If you’ve talked to us recently and we’ve been like “tortugastortugastortugas,” it’s because visiting Dry Tortugas National Park is a big accomplishment. It’s one of the most inaccessible parks, requiring a 2.5hr ferry or (shorter) seaplane ride to get there. Now that we’ve gone halfway to Cuba and back, we feel like a REAL national park family. We’re doing this challenge! Even if it takes 15 years and most of our life savings.
The Yankee Freedom ferry has a monopoly on water access to the Tortugas, allowing them to impose exorbitant ticket prices and a terrible cancellation policy on their passengers. For what we were paying I expected them to wait on us hand and foot, with 5-star meals and personal DVD players. This was not the case. However, the crew was friendly and since we made it 70 miles west of Key West and back without incident, I can’t complain!
The ferry system is set up as a day trip. You check-in at 7am, leave by 8am (they provide bagels & yogurt), spend a few hours on the island (they provide a sandwich lunch), and get back a little after 5pm. When we purchased our tickets, we realized we would need to stay overnight in Key West, in order to be at the ferry dock bright and early. I found a very tiny Kimpton cottage we could stay at, so we drove out from Pompano the day before our Tortugas trip. The cottage was, admittedly, not the most family-friendly place, due to the threatening circular staircase and location amidst rainbow-flavored nightclubs.
We woke up to a normal Key West morning, chasing roosters around and drinking Cuban coffee. When we boarded the ferry, they told us the sea was pretty calm. “Only 3-foot waves.” We promptly gave the kids half a Dramamine so our trip wouldn’t be ruined by anyone throwing up for a few hours.
Three hours later, we arrived! It was like stepping into a postcard! I was excited about stretching my legs and finally getting a breath of fresh air. The ferry crew was scrupulous about mask wearing at all times on board, and after sipping my coffee for an hour, I finally had to put mine on. Personally I find it hard to converse with a crowd of children while swathed in a mask. I think if my kids don’t see my mouth moving, they feel free to disregard whatever I’m saying.
Our island time was spent listening to a short history of Fort Jefferson, picnicking on the beach, swimming, snorkeling (Greg & the big girls), napping (Rachel & Eva), and exploring. It was very beautiful, and also very challenging. I suppose the best trips are normally both. For instance, we had just made our way across the island, down the white sand beach, and settled into the perfect spot for lunch, when a certain young man needed to use the bathroom Right Now. And midway through our time, my energetic toddler melted down into a tired mess and ended up snuggling with a towel “blanket” for a quick rest. Basically, spending a few hours in the tropics with no bathrooms and no shade is going to take some good planning.
Even with the challenges, this was an amazing time! One of the last things we did before leaving the island was to stroll around the famous moat wall. Then we climbed up three stories to the top of the fort. Then we took a photo by the national park sign. And then we slowly got back on the ferry and started our trip home, exhausted but full of good memories!