Floridians can enjoy ‘staycation’ by bay

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Sometimes I feel like we forget that we go to school in South Florida.

We get so caught up with Richter and Greek life and the Grove, facets of our college experience virtually indistinguishable from any other school, to realize that we walk to class on pathways shaded by palm trees. We get annoyed at the sounds of macaws squawking overhead interrupting our cell phone conversations, and have dorm lock-in parties for hurricanes.

Charting the endless horizon with depth markers off the rear of the boat en route to the reef (Photos by Cameron Harati).

Every city from Cleveland to Buffalo has colleges, college bars, fraternities and stressed out students popping Adderall as they toil away in cubicles at their campus libraries. But what they don’t have is the third-longest coral reef in the world in their backyard, pristine white sand beaches just steps from campus and some of the most awe-inspiring national beauty in the world just minutes away.

Why do we feel the urge to jet to tropical destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean for our Spring Break getaways when we live in a Spring Break destination already?

Every other college kid in the country comes to us and we scamper away to destinations virtually indistinguishable from our daily life. Beaches, open bars, slushy cocktails and scantily clad co-eds are the same everywhere, people. It’s time to bring things back into focus. And the next time you’re looking for a quick getaway from campus life, why not consider a staycation? Your bank account will thank you.

South Florida is one of the most spectacular places to be in love; the everlasting sun and sand puts us smack dab in a real life postcard year-round. Yet so many couples at UM feel the pressure to spend exorbitant amounts of money on elaborate vacations. In my opinion, this economy leaves no room for frivolity. And when you live in Miami, you don’t need to look any further than your own backyard to enjoy the lushness and amenities of an expensive tropical getaway. Hence, I decided to round up my man-treat and set off on a little staycation of our own.

At right, Boca Chita Lighthouse is located at Boca Chita Key, the park’s most popular island. Next, a sunset view of Biscayne Bay. Last, Boca Chita Key is home to a campground and half-mile hiking trail.

The winds blew us to Biscayne National Park here and it felt like the planets were aligned in our favor that day.

What little research time I logged prior to our journey informed me that Biscayne National Park protects the Florida Keys and their dazzling coral reefs, Biscayne Bay itself, and the mangrove forest. Considering the vast majority of the park is not located on dry land, we donned swimsuits and open minds.

Third Eye Blind danced from my little RAV4’s speakers and we careened down one-lane roads, soaring towards the coast and the increasingly enormous sky. Still within sight of downtown Miami’s gaudy monstrosities, but a verifiable world away, we finally reached our destination.

Upon arrival, Biscayne National Park seemed like little more than a science fair project on steroids. The visitor center was cramped with dusty shells and skulls and creepy things for antsy toddlers to get their paws on, and dioramas of marine life that have undoubtedly seen better days.

Yet we were greeted by a warm middle-aged woman who was more than eager to steer us on our path to marine adventure. We had arrived at Biscayne National Park with not a clue of what our day would entail, in the classic fashion of our relationship.

When we traveled abroad together last summer we careened our way through nine Mediterranean countries with little less than some exchanged currency and shoddy guide maps to steer our journeys. But the most spontaneous of adventures are always the most fulfilling. And I was feeling a positive energy amongst the preserved lobsters and diagrams of sea cucumbers.

Our friendly desk attendant informed us it just so happened that a four-hour snorkeling trip was set to leave in a half hour. “Some out-of-towners liked it so much last week they came back to do the same trip the next day!” Were we game?

We were game. 30 minutes, four flippers, two scuba masks, two life vests and one underwater camera later, we were setting sail on a glorified pontoon boat captained by an eccentric bald guy who offered endless one-liners, headed out to the open sea to explore the mysterious caverns lying below the shimmering surface. Or maybe some coral lying a few feet below the surface.

But that’s beside the point. Once we dove in, cleared all of the salt water out of our snorkel gear and peered down, it was as if we had entered another world.

Park Ranger Gary Bremen informed me that not only is the Florida reef tract the world’s third longest, but also that my beau and I would not be the only lovers present below the shimmering surface of Biscayne Bay.

“The park protects over 500 kinds of fish, many of whom live out on the reef,” he explained. “Fascinating ‘love’ stories abound on the reef, from the bizarre mating habits of octopus to the extra, extra large reproductive organ of the male conch, to the orgy that is coral spawning in late August.”

Good to know our gill-breathing brethren can get it on too.

The hours passed like seconds as we glided through the water hand in hand, gurgling at one another under the surface when we saw an interesting fish or organism, making googly eyes through our masks. The vibrant purples, electric yellows, and silky ambers of the corals created an underwater aesthetic symphony being performed before our snorkel masks. Had I taken acid before this and started watching “Finding Nemo?” After so many duds of snorkeling trips everywhere from Hawaii to Croatia, my expectations for my webbed-finned adventures have become quite low.

But something about this day was just perfect.

Salty and shivery, we snuggled on the boat in a big towel for the hour or so ride back to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. We then headed back to the Gables, grabbed some Mexican food and Coronas and basked in the first breaths of summer wafting over Biscayne Bay.

We rehashed the day over much-needed burritos and guacamole after hours roasting in the scorching South Florida heat. Neither of us could believe the things we’d seen. The intricacies of the brain corals, the schools of fish tumbling through the water in perfect symmetry; the peacefulness of the underwater world we’d sunk our teeth into had left us both at a loss for words.

Yet somehow, our relationship felt stronger. There’s something about sharing new experiences with someone you truly care for; it strengthens the bonds of the relationship to learn that the most obscure of activities can feel as natural and dinner and a movie.

It was a couples’ staycation at its finest: quick, close, adventurous and romantic. The perfect cure for the April slump, finals anxiety, or just an itch for some new scenery, Biscayne National Park is an underwater fantasyland fit for Neptune himself.

I can guarantee you that whether you are accompanied by your current squeeze, or a potential candidate, the ethereal feeling of exploring the ocean’s hidden treasures will set the mood for an intimate evening with the important man or woman in your life, or maybe just that drunk chick from Tavern.


If You Go

  • Snorkeling trips typically leave at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
  • Call ahead for daily schedules and arrive early to secure a spot.
  • Rate for day trip (including transportation to and from the reef) is $45/person.

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