Do you know what’s the difference between a gorge and a canyon? A canyon is wider than it’s deep, like the Grand Canyon, which is almost two kilometers deep but still at least six kilometers wide. Compare this to Royal Gorge in Colorado, which despite it’s nickname Grand Canyon of the Arkansas is actually a gorge: up to 400 meters deep and only 15 meters across! One thing’s sure, though. No matter the name, Royal Gorge is breathtaking.
What makes this gorge close to Cañon City really special are the railway tracks that run through it. Nowadays scenic passenger trains run through it, but more than a century ago when it was being built, it wasn’t tourists that the railroad companies were after but something more precious: silver. The Rocky Mountains were gripped by a silver rush, and Royal Gorge was one of the few viable routes for train tracks, which meant that not only were tracks built in the gorge, but two railroad companies were fighting over them – literally. In June 1879, the men from Denver & Rio Grande railroad company attacked the men of Santa Fe railroad company with rifles, and Santa Fe’s men responded with the help of a cannon “borrowed” from the army. It’s not sure whether anybody died, but this forced the federal courts to step in, and the tracks were finally completed the next year.
Besides silver, the trains also carried passengers of the past century through the gorge, but midway through the century, travel habits started changing thanks to air traffic. When finally in 1967 US Post Office withdrew its contract to transport mail via the Royal Gorge Route, passenger traffic finally came to an end. Not that this kept tourists out of the gorge, because 1929 had seen another wonder built in its vicinity…
Royal Gorge Bridge was not just any bridge but the highest bridge in the world! It kept its record from 1929 all the way to 2001, when it was surpassed by a Chinese bridge, but that didn’t diminish its grandeur – nor its pointlessness. The thing with this bridge is that it doesn’t lead anywhere, never has, and it was only built to lure in tourists, with which it was doing a very good job. Even now, it’s one of Colorado’s most popular attractions, and it’s surrounded by a theme park bearing its name.
Beginning of September was pleasantly warm, but we still kept mostly indoors through our train ride. That was because we’d gotten seats in the Vista Dome cars, which had fantastic views of the gorge thanks to its rounded windows – a big step up from how it was in 1999 when passenger service was first restarted.
First passengers on the newly opened Royal Gorge Route were transported with old vintage cars, just a couple of them per ride, and service was limited to what drinks were found in the conductor’s cooler. As the route got more popular, more cars were added (most of them still with a vintage vibe), and the owners focused their investment efforts on dining on the train.
We took the 3.30pm train – late lunch, early dinner – so Iiro ordered The Big Boy sandwich, and I got a bison burger. Besides a train enthusiast, the owner of the Route is also a big foodie, and the menu had a local emphasis. The bison in my burger had roamed the prairie near Henderson, Colorado – just a couple hours North, near Denver – and Iiro’s Black Angus had grown up in North-East Colorado’s Sterling. The vegetables, too, were mostly local, and overall the lunch was the best food I’ve ever had on a train!
Royal Gorge Route takes around two hours and it’s a there-and-back through the gorge. If you don’t want to spend the whole time inside, you certainly don’t have to. We got out in the beginning to breath some fresh air at the open air carriages. And here’s a sign of excellent service: when our lunch was ready, the waiter found us and informed about it.
We were told to keep our eyes peeled for wildlife during the trip: big horn sheep, black bears, even mountain lions… but this time, we didn’t see any. Instead, we spent the time following efforts of white water rafters coming down the river. All of them seemed to make it though the rapids alright, and we also saw a group that was camping for the night…
This was definitely the most relaxing part of our long weekend, and I can fully recommend it to just about anybody! Just book early, if you’re going between Memorial and Labor Day, because the trains can be sold out during high season.
Good guys and bad guys chasing each other around on speed boats in Miami is such a classic scene in any movie set in Florida: if an action flick doesn’t have a scene like this, something’s missing! With this in mind, we headed on a speed boat tour of our own when visiting Miami last June.
The tour’s base was at Bayside Marketplace, where we grabbed a late breakfast before heading out to sea. It took a while to pass the port of Miami and to reach Miami Beach with the boat, but that was also part of the experience. Miami has such a fragmented seaside with dozens of artificial islands, thanks to building of the port, and we took a closer look at a couple of them before heading out to the sea…
Checking out celebrity mansions on Star and Hibiscus Islands is one of the reasons to come on this tour, because you can only admire them from sea; from land, they are blocked by gates and high walls. Our guide seemed to know everything that was going on in the lives of these celebrities and especially their real estate plans, and although I don’t follow celebrities at all, these were big enough household names that i knew exactly who we were talking about. After all, you need to be super famous to splurge $50 million on a villa…
After our little architecture and celebrity gossip tour, we headed out to the ocean for some high speed fun. I’d been a little afraid of this part beforehand, because riding a motor boat into big waves isn’t always a fun experience, but now it was – almost like a roller coaster! You can’t NOT get a little wet on this tour, but the closer you sit to the front, the less you’ll get splashed.
I can warmly recommend this tour for anybody who’s heading to Miami and interested in boats and celebrities, or just one of the two. If you want to get a grasp of the speeds on this tour as well as hear what Al Capone and Lenny Kravitz have i common, check out this video:
Dip, skip and a splash into the Caribbian sea. The water’s not cool at all but pleasantly warm, and high salt levels buoy me up in the turquoise calms. A peak under the surface reveals a school of fish swimming away just a couple meters from me, weaving their way through a coral reef. I could spend an eternity breathing through the tube and slowly floating on top of the reef. This is paradise.
Just an hour earlier we were seriously late. Searching for a parking spot in Downtown Key West is easier said than done, and it would have been best to arrive on foot, but we didn’t have a moment to lose. So we ditched the car into the ridiculously overprized parking hall at Hyatt and ran to check in at Fury Water Adventures office. Finally we were last ones boarding the catamaran, but at least we made it. Now it as time to relax!
It took around 45 minutes for the catamaran to reach the reefs, and we spent that time adding on sunblock and enjoying cold Coke on the deck of the catamaran. All drinks were included in the price of the trip, but alcoholic beverages were only available after snorkeling = a sane policy if any. The theme of the cruise was Rum & Reggae, and while the rum had to wait, reggae blasted away from the beginning.
At this point, I also finally had time to open my new SD card from its package. I’d bought it the same morning from a shopping center in Miami, and the salesperson had recommended a 64GB card, so I was sure to have enough space for videos. The price was right, so why not? Well, I got an answer to that as soon as I popped the card into my GoPro, which immediately told me it was too large to use. No underwater photos or videos from this trip… and the lesson learned is that always test these before you’re on a catamaran somewhere in the middle of the sea!
Below the surface, the sea was teeming with life. We saw all kinds of scurrying fish in all colors of the rainbow, which we later identified with a little help from Wikipedia as banded butterflyfish, grunts and porkfish, among others. The reef itself didn’t impress us, but the life that surrounded it did. Elina has also snorkeled in Thailand and Colombia, and she thought this was her best snorkeling experience as of yet. Here’s a taste of what it looked like underwater:
in the end, the most memorable lifeform I saw was a small round jellyfish – or what I thought was a jellyfish until I googled about it and found out about comb jellies. They look like jellyfish but aren’t really, and they don’t have a sting.
We wouldn’t be ourselves if everything had gone exactly as it should. When Iiro jumped into the water, the plunge made him drop his snorkel. I reacted quickly and dove to get it, but ended up kicking so hard that one of my fins came off. Luckily Fury had a couple of guys in the water with us, and one of them dove down to retrieve our missing equipment. I guess he was a pro when it came to diving for tourists’ dropped stuff, because I think he stayed down there for almost a minute. After this incident, I soon figured out that almost an hour in the water was enough for me and climbed back abroad the catamaran for that promised rum punch.
The return trip to Key West took a bit more than an hour, because we lingered long enough to marvel the amazing sunset – us and the whole Key West fleet, all with the same agenda. When finally the sun had set behind the horizon, the captain steered to shore and we got to continue our evening with a dinner in a nearby restaurant. Key West is known for its sunset carnivals, but I think this sunset cruise probably could top any carnival.
Overall the trip was a great experience I can warmly recommend to anyone who enjoys a bit of a swim. For a bit of live action from the deck, check out this video I shot:
I’ve heard of travelers who only make a day trip to Key West from their Miami vacation, and I’m here to prove them wrong: Key West absolutely needs 24 hours, and I would have rather stayed longer! We rented a car from Miami with Iiro and Elina and drove across the breathtaking Florida Keys bridges to enjoy this cute little town on a paradise island.
11 a.m. Drive to Key West – reserve time for this!
I’d recommend setting out to Key West early in the morning, but because of flight schedules, this wasn’t an option for us. Good thing was we missed Miami’s morning traffic; bad thing was Miami has traffic no matter time of the day, so it felt like an eternity before we got to the first of the Keys, Key Largo. It’s not worth taking a “short drive” to the Keys to check out the views, because the best views are towards the end of the trip several hours away.
We got hungry on the way and stopped by Lu Lu’s Garden Grill (7435 Overseas Hwy) on Marathon Key for a quick lunch. The seafood sandwiches were excellent, and we enjoyed them on a shady garden patio. It took still more than an hour to get to Key West from here, and including the short lunch break, we were on the road for over 5 hours, which is the biggest reason why I don’t recommend Key West as a day trip.
5 p.m. Snorkeling at Key West’s gorgeous coral reef
If there’s one thing I’d recommend for anyone visiting Key West, it’s this: go snorkeling! Key West is close to Florida Reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, and it’s amazing. We saw porkfish, blue striped grunts, banded butterflyfish, groupers – even a medusa! Elina, who’s snorkeled also in Thailand and Colombia, said that this was her best snorkeling experience ever, and as a first-timer to coral reefs, I was completely sold.
The catamaran took around 45min to get to the reef, after which we had a bit more than an hour in the water. The ocean was pleasantly warm, but sun was shining low enough that we weren’t afraid of sunburns.
8 p.m. Key West Sunset
Our snorkeling trip was a combined sunset sail, and on the way back we were relaxing on the deck of the catamaran, sipping on rum drinks and marveling the sunset. Key West, as its name signifies, faces west, so the sun will set into the sea with no obstacles on its way no matter where you stop to observe it. Sunset times of course vary according to seasons, and you can check out the exact time here.
If we hadn’t been on the sunset cruise, we’d have probably been at Sunset Celebration, as recommended to us by our water at Marathon. This is a nightly art fest at Mallory Square Dock that starts up a couple hours before sunset.
9 p.m. Key West Dinner
At Key West, you won’t have to worry about restaurants closing their doors too early. After sunset, we headed to Hog’s Breath Saloon (400 Front St)… not because of a recommendation, but because Iiro had spotted a tourist wearing their T-shirt at Amsterdam Airport, and the name and especially slogan – Hog’s Breath is better than no breath at all! – sounded so hilarious we wouldn’t miss it. Luckily for us, it wasn’t just the slogan that was good. Shrimp skewers and BBQed pork were our favorites, and the beer and drinks were good too!
After dinner, we headed out to Duval Street, Key West’s nightlife hub, with bars on every corner. The most famous of them is Sloppy Joe’s (201 Duval St), Ernest Hemingway’s favorite, but instead, we sat down at a window table at Bull’s Whistle Bar (224 Duval St) for some people watching. It wasn’t quite New Orleans, but not far from it.
9 a.m. Morning at a Key West hotel: NYAH
We’d picked NYAH – Not Your Average Hotel for our accommodation, and the choice couldn’t have been more spot on! I wouldn’t recommend this place for older couples or families with children – you have to be at least 18 to stay here – but for a young-in-spirit group of friends, this was the perfect fit: we all fit into the same room, the rooms were spotlessly clean with an en-suite bathroom, beds were comfy and each one of them had their usb charging stations to fuel up our electronics during the night, towels were given freely for use both on-site and off-site, and of course it’s a short walking distance from downtown but far enough from the noise for a good night’s sleep. A simple but good continental breakfast was part of the price, so we started our morning lounging on one of the many terraces, sipping our coffees.
The only drawback that came to my mind while I was sunbathing by the pool and reading a book was that we hadn’t had time to come earlier to enjoy the hotel already the previous day – because this place would have been really worth it. On top of everything else, the hotel has a daily happy hour at 4.20pm, which we had missed this time. I’m saying “this time”, because if I return to Key West with friends, returning to NYAH is a no-brainer.
12.00 Key West Downtown
We hanged out at the hotel as long as we could, but everything good must come to an end. By checkout time, we were walking back Downtown to check it out in daylight – that is, scorching sunlight!
We noticed soon that the touristy downtown was dividing opinions: I liked it and would have loved to tour the small shops and boutiques for a while longer, but Elina and Iiro thought it was too touristy. Key West’s famous villas were mostly East of Simonton Street in the neighborhood of our hotel, while Duval and Whitehead Streets were full of cafes and restaurants catering to an out-of-town audience, as well as kiosks selling this trip and that tour. We have Cold Beer was a sign we saw on almost every corner.
I had a couple complimentary tickets for the local museums, so we split up for a moment. Elina checked out the Key West Aquarium, which she wouldn’t recommend to anyone who cares about animals: in the aquarium, fish were picked out of the tanks and even petted, which is obviously no way to treat a fish. Iiro checked out the Shipwreck Treasures Museum, which seemed interesting and is recommended for anyone interested in the pirate history of Key West. Just make sure you have enough time, because it’s a guided tour with reenacting and Iiro had to quit the tour half way to make it to our preagreed meeting spot.
Me? I toured the city with my camera. Truman’s Little White House, president Truman’s winter home, sounded tempting, but instead I stayed out to photograph the streets, houses, boutiques and of course the Caribbean sea. After spending a couple years inland, you wouldn’t believe how much I miss the sea.
13.00 Trolley Tour
We wanted to see much of Key West in limited time, so we jumped on board the Old Town Trolley Tours, which goes all around the island. The relaxed tour guide narrated the sights we passed as well as told tales of Key West history. Ticket prices (around $30) felt a bit steep, but only because we were doing this on our last day: the tickets are valid for two days and it’s a hop-on hop-off tour, so this would have been perfect as the first thing to do in Key West, after which you can use it as a form of transportation.
14.00 Lunch at Two Friends Patio & Key Lime Pie!
We spent a moment looking for a lunch restaurant that wouldn’t be too touristy and finally found one at the end of Front Street: Two Friends Patio Restaurant served us decent-priced oysters, creamy lobster bisque and tasty fried seafood. While there, we asked the waiter about roosters and hens walking around Key West. They just are here. They can’t fly away anywhere, now can they? But does someone own them? No, they just are here until the next hurricane sweeps them away.
Our waiter promised us they served excellent key lime pie, and he surely didn’t lie. In fact, it was so excellent I completely forgot to take a photo. You don’t want to miss this while in Key West!
3 p.m. On the shores of Key West: Smathers Beach
Our time in Key West was coming to an end, because we wanted to make it to Miami before evening, but we still made one more detour… by the beach!
On our Trolley Tour, we’d spotted an opening to Smathers Beach in its Eastern end that didn’t prohibit vehicles, so we hit the beach with four wheels! Next time I need to plan on bringing a towel – and maybe also plan on spending another night in Key West. I have a feeling it would be worth it!