"One thing I especially like about it here is that no matter what direction you look in, you don't see any progress," said Jim, the naturalist on my cruise through the Everglades.
Indeed, Everglades National Park is a vast 1.5 million-acre expanse of saw-grass prairies, mangrove swamps, and subtropical jungle. It is a World Heritage Site and the third-largest national park in the continental U.S. -- only Death Valley and Yellowstone are bigger. Yet amazingly this park encompasses only about 1/7 of the entire Everglades area.
After I entered the main gate in Homestead, it was 38 miles to the remote Flamingo amenities area. With a few short stops, the drive took me just over an hour. After I was a mile or two into the park, I felt far, far away from the civilized world. Driving below the speed limit allowed savoring long, quiet stretches of wilderness. The solitude was broken only by events such as the sighting of an exquisitely beautiful white egret dancing across a sea of bending grasses. Most of the time I had the road to myself. It was just me and the birds--egrets, herons, and vultures.
As the road approached Flamingo, the shrubs on the side of the road got taller and more enveloping . . . and stinkier.
I arrived in plenty of time for my two-hour Backcountry Cruise aboard the Pelican. The brochure promised we'd learn about the unique biological diversity of the Everglades and that we might possibly see a wide variety of animals, birds, and plants, and the cruise delivered.
The Everglades is rich with wildlife and is the only place in the world where endangered American crocodiles and alligators live side by side. I saw both on the cruise. We also saw great blue herons, a little blue heron, and a white juvenile heron, plus a white ibis with a curved orange bill, a cormorant, a royal tern, a tri-color heron, a turkey vulture, and an osprey.
Though this town is named Flamingo, that bird has always been incidental in the area and we saw none. And though there are 300 manatees, or sea cows, in the park and many are in the Tarpon Creek area we glided through, we saw none of these either, probably because they swim around under the water. (These endangered gentle giants have no natural enemies except man. They are said to taste like pork when cooked, and the Bay of Pigs in Cuba is named for them.) We also didn't glimpse the endangered Florida panther.
But we did see plenty of air plants and mangroves (this park has the largest mangrove forest in the Western Hemisphere), and out on Coot Bay we smelled more of that stinky hydrogen sulfide that I sniffed on the drive in--turns out it is the sign of a good, though in this case fragile, ecosystem.
We also learned that hurricane season begins on May 1 and continues through the end of November. September 10 is the single worst day of the year for hurricanes. (Keep that in mind when planning your visit to this area or anywhere in the Caribbean.)
When we returned, many people on my tour purchased sandwiches, salads, and cold drinks in the Marina Store and picnicked at tables provided out front. In season, the Flamingo Restaurant is another option. Located just a short walk away, near a tiny visitor center, it provides good basic food and has a large screened-in patio with a spectacular view of Florida Bay.
If there is no other option, driving in and out in a day as I did can be satisfying. I arrived at the Miami airport on a red eye from the West Coast and was in a rental car by 7 a.m., deep into the park 25 miles away by 9 a.m., and exiting at around 3:30 p.m. But even though this whirlwind visit did allow time to take a boat tour in Flamingo, I didn't have time to hike either the enticing 1/2--mile Anhinga boardwalk trail or 1/2--mile Gumbo Limbo Trail. I also missed out on stopping at the Pa-hay-okee Overlook, where the observation tower's deck permits viewing the Everglades from horizon to horizon.
Ideally, I would have liked to spend a night at the end of the trail, in Flamingo. Accommodations there consist of 102 simple lodge rooms with killer views of Florida Bay and a cluster of 24 more spacious cottages with kitchens. Lodge facilities include a screen-enclosed lobby and pool. Houseboats and campsites are also available.
After leaving the park, I stopped for refreshment at the Robert Is Here fruit stand located a few miles outside the gate. Yes, the name is strange, but the tropical fruit is the biggest and the best and also the rarest and most exotic, and the fresh fruit milkshakes are to die for (I can vouch for the papaya-passion fruit). Unlike the park, this place is always packed. But the line moves fast, and I was back on the road in no time.
If you go:
From the Miami airport, take the Florida Turnpike toll road south all the way to the end-about 25 miles--then follow the signs a few more miles through city streets and country roads to the entrance gate. The Coe Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and the entrance station is just beyond.
Note that the Shark Valley entrance to the park has an excellent interpretive tram tour.
You'll encounter the most wildlife and fewest mosquitoes in the dry season, which runs from late November into May.
Should you see an alligator, don't get closer than 10 feet. Adult alligators have powerful jaws and a walnut-sized brain, and they can run faster than you might imagine.
To protect yourself from the intense sun you'll need sunscreen and sunglasses, and do wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and a sun hat. Bring insect repellent, binoculars, and an umbrella--it rains almost daily in summer and sporadically at other times.
Key West, at another road's end, is only a few hours and 125 miles south of the park. Just pop in your Beach Boys or Jimmy Buffet CD and head out on two-lane Highway U.S. 1--also known as the Florida Keys Overseas Highway--through the legendary string of islands known as the Keys.