The following was produced in partnership with Go RVing, because there’s no easier way to turn your everyday family road trip into an epic experience than to get behind the wheel of an RV.
Once upon a time, the point of getting away with the wife and kids was to get away from it all, to leave real life behind and relax with the ones you love. That’s not what’s happening on a lot of family vacations.
More than half of workers in a recent survey said they pressured themselves to work during family vacation, and only 37 percent preferred to completely unplug from work while away. A whopping 88 percent of dads and 93 percent of moms say they’ve felt like they needed time to “recover” from a family vacation.
That, quite frankly, is nuts. A vacation isn’t a vacation if you spend it working, and a vacation isn’t a great one if you come home more exhausted than you were when you left. Luckily, there are ways to ensure a great vacation.
First, take your family on the open road — there’s nothing more freeing, relaxing, and inspiring. Then, make sure you do it in an RV. To travel in the place you sleep together will just bring you closer and up the sense of adventure. Finally, take your time. Stop to see the wildlife, grab a bite, smell the flowers.
That’s what professional photographer Jesse Burke learned when he took an awe-inspiring road trip along with his wife, Kerry, and their daughters Honey Bee, Poppy, and Clover through sunny southern Florida. They rented an RV — a Forest River Solera, to be precise — and drove from Miami to the Everglades to Key West and back. The Burkes found that taking a road trip made it easy to unplug and fully experience the nature and culture of South Florida without burning out. Take a look for yourself. We dare you not to be inspired.
After picking up their ride in Miami, the first stop for the Burkes was Monument Lake, a campground off the Tamiami Trail (a.k.a. U.S. Route 41) in Big Cypress National Preserve, north of Everglades National Park.
“The beauty of Monument Lake is that there are just parking spots on the edge of the lake, so you’re embedded into the wilderness,” Burke said. The closest hotels are 20 minutes in either direction, so staying at the campsite is the only way to properly experience the lake. What’s not part of that experience? Swimming in the lake, as it’s already been claimed by alligators, Florida’s unofficial mascots.
Shark Valley is a stunning natural destination in the middle of the Everglades. “It’s a really big bird paradise. There’s so much water there that you have all these water birds — egrets and storks and herons and anhingas and cormorants,” Burke said.
When you visit, the thing to do is to take a tram tour. “It was really amazing to get in the tram and whip through the Everglades up there. That was really exciting for the whole family,” Burke says.
Back Roads Drive to Key Largo
Leaving Monument Lake, Burke and his family turned the RV around and headed for the Keys. The most direct route is the highway, but in the spirit of adventure, Burke says, they chose to take back roads, so he and his family could take a “behind-the-scenes tour of southern Florida. We drove through these farming communities. It was just cool because there was no one else around.”
It was night by the time the Burkes pulled the RV into a campsite in Key Largo called Kings Kamp. Key Largo is the first key you pass through on U.S. 1, the road that takes you all the way to Key West (or Maine, in the other direction).
The Keys are narrow, so everything is clustered together next to the road, including Kings Kamp and a bunch of restaurants and stores. “It was really convenient, easy to park at Kings Kamp and hike over to the sushi joint next door with the kids,” Burke remembers.
And now that they were in the Keys, he and his family noticed a certain kind of friendliness.
“As soon as you get to the Keys, everybody’s really chill and they’re on this…Florida keys time,” a local way of life that’s very laid-back and trusting. “That’s the vibe of the whole place, so when you get there, it’s really easy to navigate things and walk around,” Burke said.
After a chill day at Kings Kamp, they pulled out and headed farther down U.S. 1. The Burkes stopped in Islamorada, a village of six keys just past Key Largo, and visited Robbie’s, a restaurant on the dock of the marina. Robbie’s serves delicious food for people, but what sets it apart are the snacks they provide for tarpon.
“You can pay the guy at the restaurant and he gives you a little bucket of fish you can go feed the tarpon, these big, giant fish, right off the docks,” Burke remembered. “They’re, like, 4 feet long — they’re huge.”
Of course, the tarpon weren’t the only interested parties. The kids were mesmerized by the experience, but they had to be on guard for pelicans: the notoriously aggressive birds tried to steal fish right out of their hands. Thankfully, though, their visit ended on a much more chill note.
“We were there and the sun was setting and it was magical, and then all the sharks came in and there were fisherman coming in and cutting up their tuna and preparing their catch for the day, and they would just throw scraps into the water and before you knew it there was a feeding frenzy with sharks and tarpons and pelicans, and it was total chaos but amazing.”
The next stop was Ohio Key, a tiny island that’s bisected by U.S. 1. On the southern side of the highway is a wildlife refuge. The Sunshine Key RV Park and Marina takes up pretty much the entirety of the northern side.
After stays at a few fairly rustic spots, Burke was impressed by Sunshine Key: “This place was totally pimped out. It had a tennis court, basketball court, in-ground swimming pool. It was on the water; it also had its own marina.”
They scored a site right next to that marina, and so for the second time on their trip they got to experience waterfront living in their RV. Burke called it “the most magical thing ever. Manatees were swimming at the foot of the RV. It was bananas.”
“You could look out of the back of the RV and watch the boats drive by and the guys bring their fishing stuff in. The manatees were chillin’ right outside the dock, literally 15 feet from the RV.” A tip from a passing fisherman led to one of the most fun activities of the entire trip: “feeding” freshwater to the congregated manatees, a safe, harmless way to interact with the gentle giants beloved by Floridians.
The Burkes rounded out their visit to Sunshine Key with swimming in the ocean, collecting seashells, and spending quality time on the beach.
Big Pine Key
As its name suggests, Big Pine Key is one of the larger islands on the journey to Key West. It’s home to the National Key Deer Refuge, a protected area named for the mini-deer who inhabit it and have no compunction about venturing into the human world. It’s hard to go anywhere on the island without running into them.
“We would hike on the little trail and the deer were right in the woods next to you. If you squat down and sit still they would walk up to you. And they won’t touch you,” Burke said. He continued: “Since we didn’t have any food to give them, on purpose, they would just sniff you and walk away.”
“It’s really quite otherworldly, honestly. Kinda weird and so magical.”
The Burkes took advantage of the clearly marked trails, and in addition to the deer they saw plenty of iguanas, alligators (of course), and “millions and millions of birds, the most magical and incredible birds you can imagine.”
The family finally reached Key West, the literal end of the road, and hitched up at Boyd’s, one of the biggest campgrounds on the island, which was otherwise completely booked. Almost 30,000 people live in Key West, the southernmost city in the country, and during the season it has a vibrant tourism trade. It’s crowded, and there’s a ton to explore.
During their first day there, the Burkes walked around and hit up a lot of the standard attractions — a waterfront restaurant called Conch Republic, the Ernest Hemmingway House, the Key West Wildlife Center — and more off-the-beaten path spots, like a bunch of tiny, local-recommended seafood places around the city and a seawall that fisherman stand on to throw their nails.
A highlight of the trip, particularly for the kids, was the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy, a glass-enclosed wild habitat that you can walk through and be surrounded by more than 50 butterfly species.
The trip ended with a half-day at a Key West beach and a drive back to Miami, which took about 3½ hours. For the parents, that meant cracking the windows, cranking the music, and enjoying the view. For the kids, it meant cards, games, reading, snacking, and coloring at the table in the RV — a much less restrictive situation than the back seat of the family minivan.
The way he describes it, Burke’s family trip through southern Florida was, to borrow a cliché, as much about the journey as it was the destination.
“We were stopping constantly, like a scenario when you can’t get it together on a road trip,” he says — and not in a bad way.
On more than one occasion, he and his family stopped at an out of the way place they hadn’t planned on exploring simply because they weren’t quite ready to reach their final destination. These random mini-adventures added a lot to the trip, which was blissfully free of work (save Jesse’s photography) and relaxing. That sounds pretty good to us.