Deep in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico lies a hidden, magical island, seventy miles off the coast of Key West. Each day a “ferry Godmother,” or rather a ferry boat, transports almost 200 guests to Dry Tortugas National Park.
Island-goers spend the day navigating the labyrinth of hallways within the walls of Fort Jefferson- an impressive brick and masonry structure complete with turrets and a surrounding moat patrolled by a crocodile named Carlos; or exploring the aquamarine waters and coral reefs of the surrounding sea kingdom in search of exotic marine life. But just like all fairy tales, there is a small catch. At 3:00 PM the boat whistle blasts and guests scurry aboard the Yankee Freedom III before the magic of the island turns their carriage back into a pumpkin. What they don’t know is that as the boat disappears over the horizon is when the real magic of the island takes hold.
We opted extend our visit to the Garden Key for the maximum time allowed (four nights) of what can only be described as five-star backcountry “glamping.” Where else can you disappear 70 miles into the wilderness and have a 110’ foot catamaran deliver everything you need almost right to your tent door? Talk about a ferry-godmother! We brought along kayaks, fishing rods, a cooler full of fresh veggies, and a spacious car camping setup complete with our big Thermarest pads and pillows.
We waved goodbye to the day-trippers aboard the ferry, and as we turned from the calm turquoise waters we noticed the three resident park employees retreating to their quarters for the night. It was then that we realized, that aside from one other party, we had the entire 14-acre island to ourselves.
Our first mission was exploratory in nature. We set out in our kayaks intent on getting a feel of the harbor and (hopefully) catching dinner. Almost immediately, a full scale battle ensued between us and a resident 600 lb. goliath grouper who diligently patrolled his territory under the ferry dock, plucking fish after scrumptious fish from our lines. For a while, it appeared as if we would have to return to camp, hungry and defeated, but after hours of refining our technique, we eventually emerged victorious with just enough snapper for a royal feast.
The next four days flew by in a flash. We spent lazy mornings walking along the beach searching for treasures (and trying to avoid an unexpected encounter with Carlos!). When the ferry returned at 11:00 AM and the island became crowded, we escaped the masses by snorkeling along the moat wall or exploring the coral reef out a little further. In the evenings, we had the entire Fort to ourselves and we were able to take our time and explore every nook and cranny of the hexagonal fortress. The medieval feel of the structure coupled with the cannons strewn about gave us the impression that we were knights on quest exploring a far off and strange kingdom. Each day as the sun waned, we selected a new vantage point either on the moat wall or high above from the Fort and would watch as one spectacular sunset after another was consumed by an endless sea of stars.
Long before we were ready, it was our turn to board the Yankee Freedom III and turn our sights back to the reality of normal life. We pulled away from the Garden Key, and watched our enchanted island slowly fade on the horizon until eventually it simply disappeared leaving us wondering if the entire experience was nothing but a wonderful, magical dream.