Camping Near Lake George in Astor, Florida

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It has taken a little longer to get around to writing this than we would have liked, but we enjoyed the Lake George, Florida area enough that we wanted to share what we found.
We searched for a campsite by checking out the 39,000 acre Lake George Wildlife Management Area (WMA) campgrounds on the Florida Wildlife Commission website, but unfortunately the WMA provides only primitive tent camping, with no pop-ups or campers of any kind allowed. Finding this to be the case, we searched for campgrounds near or along the eastern side of Lake George. There were several to choose from of various price ranges. I believe two to three of them are owned by the same family. Ultimately, we chose to stay at the St. John’s River Campground, in Astor, Florida.

Camping

The campgrounds were nearly full in the area at the time of our search in the fall of 2019. The St. John’s River Campground only had two open spots available: both very close to the State Road the campground sits beside. The owners live on the property, and they are amazingly hospitable and kind. There were quite a few long-term campers residing in the campground. There is plenty of shade to be found under mature oaks and the campers themselves were quiet.

I drove down on a Thursday night and Michelle joined me midday Friday. I had a difficult time sleeping that first night because of the frequent traffic traveling State Road 44. The vehicles coming toward the east over the Astor, Florida Intracoastal Waterway bridge throw their sound directly into the front of the campground as they round a curve. Our pop-up was the first camper in the front, and with so little material to block the sound I slept very little that night. The next night I placed my truck between the road and our camper. This and just becoming a little less sensitive to the sound allowed us to sleep fine for the rest of our stay. Those of you with larger campers may not find this to be an issue at all.

The restroom facilities were great. One set of showers is dated but functional and wheelchair accessible. There are also a set newly built showers with hand-sinks and toilets that are hard to beat for a small campground.

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The facilities.

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I’m 6’4″ so this was a tight fit, but I was still really happy to have it!

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Lake George, Florida WMA

We enjoyed exploring the dirt roads in our Tacoma and got off the beaten path on foot as well. Much of the area is comprised of mixed hardwood swamp and pine flat-woods. The borders between the two types of habitat were nice.

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A couple of the fire breaks that we walked snake past beautiful open grassy areas that border mature pine flats. Some of the lanes between the mature pines are open, with only a little undergrowth and loads of deer sign. We found one lane that had a deer rub or scrape about every 10 yards, and we saw deer on multiple occasions while in the area. Although I’ve never known any hunters who seemed overly excited about the Lake George WMA hunting opportunities, it has something to offer.

Lake George

We didn’t spend any time on the lake, which is world famous for the fishing opportunities it offers, and is also somewhat famous for a picture that has been widely shared on-line of a large alligator swimming across the lake with a deer in its mouth. Avoiding that fate is always on my top ten list of things to do in Southern waters. We considered taking the kayak down with us, but Michelle is a small person, and I think it is just too easy for her to imagine herself taking that deer’s place on a lake that size.

Oh well, we found plenty to do anyway and if you really want to fish you could wet a line at the local marina docks, as one of our camping neighbors did every day. He did well if his fishing stories are a reliable measure. He’s one of the seasonal regulars, so who knows, you may meet him and hear a story too.

Local Food

As usual we scored in the food arena. There are at least three places within a mile of the campground. Two serve lunch and dinner: the Blackwater Inn Restaurant and Lounge and William’s Landing are both in the same building on the western bank of the Intracoastal Waterway just south of Lake George. We tried William’s Landing but not the Blackwater. The Rose Garden Family Restaurant is just east of the St. John’s River Campground on State Road 44 and looks to be the place to be for breakfast, but we found that they also serve a great lunch.

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The Rose Garden is only open from 7 am to 3 pm so plan wisely if you want to give them a try. I certainly recommend that you do. During our stay we ate at the Rose Garden for breakfast and lunch twice, and all were good. I’d say the gyro was my favorite lunch item.

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Michelle tried a fried chicken sandwich and said it was good but she could have gone another direction and maybe been more satisfied. On a positive note, everything comes with a little soup.

Williams Landing served an older crowd that evening: most of whom I thought were locals.

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The food at William’s Landing was good in general but the fried mushrooms were some of the best I have ever been served. Even Michelle liked them and they are generally not her thing. The seasoning was great. I also had a freshly Panko breaded fish sandwich and fries. Both came out perfectly cooked.

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We saw one thing at Williams Landing that I didn’t know was still in use: a cigarette machine. I saw these everywhere growing up, and prior to this trip I can’t tell you the last time I had seen one. It had been a many years. Also pretty sure they didn’t sell for $8.00 per pack then either. Really glad I don’t smoke!

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Mushroom Hunting

There were mushrooms everywhere! Unfortunately, this was a state forest so we couldn’t take any of the perfectly edible mushrooms we saw. Suillus Dicipiens were everywhere in the pine woods and most were in pristine condition.

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Suillus dicipiens

Had this been a place that allowed it, one could have engaged in an epic foraging session. We captured some fantastic pictures of mushrooms in their prime as others simply withered away. We also saw an amazing flush of Russula hixonii, described by Arlene Bessette as a “rare and beautiful” mushroom.

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The oak leaves are a couple of inches long to give you an idea how large the caps can be.
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Notice the “Pepto” pink in the front, the white flesh and the browning gills in that middle mushroom? That’s a tell. Looks like something has been eating them.

Bessette also mentions in a paper she co-authored that the mushrooms were or are being considered as a possible “Red-line” species because of the fact that their distribution is thought to be quite limited. With the rise in the numbers of people joining mushroom groups and sharing pictures of these russula on social media, I personally have begun to question how rare they really are, but I am primarily exposed to mushroom hunters in the state of Florida. I have seen Russula hixonii posted and identified by experts numerous times in those groups. I have personally found them in northeast, central east, and central Florida in a few locations. They are large and beautiful. Their “Pepto” pink is distinctive and their browning gills can be another sure sign when you think you see the right color on the cap. They dry to be much smaller than their original size when fresh. Mrs. Bessette mentions that they may smell like cake when drying, but I can’t say that I have found this to be the case in the couple of samples I have dried over the years.

There were some great looking Pulcroboletus floridanus around too. These are another edible mushroom if you happen to find yourself in a place where you are allowed to harvest them and know how to identify them. All that heavy reticulation on the top of the stem is something to look for on these mushrooms. The caps have a bit of a tart taste. Not my favorite, but when I am allowed to take them I will certainly grab a few.

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Pulcroboletus floridanus. I love that beautiful reticulation.

We looked around in the St. John’s River Campground and found a couple of boletes, and bunches of Armillaria tabascens, aka Ringless Honey Mushrooms. The Honeys were well past prime and too far gone to eat. Armillaria tabascens are also an aggressive tree pathogen, so you don’t want to take them home to your own yard, as there is a reasonable chance they will kill a number of your trees over time and they don’t seem to be all that picky about the types they infect.

All in all, this was another successful trip that we greatly enjoyed. We are not sure whether or not our paths will take us back to Lake George, Florida area again, but if it does we’ll be happy about it!

Pine Island Florida

IMG_20180518_113443346Great news! We made it to our first wedding anniversary! I know, that shouldn’t be such a big deal, but these days it seems like maybe it is. I tend to agree with a former co-worker that the first year of any long-term endeavor is a bit special, and marriage is certainly no exception. Having loved the solitude we found on the water in the Keys, Michelle and I decided that we wanted to go somewhere a bit off the beaten path and a bit less expensive to celebrate our first anniversary in hopes of finding a similar yet unique experience.

While we considered several locations, including going back to the same home where we were married in Tavernier, Florida in the Florida Keys, we eventually settled on St. James City on Pine Island in southwest Florida. We enjoy getting in the boat and finding places where it is just us and Mother Nature. Pine Island appeared to offer just that kind of experience. It is of course tough to completely escape the sights and sounds of our city lives, but we sure like to try!

Pine Island is just north of Sanibel Island on Florida’s southwest coast, with access to the same fishing and boating areas but fewer people to compete with in town. If seeing Sanibel itself is your goal, then Pine Island may not be the ideal place for you. You can get to Sanibel by boat if you like, but the trip by road would be pretty long. We took my 16 ft. bass boat across the bay to the where the Sanibel Bridge meets the island one day just to do it, and the trip only took a few minutes. Unfortunately, it was getting too windy that day to make a run around the island to see the famous Sanibel beaches, so we went back to the mangroves near the house and spent the rest of our day there. With less wind it would have been easy to make the run.Pine Island

The length of Pine Island can be driven in about a half hour or so. There are a few boat ramps on the island that are available for public use. Each has its own hours of operation so be sure to check those out in advance if you visit the island. We stayed in St. James City at the southern end of the island. The one public boat ramp in St. James offers 24 hour a day launching and loading. There is a fee for use of the boat ramp that can be paid at a fee box. The boat ramp is monitored by camera to help encourage those who don’t do well with the honor system, so be warned if that is you!

We rented a recently upgraded double-wide mobile home on a canal which also had a new boat lift. Many of the neighborhoods are composed mostly of mobile homes, so unless you are willing to spend top dollar, be prepared for that. Ours was very comfortable, and for $99 per night I have zero complaints!IMG_20180518_072118606_HDRIMG_20180518_165506771_HDR

The scenery on the water around Pine Island was amazing. We were able to motor out about 100 yards or so from our dock before turning north into the preserve and trolling the beautiful mangroves. We did take some longer trips, but it was windy for much of our week there so most of the time we kept close to home base in the calm water of the mangroves. One of the great things about the island is that you can pretty much always find a spot on the downwind side of some cover to fish. Just getting inside the mangroves helps immensely.IMG_20180518_201602476

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Pelicans looking for a handout.

We managed to catch a variety of nice fish, and even cooked a few up at the house. Some of the best fishing we found was within eyesight of our own dock! Save yourself some searching and pick up a nautical map that shows depths and local fishing spots. The maps aren’t exactly cheap but can be helpful when visiting new water. We had dolphins and manatees swim directly under our boat while cruising in and out of the canal. The water was so clear in the canal that we saw one of the dolphins rolling over under the boat and looking up at us as it passed below. It was a new experience for me, and I see dolphins all the time at home. The sunsets were second to none! One of the few things we took pictures of that week.

 

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Pine Island Sound
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Sunset over Pine Island Sound

 

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Mangrove sunset
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Colorful sunset in the mangroves
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Purple mangrove sunset
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Storms brewing
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Golden sunset over Pine Island Sound

 

Restaurant Reviews

Low Key Tiki
3135 Stringfellow Rd, Saint James City, FL 33956

Menuhttp://www.lowkeytiki.com/

We really enjoyed our time at Low Key Tiki (LKT). The atmosphere was laid back as one might expect given its name. The food was fresh and tasty, and the service was friendly. Michelle and I tried the Po-boy and fries. They came with a sauce on them which was ok, but both of us ordered with sauce on the side when we went back. The sauce was good, but we wanted to maintain some of the shrimp’s crispiness. Obviously, they were good enough that we had them twice!

Woody’s Waterside Island Rum & Grille • 3051 Stringfellow Road • St. James City, FL 33956 • 239-283-5555

Menuhttp://woodyswaterside.com/waterside-menu.html

A.K.A. The Drunkenmost Point – Being at the southern end of Pine Island, this is one of their claims to fame. Bouy

Our Selections:

Here we tried the most amazing Blue Crab balls we’ve ever tasted. Don’t blame me for the name of the dish and get those dirty jokes out of your mind! Think of crab cakes about the size of a healthy hush puppy. They were exactly as we fans of crab cakes like them to be… more crab than bread crumbs! We also had the Coconut Fried Shrimp and they were crisp and delicious. The Mandarin Orange Sauce was a great accompaniment. The second time around we ordered the appetizers once more, but I also ordered the pulled pork sandwich, which was fantastic. Woody’s was the closest place to our home away from home, at only about 3 blocks. We loved the place! We recommend you stop by and say hi to the staff at Woody’s when you visit Pine Island. We think you’ll be glad you did!

Saltwater Smokehouse

Menuhttp://nebula.wsimg.com/ab421adf330ddeba807f9c480c608dfb?AccessKeyId=DF7F2D2E2BCA45BA76B8&disposition=0&alloworigin=1

This place will offer you much more than the appearance would suggest. The building is a small blue building with a dusty parking lot on the side of the main road running North/South across the island. You might not stop if somebody didn’t give you the heads-up. Heads-up!

Our Selections:

Surprise, we ordered Coconut Shrimp again as we so often do, and they did not disappoint. The BBQ was good, as were the sides of slaw and fries. I ordered a brisket sandwich plate and we really don’t remember what Michelle had there because the real star of the meal turned out to be the dessert! Although there are no desserts printed on the menu, they were offering a special of Apple Pie topped with vanilla ice cream, which was topped with candied bacon. Sound crazy to you? It was amazing!!!! We regretted only getting one to split between us. Do over?

Pine Island Getaway Cafe
5281 Doug Taylor Circle, St James City, FL 33956
(239) 283-3602

Menuhttps://www.facebook.com/Pine-Island-Getaway-Cafe-1021500157986400/

If you are looking for a great breakfast stop, this is your place! It is off the beaten path and it is small, but the line that forms soon after opening tells you that it is known and loved by the locals. We stopped by twice.

Our Selections:
Michelle is a pastry lover, so she was on cloud nine! She tried the chocolate croissants one day, and we both had a breakfast sandwich on a fresh roll on our second trip. The bread was so fresh and crusty I just wanted more! Most of the items are limited availability, so get there early for the best selection. Once they are gone for the day, that’s that!

No doubt there are quite a few other great places to try on Pine island, and if we get to go back to stay in Matlacha on the north end of the island, we’ll try to let you know!

Tavernier, Florida, and the Upper Keys

 

When my wife and I met, neither of us was in a position that provided us a great deal of disposable income. When we became engaged, we knew that coming up with the money to get married would be challenging. As I’m sure many of you may know, there is really no such thing as getting married inexpensively once you decide to hold the ceremony somewhere other than a courthouse lobby.
My opinion from day one was that we should go to the Keys to get married, as we really didn’t have the money to get married at home and still afford to have a honeymoon. In my opinion combining the two in some fashion was the way to go and I felt I could afford to make it happen. Initially Michelle felt differently and wanted to marry close to home where she believed as many people could make it as possible, so we agreed that we could take a serious look at having the wedding near home. We looked at many venues, and all were well outside what we had available to spend if we also wanted to have a honeymoon trip. Decisions, decisions…
We decided to explore having our ceremony at Michelle’s grandparents’ home that had the space and a nice view, as well as the emotional bonus for the simple fact that it was her grandparents’ home. Over the first few weeks of planning my wife cried nearly every day (I have come to understand since then that this is common) as she tried to satisfy the opinions and suggestions of her fellow wedding planners. I became frustrated at seeing my wife crying so frequently and again pressed for a destination wedding. My thought was that this would reduce the size of the wedding somewhat, lower the overall expense, and still allow us to have a great wedding and amazing honeymoon. There will always be some people who can’t attend a wedding no matter where it is, and if you are unsure how many times you will be able to take such a trip I say that as a couple you do what is best for you during this special time in your life, and hope that everyone understands. After a few difficult discussions about what we could and could not afford and discussing whether the people who absolutely had to be there could be there we agreed to change direction and start looking more seriously at getting married in the Florida Keys.
To prevent a blog from becoming a novel, we settled on renting an amazing home in Tavernier, Florida on the bay side that was able to house us, our parents and the wedding party. The home was on a canal with access to the bay, had the space we needed for the wedding ceremony and had a great feel to it. We managed to have an amazing wedding thanks to help from Michelle’s parents and a couple of their best friends, along with an amazing vacation for about the same amount of money that the wedding alone would have cost us at home. Those memories will live on with us for the rest of our lives. Winner, winner chicken dinner!
Now with the back story complete, on to the reason we are writing this blog entry. We want to kick off our vacation destination and restaurant reviews now as we await our next camping trip in December. I hope you’ll find some reviews of the amazing restaurants we visited in Tavernier and the Keys useful, or maybe they will just remind you of the amazing times you spent there yourselves. If so, please feel free to comment! You may notice that we tend to be appetizer people. Both of us really like to have a variety of flavors available, and this allows us to satisfy our tastes. Coconut shrimp was a thing for us in the Keys, so if you like those, we may have a few places for you!

Anglers Cafe & Live Bait Islamorada – 90515 Old Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33070

Anglers Cafe Storefront

First, let’s talk about a little place called Anglers Café & Live Bait. Islamorada. Unless you fish, you would probably never see it despite driving right past it on your way through Tavernier. It’s a small place with a limited menu. The building is divided in half between the bait and tackle shop and diner. Customers can pass freely between the two when inside, and don’t let the idea of it being a bait shop throw you off. There are no foul odors or anything gross. All the bait is handled outside. There are just a few small tables to sit at on the diner side of the building. Since we were visiting early in the day we had the BLT’s. If you like mimosa’s, rumor has it that those are pretty good as well! The bread was fresh and crusty, and the lettuce and tomatoes were cool and crisp. We went back a few times for breakfast throughout that week before taking our boat out on the bay. The owners/operators were friendly and provided great service and a little free local fishing advice. We’ll certainly stop again if we go back to Tavernier.

Our Food Selection:

BLT – $6.99

MEAT Eatery & Tap Room – 88005 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036

MEAT storefront

 

MEAT, what can we say about this place? Want to know what they’re known for? MEAT! Yes, if you are a fan of some delicious, juicy, meaty goodness, this is the place for you! What’s that you say? You also enjoy fried food? Then oh my gosh, a day that involved a meal at MEAT would be a lucky day for you! Now to be honest I have never been a big fan of pimento cheese and burgers are not a food I crave very often, but this Inside-Out Juicy Lucy burger was A-Mazing! The cheese is stuffed inside the burger and the burger was cooked perfectly to order. The cheese mixing with the juicy burger was delicious! Being a fan of onion rings and bacon, they were in my opinion the perfect topper for this burger. You could add more, but why? Some things are great just the way they are, and outside of a dip in some ketchup I didn’t add anything else to mine. But you do you! The fries were crisp and tasty. I hate a soggy fry, and these were not at all soggy. We both enjoyed the flavor that little sprinkle of parmesan cheese provided.
The establishment has a selection of adult beverages, and of course sodas and tea. If you spend any time in Tavernier, this is a great choice for the meat loving crew! This is another one that we visited more than once. We ate in and picked up carry-out for the house on one occasion.

Our Food Selections:

Inside-Out Juicy Lucy Burger with fries on the side  – pimento cheese and bacon stuffed Angus burger topped with American cheese, lettuce and tomato served with house fries – $12.00
Truffled Bistro Fries with parmesan and rosemary a la carte – $7.50
Fried Onion Strings with beer cheese dipping sauce $4.50

Marker 88 – 88000 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33070Marker 88 Bouy

 

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Marker 88 was a beautiful place to have a meal. The bayfront tables were fantastic, and we loved the food. As with several of the other places we visited, we earned at least a couple of frequent flier miles with this place. The coconut shrimp was amazing. If you’re a fan of Bloodline on Netflix, you’ll recognize the scenery and tables at Marker 88. Michelle and I saw the exact table we sat at in one episode. We stopped here on the way back from Key West and picked up a carry out order to take out on the boat to eat as we watched the sunset carry us into one of our last nights in the keys. That night we were also treated to an amazing lightening show from a thunderstorm that was out over the Gulf Stream. It was such a great way to close out our week.

Our Food Selections:

Crab Cakes – $17.00
Hot Blue Crab dip – $16.00
Coconut Shrimp – $16.00

Hogfish Grill – 6810 Front St, Stock Island, FL 33040Cool Hogfish signsHogfish front

You’ll wonder where you’re going as you’re following your GPS to this hidden treasure. Luckily, they have signage to help you out! This isn’t in the upper keys, but we took a day trip to Key West and I imagine most people do the same so I’m sharing a place or two from the day trip that we really enjoyed. Hogfish is well off the beaten path in what I would describe as a keys fishing village. You’ll see lots of work trucks and some residential areas with flavor, but when you get to Hogfish, you’ll know it. The building is eclectic and seems perfectly suited to its location. Parking is slim, but we lucked out and found a spot right in front of the building as soon as we pulled up. Upon entry, it seemed as if there were more locals than we tourists, which is a good thing. We just had one appetizer at Hogfish. The fried Dragon Shrimp with special Dragon sauce and pineapple salsa. The shrimp was crispy, and the sauce was sweet and spicy. The food was great, and it was worth the trip off the main drag to get there.
On our way out, we stopped at their t-shirt stand and bought a few things, including a t-shirt for each of us. Michelle absolutely loved her Hogfish t-shirt, but unfortunately soon after returning home she accidentally splashed a small spot with bleach, and of course it was in the front where it was highly visible. I hated seeing her upset over her shirt so I checked the Hogfish website in hopes they would have an on-line store, and unfortunately, they did not. Unwilling to give up I called Hogfish a couple of times over the next few days until I was able to catch a manager there and asked if I could purchase a new shirt over the phone and have it mailed to our home. He agreed to help me out, sent me pictures of the shirts they had available (not the same ones they had when we were there previously), and accepted my payment over the phone. He even went out on his own time to mail the package to me. I am so appreciative of these guys. If you find yourself in the middle or lower Florida Keys, go check them out.

Our Food selection:

Fried Dragon Shrimp with special Dragon sauce and pineapple salsa – $13.95

What’s the Fish? Rolls and More – 90775 Old Hwy Unit 6, Tavernier

What's the Fish logo

This was a small location that was easy to miss if you weren’t looking. Don’t let the small size fool you. The flavor is anything but small. We split a blackened fish sandwich. While it was not blackened New Orleans style in a white-hot cast iron skillet, the blackening seasoning was flavorful, and the fish was cooked perfectly. We enjoyed a cold soda and our sandwich outside in the tiki area. It was a nice light lunch and the service was great which is as much the reason for our positive review as the tasty fresh food. Give them a shot if you are in town, and tell them we sent you. They won’t know us, but I’m sure they’ll appreciate it anyway!

Our Food Selection:

Fresh Catch Sandwich with coleslaw and fries – $17.00

Islamorada Fish Company – 81532 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036

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Nurse Sharks and tarpon

It was cool to watch the tarpon and Nurse sharks being fed right off the deck where the tables are located! The little spit of land that sticks out and is lit up at night is beautiful, and offers up some great photo opportunities.

Our Selections:

Neither of us really remembers what we had there. The fish tacos and crab cakes look familiar, but that’s about all we can say about the menu, except that we know we didn’t have a bad food experience and the view alone is a good reason to stop so we don’t mind sharing.

We could offer a few other suggestions of cool things to see, but exploring is half the fun so maybe it’s best we don’t. Food isn’t cheap down there, so at least we can point you in the direction of a few places that it just may be worth it. Enjoy!