February in Key West: (most) things return to (almost) normal.

In our January Key West post we listed the many ways things were just different this year compared to our previous winters in The Keys, mostly as fall out from Hurricane Irma.  As the season wore on, however, more and more of the Sigsbee Campground regulars arrived, and with them the social environment that so defines this place returned as well.

PKM trapped this Iguana after it had the audacity to walk through our camp site.  The thing tried to run up the side of our neighbors’ RV but could not get a grip.

A couple of days into February we shifted back to dry camp, but were fortunate enough to be assigned a waterfront location giving us not only an unobstructed ocean view, but since the original waterfront row was closed off to camping, we also had a large swath of greenery between us and the water.  Making this spot even better where our neighbors, a line of five of us that spent many an evening in our mutual back yards enjoying more than a few cocktails, excellent food, and great conversation.

Our second dry camping site, which eventually had five of us in a dangerous party line: Mike & Jenny, Sue & Bob, Steve & Deb, Terry, Rebecca & David

With infamous party starters Eddie and Tina’s return to Key West, the large scale celebrations began in earnest with a big Hawaiian themed party that must have had a hundred people present.  It seemed like every few days someone was hosting a big event, such as Leonard’s always well attended fish fry, or an impromptu concert with the local talented musicians at the unofficial sunset point.

One of several large parties this season.

Though weather seemed less conducive to swimming this winter,  there were enough nice days to warrant a large “float” in the calm and crystal clear waters just off the dry camp landing.  This is another one of those things absent in January that made the month feel “off.”

Finally had good weather for a float.

Taco Tuesday at Lucy’s returned to the preeminent mid week outing for a large contingent of Sigsbee RVers, though there was much debate as to whether the quality had gone down hill.  As such we did not attend them as regularly as last year, and I found a nice Tuesday evening alternative in Denny’s Secret Sirloin Steak Special, available only at their bar, it included a perfectly acceptable 8 oz steak with two sides for $6.95.  Hard to beat that if you’re on a budget.

Not just good, but obviously good for you as well, right?

Having raved about a pier side brunch Rose and I enjoyed years earlier, Steve & Deb were easily convinced to give it a go despite the pricey $44 a head.  That includes unlimited Mimosa’s and an extravagant buffet replete with prime rib, sushi, stone crabs, oysters and dozens of other options.  It is one of the best brunches I have ever had.   Suffice to say everyone left happy and full. 

In addition to a couple of favorites from previous years (Lucy’s, Kennedy’s, Bistro 245, Hogfish) we explored a handful of new restaurants this season.  We had a great evening out with a happy group at Geiger Key Marina (which turns out to have the same owners, and thus menu, as the Hogfish Grill on Stock Island.)  We enjoyed an excellent smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel platter at Goldman’s Deli, and a drinks included sunset cruise for Deb’s birthday. 

Our big group at Geiger Key Marina

Our friends from Whidbey Island, Bruce and Nancy, were making a lengthy RV migration across the country and ended up in the middle keys for a few days.  We were able to meet half way, at No Name Key near Big Pine Key, where they proclaimed the Cheeseburger Pizza there the best they have ever had.

Nancy & Bruce at No Name Pub

Rose made another trip up to Virginia to see Linda and the rest of the family, while I held down the fort in Key West.  I used the time to finally address the poorly arranged situation in the rear of our rig: a couch that never sees use taking up valuable real estate.  I ripped that sucker out and built a work bench for Rose’s crafting using found wood left over from Hurricane Irma boat wreckage.  Total cost: zero dollars, though I will have to buy a large plywood section to finish the floor.

The fishing continued unabated, with our best outing on Leonards big Twin Vee boat.  The highlight was Steve’s shark that was big enough to keep and get a handful of nice filet’s off, which prepared properly are absolutely delicious. 

Shark, before.

We continued our aggressive market schedule, though narrowing our choices to just the Wednesday Sugarloaf and Friday American Legion events, along with the annual Gardenfest at the Botanical Gardens on Stock Island and the Naval Station Family Day gathering.  All told we had ten market days in February.  Not quite a record for us, but pretty solid for a short month.

Shark, after. Served on tostones with avocado.

Rose continued expanding our market offerings; having buffed up her shell hoarde at Sanibel in December, she went all in on Mermaid Crowns.  We are also finally ahead of the holiday curve and with Easter approaching she started taking basic bunny ears and jazzing them up a bit.  It wasn’t just the kids buying these things.  Finally, she put her new Cricut machine to good work producing cheese plate/trivets and glassware with Key West or Sigsbee themed logos.

We also enjoyed various markets as buyers or just lookers without having to vend ourselves.  Key West’s annual open air Art Fair and the once a month market at The Restaurant Store were particularly interesting.

We still had nearly a month to go in the Keys, and the combination of constant social activities and aggressive market schedule began to take its toll.  For March, we would need to slow things down a bit.  More on that later.

Here is Nazir.  Nazir can fly.  His father is pleading with him to come back down.

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37 Months Fulltiming: January 2018 Report

Continuing our effort to catch the blog up.

The Distance:  641 miles as a result of my round trip from Coral Springs to Wekwa Springs State Park, followed by our run down to Key West Naval Air Station.  This starts out the year with miles than I had expected, but February will have nearly zero since we will be remaining in Key West into March.

The Places:   I started the year in Wekiwa Springs while Rose remained in Coral Springs with family.  We split up the drive to Key West with a parking lot camping night at the Cracker Barrel in Homestead/Florida City.  Then it was on to our winter home for the past four years, Key West, where we learned things had changed quite a bit in the wake of Hurricane Irma. We stayed state parks for 4, military campgrounds for 25, parking lot for 1, and a family house for 1.  We had 17 days with full hook ups, 13 dry camping, and that previously mentioned night in a house.  I’m using my nights rather than Rose’s to keep consistency and simplicity in the accounting.

The Budget:  A great start to 2018 in which we finished nearly 14% under budget, due in large part to the subsidized low cost campground fees at NASKW and the seven market days at events in Key West, Stock Island, and Sugarloaf Key.

The Drama and the Improvements:  Very little to report in this area.  Our market preparation is better than it has ever been with a few minor purchases made in December and the addition of a third small display table.  We secured an on base post office box for the entire year which has made mail receipt far easier, and because of that, we bit the bullet on rejoining Amazon Prime.  We will reassess next January to see if we keep those subscriptions.

And here are our 20172016, and 2015 annual summaries which include monthly report links.

First month in Key West: My how things have changed

After one last night at Xavier and Joy’s in Coral Springs, we headed south, breaking up the drive with a one night stopover at the Cracker Barrel in Florida City.  From there it was on the US-1 and the series of islands and bridges leading to our southern destination.

 

During our first three winter stays in Key West, each one longer than the last, we thought we had learned the patterns, the ebb and flow of how things worked in The Keys generally and on the Naval Air Station campground specifically.  With the lower keys, naval base included, having sustained significant damage from Hurricane Irma in September, they were still in recovery mode in January, though services and most business had reopened.  But things were different, in both predictable and unexpected ways.

The campground did not open until December 28th, and established a reservation system: The hurricane caused enough base wide damage and some campground damage such that the RV sites remained closed until late January, significantly delaying the arrival of many of the Key West RV regulars.  Further, the old “first come, first serve” system for everyone other than active duty personnel was out the window, with the MWR office working with the national Navy Bed & Getaways contractor to establish a reservation system. Fine as far as it goes, but the sole intent was to limit the number of arrivals to 20 rigs per day, not to control over all reservations.  Unfortunately, Navy Bed’s system was not set up for this, and chaos ensued.

A lot of debris visible in the background of this pic.  A good portion of US-1 south of Big Pine had piles of it still awaiting removal.

Like many large service organizations controlling complicated systems, there is room for significant variance in how the rules and procedures are interpreted by different customer representatives, so we simply applied the “if they turn you down call again and speak to someone else rule.”  Once the official process was announced in December, we called the reservation desk (their online system is bloody awful) and were turned down for our preferred arrival date.  So we secured a back up, hung up, and immediatly called back, this time getting a different rep who magically found an open slot on our desired arrival day. 

Our first dry camping site, a big corner lot.

Fewer RVers showed up this year, and many of those came later than normal:  In Hurricane Irma’s aftermath the fate of the campground was a pretty big unknown.  Rumors swirled, tongues wagged, and many regulars began to make back up plans in alternative locations either for the whole winter, or at least in other parts of Florida where they could assess a run to Key West as things became more clear.  The base did what they could to keep everyone informed, but the campground was hardly their top priority, and until mid December it was quite unclear when the official reopen date would occur. 

Though we did not sell at this event, the Key West Seafood Festival is an annual thing for us, particularly since as retired military we get in free. Note the “Shell On Wheels” logo shirt courtesy of Dolores. 

As a predictable result, many regulars simply decided not to risk endangering full season reservations elsewhere, and once things did open up, many others pushed their arrival into late January or February.  This meant that despite an entire row of RV sites closed off due to erosion and a downed ATT data line, the campground never completely filled up like it had in past years, usually by mid January.

The positive impact of this was that the rotation from dry camp to full hook up was much shorter this year.  You might recall my past explanations of the system, the short version is that of the roughly 500 spots, less than 100 have any connections, and MWR set up a rotation system limiting FHU stays to 14 days at a stretch.  Last year we arrived in late December and had more than three weeks in dry before we rotated to FHU; this year it only took 12 days for our first rotation.  Last year our second string in dry lasted just short of five weeks; this year it was less than three. 

Though the social calendar for January was not like that in 2017, it was not without some traditional events, such as the large contingent of Sigsbee people at Lucy’s for Taco Tuesday.  Sadly, Brian, seated next to me, passed away in March.  We were glad we got to know him under happy circumstances in the short time we were all in Key West. 

The downside was that many of our friends and acquaintances were simply not there this year, and having found other winter options, some of them might not come back next year either.  Bummer!

As alluded to above, a good number of sites, many of the premier water front locations, were closed:  Physical damage, erosion and the questionable stability of the sagging ATT data lines, resulted in the base closing the entire front row of the dry camping section; something like 30 spots.  A couple of others were closed until damaged tree branches could be removed.  Further, several of the FHU sites had pedestal damage and were thus closed.  Lastly, the permanent dry camping sites over on Trumbo Point did not open until mid January.   The fact that despite these issues we still enjoyed a much faster rotation than in the past drives home how many fewer rigs showed up this year.

The activities started off severely curtailed:  A combination of fewer regulars, a swamped MWR activities office, personnel changes, and some still closed base facilities resulted in a lot few organized on base activities this year.  Crafting was down from three to one day a week, yoga was limited, the pool was closed, the community center was unavailable for most of the weekend due church (the base chapel took heavy hurricane damage) and worst of all: no Shuffles!  That’s right, the premier monthly social event, the forty person, multiple host, moving parties of past years just never made it onto MWR’s schedule.  Sigh.

PKM at rest in front of our second site, full hook ups, water front.

We did a lot more markets this year than in the past, despite the base having fewer:  Last year we did a grand total of three markets in all of January, February, and March.  This included two on base “yard & craft” sales and one event hosted by the Lower Keys Medical Center (LKMC).  I really expected things to be about the same this year.  Rosemarie had other plans, and her frenzied research revealed a number of new, or at least new to us, market opportunities.  Had we been willing to drive as far as Marathon, and been willing to risk some higher than usual vendor fees, we could have participated in a market every day of the week along with a few special one time per year events!  No thanks, that’s too much like a job, but we did end up doing seven market days in January alone this year.

Fresh ceviche from one of the markets at which we sold.

This really, really surprised me.  I had thought our inquiries from last year revealed that we were not eligible for most of the lower keys events, and thus I assumed we would only do the monthly base event, the annual LKMC fund raising market, possibly the once a season on base Family Day fair, and maybe the once a year two day event at the botanical gardens.  And I was quite OK with slowing things down; we had averaged nine market days a month since early September.

Curry garlic chicken with shiitake mushrooms, also from one of our markets.

But Rosemarie found us so many more options, and for January we did three small but consistent market days on Surgarloaf Key (only 17 miles up the road from us), two days at the expensive but crowded Thursday Bayview Park event in Key West, and two Fridays at the very small but intimate new market at the American Legion on Stock Island (minutes from our campground.)  Note that this does not include a single on base event: the monthly yard sale never happened during our stay, likewise the on base Sigsbee Charter School event we did in 2016, and family day was not until February. 

After having put the word out last year that I wanted to do some salt water fishing, I got the opportunity this year:  Though I was born and raised in Florida, I had never fished in salt water in my life. I recall one night of shrimping in a channel as a child, but that’s it.  For much of my adulthood, I considered this no great loss since I had it in my head that I simply did not like seafood.  An encounter with Maine lobster in the late 90’s cured me of that, and I have been a fan of salt water seafood ever since.  But still, no fishing. 

With word on the street, I got an invite to go out with Mark and a few others on his small but effective boat.  I secured my Florida Resident’s annual fishing license online, and Mark was gracious enough to lend me whatever gear I was lacking, along with the knowledge of how to set up the rig for the type of shallow water drop and drag fishing we would be doing.

As he and other regular fishmen from the campground would tell me, “we’re not really fishing, we’re catching.”  And sure enough, with a bit over three hours on the water the four of us returned with something like 60 legal fish, most of them Lane Snappers, Grunts, and Porgies.  They considered this just a so-so day.  My kind of fishing, and well worth the customary chip in for boat gas money!

Whole fried Lane Snapper, fresh caught.

A week or two later Jim showed me his spot for shore fishing, an entirely different and in my mind more demanding task, but we ended the day with 5 decent Mangrove Snappers each, our limit for that type of fish.  I would go out one more time with Mark and crew one more time, but also got connected with enough others that I had more fishing than I could handle for the rest of our stay.

I wasn’t the only one to get out on the water; Our friends David and Clara are members of the local sailing club with access to their small catamarans, and with one open seat available Rosemarie go to spend a couple of hours on the bay. 

A bit of extra mileage to start off the new year: back to Wekiwa Springs

OK, yes, I let the blog fall way behind again, more than it has ever been.  But in my defense, we were in Key West, and the, er, social calendar was rather full.  So expect a flurry of posts this week catching us up, starting with this short one about our first week in 2018, and then three posts about our time in the Florida Keys, along with monthly reports for January, February, and March.

Daughter Andrea’s holiday schedule defined the beginning of the year plans for us: I left Rosemarie at Xavier and Joy’s house in Coral Springs while I took the rig, the tracker, and the cat back to Central Florida.  Dad and Marcia were still there and had a duplicate reservation at Wekiwa Springs State Park that I was able to use for a four day stay.  I made the three hour plus drive, this time reluctantly taking the Florida Turnpike since the time difference to avoid it was significant, and arrived mid afternoon back at our preferred CFL campground.

New “Shell On Wheels” shirt, a gift from sister-in-law Dolores.

I met Dad and Marcia’s friends with whom they had traveled a bit in California.  In one of those small world coincidences, they are the RV couple that had also traveled with our friends Jen and Dees of Nealys On Wheels.  None of us have satellite TV, and over the air reception in the park is almost non-existent, but I was able to set up my laptop to the TV and stream the College Playoff semifinal games thanks to our unlimited* data plan with Verizon.

Andrea and I celebrated New Years Day with a swim in the big spring, which due to the cold weather we had nearly to ourselves.

After months of procrastination stemming mainly from my fear of making it worse, I finally got around to replacing my failing lap top battery.  What started as simply limited battery life had progressed to the point where it would hold no charge at all, and the slightest jiggle of the power cord would cause the laptop to shut down.  The replacement process was as simple as I hoped, entailing the removal of a dozen or so tiny screws, including one that was stripped, and one small power connector.

After a four day stay I connected up and headed back to Coral Springs to pick up Rosemarie.  We had two days before our reservation at the Key West Naval Air Station starts, and used that time to make final preparations for what would surely be a significant bit f dry camping while we waited for our turn in the full hook up sites on base.

* The “Unlimited” plan is not without limitations, with speed throttling frequent once any device on the plan reaches a high amount of data usage.