Do you plan your vacations around the cheapest airfare you can find and whatever budget hotel has a great deal for a room with two twin beds? You and your hubby can always push them together, right? While ninja bargain hunting can allow you to take trips you might never be able to afford otherwise, sometimes going all out is also worth the price tag. If you travel to the Florida Keys, exploring the Dry Tortugas National Park is worth the 70 mile trek (from Key West) – accessible only by boat or seaplane. While vacationing in Key West, we decided we had to see one of the more difficult National Parks to access, only to find out that the boat tickets were all sold out…However, we could go via seaplane.
We went back and forth on the idea finding it difficult to justify the cost, but we ended up going for it. The trip was one of the most incredible travel experiences I have had thus far. It was breathtaking and exactly the kind of adventure worth paying extra for.
You can book a flight through Key West Seaplane Charters for about $300 per person for a half-day excursion, but be sure to book the flight at least a week in advance, and read up on any guidelines. Seaplanes are very small and have weight limits so you can’t bring much with you.
The day of your trip, arrive early and bring a light lunch as well as a dry pair of clothes for the flight home if you plan on going into the water. On our flight, we boarded a seaplane that seated only eight which allowed each passenger a front row window seat. The flight took only about 35 minutes compared to the two hour ride it would take by boat which allowed us more time in the park. During the ride, we had a bird’s eye view of the sparkling waters below often catching sight of turtles and even a shark. There are also shipwrecks visible from the plane, and the pilot narrated each site during the flight. When we neared the park, we had spectacular views of the whole area before we landed right in the water.
The park itself is 100 square miles including Garden Key where the construction of Fort Jefferson was started in 1846 and went on for almost 30 years before it was abandoned. As one of the country’s largest 19th century forts, the massive brick formation is perched in the sapphire waves like a stubborn rock refusing to be washed away. It was never completed and never fully armed, but the fort was started as a way to protect the developing United States. Union Warships also used its harbor during the Civil War to block southern shipping. Inside the massive brick fortress, prisoners were held and helped build the fort. The infamous Dr. Mudd had his very own cell within the fort. He was the doctor that helped set the leg of John Wilkes Booth after he hurt it jumping from the balcony in the theater where he shot Lincoln. However, when Yellow Fever killed many of its inhabitants, including the staff doctor, the social structure in the fort began to crumble. Then, the invention of the rifled cannon made the brick walls obsolete, and it seemed the Fort was no longer useful. The Army abandoned it in 1874.
Inside the fort, the darkened, empty walkways are haunting and stretch out like mirrors reflecting within each other. Forgotten walls and archways have slowly been eaten away by time leaving only broken bricks like jumbled words telling of its history. Visitors are allowed to walk the grounds including the very top level where there are no guardrails along the rock strewn path overgrown with grasses. This is not the place for you if you are afraid of heights or unsteady on your feet. You can look down upon the inside of the fort where life was once bustling or gaze out at the miles of sapphire waters where plenty of the prisoners unsuccessfully plotted their escape.
Outside of the fort, the sandy shores are great for sunbathing and visitors are allowed to go snorkeling. All snorkeling gear is provided with the cost of the seaplane ride. We snorkeled alongside the fort where colorful fish scurried underneath of us, and amazing coral reefs could be seen out in the open waters. There are a large variety of birds that also arrive on Garden Key to mate, and it provides for fascinating birdwatching. If you are lucky or maybe unlucky, you might see the crocodile that lives along the shores of the fort. A storm brought the crocodile to the area over a decade ago, and because it is a National Park, the animals are protected and cannot be removed. While there has never been an incident thus far, it is always good to keep an eye out for him. When we went, he was happily soaking up some sun in a moat next to the fort. The park also has a 10 site campground available on a first come, first serve basis, but the seaplane cannot transport campers because of the additional weight of their camping gear.
Our seaplane excursion was one of the most beautiful and interesting experiences I have had while traveling. While we cannot splurge on every vacation we take, we do go all out on certain trips from time to time.