The Everglades: The Florida That Disney Forgot

Travel Tips, What's New — By Peter Horan on March 22, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Ninety minutes west of Miami the Florida the Disney forgot starts to reveal itself to you. Its scent sneaks in through the vents.  Its scenes unfold around the windows of your car.

It may be a prehistoric-looking bird sitting on a wire. Or a big old gator sunning along the banks of a canal beside Route 41.  The roadside signs advertise airboat rides and Indian casinos rather than the latest movies.  You also quickly begin to sense what isn’t around. No Starbucks. No strip malls.  Most places close down by 9pm. Almost everything is closed during the summer.

For anyone coming to southern Florida from the late fall through the spring,  a trip to the Everglades is a perfect antidote to the craziness of the club scene on South Beach and of the Mickey Mouse Club Orlando. It’s beautiful, unusual, exciting and legitimately unique.

The Everglades were called a “river of grass” by the author Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the title of an influential book that encouraged President Harry Truman to take steps to protect the area from development and desecration.  That accurately describes one part of The Everglades—broad prairies with sparse hardwood trees and rivers of grass floating barely above the water level. But a little further south and foot lower in elevation, the prairie turns into a swamp. Thick vines.  Gators sunning on the bank—or swimming near your kayak.  Beautiful birds big and small flying overhead and perching above on branches.

Go because the scenery and wildlife are rare and spectacular.  Don’t expect four star hotels or fine dining.  There are lots of great places to eat and great things to see, but here are some personal favorites.

Quick Notes on an Everglades Adventure Weekend

Basecamp: Ivey House in Everglade City

The Ivey House is clean, comfortable and well-situated to be your base of operations for a weekend in The Everglades.  The rooms are bare bones and the breakfast is just OK. But the staff is friendly and knowledgeable. They have an amazing and extensive collection of relevant guidebooks and local history books for sale as well as all of the other necessities of life and trinkets to take home.  The gallery of photos is rich, wonderful and inspires you to get out and do something adventurous. The good news is that the staff at the front desk is ready to help. They book tours right out of the Ivey House and can also suggest many other things to do in the area.

Adventure 1: A morning paddle on the Turner River

Kayaking on the Turner River takes you into two very different ecosystems.  Heading up river takes you into a freshwater system with alligators of all sizes.  See an amazing array of wild orchids and bromeliads as well as more exotic birds than you’ll probably see in the rest of your life. Then turn around, duck your head and head under the highway bridge into the tea-colored water of the red mangrove stands.  It’s an amazing and thrilling experience to duck your head and pick your way through a mangrove tunnel.

Adventure 2: A night paddle on the South River

It may sound crazy but one of the best trips ever is to paddle along the South River at sunset and paddle back in the dark.  On the right evening, you’ll see flocks of birds silhouetted against a blood red setting sun, millions of stars both in the sky and reflected in the surface of the water, and alligators’ eyes reflecting back at you in the light of your head lamp.  Nothing brings you intro closer touch with nature than a quiet, night time paddle.

Adventure 3: Visit Shark Valley Nature Center

Less vigorous and less nerve-wracking than the previous two adventures, Shark Valley is nonetheless exciting and fun.  You can take a tour on the tram and see alligators up close and personal.  From the top of the 65 foot observation tower, you can survey a broad swath of the Everglades savannah.  For a little more adventure, ride your bike along the pathway, and hope that you don’t get a flat tire at an inopportune moment.

Cubano Sandwhich

Great eats 1: Camellia Street Grill

Good food. Nice people. Fun music. This is the type of place that restaurant chains try to capture and always get it wrong.  The corporate types make it kitschy and the food arrives soaked in grease.  At the Grill, the fried green tomatoes are fresh and flavorful. The grouper was caught that day.

Battered Fried Shrimp

Great eats 2: Havana

Lunch every day and dinner on weekends. Try the lightly battered fried shrimp and a cubano sandwich that makes you realize that every other Cuban sandwich that you’ve eaten is a weak fraud.  Sit on the patio and enjoy the sunshine and the passing parade.

Trivial Stop: America’s Smallest Post Office

This is the smallest and most photographed post office in America.  It’s tiny. If you have any doubts, see the photograph.

America's Smallest Post Office