A pre-Cuba crisscrossing run across South Florida

That title makes it pretty clear what the “upcoming international trip” I mentioned in the last two posts is about.  But before we could go to Cuba, we had family to visit and things to take care of throughout South Florida.  Our grand total of 3 miles in January through March for Serenity was about to get dwarfed by the true start of our 2019 travels.


PKM in her usual travel position.

Normally when we leave The Keys we head up to Coral Springs to see Xavier and Joy before crossing westward to eventually meet up with Gloria in Venice.  This time we had to reverse things a bit in order to balance planned work on the RV, a cat sitter, and value priced plane tickets.  Though not the most mileage efficient plan, it worked out best for our needs, and we got to enjoy the Tamiami Trail (US 41) through the everglades rather than our usual Alligator Alley (I-75) route.   Though you are not always quite as elevated as on I-75, we found the opportunities to see wildlife significantly better on this road, and enjoyed it much more than the alternative.


PKM showing concern the night before we left her with Gloria and Jerry for our trip.

We made a one night stop at Midway Campground (you can guess about where that is) our very first Corps of Engineers park.  Hard to believe we have been full time RVing for more than four years with a rather heavy road schedule and have never stayed at one of these great campgrounds before.  Of course, we were winging it like we often do and had not made reservations because we did not know how far we would feel like driving that day.  And we were in the middle of the Everglades with very limited reception, so working through the COE reservation system was quite impossible.  Fortunately the campground had a “pay by cash or check” drop box and, after several careful readings, we were able to determine which sites were reservable and which were not, so as to be assured that we were not just pulling into a spot reserved by a late arrival customer.  3-pedicures

It was nice, and we will likely make this a one day stop again if our path warrants.  There are only 26 RV sites, they are electric only, but water and a dump station are on premises.  The sites are large, and the setting pleasant, with lots of greenery all around.  We stayed inside due to rain throughout the evening, but I imagine mosquitoes could be quite bad whilst in the middle of the Everglades.


We forgot to take a picture of Midway Campground, so enjoy these attractive tacos from Gloria and Rose’s outing in Venice.

From Midway it was on to Port Charlotte to drop off Serenity at Mr Mobile RV’s for Bill and his crew to fix a few minor things.   Bill has worked on our rig a couple of times, and he has become the RV mechanic I trust most.  I remember my grandfather had a regular mechanic, Tom, that did all of his auto repair work, so maybe Bill is our Tom.  I suspect that there is some industry wide secret society that mandates that truly reliable and fair mechanics all have a one syllable first name.  Anyway, Bill would work on Serenity while we were bouncing around the state before and after Cuba, and allowed us to park the rig in his lot for the two weeks we would be busy at no extra charge.


Multiple trip to Venice means I am slowly filling in the caches in this area.

A short aside: we were very low on propane (in our fixed 24 gallon tank) after a season of extensive dry camping in Key West, and Bill advised us to top off before arriving since we would not be hooked up to electricity at his place (our refrigerator runs off propane when electricity is not available.)  So we pulled into one place we had googled, only to find that they no longer do RVs.  On their advice we headed to the local Tractor Supply Company.  Unfortunately their propane refill station was poorly positioned, and while I was able to pull into it, I was unable to maneuver out of the station due to the parking lot configuration.  We spent half an hour trying before giving up and searching the store for the owner of the pick up truck parked, perfectly legally, in the spot that prevented us from making the turn.  We only fill up twice a year or so, but I need to do better research before the next time.


Having a fixed tank is nice since it last so long, but those RVs with multiple smaller tanks have the advantage of a much easier fill up.

We stayed with Gloria and her husband Jerry for four days in Venice, FL.  We enjoy this town; Venice was our first Moose Lodge, and we try to visit anytime we are in the area.  Jerry is very hospitable during our stays, and while I was their IT consultant and repairman, he sprung for a family dinner at an excellent local BBQ place for the four of us plus Rose’s brother, niece, nephew, and their mother. 7-dj-rose-laura

And while in Venice we made two significant purchases.  For our trusty 1997 Geo Tracker (Loki) it was time for a new set of tires. They were last replaced in June of 2016, so we got 60K miles out of them, and it would have been more if I rotated them (the nature of the tow system and an alignment issue has caused increased wear on the inner tread of our front tires.)


Ahhh, new tread. 

And for Rosemarie, who has talked and talked about us trying to learn an instrument of some sort, we finally got her a Ukulele.  We found her perfect instrument at The Rhythm Inlet.  Jeff walked us through the basics, and eagerly encouraged us to pick up any of his over 150 Uke’s and give it a go or let him demo it.  While we were planning on a very affordable “entry level” instrument, we ended up going a bit higher for one with excellent sound and a lovely sea themed design carved and inlaid. 9-rose-uke

This is not shaping up to be the most financially responsible months for us considering that our big trip to Cuba came right on the heels of those purchases, but we think our first quarter financial discipline will allow a month of largess.   Besides, for the six days of the Cuba trip, plus the eight combined days before and after in Venice and Coral Springs, we were staying “rent free,” i.e., no campground fees.


Whereas in Coral Springs there is still a lot left to find.

Leaving Pad Kee Meow in the capable hands of Gloria, our last remaining cat sitter, we crossed back across Florida to Coral Springs for a two night stay with Xavier and Joy before catching our flight out of Fort Lauderdale to Cuba.  Usually we have our rig in their driveway while there, so it was nice to visit without having to worry about our big rig clogging up the driveway.  11-rose-gloria

Next up: Cuba!


Lucking into a full week stay at Bahia Honda State Park

In an ideal world we would hit Bahia Honda immediately after leaving Key West every year and maybe follow that up with a stay at Curry Hammock State Park as well.  We came pretty close to this ideal in April.  Our vaguely planned departure date from Key West had originally been mid March, but an international travel opportunity caused us reevaluate our options, and look at staying a couple of weeks longer.  Once that change occurred, we were checking the Reserve America website every day for any cancellations at either Bahia or Curry, but only managed to find a single day available in the time period we had available. bridge-day

Then our friends Rusty and Charito developed truck problems and had to cancel their reservations at Bahia Honda.  They contacted us to see about orchestrating a carefully timed “we cancel and you snatch up the days” online action.  Which we did, and that combined with yet another cancellation from some stranger allowed us to string together a full week there.  Perfect!


Can you tell this place makes Rose happy?

While we will take Bahia Honda under almost any circumstances, we are particularly enamored with the fifteen or so water front sites.  Fortunately, the last half of our stay was in one of these coveted numbers, really capping off a lucky set of circumstances for us.


Our site from the Overseas Highway nearby

We spent our days enjoying our fantastic ocean front views, swimming and snorkeling in the protected bay, and when the wind was right, checking out the Atlantic side as well.  Almost every evening we joined a conch blowing group at sunset near the overpass, which was nice as you start to actually know your neighbors and the volunteer staff when you see and speak to some of them each day. us-at-conch-blow

We made several outings around the lower and middle keys, hitting the Moose Lodge on  Big Pine several times, eating at a nice little pizza-by-the-slice parlor there as well, and driving up to marathon for a hair cut, some shopping, and a bit of geocaching.  This was a great way to start our post Key West travels. bridge-sunset

49, 50, and 51 Months Fulltiming: January, February and March combined report

So we are breaking from a four year long consistent pattern of posting individual monthly reports that contain numbers and info about where we went, what we did, how we did it, how much it cost, and how much drama was involved.  Bottom line: I have allowed the blog to become too far behind, and in order to get back on track I’m taking a shortcut.  Thus I present the first, and hopefully last, quarterly fulltiming report covering January through March of 2019. 1-sunset-1

The Distance:  3 miles, about on each month.  We stayed in Key West at the Naval Air Station Sigsbee Annex the entire three months, and only moved a handful of times between the dry camping and full hook up areas.  This brings our 2019 annual total to (checks figures) 3 miles.  2-route

The Places:  As mentioned above, we spent all three months in Key West.  So that’s 90 days at nothing but military campgrounds.  Since we were in the Sigsbee full hook up rotation scheme, we ended up dry camping for 57 and in full hook ups for 33 days. 3-jack-crab

The Budget:  Way under budget!  Specifically, 15% under in January, $17.8% under in February, and dead on in March.  Key West is great for our budget.  For some of the Sigsbee crowd, Key West is their splurge: in addition to maintaining a home wherever, they deny themselves little while here in paradise.  For us, it is one of the cheapest places we stay ($17 a night drycamping, $27 while in full hook ups, giving us an average of nightly cost of less than $21.)  In addition to that we are not moving, thus no gas costs for Serenity.  This is a big deal for us: our rig gets 7 mpg and we travel 10,000 miles or more the rest of the year.  Finally, we have markets, and quite successful ones at that.  And we stayed this far under even after paying 80% of the cost of an upcoming international vacation. 4-rose-water

The Drama and the Improvements:   Our buddy Stan spent several hours helping me troubleshoot and repair a few issues this season, with the big victory being his repair of our onboard generator, a big ole Onan Marquis 5500 watt machine capable of powering both A/C’s and everything else in our rig.  For less than $50 we replaced the fuel filters and then the fuel pump, which solved the problem.  He also worked on our highly temperamental automatic stairs, which will probably work for a month or so until they go out again, and reinforced our biggest slide out floor.  After Stan determined that our toilet was not reasonably repairable, I ordered an upgraded model and installed it.


It’s not a toilet, it’s an all weather indoor/outdoor stool with under seat storage.

We had some drama with Serenity’s starter battery going dead a couple of times, and are not certain what caused it since it is now holding a charge just fine.  We must have some sort of very light trickle drain on it somewhere in the system.  Lastly, we ripped out our front sleeper sofa: it had become such an eyesore after all the faux leather peeled away, and we figure that pulling it out will motivate us to find a replacement sooner.  6-sunset-2


Key West: The Markets

I held off on this until our very last Key West 2019 post since I suspect that the frequency with which we mention our market participation can become a bit tiresome.  But it is a significant part of our life and particularly important to our finances, and let me tell you, January through March were quite good for the Shell On Wheels marketeers, so read on if your interested or skip it if the sordid details of our roving sales has become tedious.


A cool overcast morning for our first on base community yard sale of the season.

During our winter Key West stay in 2018 we jammed three weekly farmers markets into our Wednesday through Friday mornings.  That felt a bit like having a real job, and after some interesting experiences participating in seasonal festivals, we resolved to shift our Winter market pattern in the direction of special events rather than weekly markets.  Besides, the Bayview weekly in Key West always felt a bit too pricey considering the crowd, the American Legion event on Stock Island shut down, and we did not quite gel with the Sugarloaf market manager, so the decision was pretty easy.  So what did we do?  Aside from two out of the fourteen Wednesday Sugarloaf markets and two on base community wide yard sales occurring during our three month stay, we participated in four special events.


The March on base yard sale was a bit different than the others we have done. Rather than MWR coordinating it, the base housing contracting office arranged for it in their parking area.

The first of those was the Big Pine Key Nautical Expo (which is not to be confused with the weekly Big Pine Key Nautical Flea Market just down the road.)  Held on Martin Luther King weekend on Big Pine Key’s Chamber of Commerce property, it typically draws in 200 vendors and a steady stream of potential buyers.  I am not gonna lie: not every vendor was happy with this year’s offering.  The people behind us were lucky if they covered their vendor fee, but we killed it!  We were quite fortunate in our site assignment along one of the main drags, which, frankly, helped a lot compared to some of those in the back rows.  Fortunately, we were able to lock in the same site for next year by paying in advance.  We suffered a bit for our success: the no-see-ums were quite bad.  Next year we will be better prepared.


Our set up gets more elaborate every season.

In February we participated in the Stock Island Botanical Gardenfest for the second year in a row.  The event organizers appear to have done more advertising, improved the people flow, moved all the vendors to a nicer area, added a second live music stage, and arranged to have more food options for the attendees.  All this meant we did nearly three times the sales this year compared to last time.


A nice grassy area surrounded by lush vegetation.  Much better than the dirt road from last year’s Gardenfest.

While working at the previously mentioned Big Pine Key Nautical Expo someone associated with the Boondocks restaurant on Ramrod Key let us know about a series of events with potential vendor participation in the coming months.  We skipped on the Spanish Festival, but made some inquiries about the late February Habitat for Humanity Island Grass Music Festival, and were encouraged to come set up with no vendor fee at all.  Turns out vendors were a bit of an afterthought for this event, and we were the only ones!  We had a great time, had delicious food, craft beer, live music all day, and one a few silent auctions as well.  Oh yeah, we sold like crazy most of the day. 5-sus-necklaces

Encouraged by our success at these seasonal events, Rose found yet another one via facebook: The Key West Preschool Co-op annual fun fair.  Despite the short notice, event organizers fit us in with no issues, and Rose worked to bulk up the kid oriented items on our tables, all of which resulted in yet another great sales day.  6-flower-headbands

So that’s it for Key West markets, and also the last Key West specific post until next year.   During our 13 week stay we participated in eight events, two of which were two days long, and sold a bit on the side to Sigsbee campers.  Quite a successful winter for us. 7-mm-crowns-plus


Key West: The Food

Key West is a touristy town, and dining experiences in such places often run the gamut from great to poor in a way that normal towns don’t quite see.  The touristy places attract some top flight restaurateurs and chefs, but also have an unfortunate number of spots living off their location and banking on glitzy advertising, high traffic, and reputations that may no longer be earned.  In my Miami Beach years, I often made the point to visitors that the absolute top tourist area, Ocean Drive on South Beach, definitely fit into this latter category and the restaurants there could not compete with those on, for instance, Lincoln Road (also on South Beach) or Wynwood on the mainland just across the causeway.  I am years out of date for Miami Beach recommendations, and your mileage may vary, so I only use it as an example.


Sunset at Sunset Lounge

Our experience in Key West, however, has been quite good and often excellent, with very few places that we would recommend against.  Part of this is our online research, part of it is freely offered opinions from our many friends in the area, and another part is that this was our fifth winter on the island (on top of the numerous visits made before our fulltime RV days) and so we know, to a large extant, what we like and what we don’t here.


Old Town Mexican Taco Tuesday aims for higher end tacos at a higher price than Lucy’s

This year we resolved to “eat out smart,” i.e., select our restaurants carefully, don’t get pressured into going to those places we didn’t fully appreciate in past years, and hit some new, well reviewed spots.  In our last post. about the the many social events we attended while in Key West. we covered Taco Tuesday at Lucy’s, Wing Wednesday at the VFW, the Sunset Lounge on the naval base, and Mangrove Mama’s on Sugarloaf Key.  I won’t belabor the point on those except to reiterate that Lucy’s taco day is better than Old Town Mexican’s (and there upstairs bar is great any day of the week,) the VFW (in partnership with Treble Hooks) is truly a great “bang for your buck” option (especially if you’re drinking,) Sunset Lounge provided a mixed bag, and we are willing to give Mangrove Mama’s another go before passing final judgement. 3-lucys

So where, other than those four, did we dine and to which of them do we give our highly coveted endorsement?  Let’s start with the happy hour specials at The Boat House.  Get there early or expect a wait, but it is well worth it.  Basic drinks and all the “small plates” are half price.  Fried lobster, lamb chops, filet mignon and mushroom skewers, multiple shrimp options, baby back ribs, and much more all at half price.  We find that three items is more than sufficient for each of us, or just two if we split the less than $2 Boat House chefs’ bread.


Steve and I at The Boat House

El Mocho is the best low cost Latin restaurant in the Lower Keys.  Let me repeat that: El Mocho is the best low cost Latin restaurant in the Lower Keys.  I will stand by that against any competitor.  It is authentic Cuban fare at rock bottom (for The Keys) prices.  We loved swinging in for tostadas (Cuban bread toasted, buttered, and flattened,) empanadas, or pastelitos de carne (pastries with flavored ground beef inside.)  The highlight of our multiple food experiences there, however, was the Friday special: oxtail stew.  Aside from being delicious the serving size, which included toasted bread, maduros (fried sweet plantains,) white rice, and garbanzo beans, was more than sufficient for Rose and I to split.  We waddled out of their full, with leftovers, and only $15 poorer.


Somehow we never got a picture from El Mocho, so enjoy this excellent shot of Deb and Steve.

We attended a fund raiser at the historic Key West Fire House Museum, and ended up winning a silent auction for t-shirts from The Lobster Shack restaurant.  What can say, Rose liked the design.  When we picked them up a week or so later we went straight to the shack wearing said t-shirts, and I had a fantastic Maine style lobster roll while Rose enjoyed a delicious shrimp roll in the same style.  It’s a tiny little place but we thoroughly enjoyed it.  Next winter I might compare their lobster roll to another place that comes highly recommended, but for now I would not hesitate to recommend The Lobster Shack. 6-lobster-shack

Let me take this opportunity to rant a bit about crappy Tripadvisor reviewers.  I am in the habit of checking out not just the general assessments on that site, but I tend to read the worst reviews even when they are in the distinct minority.  Check those for The Lobster Shack: One guy gave them a one star review because they closed early after the death of an employee’s father and a high wind advisory.  Another gave one star because, essentially, he didn’t understand the difference between Maine and Florida spiny lobster.  A few other two star reviewers likewise did not understand the difference between these two distinct crustacean species, and were thus dismissive of the Maine lobster prices here in a place more than a thousand miles from Bar Harbor and Kennebunkport.


The Upstairs “Locals” Bar at Lucy’s es quite nice.

Last year we had a fantastic, serendipitous seafood pasta meal at Rustica, with liberal amounts of hogfish, shrimp, and other offerings from the sea.  We did not manage to get back on a day with that special, but the pizza was top notch, though “artisinally” priced.  Next year we plan on checking their schedule so we can once again enjoy the delicious seafood pasta.


Roger, Stan, Marilyn, and Barny in the backgroud.

Angelino’s Pizza is another iconic downtown Key West establishment that we have patronized and loved during various bar crawls.  The individual slices there are about as great as you could hope for, particularly during an evening of morally questionable activity.  The actual whole pies, however, we found woefully lacking, as did a couple of our friends during separate visits.  Bottom line: slices yes, pies no, and we will remain a bit suspicious next year even for the slices. 9-sunset-lounge-us

We loved the amazing Sunday brunch at Bistro 245 so much last year that we did it twice.  We felt that to be a bit glutinous, and thus resolved to only do it once this season.  It did not disappoint!  Once again we went with our good friends Steve and Deb.  Located in the Margaritaville Resort in front of one of the cruise ship mooring piers, we love the outdoor morning view, excellent service and incredible and varied buffet offerings.  Yes, it is $44 per person, and thus our most expensive meal of the winter, but with the bottomless mimosas and champagne, imaginative food options, fantastic lamb and prime rib, raw oysters, sushi, omelet station, smoked salmon and cream cheese, crab claws, to-die-for desert section, and a dozen other things I won’t list, we found it well worth the price of admission.  Besides, we won a silent option at a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser that covered the tax and tip! 10-bistro-us

Two Friends is one of Rose’s favorite, nostalgic, Key West spots.  It has great environment with a top quality roster of live music acts performing at a volume that is not overly intrusive (unlike the horrific Kelly’s Irish Bar, just to pick one example.)  We paid a pretty penny on our Saint Patrick’s Day visit for Rose’s snow crab legs (obviously a traditional Irish meal,) my spicy chicken wings (common fare in County Kerry going back centuries I understand,) and a stream of drinks ($5 Jameson’s) but it was thoroughly enjoyable. 11-two-friends-snow-crab

Some of our Sigsbee friends raved about the gigantic fish sandwich from Mundy’s Pirate Seafood, a little shack of a place in a strip mall in the center of the island.  We remembered buying shrimp from the colorful owner at a craft market downtown last year, and gave it a shot.  The reputation he enjoys is well deserved; it was a huge and tasty fish sandwich with a mound of fries.  We split it and were completely full.  While trying to find the place I noticed that his google search results provided an old and “permanently closed” location.  I talked to him about this, got his correct address and hours, and fixed most of the google results such that you get the right address and correct hours, however the google pin point drops on the old location.  If anyone knows how to fix this, please let me know.  It’s even worse with his Tripadvisor result, which shows him as closed.  I would like to fix this as well, so any recommendations appreciated.


Didn’t get a pic of Mundy’s either, so here are the wings from the VFW.

Near the end of our stay we enjoyed a flight of beer and a burger from Waterfront Brewery.  I am surprised it took us so long to get there given that we are quite into trying out local small batch breweries.  It was solid, and since we went for happy hour, quite affordable. 13-two-friends-us-1

This sounds like quite a lot of restaurant activity for people supposedly on a tight budget.  We greatly mitigated the costs, however, by usually only dining during the happy hour or daily specials, and by making extensive use of the many discount cards available at certain kiosks.  Many of them are Buy One, Get One for drinks, but others offer half off appetizers or some other discount.  So yes, we ate and had drinks out quite a lot, but we did so pretty affordably, and look forward to more next year! 14-discount-cards