Camping in the Florida Keys: an idyll for $6.24 a day

The warm sand surrounded our weary northern bones. Herons, gulls, and osprey flew through our line of vision to dive into the calm tropical waters. A silent fisherman gracefully cast a fly line forward into the small wavelets. A child building elaborate sand tunnels, turrets and castles sang to herself, while another, out of sight, dogged a ranger's footsteps, absorbing the stream of off-hand natural information about mangroves, fish, exotic plants and animals.

Behind, under a palm tree our tent faced the Caribbean. At night reading by lantern, listening to a guitar from some" where down the beach, we were lulled to sleep.

Camping on the Florida Keys, for $6.24 a night, is a million-dollar idyll. We went there last March to escape the drabness of snow and mud that marks the interval between winter and spring in the Michigan north woods.

The rangers at Long Key State Park are chauvinistic about their park. "The best state park in the whole of Florida," one insisted. We challenged his statement enough to check out other private and state parks in the keys. We had to agree, at least from a family point of view.

Long Key is about midway between the mainland and Key West, and every site in the campground is strung out on the Atlantic side, facing the ocean over a sandy beach.

That each campsite fronts on the ocean, is protected on each side from neighboring sites by shrubbery and stands of Australian pines, and is large enough for family games of single-base wiffleball or frisbee distinguishes the park from private campgrounds. The shade and 60 oceanfront sites are also unique among the three state parks on the Keys.

Every two sites share a water faucet. Each has its own standing barbeque grill. Thirty sites have electricity, 30 don't. Toilets and showers in clean buildings are spaced conveniently along the narrow park road running behind the sites, paralleling the shore.

Even rain in the Keys adds to the tropical ambience. In the aftermath of a storm the clouds of steam rising from the asphalt camp road, the heavy dripping humidity enshrouding the campground, mangrove swamps, and nature trail evoke feelings of tropical rain forests.

Arriving one day last March, we were led through the long picnic grounds set aside for daily users to the padlocked gate which marks the campsite entrance.

We pitched our tent to one side of one of the few palm trees to have survived a blight which wiped out the Key's coconut plantation.

After a night made miserable by "no-see-ums," upon which our bug repellant had no effect, we were advised to pitch our tent closer to the water, facing the ocean. Sea breezes kept the bugs away.

We also learned to put our food atop our car, out of reach of night marauding raccoons and stray cats. Pets are prohibited.

Because there is little twilight that far south, we were often asleep by 10 p.m. and up as soon as the sun lighted our tent.

From a parental point of view, Long Key's long flat beach is a distinct advantage. Protected by the barrier reef some five miles offshore, the water is calm even in high tide. Small children can wade offshore with relative safety.

The live coral, which makes for nice snorkeling is sharp, so we swam in old tennis shoes. The iridescent blue man-of- war, sailing seductively with the wind was the only other hazard -- one to which we gave wide berth to avoid the long stinging tentacles.

Because Long Key attracts families, it was only a matter of minutes before our two children abandoned the job of setting up camp. Building sand castles, playing baseball, wandering along the beach, hunting crabs and sea hearts -- the ruddy brown heart-shaped seed pod that ocean currents float north from the mouth of the Amazon -- or sitting by the hours gabbing, they were always busy.

"The only trouble is you get to meet some nice kids, make friends, and then they have to go home, or you have to leave," our son complained.

There are few planned activities. The nature trail hike led by one of the park rangers intrigued our son so much we went a second time, learning in detail how the Key was formed, the varieties of mangroves, types of herons, and other seat birds, and the exotic plants, some edible, some dangerous. In the evenings , rangers build blazing bonfires and gave slide shows on the flora and fauma of the Keys.

When one needs a break from beach sitting, surf fishing, reading and hiking, Key West with its weather beaten Conch houses, galleries, shops, museums, off-beat residents, brasseries, bistroes, and fish restaurants is an interesting 90- minute drive south. Sunset in Key West is a "happening." Hundreds of people gather on the docks at Mallory Square to watch the sun make it plunging departure while solo musicians, Jamaican reggae combos, magicians, and jugglers provide street theater.

Driving the Overseas Highway is reminiscent of another era. Bait and tackle shops, charter boat docks, and places with such names as Peg Leg's, Ernie's Island Woman, Tropical Tacos, Green Turtle Inn (great food), Pelican Motel, Salty Dog, Mad Margaret's (amazing breakfast), Captain Doug's, and only the occasional Holiday Inn or Howard Johnson's are interspersed on the long narrow Keys. Condominiums and manicured resorts are exceptions.

There are two other state park campgrounds on the Keys -- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Bahia honda State Recreation Area.

The former is the first underwater state park in the nation, and with adjacent Key Largo Coral Reef Marine Santuary, covers about 178 square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps. These areas are a portion of the only living coral reefs in the continental United States. The camp has a complete diving concession which provides everything from flippers and mask to tanks and boats. For nondivers, reefs can be viewed from glass-bottom boats. Camping sites are not on the ocean, are more exposed and crowded than at Long Key, but this is the spot for divers.

Bahia Honda is what is left of an ancient coral reef with a sandy beach and small dunes. Body surfing is one of Bahia honda's attractions. The waves break just off shore. The beach attracts a younger, more frequently single set, than Long Key. We spent a day on the beach watching a troupe of chorus line dancers from Key West picnic and perform spectacular leaps and flips into the surf.

At all state parks, sites with electrical outlets are $8.32 per day. Sites without electricity are $6.24. The stay in any state park is limited to 14 days with the privilege of returning for another two weeks in 60 days. Each site is designed for a family of four, but an additional four persons may be included for a fee of $1 per person.

Reservations are taken for 30 sites only. The other sites are on a first-come-first-serve basis, which means some people spend a night outside the gates to be first in line. Reservatiosn are taken between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. for 60 days in advance by phone or in person, only.

Telephone numbers are: Long Key (305) 664-4815; Bahia Honda, (305) 872-2353; and Joh Pennekamp (305) 451-1202.

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