Back in April — after making our first trip to Key West via the Overseas Highway on our motorcycle with good friends David & Deb — we decided one of the things we wanted to do on any future trip was to set aside one day for a visit to the Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles West of Key West. The Dry Tortugas National Park covers 100 square miles of coral reef off the tip of South Florida and is the third-largest barrier reef system in the world.
What’s become the main attraction at the Dry Tortugas National Park is Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, a massive concrete and brick fortress that was designed before the outbreak of the Civil War with construction starting before and ending after the war. In addition to the fort, the shallow waters around Garden Key offer visitors some beautiful underwater scenery for those with an interest in snorkeling. Although snorkeling is not something that Debbie nor I had a keen interest in, we did want to see the fort. It would also allow me to check-off yet another National Park visit from my bucket list, noting the Dry Tortugas holds the distinction of being the least visited of all the National Parks! Imagine that. You don’t suppose it has something to do with the logistics?
So, as I developed our 20th anniversary vacation week and began to consider a trip back to Key West I decided to set aside one day – Friday – for the trip out to Fort Jefferson. Now, there are only a couple different ways to get to Garden Key from Key West: a 2.5 hour boat trip or a 45-minute flight on a seaplane. The trip by sea on the Yankee Freedom III would cost about $180 per person and would take pretty much the entire day: the aforementioned 2.5 hour trip out, 4 hours on Garden Key, and then a 2 hour trip back, noting the difference coming and going was due to the Florida current flowing east out of the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean around the tip of Florida. The trip by air on a seaplane was about $280 per person but only required ½ a day: a 40-minute flight out, 2.5 hours to explore the fort and/or snorkel, with another 40-minute flight back. I left the final decision on which mode of travel to use up to Debbie, as I wasn’t sure if she’d be comfortable with the small plane ride and water landing / take-off at Garden Key. She opted to go for the trip by boat, so I booked our trip on the Yankee Freedom III.
Friday began early for us, as we were instructed to arrive at the ferry terminal by 7:00am for check-in, with boarding and breakfast on the catamaran at 7:30am and an 8:00am departure. Again, the location of the Curry Mansion was perfect, as it was only about 1/2 mile away from the terminal so we didn’t need to leave until around 6:45am. I’d actually forgotten about the breakfast being a part of the daylong package and given the Curry Mansion didn’t serve breakfast until 8:00am, we decided to stop and pick up something to eat and get Debbie some green tea at a coffee shop on our way to the ferry terminal. After picking up our ham & cheese croissant, we arrived promptly at 7:00am. Around 7:15am our guide for the day – Michael – gave us a pre-briefing on what was ahead, to include a cautionary warning about rough swells and a suggestion to consider taking some Dramamine: we’d already prepared for that. A short while later we were on the catamaran and enjoying our breakfast as we began our 2.5 hour sail to Garden Key.
It was a rather uneventful trip and Michael filled some of the time with a narrative history of Fort Jefferson and the National Park, followed by instructional videos on snorkeling. As we made our way to the Dry Tortugas we could see rain squalls behind us back over Key West and to our South, moving directly towards us. We hit the rain about 75 minutes into the trip and it poured for a good ½ hour or so, but we emerged on the other side of the squall to a beautiful blue sky, which remained with us for the rest of our sail to the Key. As we approached the Garden Key Debbie and I headed out to the bow of the catamaran so we could enjoy the beautiful weather and views of the fort; it was really quite impressive.
After docking at the pier we went on an hour-long tour of the park by Michael; it was quite interesting. As we neared the end of our tour, standing on top of the fort near one of the massive 15” guns, a new rain squall was approaching from the Southeast so Michael truncated his narrative and encouraged us to return to the Yankee Freedom where lunch was being served: talk about perfect timing. The first raindrops started to fall about the same time we hit the gantry, so we dodged the rain quite nicely. In fact, other than taking our own 30-minute self-guide tour of some other parts of the fort when the first squall cleared and before a second one hit, we pretty much remained on board the catamaran until our departure at 2:45pm.
Editorial: The big take-away for me from my visit to Fort Jefferson was just how seriously flawed nearly all aspects of the fort’s planning, design and construction were. Sure, hindsight is always 20/20, but even back in in 1824 it was clearly a bad idea to put a fort on Garden Key and the fact it took nearly 17-years to move the project through to approval for construction suggests this would be what we now refer to as “A Bridge to Nowhere.” Frankly, I’d have to say the fort is more-or-less a monument to misguided government project management and showed poor stewardship of taxpayer money. Construction finally started in 1846 and was never completed before the fort was abandoned by the Army in 1875 and eventually turned over to the Navy for their use in 1888. History suggests that the fort actually served its intended purpose as a deterrent to potential invaders even though it was never fully functional. Frankly, I’d be interested in knowing why no one was held accountable for the botched design, material defects and other serious failures including management of the schedule: I’ve yet to find anything written about how long construction “should” have taken. There were clearly some very innovative techniques used but, at the end of the day, it just appears to be an amazing failure not a significant achievement.
It rained almost the entire way back to Key West and the sail back seemed incredibly long. As we approached Key West our cell-coverage returned and it was pretty clear it had been raining heavily all day in Key West. We later learned that Duval Street had once again become something of a river at one point, but no where nearly as bad as it was back on May 2nd when sandbags had to be placed at front door entrances to keep water from flowing into businesses as the water breached the curbs and flowed over the sidewalks: amazing! Regardless, it looked like we picked the right day for our trip to the Dry Tortugas and really got quite lucky with the timing of our arrival at Fort Jefferson for our tour and exploration of Garden Key. I’ll take a little good luck any day of the week!
After getting cleaned up at the Curry Mansion we headed down to Red Fish Blue Fish for dinner, hoping to re-create the very nice dining experience we had when we first visited with David & Deb back in April. Well, as luck would have it we had the same young man from April as our waiter which was a good thing: he was still as witty as ever. My Caesar salad topped with blackened Mahi was pretty good, but I think Debbie’s grilled Mahi was only so-so. So, I think we decided to cross that one off our list for return visits and will likely stick with a few other places where we’ve always had great meals.
Now, it turns out that I forgot to post up photos from sunset celebration at Mallory Square on Thursday in my Thursday blog entry; not sure what’s up with that. So, rather than going back and updating that one with the details I’ll just stick the photos and comments in here since Sunset Celebration was actually something of a wash-out on Friday. Thursdays was also less than a postcard, Key West sunset but the overall effect even with the cloud cover on the horizon was pretty eye-catching, as was Debbie who was looking sensational in yet another of her lovely dresses from Horsetown!
After dinner, and given that the weather was still pretty bleak, we headed back to Duval Street for a while before making an early night of it, noting that we were both pretty tired. It was probably a combination of the Dramamine and the long boat trips to and from Garden Key, coupled with the rainy weather noting that a pretty good rain shower was moving into Key West around 9:00pm when we headed to our room back at the Curry Mansion. I think we both needed the rest….