Thursday, June 8, 2017

This Week: Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

I'm on a boat!





This is not a post about my day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida. The Dry Tortugas, a group of remote islands and islets 70 miles south of Key West, Florida, is one of the most remote national parks in the US. However, this blog is not about the towering fort the army built on this isolated spot and once held some 400 people. It is not about the history of its most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. It is not about the pristine waters and marine life that the park protects. No, this blog is about the two and half hour one-way ferry ride that gets visitors to and from this amazing national park.

Yankee Freedom III is, according to the Dry Tortugas’ website, “a high speed, state-of-the-art, all aluminum catamaran recognized worldwide for safety, performance and passenger comfort.” It was built in New England in 2012 and entered into service in Key West that fall. Also according to the website, it “is powered by twin Caterpillar engines that give her a speed of over 30 miles per hour.” There is an enclosed main cabin with a small deck out front and a topside sundeck for those who want to ride al fresco. The boat is 110 feet long and holds 250 persons, however, the park limits visitors to only 175 persons so the boat is never actually full. It keeps the small island from being overrun with people providing a more pleasant experience. The inside cabin is air conditioned with cushioned seating and dinette tables.

Even though the Dry Tortugas is a US National Park, the ferry is a private enterprise and is the only public transportation to the island. If you have the budget you could charter a private boat or even a seaplane, but not everyone has that kind of money. It is recommended that your reserve your seats on the ferry in advance online. Waiting to book at the ferry terminal means risking the trip is sold out the day you want to go.

The cost of the day trip is $175 per person for adults ($125 per child; military, student and senior discounts available). This price includes the $10 entrance fee to the national park, however, if you have a current National Park membership pass, you can present it upon check in for a refund of that amount. Initially this seems like a lot of money, but there are extra amenities on the ferry. They include both breakfast and lunch, complimentary snorkeling equipment, a 45-minute guided tour of the fort (optional), and, most importantly, use of the on-board restrooms anytime. (More about this item later.)

What is evident on our arrival at the ferry terminal and marina at 7 AM in the morning is that the Yankee Freedom III staff are a well-oiled machine. Without asking for my conformation number or proof of purchase, I simply gave my last name to the ticket agent and he easily found all my information. He then handed me two tickets and said we had to have them to get on the boat because the trip was sold out today. The line moved quickly. We took some seats in the large terminal and watched other families try to keep their kids together and other travelers tap on their phones. Over the din of the hushed voices a male voice rose above.

“Hey everyone, if you could give me your attention, we’ll get started. My name is Hollywood and I’ll be your EmCee for the day,” announced the very tan bleach blonde older gentleman wearing khaki shorts, beige work shirt with the Yankee Freedom logo and wrap-around sunglasses pushed on top of his head. He looked like he should be on a California beach instead of a Florida ferry boat.

Without the aid of a microphone, the skinny-legged Hollywood made the pre-boarding announcements. We would begin boarding at 7:15 and the boat would leave by 7:30. The complimentary continental breakfast was already waiting for us and we could dig in as soon as we boarded. Hollywood also passed out some brochures that included a map, the history of the island and things to do once we got there. When he finished, he said to follow him to Gate 1 for boarding.

As we handed our tickets to Hollywood at the boat ramp, I noticed the name tag on his work shirt really did say “Hollywood.”  We boarded with our beach bags and found a place to sit first. We chose the inside cabin and we came across a family of three who had a booth with a table at the far end. Christian asked if we could sit with them and they obliged. After setting our bags down, we got in line for breakfast. We both had a bagel with cream cheese and fresh fruit. I had a boiled egg and orange juice and Christian had a slice of ham and a soda. There were also single-serving cups of cereal and milk for the kids and cups of yogurt. There were also kettles of regular and decaf coffee and hot water for tea.

While we ate and the rest of the passengers settled down to breakfast, Hollywood returned, this time with a microphone that led to speakers throughout the ship. He announced that we were shoving off from the dock and that we would now begin our two and half hour journey. That’s a long time and I wondered how I would fill it. No wifi on the boat and I didn’t bring any magazines. Even if I had, I doubted I would be able to read on a rocking boat traveling over open water. Little did I know that Hollywood had our morning planned.

The First Half Hour:

Hollywood played tour guide and pointed out the various individual islands that fan out from Key West as we motored by, most notably the Marquesas Keys. He also pointed out the Key West Lighthouse above the trees behind us as we motored away. He then went into more important details.

First he said Breakfast would end at 8:30, so if we wanted seconds, now was the time to get it. That was because, he said, the crew was fast at breaking down breakfast and when it was gone it was gone. Hollywood then announced that the seven people who were camping on the island were to meet with him in the back of the boat to go over some paperwork and the rules and regulations of island camping.

During this break we got to know out table mates. We met John and his wife, and his adult daughter Erin. John grew up in Kansas, but they raised Erin in North Carolina. When we said we were from Colorado, Erin said she had spent a semester at Northern Colorado University on an exchange program. Her parents now live on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, not far from Dustin, Florida. They raved about the beaches in both North Carolina and the Florida panhandle. They were very unimpressed with the beaches of Key West. They also didn’t like Duval Street. They had only been in Key West for three days and were driving back tomorrow. We also learned Erin was a body builder and taught fitness courses at a small college. She was also a vegan and brought her own food. She snacked from a plastic cup of almonds while we spoke.

The Second Half Hour

Hollywood reappeared at the front of the inside cabin with the microphone. At this time he wanted to get everyone interested in snorkeling organized. Those that wanted to snorkel needed to fill out a release form and then get sized for their fins and mask. Erin stood up to grab a form. We thought about it, but prefer snorkeling with our own equipment, which we left at home because of our short stay. Erin borrowed my pen to fill out her form. Hollywood walked around the cabin picking up the forms and answering questions from other guests as he went. He was fast, efficient and most importantly, friendly. He probably made these announcements every other day and I was impressed at how he could be upbeat while answering the same questions over and over and over again. He then said that a video of proper snorkeling etiquette would be shown on the ferry’s various TV screens. We watched it even though we weren't doing that activity because the video showed plenty of marine life and was a half hour long. We were now over one hour into our journey.

The Third Half Hour:

After the video Hollywood returned to tell us what was probably the most important information of the entire trip:  How to use the boat’s bathrooms. There were two standard toilets and one accessible toilet, but anyone could use it. Called ‘heads’ on a boat, Hollywood said there were only two things that were supposed to go into the toilets. One was whatever we eliminated from our bodies. The other item was toilet paper. No napkins, no tissues, no paper towels and no diapers were to go into the toilets. Those things would clog the heads and that was something no one should ever experience, he said. He also said that the locks on the toilets had to be turned “all the way to the left” to lock. He said even if you feel or hear a click, keep turning the locks to the left until they turn no more. If we didn’t, the locks weren’t actually locked and if the boat hit a wave, the door would fly open while you were doing your business. He said that people on previous trips who did not heed that advice paid for that mistake with their pride.
Other information he relayed to us was what to expect when we arrived. The restrooms on the boat were the only restrooms we were supposed to use while docked because there are no restrooms facilities on the island. (We noticed later there were two port-o-potties at the tiny campground.) We were to take all our belongings with us off the boat. This was so the crew could do a quick cleaning as well as set up lunch. Hollywood himself would give a guided tour of the fort. There would be an abbreviated talk at 10:45 AM just inside the entrance for those who wanted to know the history, but didn’t want to take the full tour. Then the guided tour would start at 11:30. For those snorkeling, it would take a half hour to get the gear offloaded so those people were encouraged to use the dock’s changing rooms or walk around the fort a bit first before grabbing their gear.

The Fourth Half Hour:

After all of Hollywood’s talks, videos and paperwork, there was just under an hour left on the boat. The seas on this day were relatively calm and the boat ride wasn’t bumpy, but there was a swaying from side to side. Christian decided to head to the open deck up front to look for turtles and dolphins. He saw two turtles. Erin, who announced she felt seasick, followed him hoping that being outside would make her feel better. It didn’t work and within five minutes she was back and curled up into a little ball against the window. I then went outside and as the warm sun hit my face realized that the air conditioned cabin was freezing. After several minutes of not seeing any turtles, I went back inside and grabbed a hot cup of coffee to both warm me up and get a hit of caffeine. We had woken up at 5:30 AM for this activity so I was already sleepy and the steady rocking of the boat was lulling me like a baby in a cradle. As I sipped my hot liquid, Hollywood reappeared.

The Last Half Hour:

Hollywood announced that the islands of Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson were now visible on the horizon. I grabbed my camera and headed back outside. Hollywood also pointed out a bird sanctuary island that wasn’t much more than a sand bar and barely visible to us on the boat. A lighthouse towered over Loggerhead Key also nearby. The boat then rounded the western side of Fort Jefferson. The red brick fort rose above the water and from our current location hardly any ground was visible. I wondered how this thing could even exist here.  


We could see the shallow moat that encircled the fort. Build between 1846 and 1875 to protect US shipping lanes, the country’s only all masonry fort is made of thousands and thousands of bricks. The years and weather have not been kind. The fort was crumbling. Scaffolding three stories tall covered a large section of this side of the fort. As the boat came around the island to the dock on the south side, the ground the fort sits on came into view. As we circled the island we passed the tiny swim beach. There was a dock next to a sliver of green land that led to the entrance of the fort.

As the crew tied up the boat, Hollywood let us know that lunch, which would be on board, was at noon and that we all needed to return for the trip back starting at 1:30 PM. Finally, we were set loose on the island.

***

At 1:30 PM we did as we were told and returned to the boat. Hollywood had a ledger and as we boarded, he crossed our names off the list. At 1:50 Hollywood got back on his microphone and began calling the names of people he hadn’t crossed off his list yet. Three of those names were John, his wife and Erin. After everyone was accounted for, the boat engines roared us away. Once at sea Hollywood announced that the bar was officially open! Beer, wine, rum punch and margaritas were for sale. I purchased a can of Landshark Lager and shared it with Christian. 

Hollywood then did a raffle on the boat. We bought six tickets for five dollars in hopes of getting a cool National Park prize. We were one number off from winning a beach towel. After that a documentary that showed the restoration of the fort giant canons played on the TV screens. We fell asleep scrunched up in the booth while other groups around us played cards or chatted. Teens with ear buds bobbed their heads to unheard music. It wasn't long before we woke up to Hollywood’s voice announcing we were again passing the Marquesas Keys and Key West came into view on the horizon.

I’m not going to tell you what we did on the island. I’m not going to tell you its fascinating history. I’m not going to tell you about the bird sanctuary, the soft sand beach, being able to walk on the roof high above the sea or stand in Dr. Mudd’s dark prison cell. I'm not going to tell you how I lost my wedding ring on the swim beach. Some things you need to experience for yourself. What I do want you to know is that the long journey to and from this unique place is in the hands of a capable crew that will make the journey easy peasy island breezy.




Friday, April 7, 2017

This Week: Redondo Beach, CA

It’s not just the places you go, It’s the people you meet


The hotel’s website said it provided shuttle service Monday through Friday from 7 AM to 11 AM and from 4 PM to 9 PM. The site also said the shuttle had a three mile radius around the hotel. Checking Google Maps, I realized that was not going to work. I was traveling to Redondo Beach, CA, for a press trip and my hotel was the Hilton Garden Inn Redondo Beach, right off the infamous 405. It was three miles east of California’s South Bay, however, Hermosa Beach was in the way.
Redondo Beach is a quirk of geography. The boundaries on a map look like a puzzle piece. There is an eastern half that is three miles inland, sitting behind Hermosa Beach. Then like a diagonal move on a checker board, there is another square section to the south and west that is on the beach. The entire municipality is only five square miles. The Hilton Garden Inn at Marine Avenue put me at the far northeast corner while the actual beach was almost 5 miles away at the southwest corner. I would need that shuttle, but it wouldn’t get me to Redondo Beach. It would only get me to Hermosa and then it was a two mile walk. I would need a good pair of walking shoes.

My schedule for day one at Redondo Beach was paddle boarding in the morning, then lunch somewhere on the boardwalk and then dinner and beers at King Harbor Brewing Company. I asked the hotel front desk for the shuttle. The desk clerk made a phone call and said John would arrive in a few minutes.

As I waited in the lobby an older gentleman wearing khakis and denim shirt approached the front desk. The gal at the desk pointed to me.

“How far can you take me” I asked after he introduced himself. Asking exactly where I needed to go, I explained I wanted to be at King Harbor, but my understanding was the shuttle didn’t go that far. Even though I was talking to John, the desk clerk answered. I could be dropped off at Hermosa Beach and from there walk to King Harbor. John motioned for me to follow him out front. He opened the side door to the shuttle van for me to climb in. After he got in the driver’s seat, he turned around and asked me where I wanted to go. I said as close to King Harbor as he could get me.

“Where exactly do you need to be?”

“Specifically, Tarsan Paddle Rentals on North Harbor Drive.”

“Ok, I’ll just take you there,” he replied.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

Studying John in the rearview mirror I noticed he wore a tan beret and wire-rimmed glasses. Short salt and pepper hair could be seen below his cap and he had a grey mustache. I guessed he was in his late sixties. Since I like to try and figure people out, I imagined he was retired from a long career of something and driving this van was his part time gig. What I didn’t know was if he drove the van because he needed a paycheck or simply because he wanted something to do.

As he drove he plied me with questions. Where are you from? When I said Colorado he responded how beautiful he thought Colorado was. He said he had spent a vacation visiting a friend in Colorado. The friend took him to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. I mentioned that the first snow of the season had just fallen in the national park a few days ago and it was still September. John laughed. He then said that LA was going to have a mini-heat wave over the next few days. Today’s expected high was 100 degrees.

He asked what I was doing today and I told him my schedule. He then asked why I was here. I said I was a travel writer and in town as a guest of the tourist board. He chuckled saying that was some job I had. I also told him that I was a beer blogger and had a 4 PM appointment at King Harbor Brewing Company. I half joked about how I would need a ride from him that night because I would be drinking beer all afternoon. While John wouldn’t be able to drive me to the brewery because he wouldn’t be back on duty until 4 PM, he was more than happy to pick me up.

We were only into the drive a few minutes when we passed by the Redondo Beach/King Harbor city sign. A few traffic lights after that he turned onto Harbor Drive and pulled the van over into a parallel parking spot. We were at the entrance to King Harbor. Tarsan was actually a block behind me. John then handed me his business card and said his cell phone number was on it so I could call him when I was ready to return.

I now had six hours to fill. I filled them with two hours of paddle boarding, a huge lunch at Captain Kidd’s Seafood Market and then a walk to Redondo Pier. John was right; the temperature did get up to 100. I stopped inside an ice cream shop to get some chilled relief in the form of a vanilla mocha ice cream cone. Then I took Uber to the brewery.

My interview at the brewery lasted almost two hours, during which I sampled a variety of the brewery’s beers. And because it was Monday Night Football, the brewery had a food truck out front, Bartz BBQ. After ordering some brisket to go I called John. He needed to drop off another passenger first before getting me. I plunked down on the curb as the evening finally began to cool. Because I had eaten so much for lunch and then drank beer, I only ordered a sandwich, no sides, but as I sat on the curb waiting, the food truck proprietor approached and asked if I wanted to take some sides with me.

“I’ll have too much leftover to take home. How about some mac and cheese on the house?” An offer I couldn’t refuse. The server gave me a heaping spoonful of mac and cheese with the little crunchies on top. I love crunchies. A few minutes later, John arrived in the big white van.

“Sorry it took me so long,” he apologized as I entered the middle seat. “Ran into rush hour traffic.” I told him because of his delay I scored some free mac and cheese. He laughed and asked how my day went. I told him I came within a few feet of a sea lion on the paddle board, which was awesome. I also said the beer at the brewery was delicious. He stated Heineken was his beer of choice.

“I drink them at the Mermaid Inn with my friends. I live over in Hermosa, lived there for many years. Will you be visiting the Mermaid Inn?” Since I was a guest of Redondo Beach tourism board, I informed him I wouldn’t be visiting Mermaid, which is in Hermosa. I set up my ride for the next day and wished him good evening.  

The next morning, I awoke early, had free breakfast from the hotel and then prepped my travel bag for a day at the beach. Tuesday’s schedule was to rent a bicycle and hit the beach, then late lunch and restaurant tour of Redondo Pier. The bike shop didn’t open until 10 AM so I had plenty of time. I was in the lobby when John arrived shortly after 9:30.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.

“You’re not late,” I said. Once again he opened the van door for me. He then asked where I was going today.

I said Marina Bike Rental on the corner of Beryl and Harbor Drive, only a few blocks south of Tarsan. Shortly after pulling out of the hotel parking lot, John’s cell phone rang. He answered the phone and put it on speaker, which meant I could hear every word. A woman on the phone asked him about a prescription. Since it wasn’t really my business, I looked out the window, trying not to hear. John talked to the woman about visiting the doctor and getting “her” a prescription. Then toward the end of the conversation, they both spoke Spanish. He finished the phone call at a stop light.  John said he was sorry about the interruption, but I said no worries. He said that it was his mother’s Medicare case worker. His mother, who he said was 93 years old, was in the care of both him and his sister and that he needed to get permission before they would approve of things like prescriptions. The case worker was verifying that his mother had seen a doctor before getting new drugs. I marveled that his mother was 93.

We were heading down Herondo Street and South Bay was at the bottom. On my right was Hermosa and on my left was Redondo. John pointed to the hill on the right where the condo buildings overlooked the bay.

“My apartment is over there.”

“That’s close to the beach.” I said impressed. John laughed his easy laugh again.

“Yeah, my sister and I went to high school here and we still have friends from those days. We all get together at either Mermaid’s or Hennessey for a few beers. That’s what I do on my days off.”

At the rental shack he pulled next to the bike lane and I exited the vehicle. I told him I would call him that evening for my ride back. He said to enjoy my day and left. It was still a few minutes early and the rental shack wasn’t open yet. I sat on the deck stairs and opened my bag to take out my camera. That is when I made a startling realization. I forgot all my restaurant coupons back at the hotel. All of them…in a little envelope…on the hotel room desk. The coupons were to pay for the restaurants on the Pier.
I considered forgoing the coupons and just paying for my meals, but then decided against it. I barely get paid for the articles I write, let alone make enough money to fully fund this trip. I needed all the freebies I could get just break even. John’s shuttle duty would end at 11 AM. I called him.

“You’re not going to believe this, but I forgot something at the hotel. Can you come back and get me?” John said he was driving another passenger and he could return when he was done.

While waiting for John to return, a large rotund gentleman pulled up to the bike shack in a red scooter with an adorable tan and white Corgi in a basket on the back. He parked the scooter under an umbrella next to the shack’s front deck and moved the Corgi from the basket to the ground. The Corgi walked over to sniff me. After the man unlocked the shack door he asked me if I was renting a bike. I said yes, but that I had to return to my hotel and would be back in about 45 minutes. He shrugged and continued his opening routine. He walked to a large metal trailer next to the shack, undid a padlock and opened a door. Then he pulled out several cruiser bikes one by one. While setting up the fifth bike, a young couple walked up to the deck. Speaking in thick Scandinavian accents, they requested some bikes. They filled out some paper work and he took their driving license and credit card info. Then he put a wire basket on the woman’s bike and off they went. 

Although it only took ten minutes, it seemed like a half hour of standing in the hot California sun. I saw the white van turn down the block and leisurely pulled up alongside the curb to me. I opened the door myself and hopped in.

“Thank you so much. I can’t believe I did that!” He chuckled. He drove as fast the speed limit would allow and in less than 10 minutes we were back at the hotel. He took the opportunity to use the hotel “facilities” while I sprinted back to my room for the envelope. It was right where I left it. I sprinted back down to the lobby and outside.

“That was fast!” he said as I hopped into the van. We were off on the same route we took about an hour and half earlier. It was after 10:30 AM and soon John would be off the clock. He returned me to Marina Bike Rentals and as he opened the door for me, I handed him a five dollar bill and he tried to hand it back.

“You just saved my butt. Thank you!”

I spent the afternoon riding the Marvin Braude Bike Trail on my rented cruiser up to Manhanttan Beach and then I rode it back past the rental shop to the far southern end of Redondo Beach. I think I covered some 10 miles of the 22-mile trail. It was a beautiful Southern California day as I sat on the sand admiring the waves and the sand pipers and the few families who were away from work and school to play at the shore. After returning the bike I enjoyed a Redondo Pier bar crawl during happy hour and ended my day watching the spectacular sun set over the Pacific Ocean. I ended my evening with a dinner of crab cakes and a beer at a fancy seafood restaurant. About 8 o’clock I called John. He asked if I knew where the roundabout was on the south side of the pier. Since I had passed it on the bike, I did know where it was. He said he would pick me up there. This was way outside the boundaries of the shuttle.

I did have to wait several minutes, but there was no mistaking the big white van in the street lights when it came around the corner. I climbed in and said hello. John asked how my day was, but I turned the tables on him and said, “You know I’ve been sent to see all these places, but where do you like to go?”

He said he likes Hermosa, where he lives, and likes to hang out at Hennessey with his friends next door to Mermaid Inn. I had ridden the bike by both earlier that day. He said he and his sister went to high school in Hermosa and when he retired he wanted to return here because he loves it. He then said he was in the service and spent 35 years in Alaska before returning to Hermosa. Then the floodgate opened.

He asked if I noticed him speaking Spanish on the phone yesterday. When I said yes, he said that was because he was originally from Cuba. He was sent to Florida on a boat as a boy in 1962. He was cared for by a foster family for five years until his parents made it to Florida. From there he went to a Presbyterian school in Shenandoah, IA, for several years. He even detassled corn in the summer, something I said we had in common. From there the family moved to Hermosa and after high school he joined the service and spent some time in Virginia and then the 35 years in Alaska. He actually enjoyed his time in Alaska, but when he retired, he knew he wanted to return to sunny California.

While sitting at a stop light he told me his father had a trucking company in Cuba and it did very well until Castro and the Communists came to power in 1961. He said after his grandfather passed away his dad took some money out of the grandfather’s bank account to pay for the funeral. However, the government didn’t believe him and put him in jail for a year. His mother spent that year fighting bureaucratic red tape and had to submit and resubmit receipts to show where the money went. The communists would say the paperwork wasn’t filled out properly or that they just didn’t believe what the money was used for, even though his mother had receipts. After his father was released from jail they decided to leave.

John said he was trying to get a visa so he can return to Cuba, but since he arrived in the States before 1970, there are special regulations he needs to meet making it harder. His sister had already returned. He says his boyhood home is still there and he would like to see it. I asked him if he was scared when he came over on the boat and he said no. He said he wasn’t scared because he was so young he didn’t know any better.

When we arrived at the lobby of the hotel, he got out of the driver seat and for the last time walked over to the passenger door to let me out. He wished me a safe return to Colorado.

“Next time you do one of these trips, come to Hermosa and I’ll show you around,” he said as he waved.

“That sounds like a great idea!” I said as entered the hotel.