boots at airport security, which was a pain. But not having them in my bag meant I could fit another 2 days worth of clothes in there (at least!), and that was worth the minor inconvenience.
  • Packing cubes. Confession: I do not own a packing cube. But I have seen them at work, and they are magical. It blows my mind how much you can fit into a small bag when stuffing it full of packing cubes. It’s the clown car of packing. The only reason I don’t own one is because I apparently enjoy frantically sitting on my suitcase trying close it while cursing the travel gods that I once again forgot to buy some cubes before my trip. You can find them in all sizes, and they even sell compression versions of the cubes to maximize space.
  • Take advantage of your personal item. Even if you’re bringing a carry-on, you can still take an additional personal item with you. Check the airline guidelines to make sure you are bringing the biggest one you can! Put a small purse inside a bigger purse to use during your trip, and then use the rest of the space in that big purse for stuff that won’t fit into your carry-on. I usually like to keep any toiletries I’m bringing, along with any electronic devices, in my personal item. This gives you easy access for when you have to take them out going through security. I recently went away for the weekend, and brought a backpack plus a tote bag. The tote was my personal item, and inside it were an extra pair of shoes, a curling iron, my makeup bag, a book to read, plus my cross-body purse. It fit neatly under my seat, and meant that I had everything I needed. 
  • Toiletries are international. Something that always trips up travelers who are only bringing a carry-on is the strict liquid allowance for cabin bags. Liquids must be in containers smaller than 3.4 oz, and you can only have a collective quart in your bag. While we all have a favorite shampoo or face wash, a little flexibility here can go a long way. By leaving the toiletries at home, you don’t need to worry about those pesky airport rules. Instead, visit a local drug store at your destination and stock up on cheap alternatives. (Do NOT shop in your arrival airport or hotel- those prices are usually ridiculously high.) Most drug stores overseas are actually quite a bit cheaper than US stores. I’ve picked up face wash in the UK that was half the price as the US option and had the same ingredients. This is also a great opportunity to test out new products!
  • All hail the AirBnb. If you don’t like to wear things twice without cleaning them, I get it. But consider searching for the elusive washer/dryer AirBnB booking so that you can wash your stuff in between wears, cutting down on the amount of stuff you have to bring. You can even pack your own detergent in some small carry-on bottles so that you’re prepped and ready to go upon arrival.

The biggest additional tip I can give you about packing using the suggestions above is NOT to pack your undies and socks on the bottom of your bag. Roll up your pants and shirts to pack first. I always make the mistake of rolling up and packing my underwear, bras, and socks first, since those are the easiest things to decide on. Obviously, you’ll need them. The thing is, you’re going to need them EVERY DAY. So they shouldn’t be on the bottom, because then you have to unpack everything, every single morning, in order to get dressed, and you start to resent that small carry-on very quickly.

I try to follow these tips whenever I travel. I spent 4 days away recently with just the backpack you see in this article. I had at least 3 extra outfits in there that I didn’t wear. I absolutely overpacked, but no one could tell!

Posted in North American Travel

A Weekend in Everglades National Park

Entrance to Hell’s Bay off the Park Road (fitting name)

“If the devil ever raised a garden, the Everglades was it.”

James Carlos Blake

The Devil’s Garden. That’s a pretty accurate description for how most travelers would view Everglades National Park as they drive the 39 miles spanning from the southern entrance all the way down to Flamingo. Although it is one of America’s largest parks, it is often forgotten or passed over in favor of more instagrammable locales (looking at you, Old Faithful).

Picture this: Visitors drive past pine lands and cypress, counting the mosquitos that stick to their windshield, and hop out in a Deet-induced haze to quickly snap a picture of an alligator. At the end of their drive, they hit Flamingo, the little dot that sits at the bottom of Florida, caught in the long shadow cast by Miami on the opposite shore. Flamingo is an outpost that probably hit its heyday in the mid 50’s, and has since been forgotten in the annual budget of the Department of the Interior (as seen by the lovely abandoned building that greets you as you enter the outpost area).

The great outpost of Flamingo, Florida

There are few choices once visitors arrive here. For those unlucky travelers who forgot to bring a lunch, they’re left to the overpriced offerings of the general store (the only food option in the park. Picture canned chicken salad and $4 Gatorade). If you didn’t fill up in Homestead, you get the pleasure of paying for the Glade’s premium at the one gas station (only open during the day, so plan accordingly). And if you like to sleep in a room which isn’t composed of canvas and netting, then you’re better off grabbing that entrance sign pic, turning around, and heading to Key West for the weekend instead.

Aforementioned Entrance Sign Picture (for those Instagrammers, the main park road from Homestead has the best sign)

I was like many visitors– hitting a few boardwalks, swatting a few flies, then getting out of there to find some air conditioning and hydrocortisone cream. I just didn’t get the appeal. Then, I started taking more trips here, taking more time to really experience what the park had to offer (and braving the night full of mosquitos) and something amazing happened. I started to get it. This place is truly one-of-a-kind.

Two juvenile ospreys eating fish in a tree overlooking the Florida Bay. They got a great lunch spot!

Everglades is not like other parks. The trails aren’t easily marked and most can only be accessed by a kayak or boat. However, this park can offer an amazing adventure for those willing to go outside of their comfort zone.

Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite (and budget-friendly) things to do on a weekend in the Everglades.

Sleeping in an Eco-Tents

Unless you’re in an RV, the only option for spending the night in the park is camping. Currently, there is a hotel being built in Flamingo, but it’s been a long process and as of May 2021, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be popping up on Booking.com anytime soon. Airbnb? Also not an option.

Great views…if you have a tent. Florida Bay from the Walk-Up Camping Location in Flamingo

However, Flamingo Adventures has created an amazing solution for those wanting a little more glamour than a basic tent. Marketed as an “above-ground, glamping tent”, the eco-tents are built on wood platforms facing the Florida Bay. It’s as far south as you can go without driving to the keys, and the views are specular. I’ve stayed in these canvas rooms twice now (over Labor Day weekend and in May), and both times I’ve been blown away by how comfortable of a camping experience these tents provide. You have the option of booking a tent with a queen bed, two doubles, or BYOSP (bring your own sleeping pad), and each tent is decked out with electricity, three sides of netting, a lamp, and a massive fan (for those muggy, Florida nights). The best part? You have an outdoor patio where you can sit and watch the storms blow by or even catch a glimpse of an osprey snatching a fish from the shallow waters.

Better than any hotel.

The tents are large enough that you can spread out all your gear (like those muddy hiking shoes), and still have plenty of space to move around. Unlike a traditional tent, they’re also tall enough that you don’t have to crouch, and you feel comfortable enjoying nature without becoming a snack for the mosquitos. To add to the extra-level of glamping, there is even a bathhouse with showers and flush toilets (this Missouri girl is unused to such level of comfort).

One of the few camping spots in Florida with a view.

While they are an amazing option in the day (especially as a place to hideout during those daily summer storms– nap time while smelling the rain? Yes, please!), the eco-tents truly shine at night. If you’re here during the milky way season (Spring-early Fall), you will be treated to some of the most beautiful dark skies this side of the Mississippi. This is what makes staying the night in Flamingo a must-do for any weekend adventurers.

The stars speak for themselves.
Want more Everglades Night photos? Check out Nicholas Patrick Photography for more pics of that beautiful sky

The cheapest time to book these tents are in the summer season (late April-November), where you can snag one of these beauties for just $50 a night. A tent site in Flamingo runs $25, so it is definitely worth it to level-up and get a little bit more comfort. If you go in the winter, tents start at $90 and only go up. They’re also more in-demand at that time so you need to book in advance.

You also get to wake up to a field of Morning Glories. What more do you need?

The Cons? Summer time is also the buggy time, where no-see-ums and mosquitos reign supreme. Winter is much more friendly if you’re looking to avoid our buzzing friends, but you will miss out on the storm-watching and Milky Way. You’ll also have to deal with a bit more people around.

Important note: While the eco-tents are a great option to hide from the mosquitos, the netting is not no-see-um proof. It’s best to plan your visit when the wind will be strong enough to keep these annoying pests away.

Hiking a Cypress Dome

Everglades National Park is the first place I ever got my feet wet in swamp hiking (literally. Your boots get soaked.) I was lucky enough to get to go with some friends, and the moment my boot disappeared into the water and I was under the canopy of enchanting cypress, I was addicted to this place.

I spy Mr. Gator.

A cypress dome, for those of us not well-versed in glade vocabulary, is characterized by a circle of cypress trees growing in a deeper pool of water. It is the stereotypical image that most of us have of the swamp, and has probably been featured in over five different Nicholas Sparks’ movies. Cypress trees tower above you as you tread in knee-deep water (even deeper depending on the season). They are populated by gators, tropical birds, and beautiful orchids. I never imagined that I would enjoy treading through water, but the serenity and peacefulness found in a dome is unmatched. Unlike most hikes that are done out west, a dome hike is slower, more reflective. It isn’t about reaching a destination, but more about enjoying where you are at.

Cypress Dome in Southwest Florida. Hiking like you’ve never done hiking before.

I often get asked what to wear when hiking into the swamp. From experience, I can tell you to leave the chacos at home and opt for an old pair of hiking boots or sneakers. Your feet will get wet, but your toes will be protected from whatever may be under the water’s surface. Always wear long pants and long sleeves when hiking in the glades. Opt for clothing that is lightweight and breathable, so it dries quickly and won’t weigh you down.

Where did my feet go? (And this is the dry season)

Cypress Domes perforate the glades landscape, but unless you are with a native swamper, they can be difficult to find (it took me over a year living in Florida before I ever went into one). Fortunately, Everglades National Park organizes ranger-led hikes (called “wet hikes”) into this beautiful ecosystem. Hikes meet at the Royal Palm Ranger Station (the first station you see upon entering the park from Homestead), and can be booked online here.

Looking for Orchids

This was an activity I never envisioned I would enjoy until I found myself dating an orchid-enthusiast. I knew about the beautiful flowers that I would sometimes see at the Home Depot, but I never thought to go view these plants in the wild. Everglades National Park has the most diverse population of orchids in the NPS system (it’s the place to go if you love unique plants and flowers). Unfortunately, a history of poaching and development have led to much of the Everglades’ orchid population being depleted. But you can still view some of these beauties in the wild (just don’t touch or take. Follow the Leave No Trace policy that keeps the wilderness wild).

Orchids can be spotted by the keen eye throughout the park.

Orchids are found in a variety of places in a glades, but most require some hiking to access. A venture into the salt marsh prairie can lead to the rewarding experience of seeing a Mule Ear orchid in the wild. Check out the photo below for just how gorgeous these plants are.

Mule Ear Orchid

Orchids bloom depending on the season you visit. For those sharp-eyed hikers, you can usually spot them on most trails, but a guided hike is also a great option. Check here for more information on ranger-led hikes in the park.

Ok, so maybe there’s a bunch of cool plants to see here.

Just remember, alway carry plenty of water when exploring the park. Florida is a hot and humid destination, and poor planning could lead to a bad situation.

Wildlife Sightings

Everyone heads to south Florida determined to see an alligator, and while gators are cool and all, they are literally everywhere. A drive down 41 will allow a visitor to see enough gators to satisfy any gator-itch they may have.

Florida’s most overrated reptile.

What most visitors don’t realize is that Florida has another toothy-resident, and they’re not nearly as common. The American Crocodile is a spectacular predator to behold, and Flamingo is a great place to spot one of these guys chilling in the water (or out of it if they’re sunning themselves). Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where crocs and gators are natural neighbors. For those itching to catch a glimpse, you are almost always guaranteed a croc sighting by cruising by the Flamingo boat ramp at night. Crocs have a thinner nose and exposed teeth, but if that is too hard to see, shine a light in their direction. A croc’s eyes will shine back red while a gator’s eyes will be yellow. Bingo! You got yourself a croc sighting.

Gator? Nope. Not a gator.

Other critters found in the park include black bears, panthers, mink, manatees, flamingos, birds, snakes, and too many more to list. In the late spring/early fall, manatees can be seen swimming by the docks just past the Flamingo General Store. Ospreys can be seen nesting throughout the area and diving for fresh fish in the bay. Rattlesnakes can be spotted throughout the tall grasses and pine lands, so be careful where you step and keep those airpods at home.

You can always catch sight of a beautiful Osprey hanging by one of their nests.
Be sure to look for the little guys as well!

If you’re a night owl, you can spot your animal namesake perched in trees and on posts at night throughout the park and along the park road (please drive slowly! Owls are frequent roadkill along the road and this is easily avoidable). Pythons come out to play in the evening as well, and, if you’re awake, you can see the invasive snakes hunting across the pavement or in the grass. Just leave the wrangling to one of Florida’s approved python contactors. These men and women are trained to capture these giants.

Your friendly, neighborhood, invasive python

Conclusion

These are just a few of the many activities you can do on a weekend in Everglades National Park. If you’re eager to get on the water, you can also rent kayaks from the Flamingo Activities Booth (located right next to the gas station) and explored one of the countless water trails that snake deeper into the swamps or out into the bay.

If you plan on visiting some of the Park’s other entrances (Shark Valley and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers), there are even more things to do. Shark Valley offers a tram ride to an overlook tower (this can also be done on a bicycle), and Gulf Coast offers boat tours, kayak adventures, and more into the Ten Thousand Island region.

A weekend in the park is definitely one for the hardy adventurer, but it comes with endless rewards and experiences that are truly one-of-a-kind. It is also a nice variation from the binge-drinking party scene popular in Miami. If big lights and clubs aren’t your scene, switch up a trip to south Florida by spending some time in the “true” Florida, where cypress and grasslands have been spared by the relentless development and concrete jungles.

Price Breakdown:

Entrance to the park: $30 (Check out the National Park Annual Pass, only $80)

Food (Pack ahead): $80-100

Eco-Tent: $50 (Summer Season), $90 and up (Winter Season)

Hiking, Exploring, and Seeing a Beautiful Place: Free!

Packing List:

Long Sleeves and Long Pants (don’t hike in shorts here! Your legs will thank you later).

Mosquito Netting (look for the kind that goes over a hat)

Hiking Shoes or Old Tennis Shoes

Camp Shoes (Crocs, sandals, or chacos)

Food and Water for the weekend

Sunscreen and Hat

Camping Gear (Unless opting for the eco-tent. If bringing your own tent, make sure your tent has no-see-um netting!)

Flashlight or headlamp (For those night adventures under the stars)

Camp chair (for those lazy afternoon watching the storms blow by)

Mosquito Repellent (I recommend a Deet-free option. Lemon Eucalyptus oil smells great, is natural, and won’t melt the plastic off your hiking shoes. Check here for my preferred brand.)

Posted in International Travel

The Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye is a dreamscape. Every bend in the road treats your eyes to a new view, some of it the familiar Scottish variety, some of it alien and otherworldly, and all of it completely magical. In a place where two of the most famous stops start with the word “fairy”, would you expect any less?

We arrived in Skye after our northern road trip (read about it here!), and were eager to stock up on food and supplies, and then rest our weary eyes in our AirBnb (£232 total for the weekend- about £77/person.)

Imagine our thrill when we arrived to the cutest little glamping pod you’ll ever see, located on a family farm and complete with a pack of baby goats right outside our door! We took pictures and videos of the kids for a while until one of the family members felt bad enough to come out and bring us a baby goat to pet. Did we squeal like idiots? You bet.

Some of our new friends!

Since the rental car and AirBnb were split three ways and really inexpensive (around £100 each total for the entire weekend), we were able to do some splurging on dinner, so we stopped in at a family run restaurant down the road for dinner and the best sticky toffee pudding I’ve ever had. Then, we stocked up at the local co-op with snacks and some food for future meals (and a few bottles of wine), and went back to our pod, where our host had left some firewood for us to help light up our little cast-iron fire pit. The perfect ending to our first night on Skye.

The next morning, the adventure began. There is no limit to the amazing things you can see in Skye. While we didn’t have the time (or the cooperation of the weather) to see everything, we managed to hit the majority of the famous sights:

  • The Fairy Pools- A must see. Located at the base of the rugged Black Cuillin mountain range, these pools stretch down a sloping glen. The blue isn’t quite as startling as you might see in a highly filtered Instagram post, but they’ll still take your breathe away. It was the mountain range that really stood out for me here. Dark and foreboding, and so damn cool. The next time I’m in Skye, #1 on my list is a hike through these black hills. It’s a small hike from the car park up to the pools, so make sure you wear the right shoes- it can get a little muddy!
The Fairy Pools with the Black Cuillin looming above.
  • Portree– The largest town in Skye (which isn’t saying much). We stopped here for lunch and walked around, enjoying the views of the colorful town and the clear, still waters. There were rainbows overhead and bagpipe music permeating the air. A fairytale town, and a good place to find some souvenirs if you wanted to take a piece of Skye home with you.
  • Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls– For those of you who appreciate a great geological formation, Kilt Rock will not disappoint. Made from towering basalt columns that take on a tartan pattern, Kilt Rock juts out from the cliffside, Mealt Falls flowing down the face of it straight into the ocean below. On a particularly windy day, you might be able to hear a haunting song dance upon the winds. Fairy pipes? The ghost of an old highlander? The wind blowing through the fence at the edge of the cliffside? We’ll never know.
The waters around Portree. Spot the rainbow!
  • The Fairy Glen– You will never be able to shut me up about the Fairy Glen. It is literally the most magical place I have ever been to. Whimsical, otherworldly, and with strange hill formations and spiral ground designs (some made by tourists- please don’t do this! There are natural spirals and shapes there already), the place lives up to its name and then some. Entering the glen is like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia- it’s an almost alien place, so different from anything you’ve seen so far in Skye. It was a long and winding road to the glen, way outside of any cell phone reception or sign of modern life. The roads are tiny, the sheep are numerous, and I would literally travel all the back to Skye just to spend another hour wandering around this place.
I really wasn’t kidding. This place is incredible, and we were lucky enough to get some sun to really bring out the beauty of it.
  • The Old Man of Storr – Because of our time constraints, we didn’t do the hike all the way up to the Old Man, but had a great view from below. If you’re going here for some great uphill exercise, this is the trail to take (along with hiking a little further to the Quiraing, another incredible landscape caused by an ancient landslip). It’s a bizarre sight- sharp peaks of rock jutting out of the ground. Legend says it’s the thumb of a giant who was laid to rest on the hillside. If you turn your head just right (and squint a little) you can see the profile of a man’s face in the outline of the rocks.
  • The night sky– This might sound silly if you’re from the countryside or have done a lot of traveling in remote places, but for this city girl, the night sky was one of the more memorable things about Skye. I had never seen so many stars at once. With all the beauty at ground level, it’s easy to forget to look up!
Looking up!


Finding a place to stay in Skye is easy and can be inexpensive, it all just depends on what kind of place you want to stay in. For us, glamping added to the experience in the best way possible. There was a full bed and a pull-out couch, and the three of us fit easily and comfortably in the small space. Important to note for this trip: this was actually the first one we took together as a threesome. If 3 girls who were basically strangers can share a pod with 1 shower and 1 real bed, I think anyone can make this work. After the first night eating out, we cooked dinner in the pod. There was a small kitchen and some cooking utensils (plus a microwave). We had everything we needed to make this trip inexpensive and unforgettable.

Posted in International Travel

The Road to Skye

One of the best things I’ve ever done was take a road trip from Glasgow to Skye. I was already living in Glasgow, so the flight factor didn’t add into my costs, but even if you have to fly into Scotland before starting your road trip, it’s an incredibly cheap trip without feeling like you’re missing out on any part of the experience.

Bad hair day, great travel day. The three of us at Glen Coe.


Skye is incredible (and you can read all about our trip to Skye here), but the road to Skye was equally as incredible and as much a part of the experience as the isle itself. Renting a car for a long weekend can be pretty inexpensive. Tours can get really pricey, and you can’t always see everything you want to see. Having the freedom to stop and go whenever you please for a minimal price is worth every penny spent on gas. The cost of our rental car was £101, split three ways, for the entire weekend.
Winding your way up slowly from Glasgow, the scenery changes from cityscapes to small towns, until you finally hit the quintessential Scottish countryside. The sights are (mostly) free, the experience is priceless.


Here are the best stops on your way up to Skye:


Loch Lomond: This will be your first stop, so keep an eye out for the little turnoffs and lookouts that you’ll come to expect from a drive into the highlands. You travel around Loch Lomond for a while, so make more than one stop- every view is different and spectacular. The loch is known for its dark color, and on a calm day the surface looks like obsidian. (The lakebed is made of dark silt, giving the impression of dark water.) About halfway through your loch-side drive, you’ll pass into the northern part of the country. Congrats! You’re officially a highlander now.

The bonnie, bonnie banks of my favorite place in the world. Loch Lomond is one of a kind.


Glen Coe: Rain or shine, Glen Coe is a must-see, and one of the most famous views in Scotland. Surrounded by Rannoch Moor (see below!), on a clear day, the Three Sisters- Glen Coe’s iconic peaks- are visible across the green, lush glen. But in the rain, the valley comes to life. You might lose a Sister or two to the fog, but in return you get a sprawling green glen teeming with waterfalls and magic. And let’s face it, it’s Scotland. You’re more likely to see Glen Coe in the rain anyway. The human history of the glen itself is tragic, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of reverence as you peer out into the misty expanse.


Rannoch Moor: The scenery of many a spooky, wild movie scene (you might recognize it from Outlander, or Harry Potter), Rannoch Moor has a bare, haunted ascetic with a cool historical origin story. This is an ancient place, forged by the melting and reforming of glaciers, carved by time itself. It’s a bog, so if you were planning on doing any exploring deep into the moor, be prepared to track a lot of mud back to your car. It will also stand out because in a land of hills and mountains, Rannoch Moor is eerily flat and alien for the most part.

A sunny Glen Coe


Oban: A must see for lovers of quaint seaside towns, and lovers of scotch. This would be an excellent place to stop for a bite to eat, either in a small little pub, or a nicer seafood restaurant, depending on your budget, and explore a Scottish town. Talk to the locals, take in the sights and smells, and stretch your legs after a long car ride.


Fort Williams: Another great little town to stop for lunch is Fort William. A little further north than Oban, this town has some useful shops- a perfect place to stop once you’ve remembered all the things you were supposed to pack and forgot, and don’t want to waste your Skye time finding proper hiking socks. (Can you tell I’m speaking from experience? My favorite pair of comfy socks came from Fort Williams, and I always wear them fondly, for both the comfort and the memory.)


Eilean Dolan: I cannot stress this enough. If you only stop in one place on the way up to Skye, stop here. The castle exterior is one of the most outstanding and quintessential Scottish sights, and the inside gives you an amazing insight into Scottish history. You’ll have to pay to get inside, but it’s worth the splurge. Your instinct might be to skip it, because it’s just before Skye and you’ll probably be eager to get to the isle and start exploring, but I promise it’s worth it, even if you just stop to take in the sight of it and not go inside.

Does it get any more atmospheric than this?


Literally, the side of the road: Peppered along the side of the road leading up into the northern highlands are little areas where you can park your car and just enjoy the view. Sometimes, there are lochs, sometimes mountains. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, there are highland cows. These iconic gentle giants will tolerate an obscene amount of photos, happily munching on grass and ignoring you completely. Stop and say hello (just don’t get too close and bother them), and relish in this one-of-a-kind Scottish experience.

All hail the hairy coo!

You can do this drive in one long day, or opt for a cheap Airbnb or inn at one of the small towns along the way. We did it in one go, leaving early in the morning and arriving in Skye just as the sun began to set. The cost of the rental car was £101. So for £34 each (plus snacks and lunch), we saw all that I mentioned above (with a bonus stop at Loch Ness on the way home!). Road trips are a classic way of seeing a country, and it’s no different here. It’s the best way to get the most bang for your buck, and this particular road trip was one I would recommend to anyone.

Posted in North American Travel

4 Days in the Bahamas on a Budget

Recently, my boyfriend and I did an extended weekend trip to Nassau. We flew in on a Thursday and out on a Sunday, giving us four days on the island (including our travel days). While the trip wasn’t slated as a budget trip (we splurged majorly on a Friday full of diving), we wanted to save as much as we could elsewhere on the adventure so we could continue to go places in the future (no one likes the credit card hangover at the end of a trip).

Two very happy travelers on New Providence Island, Bahamas

The first thing I realized about Nassau is that what I hear from lot of travelers is true– the Bahamas are expensive. And not in that “you might spend a couple dollars more at dinner” expensive, but in the “a dinner for two will be about $100” expensive. Judging by the amount of drool-worthy yachts moored off the coast, maybe most visitors don’t mind these extra costs. But for two frugal adventurers who want to keep on adventuring, some prices came as a shock. Fortunately, I picked up a few tricks and tips for any of my fellow frugalees who want to explore the world, but not have to live off ramen for months to pay for it.

Opt for an AirBnb

This is probably an obvious tip for most seasoned travellers, but I am a solid believer in the Airbnb. Not only is it the most Covid-friendly of accomodations (usually you’re in your own unit with limited interaction with other guests), but you also get the added bonus of supporting a smaller business (we can rage against corporate resorts on a later day) and you get to experience life more as a local. The biggest perk of an Airbnb, though? The kitchen.

View from our Airbnb on the western shore of New Providence Island

Eating out is expensive in the Bahamas. We dined at a lovely restaurant on the western edge of the island. Two dinners, a couple of drinks, and an ocean view came with the hefty total of $110. While the food was delicious and I would do it again (see the photo section for more information on this great restaurant), most adventurers can’t afford that price tag for every meal. That’s where having a kitchen in your residence comes in handy.

As far as prices, we opted for a “mid-range” airbnb. We were located West Bay Street, not far from Chateau Del Mar. About 10 minutes from the airport and 25 minutes from the heart of Nassau, it was the perfect location to access our dive sites and the other points of interest we wanted to hit on the island. For a studio apartment, with a shared pool and an ocean view, we paid $370 for 3 nights. There are cheaper studio options in the center of the island around $280. The cheapest option I found in the heart of Nassau around $250.

Another option for larger groups would be to rent a house. Originally, we planned on going with a larger group, and an entire house (with a pool and ocean view) would’ve been about $700. Split that four or six ways, and you got yourself more space than a hotel room, a kitchen when those midnight munchies kick in, and outdoor space if you hauled over your dive gear (and in case you want to hear the ocean at night, not smell it).

Snorkeling shoreline just down the hill from our Airbnb (about a 3 minute walk). Sunset along West Bay Street, New Providence, Bahamas

To add a bit of perspective, you can get a hotel room (in a budget hotel) for as low as $200. With more fancy amenities and more perks, this can go as high as $800 (or even higher for those super bougie people out there). So while Airbnb may not be the super cheap option it can be elsewhere (looking at you, Malta), having a kitchen will help you cut costs in the long run. As long as you know where to shop, which brings me to point numero duos…

Pick Your Stores Wisely

Picture this… two bleary-eyed divers are scheduled for an 8am dive departure on a Friday morning. They’re hungry, in need of coffee, and will definitely need further sustenance for the day (unless they get eaten by a shark). They pull into the first grocery store they find, only to walk in and find that a loaf of bread is over $5. (That might be an exaggeration. The loaf I saw was $5, but maybe it was super special somehow. As well as all the loaves around it.)

Grocery stores vary drastically on New Providence (the island Nassau is located on for those still struggling with a map). The first store we went into was Solomon’s Fresh Market, located on the northwestern side of the island and one of the first stores those departing the airport will see. Think Fresh Market or Whole Foods and you’ve got a solid mental picture of this store. It’s beautiful and exceptionally organized, but you won’t be saving much money here. However, if you have a food allergy or special diet, this is the place for you.

Option number two we came across later in the day (Solomon has the extra perk of being one of the few stores open before 8am on the west side). Super Value Food Store (super inventive name) can be found closer to Nassau, and it is definitely cheaper in price. Most of the items we picked up were still about 1.5 times what we would pay in the states but only about half of the price of what we found in Solomon’s. What you pay in price, you trade in overall store presentation and food choices. The inside reflects the interior of most budget stores in the US, and those with a special diet might struggle to find choices (though I did see a solid selection of gluten-free choices). But it is cheaper than Solomon’s, so it does speak to the difference in stores one could come across on the island. Just be sure to bring your own bags, or you’ll be spending $5 in beer money for a cute, reusable bag. Groceries are not allowed to leave the store without being in a bag.

My lovely $5 souvenir bag thanks to Super Value

There are other chains and stores (including smaller neighborhood markets in the town), but this was the sampling we experienced. So my advice to the dollar-weary traveler: spend a few extra minutes studying your google maps when selecting a grocery store. A few more miles could end up cutting your bill by $50. Replace eating out a few meals with home-cooked meals in your Airbnb? You can easily save yourself hundreds of dollars at the end of the day. And before you start thinking about those massive bar tabs- alcohol is more expensive, but opting for a local bottle of rum to enjoy on your balcony is always a good option. However, I didn’t think the drinks were too bad (about $10-$15 for a cocktail). So maybe skip the meal and enjoy a mojito in town instead?

I love food as much as the next person, so I always make it a point to eat out at least once everywhere I go. I believe that food is a crucial part of experiencing a place and a culture, however, I don’t always have the budget to eat out for every meal. Cooking allows for you to explore the local lifestyle, maybe test out the odd fruit or vegetable in the store, and keep some money left aside for that extra dive or sailing adventure.

Be Your Own Taxi

I read countless blogs and forums before our trip about the pros and cons of renting a car in the Bahamas. Travelers’ fears ran everywhere from driving on the left side of the road to being scammed by shady rental agencies. Since we weren’t staying in Nassau and had plans on diving and seeing the island, we needed transportation. Nassau has a bus system but it isn’t the best at going everywhere or even following a true schedule (island time is the time). Taxis are expensive if you plan on seeing anything (especially if you get adventurous and make it out somewhere remote like Jaws Beach) and aren’t the most practical if you don’t like being on a schedule (me! me! me!). Sidewalks are a thing of mystery on the island, and the roads are way too narrow to brave a bike.

So, renting a car it is. Even with the higher rental prices (Covid has increased rental prices everywhere), we paid $230 for the four days, had our own transportation, and never had to worry about taxi prices. Our car was the world’s smallest hatchback, fit two people and their giant dive bags, and only used about $15 in gas driving around the entire island for four days (I never figured out how it burned so little gas). We rented through Budget and it was by-far the easiest rental I’ve ever gone through. When leaving the airport on New Providence, you just walk right across the street from departures and the rental car building is in front of you. Walk in, grab your key, use a credit card for rental insurance (check your policy), and BAM! You’re a free agent on the road in under five minutes. Just remember… stay left.

And if you’re concerned about driving, the average speed limit is 35 mph on the island. You have plenty of time to get used to the endless roundabouts and the opposite side of the road. Having a car cuts the expense of a taxi and allows you limitless freedom as you explore this beautiful island.

Our adorable rental car. I wanted to bring it home!

Opt Outside

This one is an easy tip, since you’re in the Bahamas to enjoy the beautiful weather. As most travelers know, outside activities are usually the cheapest when it comes to saving costs and exploring a new place. With a rental car, you can spend an entire day basking in the sun on the western beaches. Jaws Beach was a tropical paradise, full of drifting palms, turquoise water, and sandy coves. The best part? It was completely free.

Jaws Beach, Western Shore of New Providence, Bahamas

New Providence has lots of little beaches that can be explored while keeping the credit card spending low. Opt for the sleepy beaches instead of the ones in the heart of Nassau to get some added privacy and the freedom to enjoy a nice picnic with an oceanfront view. If you’re like me and love the ocean, the diving cannot be beat (See my post on Shark Diving for more information: https://everythinginacarryon.com/2021/05/07/shark-diving-in-the-bahamas-mollie-breese/), but diving comes with a higher price tag. Snorkeling is free (if you have your gear) and easily accessible along West Bay Road and Clifton Bay. We had the added perk of being able to walk to great snorkeling spots straight from our Airbnb. A full day of basking in the sun, enjoying the crystal clear water, and not constantly worrying about how expensive it all is? My kind of day!

Snorkeling off of West Bay Street , New Providence, Bahamas

If none of these options tickle your pickle, there are also free hiking trails available in Bonefish National Park (access a free parking area on Coral Harbour Road). Nassau offers a wealth of free activities, my favorites being a stroll through Parliament Square or the markets on Bay Street. There are other great places on the island to see (such as the Versailles Gardens on Paradise Island or Fort Montagu on New Providence), but these all cost an entrance fee. It’s great to support local businesses or historic associations, so always feel free to stop in and check them out. We paid about $15 a person to visit Clifton Heritage National Park (a historic park featuring beautiful cliffs, gardens, and original establishments from the slavery era), but the focus here is budget-friendly, so do some research into what fits best. I enjoy splurging on activities I know will make a memory, so my big expense was my day of diving.

Conclusion

In the end, the Bahamas can be costly, but a little research and planning make it an affordable destination. If you plan on eating out every day, raging until dawn, and catching those beautiful sailboats to chase the sunset the trip will be more expensive than what many may be used to (especially compared to a cheaper tropical destination such as Mexico). But the islands are gorgeous, the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met, and the diving is unreal. Traveling is all about balance, especially if you’re trying to do multiple trips in one year (or one season or one month…). I love cutting loose and enjoying a place without worrying about the cost, but I also love knowing that a little smart planning allows for me to afford that next trip that’s right around the corner!

Price Breakdown (4 days, 3 nights)

  • Airbnb: $370
  • Car rental: $230
  • 4-Dives with Stuart’s Cove (optional) $450 (per person)
  • Gas: $15
  • First Night Dinner Out: $110
  • Groceries: $180
  • Entrance to National Park: $15 (per person)
  • Alcohol (bottle of wine and a bottle of vodka): $45
  • Snorkeling, Beach Bumming, Touring the Island: Free!