Kayaking to Cutoe & Tarpon Belly Key (+ an Airstream Reno Update)

Our last visitors left about three weeks ago and since then we’ve been going full steam ahead on the Airstream renovations. With two weeks left until we leave here, the pressure is on to get things done at least to the point where we can live in it again. The good news is that the very involved project of replacing the carpet walls with vinyl — which required moving out nearly everything — is done and it looks incredible. Seriously, it’s amazing and turned out better than expected. This is not one of those well-documented RV reno projects that you will find all over Pinterest or RV forums. For the most part, we were on our own which makes the fact that it turned out so nice even more satisfying.

New Airstream walls
Looks at those snazzy new walls! Still need to re-hang the curtains

We also successfully replaced our old laminate wood floor with a new laminate wood floor. I know that sounds silly, but the last one was some crap generic brand that developed scratches and dings just by looking at it funny. It’s been driving us crazy for years and since we had already removed much of the large furniture to re-do the walls, it only made sense to tackle this project. This time around we got smart and went with a Pergo brand floor. That’s the same brand we had in our old house and we know it can take tons of abuse so we’re confident that it will hold up better.

New Pergo Floor
New floor – better quality, lighter color

The bad news is that despite our best efforts there are some projects that will simply not get done before we leave. Re-polishing the outside of the Airstream is one of those. It really needs it again but will have to wait until maybe next winter when we do another round of desert boondocking polishing. (This whole living full-time in a polished Airstream thing is totally ridiculous and not something I would ever recommend by the way). Most of the other projects on hold are small things that we plan to do over time. The main focus this winter was to get done the things we simply couldn’t do while living it. We’ve also managed to make a number of small, but important changes/fixes like new struts for the upper cabinets, the installation of additional 12-volt outlets, filling in cracks and large gaps to keep the wind and mice out, and a bunch of other things that are still in the works.

Airstream Renovations
New cabinet door struts – New 12-volt outlets – The final set of lists

I promise that I’ll write a more in depth post all about the renovations as soon as they’re done but for now, I want to share more pictures of pretty water and tropical islands :) In spite of our immersion in the Airstream reno, we’re trying to remember to get out for some fun stuff too. Down here our very favorite way to relax and enjoy the area is by kayaking. And one of the easiest ways to get in some time on the water is by going for a sunset paddle in our back yard. There’s a small mangrove island only about a 15-minute paddle from our house that is the perfect location for floating and watching the sun sink below the horizon.

Sunset in the Florida Keys
Another day comes to an end
Sunset in the Florida Keys
Love that post sunset glow

There are also countless areas we can explore simply by paddling out our canal and heading north toward the small islands that dot the area. The water here is very shallow and clear making it a great place to spot fish and rays. We’re always on the look out for sea turtles as well but have yet to see one in the wild.

Kayaking the Florida Keys
Look how clear that water is!

One sunny weekend day, we set aside some time for a longer paddle and decided to make the mangrove canals on Cutoe Key our destination. To get there we first crossed the channel where our canal comes out and paddled up the shore of uninhabited Howe Key for several miles. It was on the windy side so we stuck close to shore for most of the way.

Paddling near Howe Key
Paddling alongside Howe Key

At the north end of Howe, we crossed the main channel between Big Pine and Annette Key and kept paddling until we reached Cutoe Key.

Florida Keys
Heading across the channel — despite the lack of waves the wind was against us making this a challenging paddle

Cutoe is another uninhabited island covered with mangroves and home to thousands of birds (and probably a good number of snakes & spiders too). There’s also some natural canals that wind their way through the island. We paddled into the first one and instantly found ourselves in a protected, shallow area. After paddling against the wind for over three miles it was a welcome relief to enter the calm, still canal.

Cutoe Key, Florida
Calm in the canal

Schools of silvery fish and small stripped mangrove snappers lazily swam around us while a giant stingray darted past leaving in its wake a cloud of white sand. I’ve given up trying to capture the quick moving sea life with my cell phone camera. Maybe someday I’ll get a good waterproof case for the “real” camera but for now, I’m satisfied with the impressions these sightings leave in my memory. I did get a photo of a large horseshoe crab while floating through a particularly shallow area.

Horseshoe Crab
While it’s rare to see one on the move, horseshoe crabs actually have an impressive 5 sets of legs

Craving another long paddle and wanting to explore some areas outside our immediate neighborhood, last weekend we loaded up the boats and headed down to Cudjoe Key for a paddle out to Tarpon Belly Key. In addition to plenty of shallow water and small islands to explore, the Keys also has a number of free public boat ramps which make enjoying the water that much easier. To get to Tarpon Belly, we followed Blimp Rd. (named this because it’s where Fat Albert the long-time border patrol blimp is docked) to where it ends at a concrete boat ramp.

Boat ramp on Cudjoe Key
Public boat launch on Cudjoe Key

Once again it was on the windy side, but as this is the norm around here in the winter months we’ve learned to suck it up and go anyway. If we waited for a perfectly calm day we would never get out on the water. The good news is that with the wind coming from the north we would be paddling against it on the way out and with it on the way back. It’s kind of like how hiking up a mountain and then back down again is more enjoyable than hiking down into a canyon and then having to slog your way up at the end.

Budd Keys
Approaching the Budd Keys –  once again despite the lack of waves the wind was strong!

Instead of simply paddling over to Tarpon Belly Key and back we decided to take a roundabout route through the Budd Keys and then over to Tarpon. The three Budd Keys are arranged in a triangle of sorts with a smattering of tiny keys dotting the center area. We slowly paddled around the shallow water while enjoying a respite from the wind.

Hey look, it’s a mini mangrove! Someday this guy will grow up to be an island.

At the top of the Budd Keys we headed west toward Tarpon Belly. They say that the white beach on the western shore looks like a tarpon belly, but since we approached the island on its north-east side I can’t confirm this. Also, I’m not sure I even know what a tarpon belly looks like! Instead of a beach, the first thing we saw was a wide canal that runs between the main key and its small northern neighbor. Tarpon Belly is actually three Keys split by man-made canals. We paddled in a ways and soon found the entrance to the first man-made canal. The water here was deep and swift moving. It was also the most incredible dark turquoise color.

Tarpon Belly Key
Look at that color!

Tarpon Belly key was once the home of a shrimp farm. The story goes that in the late 1960s a man named Bill Hannum purchased Tarpon Belly Key with the plan of creating the first commercial shrimp farm in the U.S. He had two canals dug where the shrimp would grow to maturity. Sea Farms — the very fitting name for his operation — had success spawning the shrimp and raising the larvae, but for various reasons maturing the shrimp in the canals never worked out as planned. Less than 10 years after it started the shrimp farm four miles off shore was abandoned and today all that is left are the canals, some old concrete pieces, and other bits of trash left behind.

Tarpon Belly Key
An old bridge at the end of the canal

We retraced our route of the canal and continued to paddle around the island in search of the beach. Eventually, we reached the southwest side of the island where the second canal splits the main island from a long spit of land covered in (non-native and invasive) Australian Pines and bordered on one side by a stretch of white coral beach.

Tarpon Belly Key
The second man-made canal
Tarpon Belly Key
A satellite view shows the canals and the beach on the south side

Here we docked the kayaks and got out to explore. This is a popular spot for boaters and fisherman. I also heard you could camp here, but whether it’s truly allowed or people simply get away with it I’m not sure.

Tarpon Belly Key
Fire pit & carcoal grill

There are also lots of old concrete pieces near the entrance to the canal along with the remains of what looks like an old pier.

Tarpoon Belly Key
Some remains from the shrimp farm

We walked along the canal and the beach for a bit before wading out into the water for a quick swim in the warm water.

Tarpon Belly Key
The second man-made canal
Tarpon Belly Key
From a distance the beach looks like sand, but up close it’s actually sharp pieces of white coral

I read somewhere that if you explore the main island it’s possible to find more evidence of the shrimp farm including parts of an old truck that was used as a utility vehicle to carry supplies around the farm. We didn’t take the time to explore though. It was early afternoon by this time, and with only a few snacks to tide us over and a stop at 5 Brothers on the way home for Cuban sandwiches at the front of our minds we were ready to head back.

Tarpon Belly Key
Passing the beach on our way back to shore

With only two weekends left here, we’re hoping to get out for a few more long paddles before we go. I’m not sure when we’ll be around water this gorgeous and warm again so have to experience it while we can.

Camco Exterior Water Filter

A simple to install, affordable exterior water filter. We use it every time we fill our fresh water tank or hook-up to campground water. Removes sediments, odors, and bad taste.


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16 Responses to “Kayaking to Cutoe & Tarpon Belly Key (+ an Airstream Reno Update)”


  1. Christine

    Airstream’s looking great! Can’t wait to see it. Also glad you’re still finding time to enjoy the beauty of your surroundings. Lots of memories for when you’re back in the desert!

  2. Metamorphosis Lisa

    Renos are looking great!

    Those paddles look mighty fine too. Love the gorgeous water!

    • Amanda

      Not sure when we’ll see water like this again so I’m trying to soak up as much of it as I can!

  3. Laurel

    Wow, only two weeks until take off?!! Nice job on the renovations. Glad you’re balancing all of the work with relaxing time on the water.

    • Amanda

      The time down here has flown by! Of course, as much as we love our time here we’re also itching to get back on the road.

  4. Ry Hickman

    I look forward to more posts on the renovations, especially the walls. Looks great!

    • Amanda

      I’m excited to share more about the wall project. We learned a lot in the process and I think it’s a great alternative to the fuzzy carpet.

  5. Pamelab

    Really enjoy seeing your reno and the lovely photos of the keys and the beautiful water. Thanks.

  6. Jodee Gravel

    You picked such a great place to winter! Your paddles look wonderful – love the little mangrove with such a big future :-) Beautiful sunset skies.

    • Amanda

      It has been a wonderful winter. While we’re anxious to get back west, spending so much time near the sparkling water and palm trees was an excellent choice!

  7. Anna White

    Love the look of your reno. Living vicariously through this post of your time on the water. I miss our kayaks and can’t wait till we go further south into Florida.

    • Amanda

      Thanks Anna! It has been to great to spend so much time on the water this winter.

  8. Pat Jennette

    Really enjoying reading your posts. Thank you for the tips about setting up our own blog, too. We will be at Key Largo RV Park the last two weeks of April. Looking forward to some “Keys” time. We just kayaked yesterday at the GTM Reserve on the Guana River by Ponte Vedra up here outside of St. Augustine.

    • Amanda

      Have fun in Key Largo! When we visited St. Augustine a few years ago we didn’t yet have kayaks. Sounds like we need to go back to paddle the Guana River.

  9. carl newton

    hey guy, this is right on time.. We are looking at replacing the AS vinyl factory installed stuff and looking at a vinyl plank, pergo like, material on floor.. One issue i read about on airforums is separation of the pieces due to movement of trailer, hot and cold temps you encounter over time.

    Was wondering what your experience with the hard type floor has been over the time yours was in and how bad was the scratching issue on the old floor.

    have a good one and we enjoy your post and pictures.. very nice

    carl n
    in NC..

    • Amanda

      The old laminate floor we put in did have some separation issues. When we were in the west with no humidity some gaps between the planks would show up. When we went back east where it was humid the gaps would close. Never noticed any due to movement though. It will be interesting to see how it plays out this time around since we installed the new floor in high humidity as opposed to during the winter with low humidity last time. Hoping that the “tight” install will mean fewer gaps when we go west. Time will tell. Honestly though, the gaps were not nearly as annoying as the constant scratching. The old floor would scratch and dent if you dropped something as small as a fork. We’ve done some testing on scrap pieces of the new floor and so far it’s nearly impossible to scratch so we’re hopeful that it will hold up better over time. Good luck with your new floor!


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