On the way to the hotel, we passed a road sign that pointed to “The Caves.” There was a small, unassuming parking lot and a stone chair, but not much else. We passed the spot at least 5-6 times before we finally pulled over to explore. This unassuming spot is a naturalist’s delight.
There are multiple openings to what was once a sea cave, allowing visitors to approach from above or below and once inside the mouth of the cave you can adjust to the relative darkness. It isn’t safe or suggested that you go far into the cave, but from the visible openings, you can see hundreds (thousands) of indigenous buffy flower bats. There were so delightful we went back a second time.
Totally worth a stop along the coast road.
You’ll find them near here: https://goo.gl/maps/mZdDMCZY3K52
I suspect deep down I enjoy being disapproved of. It may explain my adoration of a former bartender at the Russian Samovar. It may also explain my new favorite fish, the polka dot batfish (or maybe it is the shortnose batfish). I have experienced fish being wary, hungry, curious, and ambivalent, but never before have I felt disapproved of by a fish…until now.
We were snorkeling at Jaws Beach when Patrick and Garnet came to tell me about a weird fish they saw. I found one a few minutes later. We were excitedly telling each other about the weird face, the stubbly legs (pelvic fins), and the awkward pectoral fins that looked like wings. We had never seen such a thing and frogfish and sea robins leaped to mind, but neither seemed right.
Research turned up batfish and several species were cited as living in the shallows in the Bahamas. I’m going with polka-dot batfish* for this article because the coloration was the most similar. According to Guide to Marine Life: Caribbean, Bahamas, Florida, “Polka-dot batfish have distinct spots on the fins, head and body, while shortnose batfish are generally more mottled. The polka-dot batfish is not found in the true Caribbean, but it has been documented in the associated waters of Florida and in the Bahamas.” They are usually between 6-12 inches long, which matches the ones I saw.
Batfish are in the anglerfish family and many live deep along the ocean bottom, but a few, like the polka-dot species live in shallow waters. They generally sit around on the bottom of the sea and wait for prey to come to them. They are masters of camouflage, blending in with the sand and sea vegetation. They use that bulbous forehead to lure in their prey, which consists of crustaceans, mollusks, and worms.
And they walk. Seriously. When they move, unless they are doing a slow flee, they walk on stubby little pelvic fins. They swim with short pectoral fins that jut out on the side. I was completely fascinated by them. We snorkeled Jaws Beach 3-4 times during our trip and I encountered several batfish. I pestered the hell out of them with my camera and diving down to take a close look at them. I broke my rule of trying not to interfere with animals in the wild. I was so curious. I couldn’t stop myself. I had to touch the batfish. Thus, I received a look from the fish that conveyed I had deeply offended him and should stop these antics immediately. He awkwardly swam 2-3 feet away. The disapproving look was so effective that felt ashamed and I left him alone. In that moment I had a new favorite fish.
* If you are reading this and I got the species of batfish wrong please let me know. I almost hope it is wrong so they can disapprove of me further.
I’m not going to lie. The only reason Jaws Beach made our short list of places to visit on the trip is due to its place in pop culture infamy. The beach was used as the setting for Mike and Carla Brody’s home and the dock for his sailboat in Jaws: The Revenge. The movie is bad, yet fun to watch in that growling-shark, drunk-Michael Caine, exploding-shark kinda way. Michael Caine once said of the film, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!” We’ve gone on quests to see dumber places, so off we went.
We drove out along the coast road toward the western end of New Providence Island. Traffic thins out considerably on that end of the island. Jaws Beach is a bit of a cove, tucked inside Clifton Bay, just north of Clifton Heritage Park. The first time we went was at the height of the day with temps well over 90F. We pulled into an empty parking lot and followed a trail back to the beach. Along the way we saw a snake, blue-tailed lizards, butterflies, and a small pond that would likely attract nesting and migratory birds other times of the year. We got down to the beach and were shocked by how beautiful it was. It was stunning. A postcard come to life. And almost entirely empty.
The water was completely calm and looked rather shallow. There is a broken dock, which to a snorkeler is mighty appealing. Garnet jumped into the water fully clothed and just sat there. We vowed to return the next day, our initial mockery replaced by awe at the beauty of the place. We also realized there was an access road and we could park under trees mere feet from the beach.
We went back the next day, and twice more after that. We learned it is a locals’ beach, drawing few tourists. The busiest day there we saw maybe 30 people, other times we had the beach almost to ourselves. It was a small, quiet place. We noticed pizzas being delivered. I watched as a girl swam, holding her pizza aloft out of the water, surfacing to take a bite. She’s my new hero.
The first time we snorkeled, we all spotted batfish, which were so amazing that they deserve their own post. Under the docks were thousands of small silverfish, as well as schools of snappers, young reef fish, and even stingrays. The water was so warm, clear, and still that it was some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever experienced. I could easily dive down and watch fairy basslets protecting their homes, pink-tipped anemones swaying in the current, and watch young squirrelfish peering at me suspiciously. What started as a joke is now one of my favorite beaches in the world.
Patrick leaves lodging up to me. I’ve got a decent track record for finding interesting places to stay – everything from friends of friends to boats to a hostel devoted to Gram Parsons. My criteria are this: I like to stay local (no chains if I can help it), I need coffee in the morning, so a kitchenette or at least coffee maker, and location. Once I get there, copious hot water, a view, the proprietors, and the ability to open the windows or a door pretty much seal the deal. (I hate hermetically sealed rooms.) The Orange Hill Beach Inn offered all of that and a wild octopus.
When we started to plan the trip, I looked at airfares (frequent flier points largely cover those), car rental (ouch), and hotels with kitchenettes. Most places were outside of our price range, but one caught my eye: Orange Hill Beach Inn. The website touted a pool, an honor bar, and there were cottages across the road from the ocean. I called and spoke to someone there about rates and availability. I also checked Trip Advisor and Google reviews. The positive reviews mentioned the beach, staff, and rooms, and the negative reviews served to reinforce our decision to book. The negative reviews mentioned bugs, stray hairs, cats, and, in my opinion, unrealistic expectations. In other words, it sounded perfect for us and like the negative reviews would deter entitled assholes.
One of my great joys in life is watching Patrick’s reaction once we reach our destination. We walked in the front door and he said, “How do you find these places?!” The room was octagonal, with French doors leading to a small balcony overlooking the ocean across the street. The kitchenette was perfect for our needs and we cooked most of our meals at the room. The water pressure and temperature were damned near perfect. It was a relief to have only a few TV channels, and the wifi was stronger than expected.
We opened and closed the balcony doors with the rhythm of the day. In the morning, it was nice to have them open and listen to the bird song. Mid-day, when the sun was blazing and we needed a break, the AC came on. In the evening, after mosquito hour passed, we opened them again and could hear insects and frogs signing. Tree frogs, anoles, a young green heron, and cicadas surrounded us, as did smooth-billed anis. I noticed ants outside, but few inside; once I spotted the house geckos I knew why. I also spotted a brown racer on the property. If you are a traveler afraid of the natural world these things might freak you out. I have no doubt that the hotels on Paradise Island go through copious amounts of bug spray and noxious cleaning agents. However, I would point out that chemical pesticides are far more dangerous than wee lizards and a few bugs. I was on a tropical island; I expected (hoped) native wildlife to be part of the experience.
We largely kept to ourselves the first few days, keen to adventure around the island. Our next-to-last night, we ventured over to the pool, where a family from Texas, a family from the UK, and two of the hotel staff were engaged in a trivia game. Before we knew what happened, we too were shouting out answers. “Are You Being Served?” is always a good answer.
The next night, our last night, was Patrick’s birthday. We had planned to head back to the pool, but it was a stormy afternoon and we ended up hanging out with one of the hotel employees, Dave, as well as the owner’s son (who is Garnet’s age), and another kid who was visiting him. We enjoyed Watling’s rum while they built a water balloon cannon out of PVC pipe and a bicycle pump.
At some point, Dave asked if I had seen the octopus yet. My response was almost cartoonish. Seeing an octopus in the wild has been a perpetual goal for well over a decade.
Dave directed me to the third rock from the left, just offshore in front of the hotel. Look for the large red sea urchin, and then look up to spot the octopus’s hole. He also said to look for crab detritus, that they are messy housekeepers. While these directions seemed vague and distinctly Bahamian, by that point in our trip, I knew exactly where he meant. We had spent hours swimming and snorkeling across the street at Orange Hill Beach. I remembered seeing the small patch reef area of three rocks.
Orange Hill Beach was even better than the pictures on the hotel website. The sunsets were lovely and most of the time the beach was empty. It also offered decent beachcombing. The water was warm and the visibility was great. Most of what I saw snorkeling were young fish, starfish, lobsters, corals, and sea urchins. I could see a reef line farther out from shore, but I didn’t want to risk being so far out and getting run over by a jet ski.
On our final morning, we walked over and I went straight for the three rocks. I was so hoping that I would finally get to see an octopus in the wild, but also realistic enough to know that I had been looking for one for well over a decade. I found the third rock. I found the sea urchin. And then I found the octopus. I was so excited I started making honking noises with my snorkel. I spent about 15-20 minutes circling the octopus rock. He watched me and I watched him. I could see why I didn’t notice him before. He camouflaged himself perfectly and added some rocks near his entrance that looked just like him. I was giddy.
I would have given Orange Hill Beach Inn a five-star rating based on my own quirky criteria, but with the octopus factored in, they now rank in my top 10 of lodgings.
I was in a windowless conference room yesterday when began perusing a map of the St. Petersburg area. I noticed a green spot about 10-15 minutes south of the hotel and decided I would check it out in the brief gap between the end of the conference and the TSA peep show. It turned out to be an excellent way to spend a solid hour and a half. (Note: I had to take a projector and laptop for the conference and couldn’t take my camera, so these are all phone photos.)
There is a small nature center, where you pay a nominal admission. Behind the nature center are aviaries where birds of prey who can’t be released into the wild are housed. There are hawks, owls, an eagle, a kestrel, and vultures. I walked the boardwalks on the swamp woodlands trails, listening to the cries of birds and watching anoles skittering across the planks. On the Lake Maggiore trail I saw herons, nesting fish, an alligator, turtles, ducks, and more. It was perfect. You can rent kayaks from the park as well.
I wanted to see a gopher tortoise and headed over to the Sand Scrub trail. The diversity of ecosystems in such a small park is impressive (it is 245 acres). I went quickly from wetlands to pine trees in sandy soil. Despite being April 1st, it was hot in the sun and the park is clever with its water coolers in shaded shelters. I did see a tortoise briefly as he headed into his burrow.
From that trail, I went to the Wax Myrtle Pond, which had two completely unexpected pieces of art flanking the top of the pond. There were turtles and birds and very few people, despite it being a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. I imagine the park is teeming with activity at dawn and dusk.
On my walk back to the nature center, I saw not one, but two gopher tortoises walking along the main trail. Both were gracious enough to let me stop and ogle them.
The park also hosts events, including summer camps for kids, and they have an upcoming Earth Day Zine Workshop. Wildlife and zines – two of my favorite things!
If you go (you should totally go):
Address: 1101 Country Club Way South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705
Phone: (727) 893-7326
November 1 – February 29
Tuesday – Friday 9:00 am – 6:00 pm • Saturday 7:00 am – 6:00 pm
Sunday 9:00 am – 6:00 pm • Monday Closed
March 1 – October 31
Tuesday – Friday 9:00 am – 7:00 pm • Saturday 7:00 am – 7:00 pm
Sunday 9:00 am – 7:00 pm • Monday Closed
Admission: $3 Adult, $1.50 Child (Age 3 to 16), Free (Age 2 and under)
With the prospect of a three- to four-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, flying directly to the southernmost point in the US offers a convenient, if costly, option for those travelers on tight schedules. But the balmy, flat, and winding 110 miles of the Overseas Highway that run from the Florida mainland to the bottom of US-1 will yield wild and weird corners for those able (or willing) to take the time.
From the geological wonders of Devil’s Milhopper to the picturesque sands of Bahia Honda, Florida has a varied and truly amazing state park system. One of its most distinctive parks is also one all too easily overlooked on a drive through the Keys. Located a half-mile, ocean-side, off Islamorada lies the lush but unassuming Indian Key Historic State Park. Accessible only by boat, the uninhabited 11-acre island was, two centuries ago, the original county seat for Dade County.
But that simple historical fact doesn’t begin to belie the tranquil key’s colorful and, at times, lurid history. From here, Jacob Housman built a formidable “wrecking” business in the early 19th century, salvaging valuable cargoes from ships that met their ends on the treacherous reefs in the surrounding waters. In 1838, the Philadelphia botanist Dr. Henry Perrine moved to the island, bringing with him a host of non-indigenous flora, including agave (used in the manufacturing of sisal), tamarind, and large yucca plants. By the close of that decade, the island boasted a population of about 60, and even a nationally advertised resort hotel. Later, Henry Flagler would use the key as a base for dredging operations during the construction of his Overseas Railroad.
But Indian Key’s golden heyday drew its last breaths in the wee hours of August 7, 1840, when an invasion force of more than 130 Spanish-speaking Seminoles descended upon the island from nearby Lower Matecumbe Key. Twelve hours later, six people were dead (including Perrine) and much of the looted settlement laid in smoldering ruins. The United States Navy subsequently used Indian Key as a base of operations for the Second Seminole War, but the island’s halcyon days as a thriving, self-sustaining commercial center were effectively done.
Today, visitors may rent canoes and kayaks from Robbie’s of Islamorada and paddle out to Indian Key. Make the most of the trip by enlisting the services of historian, author, and tour guide Brad Bertelli of Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours to bring the island’s crumbling foundations and crunching gravel streets back to bustling life. If you appreciate vivid detail, humor, and a healthy overdose of enthusiasm for esoterica in your docent, then the affable Bertelli – who, with co-author David Sloan, recently published Bloodline: A Local’s Guide to 50 Famous Film Locations in the Florida Keys, an indispensable, trivia-packed self-guided tour for fans of the Netflix Original Series Bloodline – is your man.
Back in Islamorada, at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, where Bertelli also serves as the Curator/Historian, a fine scale model of Housman-era Indian Key provides additional perspective.
It is worth noting that there are no restroom facilities, nor fresh water, nor trash cans on Indian Key. But there is some decent snorkeling off its craggy northeastern shore. So any which way, plan accordingly.