A1A Road – Jacksonville to Key West (Van-build first run)
Several months back I decided the only way I could resume traveling ‘safely’ was to buy a van and convert it into a camper. That way I would have minimal contact with the outside world but still be able to enjoy the scenery and locations. After building it out to a stage where I had insulated it, added solar panels, extractor fan and a dinette that converts into a bed, I decided it was time for a test drive. After all, I could just as well work on it while I was on the road as I could sat in the parking lot at home.
I decided I needed to head somewhere a whole lot warmer (than Nashville) for my first run and so headed down to Jacksonville to pick up the A1A Florida coast road that runs all the way down to Key West at the Southern-most tip of the continental USA.
I headed out on Christmas Eve and by early evening I arrived at my rest stop, a truck stop that had good reviews about allowing overnight parking and settled down for the night. Within 10 minutes a car horn across the parking lot brought me alert again. Two minutes later and the loud horn was right outside my van. I wound down the window and the guy in the pickup truck informed me I couldn’t stay there as they were digging a trench across the parking lot the next morning (on Christmas Day ???). Yes, welcome to van life!
I soon discovered this was to be the norm almost everywhere I went. ‘No overnight parking’ signs everywhere and a 3-hour maximum stay in the official Rest Areas off the interstates. It was just a case of how aggressive the overnight security were in moving you on when your three hours were up. The daylight hours became the peaceful slow pace of life that I had expected. Pull up at a Beach parking lot or Beach park area and just relax and unwind. However, then came the evening, when I had to find the nearest Rest Area and hope the local security guys were a little more relaxed than others.
I arrived in St Augustine on Christmas morning, only to find the parking lots full and people everywhere (must be a tradition) so I headed a little out of town and found a nice parking lot with beach access. Thankfully the beaches were a lot less crowded than the town was.
Lori Wilson beach park. Free parking, toilets, beach access and even a little hut that sold snacks and drinks. I walked on the beach, watched the surfers having fun and took in the fresh sea breeze, maybe this was the life after all. I drove down to Marineland and Flagler and found the small parking areas with beach access were free parking and not crowded at all.
As you progress steadily Southwards towards Daytona Beach the high-rise hotels and apartments beginning to take over the shoreline and it gets harder and harder to find beach access that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Heading further South towards Cocoa Beach, the parking lots for beach access were also not free. I did a quick visit to the well-known Ron Jon Surf Shop (which as usual was doing very brisk business) as I needed a new towel.
Before I knew it I was passing through Miami and heading towards Key Largo. I had tried to do some checking but couldn’t find a reasonable-priced RV Park anywhere near Key West and I was told that they are very strict about people sleeping in their campervans overnight.
In the end I decided to do the whole run without a rest and drove down in the early morning darkness, arriving in Key West at 6:30am. I toured around and up and down Duval St, did a quick drive-by of the Southern most point (of the continental USA) marker (which I had already seen on a previous visit to Key West and then headed back up the Keys so I could do the reverse trip in daylight.
I have to confess I wasn’t really as enthralled with the Keys as I thought I would be, probably because they seemed so unwelcoming towards campervans and the RV Parks cost more than a standard hotel would further North. (Note: The RV Park rates are based on seasons. High season being winter and the highest rate (Holiday season) being the two weeks covering pre-Christmas to New Year}.
The other thing most noticeable at the time of year I had chosen to make the trip were the vastly differing temperatures. The first couple of nights were really cold, but of course the further South I went the warmer it got and it quickly became a lot more comfortable at night time.
Well, I’d completed the trip and the van certainly did its part on its maiden voyage from which I learned quite a bit. I would say the most enjoyable part was the first few legs down from Jacksonville to just below Marineland as once you head further South the larger places seem to dominate the coastline and the commercial aspect kicks in limiting access to the actual beaches. On the whole the trip down the A1A Road was thoroughly enjoyable and well worth it. I would highly recommended the experience.