I'll talk about the camping experience, the beaches and the glass-bottom boat tour.
We camped in our 26' RV for four nights during the third week of April. I can only speak to this time of year since this was my first visit. The campground was extremely clean. I've read other comments about narrow sites and while I saw a few that appeared narrow (given the vehicle/s parked there) ours was absolutely fine. In particular, several sites on the left hand side of the road as you enter the camp gate were very wide. I only had occasion to see the inside of the women's bath house at the very end of the camping street - this is the smaller bath house. I've been in many campgrounds and this was one of the cleanest I have seen, especially the floor. One comment: toilet stalls were extremely small. There is only one (large) shower in this smaller bath house and two people were waiting. This didn't impact me since I was staying in an RV.
There are two campground "hosts" located at each end of the campground. Our host came over from his campsite to welcome us within minutes of our arrival. He was low-key and friendly with helpful suggestions about the other activities in the park.
All campsites were occupied and new campers moved in when others moved out. We did not feel cramped nor crowded. Noise levels depend on the courtesy of fellow campers; I don't find anything about the park itself to have impacted noise levels. (we were lucky - respectful campers around us with the exception of some motorcyclists who revved their engines more than they needed to when coming and going)
The three-way hookup was appreciated. It's rare to find a state park with sewage hookup but Pennekamp has it.
* There was a faint swamp smell from the small mangrove swamp behind our campsite (we were on the right side of the road near the entrance). This was not a problem as we are accustomed to the smells of the ocean at low tide in other regions. I did see many nice birds in the trees in this area.
* IF YOU ARE A TENT CAMPER: you should know that there are *no grassy campsites.* The campsites are crushed coral (looks like small white gravel). I noticed three sites just past the main bath house with cement pads. There is no separate tent area so you will be camping amongst RVs.
* The main bath house (both mens and womens sides) was closed for cleaning between 10am - noon each day during out stay.
There are three beaches: the largest beach near the visitor center and gift shop, a second beach at the of the road over the wooden bridge, and a third tiny beach near the second. Each was extremely clean. The water was exceptionally clear.
You need to know that these are NOT open-ocean beaches! You will NOT find waves nor the Caribbean blue colored water that is so desirable. You need to be 3-4 miles offshore before you find that color water in this particular area. The nearest OCEAN beach is Anne's Beach 22 miles down past Pennekamp. The ocean beach consistently rated as "best" in the Keys is Bahia Honda State Park which is about 90 minutes from Pennekamp.
The park is located on a small bay. The water color was the same as what you'd find with a lake - a dark blue. During the third week of April none of the beaches were crowded. The tiny beach is the only one where I stepped into the water. This beach does not have sand - it's rocky and shoes are absolutely needed. It's just another place to begin snorkeling. I enjoyed wonderful weather from the bench on this beach. There are picnic tables shaded by trees here. The other two larger beaches had clean sand (trucked in) and trees. There are palm trees and non-palm trees. There is a nice bathhouse located at the end of a small boardwalk at the second beach.
I did not go snorkeling but want to make a comment about other reviews I've read that trash the "Spanish galleon" located offshore of the large beach: there is a large display sign that clearly explains what you'll find underwater and how the cannons were acquired. People who expect something else just didn't bother to read the sign.
GLASS BOTTOM BOAT
NOTE!! You do NOT visit the Christ statue on the glass-bottom boat. The water around that statue is not deep enough for the boat. You need to go diving or snorkeling to see that.
REPEAT!! You do NOT visit the Christ statue on the glass-bottom boat! (I want to repeat this because many passengers were whining about it when then could have learned about this by reading online first)
While we enjoyed marvelous weather, the boat tours were cancelled on our first full day due to high winds. We received a call from the ticket office two hours in advance letting us know this - we thought this was great service! We reserved space (we didn't actually purchase the tickets over the phone) for the following day on that phone call.
The boat itself was clean and comfortable. The crew was very friendly and helpful to passengers needing assistance during boarding.
When you first board and everyone is inside, it's very crowded and you wonder how everyone will be able to see through the glass windows in the hull. As soon as the cruise begins people spread out -- many going outside -- and crowding is not a problem.
I don't feel this is a cruise for babies or small children - many got seasick and/or board. Screaming and wailing does not make for an enjoyable experience for anyone.
The crew was very helpful to passengers who experienced sea sickness. There was no violent rocking and no waves - just the normal gentle rocking motions you get when you're on the water. I did get seasick (in spite of the anti-nausea medicine available on board for $1) from being inside and looking down at the windows. As soon as I went upstairs to the outer deck I was fine and this is where I spent most of the cruise. This turned out to be fine because there wasn't that much activity down below on the reef. Once we got out of the mangroves and through the narrow entry channel the water became a palette of gorgeous blue hues including that amazing tropical color everyone wants to see.
If you are inside looking down through the windows, the crew narrate what's being seen by calling out the number on the window in question. They give a lot of history and information on the sea life in the area even if none of it happens to be swimming by at the moment. I found the speaker system inside too loud for my liking - or maybe this narrator was speaking too loudly into her microphone. It was fine outdoors.
The windows have a slight tint so you are seeing things through a somewhat blue lens. We passed over fish, a lot of coral and patches of white sand. The big "thrill" was a rare shark resting atop a large piece of brain coral. Not everyone could see the shark even though the captain makes every attempt to maneuver the boat around for best viewing.
I was expecting the riot of crazy rainbow colors that I saw while snorkeling in the US Virgin Islands but this is not what we saw.
In my opinion, the views through the glass bottom windows were very secondary to the experience of sailing over the blue waters and enjoying the wind and sun. Obviously this wouldn't be the case if the weather had not been as perfect. The cruise was worth the price but it was easier for me to feel that way having already had an amazing snorkeling/reef experience a few years prior in another location. I wasn't dependent on underwater action for my satisfaction.
There is ample parking in all sections of the park. Plenty of parking for boat trailers. Nice small marina to walk along or sit on benches and observe. Clean picnic areas under arched wooden shelters in all sections of the park.
The general public does not go into the campground - you need a code to raise the gate and only paid campers have that. The campground is at the end of the park so there is no need for the public to be in that area in order to use the beaches, marina or boats.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC