Zoo Miami – Where The Wild Things Are

Lions, Tigers and Bears…Oh my!

There is no shortage of animal encounters in Florida.  You can visit aquariums, zoos and even close encounters like swimming with dolphins.  We chose to check out one of the largest zoos in the state with some friends on a recent day off of school.  Zoo Miami here we come!

A little pre-trip research and we found a $4 off coupon for everyone in our party if we bought tickets online.  Score.  They simply scanned our smartphones when we got to the gate.  The zoo is on over 740 acres and has over 3000 animals scattered around a 3 mile trail snaking through the park.  Add little legs to the equation and it could be a recipe for a meltdown.  Luckily the zoo has strollers to rent and our vehicle of choice for the day, a safari cycle – a bicycle with seating for up to 6 adults with a cover to shield the sun and/or rain.

Please excuse our drenched look.  More on that later.

The safari cycle was a great way to cover serious ground while touring the zoo and bonus…an excellent leg workout for the moms.  Thankfully Florida is not as hilly as our home state of NC but, we still had to grunt to get things moving at times.  Think Wilma and Betty Flintstone with 3 crazy kids in tow.

The zoo is organized in somewhat of a loop with a monorail that snakes the perimeter.  If you can’t take the heat, there’s always AC in the monorail and someone with a microphone.  It sounds like a great place to catch an afternoon nap if you need a break (there is a small extra fee).

The animals are grouped in habitats and by contents so you can imagine how each species fits into the world around them.  One unique feature about this zoo is that most of the animals are very close and you are only separated by a moat and a low fence.  It’s great for the kids because they don’t have to peer through bars to catch a glimpse.

Hello there Asian elephant!

The animals come in the more interesting, the Komodo Dragon, the fastest lizard in the world.  Did you know that they can eat wild boar and deer?!

Not as sluggish as he looks
To the more common, the wild squirrel.  There are many running around the zoo that attract just as much attention as the lions.  They aren’t afraid to come up and greet you if you have food.  
The zoo doesn’t really allow outside food and drinks other than water but, you can bring in coolers and leave them at the front gate to enjoy outside of the park by the picnic tables.  We packed a lunch but, then quickly realized that the front gate is miles from where kids get hungry so we jumped to plan B – buy food in the park.  We did see people bring in snacks discretely and we were envious that we didn’t do the same.  You would think there would be more snack options along the 3 mile trek but, they only have a few and they are only open on the weekends.  We ate at the Oasis Grill, at the half-way point.  The kids enjoyed meals with quesadillas, animal crackers and applesauce and the moms wished they had ordered kids meals.  Nothing special here but, they do serve beer if you need an afternoon beverage.  
Next door is the splash park, a big hit with our crowd.  We wore bathing suits under our clothes and enjoyed the break from the heat.  They have the usual water features but, a portion is in the shade and they have surf boards you can stand on to practice balancing while hanging ten.  Bonus, there’s a place for parents to sit if you aren’t into getting soaked.  

Speaking of getting soaked…pop up showers are quite common in Florida.  Come prepared or be ready to get wet.  We encountered two major rain storms which triggered side-splitting laughter in our crowd but, may not be the case if you travel with people made of sugar.  Packing a poncho may be a good idea as there aren’t many places to duck into to escape the downpours.  
Our favorite animals were the lions and the gorillas!  They have a cave-like structure that you can walk into to get up close and personal with these amazing creatures.  Of course, there’s no guarantee that they will get nose to nose with you but, we lucked out and saw a rear-end of a gorilla while he picked through his afternoon snack of leaves.  
Mr. Gorilla wasn’t ready to turn around
The zookeepers can be found in various locations around the park at certain times for feedings and informational sessions.  If you happen to catch one, it can be very informative, depending on the attention span of your guests.  We got to see the zookeeper throwing oranges to the chimpanzees!
Some chimpanzees caught the oranges mid-air with one hand.
There are other opportunities to feed giraffes, parrots and rhinos but, we weren’t able to take advantage of the extra fun.  We were on a mission to see the tigers before we left.  
If you have little ones (under 5), don’t miss the Dino Dig area, where you can unearth fossils and the Children’s Zoo area.  You can ride a camel, check out animals in the wacky barn, ride a carousel and see an animal talk in the theater. 
We decided to take this animal home.
Quick tips for busy moms:
1.  If you want to get wet, bring a bathing suit, towel and be sure to bring shoes you can get wet.  They require you to wear shoes in the splash park.  
2.  Don’t bother bringing food or packing a lunch but, hide some snacks in your bag and hope they don’t search for your Goldfish stash.  
3.  Bring a backpack or a bag so you can be hands free.  A purse would just get annoying.  
4.  Comfy walking shoes are a must for everyone.  Pack flip flops or water friendly shoes in your backpack for the splash park.
5.  Plan on at least 4 hours at the park.  It is huge and if you have a child that loves animals, you may want to linger at a few.  
6.  Consider Miami rush hour traffic when you leave.  We didn’t and had an extra hour in the car as a result.  Ideally we would have stopped for a fun dinner nearby or stayed the night.  
7.  Pack hand sanitizer.  We didn’t see it anywhere near the food stands.  The bathroom had soap but, if you need to clean up in a hurry, hand sanitizer would have done the trick.   
8.  When in Florida, don’t forget the sunscreen! 

A special thank you to my friend Ashleigh for going on this adventure with us!  
Marathon - Sunset Grille

Weekend in the Florida Keys – Marathon

Living in South Florida has its perks, we are driving distance to the Florida Keys!  If you haven’t been, the Keys are like going to the Caribbean without the hassle of grabbing your passport and boarding a plane or a boat.  After you drive through Homestead, FL, basically the last stop on HWY 1, your pulse slows because you are on island time now!  This is the only road in or out of the long stretch of the Keys and at times you can see crystal clear blue water on either side – a sight that almost brings me to tears!  Just think of the drive in as an adventure in itself.  There are tons of shops selling brightly colored island ware, conch shells and yard art to entertain your eyes as you drive down.  Resist the urge to stop at the first bar you see with a thatched roof.  It was so entertaining that the kids put down the iPads to look out the window!  The drive is so scenic that Travel & Leisure Magazine voted it one of the most scenic drives in the US.  T&L Scenic drives  Don’t miss the Seven Mile Bridge, just past Marathon.

On the way down we stopped for lunch at Key Lime Cafe, an outdoor cafe with excellent fresh fish and the best conch fritters I’ve had (and I’m not a huge fan of conch fritters).  You can explore their outdoor shop of garden accessories while you wait for your food.  Grab a key lime pie on your way out.  They are frozen, ready for travel and are divine!  Check out their web site to order key lime products.

Key Lime Cafe
Laid back fare at reasonable prices

After lunch we drove from Key Largo through several small Keys and Islamorada to our destination at Marathon.  Marathon is one of the more developed areas of the Florida Keys and has several resorts, grocery stores, gas stations and all of the basic needs for harmonious travel with kids.  We thought it would make a great home-base for exploring.  Key West is about 50 miles south from Marathon – another stop on our “to do list” for a future trip.

We stayed at Tranquility Bay, a resort with all of the comforts of home in a stunning backdrop.  It would make a great stop for a longer trip to the Keys because they have “beach houses” with full kitchens, equipped enough for simple dinners when you just don’t want to deal with corralling your kids at a restaurant.  Or maybe you’d like an early to bed night so you can enjoy some quiet time on the back porch with a cocktail.  Being near a grocery store comes in handy if you didn’t stock up before you arrive.  We found a few fish markets that sell fresh fish and seafood.  You can’t go wrong with any of the specials.  If you don’t enjoy cooking while on vacation, (is it really a vacation if you are cooking?) not to worry, there are plenty of restaurants nearby and several that deliver!

The hotel has a giant pool with lots of shade for a break from the sun and an area with zero entry, great for younger kids and moms who don’t want to get their hair wet.

Pool at Tranquility Bay
A relaxing day at the pool
This one we named Sammy.
So, about the gecko/iguana situation…they are everywhere.  If you haven’t seen one up close, they are beautiful and entertaining to watch while swimming at the pool.  The kids were mesmerized!  Parent note, they can climb, but there are several cats on the property that help keep the population in check.

There’s also a beautiful beach area for swimming with water so clear you can wear goggles or practice snorkeling.  The beachfront tiki bar is a great stop for afternoon refreshments and the resort has all of your watersport needs covered, including sailboats, Waverunners, kayaks and paddle boards.  We rented a kayak and tried paddle boarding with the kids on the front of the board.  The boards are very forgiving so they are great for wiggly children.  If you are lucky, you may encounter a manatee or sea turtle while paddling.

Tranquility Bay
It’s hard not to relax here
I know you’ve seen a beautiful sunset but, there’s just something about the sunsets in the Keys that takes your breath away.  To catch the nightly sky entertainment we went to the Sunset Grille & Raw Bar, just north of the Seven Mile Bridge.  The restaurant gets crowded so you may want to show up about 30 min before sunset to make sure you get a seat.  They have an extensive menu with plenty of seafood and bar fare but, it’s really not about the food here.  As you can see, the view is simply amazing and they have a pool!  If you sit on the lower level you can enjoy a drink while the kids swim happily in the light-filled pool.  Usually they have a band poolside and there is a bar as well.  The guys in our group enjoyed the cold beer and the gigantic TV by the pool that was showing football games.  Really, this restaurant has something for everyone and that sounds like paradise to me!  Parent tip – pack towels and come in your coverup.
Sunset views at Sunset Grille
Everyone wins at Sunset Grille!
Snorkel Sombrero Reef
Snorkel at Sombrero Reef and see fish you only read about in books!

There are plenty of opportunities to fish, snorkel or scuba in the Florida Keys.  Check out one of the several active coral reefs just minutes from Tranquility Bay. Although they have diminished over the years there are still spots to see active and colorful marine life.  We chose to take a snorkeling trip to Sombrero Reef with the Starfish Snorkeling crew.  They specialize in families and everyone in our group loved it!  It was some of the best snorkeling I’ve done and they really took the time to explain the safety rules but also, have a little fun too.  Ask my 5 yr old how many pirate jokes he picked up along the way.  Argh!  The ride on the catamaran was an experience in itself. They let the kids sit up front for maximum splash potential.  Before getting in, they showed us pictures of fish that we might see while snorkeling.  They have all the gear you need including life jackets and pool noodles which came in handy when swimming with the kids.  We buddied up and held on to the noodle together.  The crystal clear water was like swimming in a fish tank and you really didn’t have to go far to see fish.  We got up close and personal with all kinds of colorful marine life, and even saw an eel and a sea turtle.  Our favorite were the parrot fish and yellowtail snapper.  Not only did we learn about different kinds of fish, but also learned a lot about the coral reefs and how to take care of them.  

We will definitely be back for another trip to paradise so stay tuned for more adventures down south.  

Quick tips for busy moms:
1.  Hotel and resort prices go up dramatically in the winter.  It’s actually pretty affordable in the fall and late spring.  Price shop.
2.  Dress is very casual.  Bring bathing suits, cover ups and dry clothes for when you aren’t in your bathing suit.  90% of the restaurants don’t care if you come in in T-shirts and shorts.
3.  If you are flying, check flights into Key West and Miami.  If you fly into Miami, the first Key is about 60 miles away.
4.  Consider a rest stop in Homestead before you hit the main drag because you can get stuck in traffic and there aren’t many places to refuel or use the restroom.
5.  Try some key lime pie!
6.  When in Florida, don’t forget the sunscreen!

Visit to a Pumpkin Patch – Bedner’s Farm

Ahh, fall!  The cool, crisp air, the sound of leaves crunching under your feet, hot apple cider…oh but, we are in Florida.  Getting to my “happy fall place” takes a little more effort when it’s 85 degrees and there are still wet pool towels on the laundry room floor.  Don’t worry, the pumpkin obsession still makes its way down to south Florida and we are really enjoying the pumpkin almond milk with our cereal (Please say that we never really find that in the grocery store!).  We are quickly learning that getting in the spirit takes a little bit more effort and we are happy to cheer on the changing of the seasons.

So, yes you can buy pumpkins at the grocery store here.  But, where is the fun in that?  It took a little research but, we found a pumpkin patch about 45 miles (yes, I said miles) south of us at a local farmer’s market.  We thought it would be a great adventure so we hit the road, along with several hundred other people on Saturday.  Apparently we aren’t the only ones who have a little fall nostalgia.  The people in jeans and plaid button downs win because we got warm just walking to the end of our row of the field we parked in, and we were wearing shorts and flip flops.  Bedner’s Farm is in Boynton Beach and just off the Florida Turnpike.  It’s much more than a pumpkin patch, more like a mini fall festival with a petting zoo, bounce houses, corn maze and pony rides.  There are food trucks, roasted corn on the cob and local favorites like apple cider doughnuts.

Bedner's Farm 1
Pumpkins and cucumbers as far as the eye can see.

They have a wide variety of pumpkins and charge by size – bonus, they accept credit cards.  The prices are not cheaper than the grocery stores but, as they mention, you are supporting local growers and I love the thought of that, even if it is a few dollars more.  The pumpkins are lined up in rows for easy “picking”.  They are actually lying in a field of cucumber plants but, that’s just a technicality.  They look adorable and are a great backdrop for pictures. See ours below.  Try not to notice the sweat on our brow.

Bedner's Farm 2
They have carving pumpkins too. We just liked the cute, kid-sized ones

If you want a large pumpkin display on your front stoop, you can borrow a wagon to take them back to your car – a nice touch.

We didn’t try the corn maze but, we heard it was a lot of fun.  Check out the produce at the farmer’s market and learn more about Bedner’s sustainable farming practices.  The fall festival runs through Nov. 1st.  They are open year round and have seasonal fruits and vegetables that you can pick yourself including strawberries, peppers, tomatoes and sunflowers.  We will be back for tomato season, which begins in December (seriously).

Happy Fall Y’all!

Quick tips for busy moms:

1.  Visit on a weekday if possible, the crowds can get large on the weekends.
2.  You can be in and out in 30 min or stay for a half-day, depending on your patience.
3.  You can purchase food and drinks but, you are allowed to bring in your own so it wouldn’t hurt to pack drinks to help keep cool.
4.  It’s a farm so you are walking on grass and sometimes wet grass and hay.  Wear shoes that you don’t mind getting a little messy.

5.  Check their website for hours and weekend happenings.
6.  When in Florida, don’t forget the sunscreen!

Florida Gators – Up Close In The Everglades

So before moving I thought the Everglades was just a protected area somewhere in south Florida with alligators.  Little did I know that the Everglades covers the majority of south Florida, basically most of the land, not near the beach.  It’s a critical ecosystem to the area and a must-do for anyone who needs a break from a beach day.  A trip to the brochure rack at a Visitor Center will offer up several options for tours of the Everglades in an airboat.  If you’ve never been in an airboat, you have been missing out.  It’s half of the fun!

Everglades 1
Who knew the Everglades was so beautiful?
We chose to visit the Everglades Holiday Park  It was under an hour drive from Ft. Lauderdale but, literally in the middle of nowhere. Drive until you think you are lost and drive 5 more miles.  You’ve arrived!  The park has tours every 20 minutes so you don’t have to entertain yourselves too long while you wait.  The airboats are covered for passengers – a nice touch for moms low on sunscreen – so you don’t have to sit in the blazing Florida sunshine while you look for wildlife.  The boats skim the water as you tour through the sawgrass looking for gators.  At times, the guide puts the boat at full throttle and it will make even the manliest of men giggle like a schoolgirl.  We loved it.  Not only will you see alligators up close in their habitat but also, you’ll see and learn about many of the beautiful birds that live in the Everglades. 

Everglades 2
Air boats lined up for tours
After the tour head down to see the Gator Show performed by The Gator Boys.  We haven’t seen their show on the Animal Planet but apparently they have a gator wrestling following because several fans were in attendance with autograph books.  Our Gator Boy wrestler was actually a girl and it was impressive to see her handle a 300+ lb alligator.   The show was stressful at times, especially when she put her head in the gator’s mouth (kids do not try this at home!) but, entertaining and a great way to see the reptiles up close.  They hammered home the best way to handle an alligator in the wild.  STAY AWAY.  After, don’t miss the chance to hold a baby alligator for a small extra fee. 
The park also welcomes fishing off the dock so if you have your rod with you, hang around a bit and see what is biting. 
If you need a pick-me-up before you hit the road, head to the gift shop and grab a Yoohoo, beef jerky or chips.  It ain’t Whole Foods folks.  We also had to pick up a gator koozie souvineir. 

Everglades 3
“Mom, are you sure he can’t bite?”
All in all, a great afternoon stop and a lot of fun for all generations because there wasn’t too much walking but, plenty to see.  Your little gator enthusiasts will be enthralled! 
Quick tips for busy moms:
  1. Check web sites or visitor brochures for discounts
  2. Plan on blocking off 3-4 hours for this adventure
  3. Bring snacks and water to hydrate
  4. Bring extra cash for tips for the boat drivers and post-tour treats
  5. Gas up before you leave civilization, it’s in the middle of nowhere.
  6. When in Florida don’t forget the sunscreen!

Hello Florida Sunshine!

Our family recently moved to south Florida from North Carolina and I’ve never spent much time here other than a few crazy weekends in Destin post-college.  Now that we are here with a 7 and a 5 yr old, I am on a quest to explore with our family and get the most out of our experience here.  We got rid of our sweaters, invested in sunscreen and gassed up the old family truckster for the ride.  Join me on our journey as we explore the beaches, parks and kid-friendly stops around Florida.