By Kristy Tolley
While COVID-19 hit the pause button on travel last year, it also compelled many to think outside the hotel room for their next adventure. The thought of RVing — especially down the Atlantic Coast of Florida — has lured me for years. However, the expense, upkeep and lack of space in our driveway for an RV are detractions I haven’t been able to overcome. Outdoorsy, the Airbnb of RVs, was an ideal solution for our Florida RV odyssey. In addition, our RV accommodations allowed for ample social distancing, making it perfect for pandemic travel. Each RV owner met us (masked) at each campground, explained the particulars and handed over the keys. It was simple! AAA Members receive a 10 percent discount on RV rentals with Outdoorsy.
We began our road trip in St. Augustine. Our home base was 30-acre North Beach Camp Resort, situated on a barrier island between the North River and the Atlantic Ocean. Campsites are tucked between large oaks and palmettos, offering an intimate and shaded setting for campers.
Spend your day on the beach— soaking up rays, riding the waves or combing the sand for shark teeth (we found several on North Beach). Exploring St. Augustine’s historic gems is a must. It’s our nation’s oldest city, predating Jamestown by more than 41 years, so there’s plenty to see. Old Town Trolley Tours makes it easy with unlimited hop on/hop off privileges at 22 points of interest. Guides share St. Augustine’s history and fascinating facts along the way. Trolleys are sanitized between tours and plexiglass divides each row of seats. In addition, each row is limited to one family or group traveling together.
There are three attractions located at the depot where you purchase your ticket and board the trolley. The historic Old Jail served St. Augustine for more than 60 years. It was built by Henry Flagler, who wanted to keep the city’s “criminal element” away from guests of his Ponce de Leon Hotel. Take in the new-fangled products of the turn of the century like tonics, (now vintage) farm equipment and a goat-powered washing machine at the Oldest Store Museum. The St. Augustine History Museum provides insight into the people who shaped St. Augustine through displays, authentic artifacts and replicas.
During our tour, we hopped off at the Potter’s Wax Museum. It’s housed in what was formerly Florida’s first drugstore, operated by T.W. Speissegger and his two sons. The museum lobby is lined with glass cases teeming with actual artifacts left behind when the Speissegger sons walked away from the family business. George Potter took over the building in 1949. Inspired by a visit to London’s Madame Tussauds as a child, Potter wanted to create a similar experience here and opened the first wax museum in America. More than 150 realistic-looking wax figures fill the space and most of them are from Potter’s original collection.
Other stops along the trolley route well worth visiting include the Lightner Museum, the Villa Zorayda Museum, Castillo de San Marcos, Whetstones Chocolates’ factory and the Oldest House Museum Complex.
If ghost hunting is your thing, consider an evening ghost tour with Ancient City Tours. In addition to learning the haunted history of local landmarks, we participated in a paranormal investigation at the Oldest Wooden School House using dowsing rods and various handheld monitoring devices.
Don’t miss a visit to the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum where you can soak up more than 500 years of maritime history. The spectacular view of Matanzas Bay and the Atlantic Ocean is worth every one of the 219 steps it takes to reach the top.
The neighboring counties of Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie were next on our coastal road trip. Our RV was parked at Phipps Park Campground, situated along the Okeechobee Waterway. It’s within a 55-acre conservation area, providing ample opportunities to enjoy nature and spy wildlife like herons, cranes, gopher tortoises and alligators.
With over 70 miles of beaches, several historic parks and preserves, outdoor opportunities abound. We plied the waterways on a stand-up paddle board eco-tour. Gliding through lush mangrove tunnels in a clear kayak is another fun way to explore by water.
Add the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery to your list of indoor diversions. Largely self-taught, Backus was a tremendous artist known for capturing vivid Florida landscapes. As a native Floridian, he knew the nuances of the seasons well, capturing those qualities in a compelling way. His mentorship of a group of young African-American artists led to the collective later known as the Florida Highwaymen. Works by Backus and the Florida Highwaymen are permanent displays. Other exhibits rotate throughout the year.
Our final home away from home was Fiesta Key RV Resort & Marina. The resort boasts fantastic views of the Gulf of Mexico. Thatched umbrella tables and loungers lining the water beckon guests to sit back and savor the ocean breezes. The resort isn’t far from Bahia Honda State Park, a blissful place to spend the day. Just $2 per person gets you in for the day. Make the most of it with shore fishing, swimming the turquoise waters or snorkeling the reefs at Looe Key. The park is also home a long-established colony of the rare Miami blue butterfly.
A sunset sail is perhaps the best way to cap off any day. You can book one at Sundance Watersports in Robbie’s Marina. Peruse outdoor shops or feed the tarpons while you wait. Grab a bite before or after at The Hungry Tarpon and Bar. Bring in your fresh catch and they’ll cook it for you!
My last visit to Key West was over 20 years ago, so my “to see” list was pretty extensive. My priority was the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, as I missed it on my first trip. The Spanish colonial beauty was Hemingway’s home for more than 10 years. Built by local salvage wrecker and marine architect Asa Tift in 1851, the home is a National Historic Landmark and Literary Landmark. A tour reveals an intimate look at the Nobel Prize winner’s life through original furnishings, photography and various personal items. Take time to pet one of the more than 50 six-toed cats roaming the home. Some are said to have descended from a cat owned by the Hemingways.
Learn more about Asa Tift and Key West’s shipwreck history at the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum. The wrecking industry, which dates back to the 16th century, made Key West the richest city per capita in the United States in the mid-1800s when more than 100 ships passed by each day. The story is told through video, interactive exhibits and displays of authentic artifacts. Climb the museum’s 65-foot-tall lookout tower for a panoramic view of Key West. Seek more treasures at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Fisher spent much of his life searching for the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Carrying as much as 40 tons of silver, gold and other treasures, the Spanish ship perished from a hurricane in 1622. In 1980, Fisher’s team discovered a portion of the wreck of Santa Margarita, Atocha’s sister ship, which led to them finding the elusive Atocha wreckage. The museum holds a staggering collection of artifacts from 17th-century shipwrecks, including emeralds discovered from the Atocha that weren’t included on the ship’s manifest.
A visit to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory was akin to walking through a fairytale forest. The glass-enclosed observatory is designed to look like a Victorian greenhouse. Lush vegetation, bubbling water features, hundreds of butterflies and chirping birds flitting about — it’s a very Zen-like experience.
Toast your epic Florida coast road trip with a glass of Papa’s Pilar during a tour of Hemingway Rum Company. It’s housed in a historic building located yards from where Hemingway used to dock his boat, the Pilar. A guided tour reveals interesting family stories, a brief history of rum and a behind-the-scenes look at the rum-making process.
BONUS CONTENT: Where to Eat
Memorable meals were plentiful during our RV adventure along the coast. Here are some of the “don’t miss” restaurants we sampled during our trip!
- The Reef: This oceanfront restaurant was ideally located across from our campground. The menu boasts soups, salads, appetizers and fresh seafood dishes like jumbo scallops, lobster tail, and shrimp and grits. Turf options include a New York Strip or 8 ounce filet. You’ll also find delicious mains like grilled cauliflower, jambalaya, duck breast and other dishes.
- Sunset Grille: The buffalo cauliflower I ordered here was the best I’ve had in recent memory. Tempting main dish items include chicken and waffles, ahi tuna poke bowl, seafood salad melt, a fried shrimp po’ boy and other options.
- Taberna Del Caballo: Located in the heart of St. Augustine, this 18th century-style Spanish inspired tavern features Latin and Spanish influenced dishes. Their guacamole is amazing. I ordered the buffalo cauliflower taco and absolutely loved it. Baja fish, cochinita pibil and carne asada are other taco options. Soups, salads, empanadas, street corn — you can’t go wrong with anything you order here.
- American Icon Brewery: They have a great selection of beers on tap here and the lunch menu was solid. We sampled the Icon pretzel (is anything more perfect with a pint?). The vegan black bean burger was fantastic and my husband enjoyed his stone fired pizza.
- Twisted Tuna: They offer a huge variety of appetizers (conch ceviche, tuna nachos, edamame, gator bites, etc.), soups and salads. You can also order from the raw bar — peel and eat shrimp, fresh oysters and clams. Main dishes like coconut shrimp, cracked conch, tacos, a slew of sandwich options and pasta won’t disappoint.
- Crabby’s Dockside: This popular Fort Pierce spot boasts fantastic views of the Indian River Lagoon and Fort Pierce Marina. From ahi tuna nachos and perfectly prepared calamari to pastas, tacos, hand-tossed pizzas and plentiful seafood platters, it’s no wonder this is a favorite for locals and visitor alike. Save room for their award-winning key lime pie.
- Fish House: A Key Largo icon since 1982, Fish House has earned shout outs from the Food Network (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Food Nation with Bobby Flay and others), Travel + Leisure, Good Morning America and many other outlets. It’s no wonder. They have almost every type of fresh seafood you can imagine. If you opt for the fresh catch, have it prepared Matecumbe. It’s their popular house specialty — Topped with fresh tomatoes, shallots, fresh basil, capers,
olive oil and lemon juice, then baked.
- Chef Michael’s: This was probably one of my favorite meals during our trip. Located in Islamorada, Chef Michael’s has been a fixture there for more than 20 years. The variety of selections, and the uniqueness and quality of each dish was incredible. Think daily offerings of seafood like tilefish, mutton snapper, tripletail and others. You could probably eat there every day and never repeat a meal. Highly recommended.
- Santiago’s Bodega: I did a search for vegan options in Key West and this popped up. Thank you, Google! This spot ranks high on my list and I’ll make sure to hit it again when we return to Key West. We noshed on gazpacho, goat cheese stuffed and prosciutto wrapped dates, Brussels sprouts and portobello filled puff pastry and it was all perfect.
- Half Shell Raw Bar: Locals and visitors flock here — and for good reason. It’s the only seafood restaurant in Key West that owns its own fish market, so the likelihood that your fresh catch was caught just a few hours ago is pretty high. They offer daily specials on shrimp, conch fritters, Key West oysters and lots of other local fish.
(Photos: Joe Tolley and Kristy Tolley)
(Go Magazine Spring 2021)