The Everglades extend from Lake Okeechobee in central Florida down to Florida Bay. Everglades National Park, at 2,350 square miles (most of them underwater), makes up nearly half of them. There are two main park entrances: in Everglades City, 30 miles southeast of Naples; and just west of Homestead, 30 minutes southwest of Miami.
Houseboats can be reserved up to six months in advance at Flamingo Marina (1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy., Flamingo; 800/600-3813 or 941/695-3101; www.flamingolodge.com) inside Everglades National Park. Book early; some customers have returned more than 50 times. A 40-foot pontoon houseboat like the one the Colts rented sleeps eight (two sofa beds, two bunks) and costs $475 for two nights, $160 each additional night. The fancier 37-foot fiberglass Gibson Sport sleeps six and is $575 for two nights, $200 each additional night. The seventh night for all houseboats is free.
The marina also rents canoes, kayaks, skiffs, fishing gear, and binoculars. You can buy groceries there, but the selection is better at the Publix supermarket in Homestead. And don't miss Robert Is Here (19200 S.W. 344th St., Homestead; 305/246-1592), a fruit stand in the way that FAO Schwarz is a toy store, only better. Grab a fruit shake, and let owner Robert Moehling give you the lowdown on the area.
How does one pack for a houseboat?The same way one packs for a car trip. Take along enough stuff to keep the kids happy: books, games, binoculars, sketch pads. And don't forget hats, sunglasses, sun goop, and bug spray.
Smaller craft can get to areas houseboats are too big to explore. Spend a few days in Flamingo or Everglades City and rent a canoe or kayak—from the Flamingo Marina (see above) or at Everglades National Park Boat Tours (941/695-2591; Everglades City). Flamingo has trails for every level. Begin with a morning paddle right there in Florida Bay, when birds are rustling up breakfast. Or head up the Buttonwood Canal, past alligators, crocodiles, and wading birds. From Everglades City, follow the Halfway Creek—Turner River loop through mangrove tunnels lined with roosting birds. Or paddle across Chokoloskee Bay to Sandfly Island. Wherever you go, visit the ranger station first for maps and advice on weather and tide conditions.
Airboats—fan-powered boats that skim across the water at speeds of 40 to 100 mph—aren't permitted inside the park (except on official business), but there are numerous operators on its fringes. Take a whirl at Everglades Alligator Farm (40351 S.W. 192nd Ave., Homestead; 305/247-2628). After a short tour of a drainage canal (whose zoolike abundance of wildlife is encouraged by handfuls of dog kibble—"gator M&M's") the airboat heads out through the saw-grass prairie, birds scattering in every direction. Twenty-five ear-splitting minutes and several 360-degree spins later, you're back at the dock, feeling as if you've just been lashed to a windup toy.
The Flamingo Marina has a dozen battered bikes for rent, but the bicycles are better at the Shark Valley Information Center on the northern boundary of the park (off U.S. 41, 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike; 305/221-8776), and the biking is superior there too. Follow a 15-mile paved path through the heart of the saw-grass prairie. Members of the family who aren't up to pedaling can take a two-hour narrated tram ride following the same route.
The 38-mile road from the park's Homestead entrance to Flamingo (Hwy. 9336) winds through six different habitats and has numerous short boardwalks to tempt you from your car. The best Everglades driving experience, however, is the Loop Road (Rte. 94), which veers off U.S. 41, just west of the Shark Valley Information Center, and 26 miles later rejoins it. Little used by motorists, it is a wildlife traffic jam.
Of numerous trails that originate in Flamingo, one of the best is the Coastal Prairie, a path used by turn-of-the-century cotton pickers and fishermen that meanders through open grasslands dotted with buttonwood groves. (It's a 15-mile round-trip, but the first two miles are among the prettiest.) The Guy Bradley Trail begins in front of the Flamingo Restaurant, runs a mile along the bay, and is chockablock with marsh rabbits, red-shouldered hawks, and zebra butterflies. (Tack on 100 more yards and you'll find Eco Pond, a dawn-and-dusk rendezvous for wildlife.) Sign up for the ranger-led "swamp tromp" (formerly known as the "slough slog") and plunge knee-deep into the saw-grass prairie, examining snails, lubber grasshoppers, and periphyton.
In addition to daily wildlife cruises by motorboat, Flamingo Marina offers a 90-minute Florida Bay sail on the Windfall, a 50-foot schooner similar to those used by early Flamingo settlers. —G.H.C.
Escape to (or from) the Everglades
You can easily get to the Everglades, even for just a day trip, not only from Miami and Naples, but also from Fort Lauderdale, Sanibel, and the Keys. Those are all, of course, good places to head to if, after roughing it on a houseboat, you are in need of a dose of civilization.
Save the Everglades
Kids can join Young Friends of the Everglades (www.everglades.org/young.html), a preservation group started by fourth- and fifth-graders in Florida. For a $1 annual fee, members get a student-written newsletter with articles, artwork, and information on how they can help.
WHERE TO STAY
Flamingo Lodge & Marina (1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy., Flamingo; 800/600-3813 or 941/695-3101; www.flamingolodge.com; doubles from $95, kids free), a green-and-beige structure that looks like a military barracks, offers the only overnight accommodations inside the park, and makes an ideal base. And if the rooms are strictly no-frills, the picture windows provide a live, wide-screen version of the Discovery Channel: ibis grazing on the lawn, woodpeckers rattling at palms, butterflies everywhere.
There are several hotels just outside the park, including a Travelodge (409 S.E. First Ave., Florida City; 305/248-9777; doubles from $55, up to two kids free), and the newly renovated Redland Hotel (5 S. Flagler Ave., Homestead; 305/246-1904; doubles from $69, kids free).
WHERE TO EAT
IN FLAMINGO: The Flamingo Restaurant at the Flamingo Lodge & Marina (800/600-3813 or 941/695-3101; dinner for four $80) serves up so-so food but a spectacular view of Florida Bay, especially at low tide, when wading birds gather on the sandbar. Reservations advised.
IN AND AROUND HOMESTEAD: Mutineer Restaurant (11 S.E. First Ave., Florida City; 305/245-3377; dinner for four $70), specializing in seafood and steaks, is large, lavishly decorated (portholes, stained-glass pirates, petting zoo), and popular. Also consider: El Toro Taco (1 S. Krome Ave., Homestead; 305/245-8182; lunch for four $18), and Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q (33505 S. Dixie Hwy., Florida City; 305/245-8585; lunch for four $20). IN EVERGLADES CITY: The Rod & Gun Club (200 Broadway; 941/695-2101; dinner for four $80) is worth a visit if you're on the Tamiami Trail, at the park's northern edge: seafood in an antebellum mansion that has been host to fishermen from Harry Truman to Burt Reynolds.
ABOUT THE BUGS
In turn-of-the-century Flamingo, the mosquitoes were so thick they were rumored to be capable of killing cows. Having visited the Everglades in the wet season, I almost believe it. But in the winter, on a houseboat in the breeze-freshened Whitewater Bay area, you can keep them away with a.m. and p.m. applications of bug spray. —G.H.C.