Thursday, February 9, 2017

Florida Keys, Part I:
Not bad at all for 'almost paradise'

Welcome to the first post on a subject -- my trip last month to the Florida Keys -- destined to have many parts (i.e., multiple additional posts).

For the past week or so, I've been going through hundreds of images from my two weeks in the Keys, a trip I had dreamed about for quite a while, definitely since I retired in 2012 ...
and something that I'd mentally floated off and on for a decade or so before that.

Oddly, perhaps, I approached the trip with some trepidation. A couple people I know, including a family member, had visited the Keys (or parts of them) and told me they were not impressed. Also, it would mark the first time I traveled on a commercial airline since 1996. I'm not a flying aficionado; I'm a "grounded" kind of guy who likes seeing where I'm going, so ... abandoning that in such a dramatic way is a serious challenge to me. Compounding the situation was the fact that our plane to the Keys would make its landing at the very same airport in Florida -- Ft. Lauderdale -- where only nine days earlier an ISIS-inspired gunman fired randomly at people walking in the baggage area, resulting in multiple casualties, including five deaths.

But I managed ... and on a very positive upside, I found the Keys wonderful. Except for one overcast and rainy day, for the duration of the visit, it was mostly sunny, and temperatures stayed in the mid- to upper 70s. I couldn't have asked for better weather.

A quick aside before I resume with my train of thought: Even though I'm going to spend the majority of time in this first post discussing photo geek stuff and the Overseas Highway, I wanted to use the lead image to provide a soft introductory to the series of Keys posts. The photo you see at the top of the page was taken on my third full day in the Keys. I was killing time, looking out at the ocean in the general area of where, in about a half-hour, Lee Ann and I would enjoy a sunset cruise on a catamaran. I shot a lot images of the flock of seagulls on the wooden perch, and I think I lucked out getting this one -- with so many sailboats in the background.

For all but one day and night of the trip, Lee Ann and I stayed at the Hammocks of Marathon (left), a "resort" on Marathon Key, which is about halfway down the chain of Keys. The resort is part of the Bluegreen Vacation Club, of which I became a member a year ago. Being situated in the middle of the Keys helped facilitate getting to other Keys destinations northeast and southwest of there via the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1), which runs the length of the coral cay archipelago.

We spent most of our time at Marathon, although we did dedicate two daytime visits to Key West and a day and a night in Key Largo. The story behind the latter has a fortuitous twist. Originally, the full trip was supposed to last only six nights (Sunday through Friday) -- all at the Hammocks, using "points" we'd earned to pay for the lodging. The original plan was to use check-out day to drive up to Key Largo and do a glass-bottom boat excursion on the reefs there ... and afterward finish the trip to the airport in Fort Lauderdale to fly home.

But during the week, the Hammocks staff mentioned that a cancellation had opened up a room for five nights (Sunday through Thursday) the following week, and we could get the room at our club bonus rate of $59/night, so ... we snagged it. The only question was ... where to stay on Saturday night. Since we wanted to do the glass-bottom boat excursion in Key Largo anyway, we found a room at the Hilton Key Largo, and that solved our problem. We packed and unpacked a couple times in the process, but the trade-off was almost another full week in paradise. The only setback was that Saturday afternoon wind gusts at Key Largo forced the cancellation of the glass-bottom boat excursion, so we did without.

The Keys are a narrow strip of islands that begin near Miami at the southern tip of mainland Florida and extend southwest to Key West, the last inhabited island in the chain.

Posts about the trip subsequent to today's will come in various intervals (I'm still processing photos), but I thought I'd mention my photo gear strategy in this initial post.

We flew on Southwest, which allows two checked bags and two carry-ons per person. Into one of the carry-ons we packed my camera bag containing my Canon 6D, three lenses -- the EF 24-70mm f/28L, the EF 50mm ("Nifty Fifty") and a Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di PZD VC). The camera bag also contained my Canon 580 EX II flash and Omni-Bounce flash diffuser.

As it turned out, I would use only the Tamron for every one of my shoots during the trip, and I never turned to the flash. The Tamron lens' versatility, vibration compensation and light weight made it invaluable on those long days at Key West and, during the second week, Bahia Honda State Park. As I processed my photos, I was reminded of a couple of the trade-offs for going with the Tamron -- mostly vignetting on shots at high focal ranges as well as slightly bent horizons on images taken using the wide (short) focal ranges. Fortunately, in most instances, I could crop around the vignetting or fix it and/or correct the horizon line issues in Photoshop Elements in the "Correct Camera Distortion" option under the "Filter" tab. In fact, I applied a slight vignetting correction on the left side of the image leading off the post.

I also brought along a laptop and portable hard drive, both of which I used to back up all of my photos after I filled up a card. I went through four and a quarter 32GB SD cards during the trip. I didn't completely fill up any of the first four cards, but I've used 32GB cards for many sports and theater shoots, and I've developed a good sense about when I'm getting to the edge.

One of the fascinating spectacles we came across during the trip was the Seven-Mile Bridge, once referred to as the 8th Wonder of the World. The bridge carries traffic across a long distance (which actually seemed more like 6 miles to me) over nothing but reef from Marathon to Little Duck Key. Through some of the trip, as illustrated in the photo above, you can see (to the left in the distance) the abandoned infrastructure of the former Overseas Railway, which from the early 1900s to 1935 was the first method used to transport visitors through the length of the Keys.

The railroad was shut down after sustaining serious damage in Labor Day 1935 hurricane, and much of the railroad thoroughfare was used to craft the new highway for automobiles. New sections were added and/or existing sections were widened as needed in the 1970s and '80s, and eventually the unusable portions of the original infrastructure were permanently closed to vehicle traffic (though it's still used by pedestrians, bicyclists, joggers and fisherman). That included an extension that ran to 50-acre Pigeon Key just south of Marathon. Now, motor vehicles have no access to Pigeon Key. I'll have more photos of railroad infrastructure in a future post.

Below are a few more photos of the highway. The first, I shot from a very elevated position in Bahia Honda State Park, named for the Key on which it is located, putting that section of highway at its southern end. The middle photo was taken from the docks adjacent to Lazy Days South restaurant at the southern tip of Marathon Key. It gives you an idea of the iconic arched span that appears at the northern point of the Seven-Mile Bridge. The third photo, a high-dynamic range (HDR) composition taken near sunset, has the arched span in the background and was taken from the edge of the Sunset Grill and Raw Bar on Vaca Key, a short jog south of Marathon key and Lazy Days. The Sunset eatery was right at the start point of the bridge.

Next up: Sombrero Beach

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