Go now, before the Everglades are gone.
So you want to see the swamp?Then you need to know about frog's legs and gator tails, airboats and swamp buggies and Indian reservations, places called Shark Valley, Hells Bay, and Graveyard Creek. You should know that in the Everglades—a 2 million-acre river of saw grass soaking Florida's tip—there are more alligators than people, and the latter get a little crazy-eyed when the moon is full or the fishing is bad. You'll want to know that you can walk, drive, canoe, kayak, sail, and bicycle the Glades but it's best to slog through them, to get down in the muck until your shoes are mud pancakes and your shoulders brush walls of orchids. And you ought to know that this astonishing place is dying. That due to southern Florida's meteoric development, agricultural poisons, and a ghastly plan dating from the fifties to dry up the swamp, only about half of the original Everglades remain.
where to stay
Luxe lodging and the swamp don't jibe. If you want fancy linens and Parisian soaps, stay in Naples or the Keys (both are about an hour from the Glades).
Inn on Fifth 699 Fifth Ave. S.; 888/403-8778 or 941/403-8777, fax 941/403-8778; doubles from $149. It opened last year, and looks it — the curry-colored Mediterranean exterior is a bit prefab, but the lobby brings you back around with crystal chandeliers and loads of marble. The 87 rooms come with all the right stuff, from hand-pressed sheets to checkered-print loveseats.
Ritz-Carlton Naples 280 Vanderbilt Beach Rd.; 800/241-3333 or 941/598-3300, fax 941/598-6690; doubles from $375. You get the beach, the city, and the Ritz—a dazzling lobby lounge with pianist (and elegant couples dancing at martini time), fountains and rose gardens, orchid blossoms on your vanity.
Kona Kai 97802 S. Overseas Hwy., Key Largo; 800/365-7829 or 305/852-7200, fax 305/852-4629; doubles from $142. Think tropical village. Kona Kai has 11 white cottages awash in breadfruit and bougainvillea, and pink tile around the pool. Beach views are of Everglades National Park's eastern waters; Zodiac tours leave from the dock.
The Moorings 123 Beach Rd., Islamorada; 305/664-4708, fax 305/664-4242; doubles from $165. The 18 cottages are done up in safari chic, with cypress, cherry, pine, and splashes of sisal and clay tile. The beach is the best in the Keys (Vogue and Elle shoot here).
Rod & Gun Club 200 Riverside Dr., Everglades City; 941/695-2101; doubles $89. Once a hunting-and-fishing club, now a great, creaky-floored hotel with a celebrity guest list (John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, Mick Jagger) longer than the gator hide in the lobby. Too bad the 17 guest rooms are filled with swap-meet furniture.
Flamingo Lodge 1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy., Everglades National Park; 800/600-3813 or 941/695-3101, fax 941/695-3921; doubles from $95. The only lodging in the national park is more of a motel, with industrial carpeting, poly-something bedspreads, and frosted louvered windows. But it cozies right up to Florida Bay; it has a pool, restaurant, bar, and gift shop; and it's within shouting distance of some of the Glades' best boating, hiking, and biking.
lay of the land
By car you can get to Everglades National Park (in the southern half of the Glades) from three main points—Everglades City, Shark Valley, and south of Miami on Route 9336, which winds through the park for 38 miles. North of the park, two-lane Route 41 (the Tamiami Trail) and four-lane Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) cut east-west across the swamp. The Tamiami Trail has better scenery: alligators and turtles, blustery saw grass, and fleets of airboats and swamp buggies waiting to take tourists for a ride. (These vehicles, by the way, cause environmental havoc and are banned in the national park.)
"This is how Moses got his start in the bulrushes," says our guide, David Harraden. He's using his paddle to press the nose of our canoe against a wall of saw grass, but the stalks are higher than our heads and won't budge. Eventually, the walls part, we plunge into the reeds, and the world disappears. Little "saws" of the plants scratch at our arms, and when we finally break free, I see what Harraden is talking about. The Promised Land.
Rising from the swamp—glowing coppery with morning sun—is a jungle of cypresses, limbs laced with Spanish moss and red and white orchids. We watch three yellow-bellied turtles plop into the water, one by one. Eight stories up, an osprey clings to the edge of an elaborate nest and screams at us. In a crook of the forest, baby alligators fight their way across bright green water lettuce and couldn't care less when we edge over for a look.
Life has not always been so dazzling on the Turner River. Forty years ago the Army Corps of Engineers strangled the waterway by carving a canal and stealing its headwaters. The Turner lay suffocating with invading cattails, wild rice, and salt water until 1989, when the government started to backpedal. It took a whole decade to resurrect the river, which now runs clear for nine miles, from Big Cypress Swamp to the mangrove isles in the western Glades. But many invaders remain, including hydrilla, a bullish aquarium import that can grow an inch a day.
Harraden makes each of the six people on our tour pull a hydrilla plant from the water. The roots look a mile long. "It's a devil of a plant," Harraden scowls. He has been watching hydrilla's mad dash across the Glades for 20 years, ever since he and his wife, Sandee, started North American Canoe Tours.
Our daylong excursion is now taking us deep inside a tunnel of mangroves. We grab the trees and pull our way through. Roots dangle from above, and bromeliads pour from the elbows of black willow trees. I ask Harraden about an onshore mound we're passing. It's an old Indian encampment, he says. The banks of the Turner are full of them, some thousands of years old.
With his thick beard, his rugged skin, and worn leather sandals on his dusty feet, Harraden is not unlike some biblical figure. The parallels end, however, when he confesses to being a diehard "canudist." As in, his favorite thing, other than canoeing, is to take his clothes off while canoeing.
I think I'll pass. Things are wild enough on the Turner River.
North American Canoe Tours run from November through late April; 941/695-3299. Half-day trips start at $40 per person; full-day trips at $50.
step by soggy step
Why paddle across the swamp when you can walk right through it?Everglades National Park has three-hour ranger-led "slough slogs," during which you walk around hip-deep in who knows what (305/242-7700).
restaurants high and low
Flamingo Restaurant 1 Flamingo Lodge Hwy., Everglades National Park; 941/695-3101; dinner for two $45. For breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it's the only place to eat inside the national park. Bring your sense of kitsch—waitresses wear name tags that tell where they're from, amid pure seventies decoration. The coconut fried shrimp are stellar.
Rod & Gun Club 200 Riverside Dr., Everglades City; 941/695-2101; dinner for two $55. Go for the fried gator-tail nuggets and the frog's legs. The veranda fills with yachters from Naples and the upper Keys.
Zoë's 720 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 941/261-1221; dinner for two $70. Slip into a blue crushed-velvet booth near the curvy mosaic wall, order a shrimp martini appetizer and the crisp tempura tuna roll with Oriental slaw and sesame-ginger-soy drizzle. Then sit back, soak up the jazz, and watch the Beautiful People. They're everywhere.
Calypso's Seafood Grille 1 Seagate Blvd., Key Largo; 305/451-0600; dinner for two $30. About as basic as dining gets—plastic tables, paper plates, and a clay-tiled patio 10 feet off a marina. The food—prepared by a wiry, chain-smoking bohemian named Cad—is a different story. Try the "wet-black painted" hogfish, grilled and topped with seared peperoncini and feta.
Atlantic's Edge Cheeca Lodge, 81801 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada; 305/664-4651; dinner for two $75. Chef Dawn Sieber's philosophy is simple: Keep it local, fresh, and environmentally sound (she refuses to cook conch, nearly extinct in the Keys). Dig into the baby snapper with rice, pigeon peas, and tomato-mango chutney while watching coconut palms sway outside.
Prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
People say Clyde Butcher is the Ansel (or maybe Grizzly) Adams of the Everglades. His grayish beard and eyebrows are as wild and woolly as swamp moss; his formidable body wears the scars of a thousand trips through the saw grass. He'd rather not wear shoes, you see, when he wades into Big Cypress Swamp, sets up his large-format Deardorf camera, and waits for the right picture. "I never look for anything," he says. "If you go looking, you'll never find it."
The black-and-white photos that come while he's waiting are, like the man himself, immense and raw: saw-grass prairies grasping at cottony sky; blankets of ferns as delicate as bridal lace; cypress trees standing like giants. His images, which hang on the walls of the governor's mansion, have made him famous across the state; he was recently inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
All fine things, says Butcher, but his real mission is to save the Glades. He wages his campaign in photographs printed in a concrete-floored darkroom at the bubbling, black edge of Big Cypress Swamp, not far from the simple wood house he shares with his wife, Niki, also an artist. The darkroom and house are down sun-speckled Loose Screw Sanctuary Road ("You've got to be a loose screw to live here," he says); at the head of the same road sits his Big Cypress Gallery (Rte. 41, 21 miles east of Rte. 29; 941/695-2428).
here comes the government (again)
Fifty years ago the Everglades were twice their current size and doing just fine on their own. Enter the federal government, sugar growers, and developers. They dredged, drained, and diked the Glades and rearranged the Kissimmee River basin—the Everglades' life source—to make room and supply water for more farms and more people.
Drive around and you'll see the surgical scars, the wide canals and pumping stations and spillway gates intended to replace nature's own rain-driven irrigation system. Step into a kayak and you'll see non-native plants fed by fertilizers that washed into the Glades from nearby farms. What you probably won't see are peregrine falcons, Everglades mink, manatees, crocodiles, loggerhead turtles, or snail kites. And the Florida panthers?All but 10 are gone from the national park; only about 40 remain in the rest of the state.
In a bid to save what's left, the federal government is betting $8 billion on a 20-year program to bring back much of the water the swamp direly needs; to reduce pollutants from agricultural runoff and suburban sprawl; and to restore wildlife habitats. Whether it will succeed is a monumental question mark.
the tacky side of the street
Ever wonder what happened to those funky Florida swamp attractions from the forties and fifties?Nothing! They're still here, spaced along the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami, pinpoints of carnivalesque strangeness: Speedy Johnson's Fun Cruise, Buffalo Tiger's Airboat Rides, Everglades Safari Park, Gator Café . . . And then you hit Wooten's (Rte. 41, two miles east of Rte. 29; 941/695-2781), with its canary-yellow signs hawking "World Famous Everglades Airboat Tours" and a platoon of swamp buggies waiting to whisk you across the wilderness.
Over at Gator Park (Rte. 41, six miles west of Rte. 997; 305/559-2255), a fiberglass bear pilots an airboat atop a towering Coke can (picture a swampy version of the Big Boy), and live emus, skunks, and tarantulas are part of the animal show. Gator Park sells alligator stew in a can and is the unofficial sausage capital of the Glades—the links are made from gator, wild boar, and deer.
For the tastiest roadside vittles, pull into Coopertown (Rte. 41, five miles west of Rte. 997; 305/226-6048), not a town but an airboat concession with a wood shack of a restaurant. The menu posted outside lists frog's legs, alligator tail, and espresso, in that order, and warns that "illegally parked frogs will get toad away." Inside the nicotine-stained diner sits owner Jesse Kennon, claiming to be mayor of Coopertown as he digs into a plate of fried catfish. Who's to argue?His family has owned the place since 1945.
Honestly, though, you won't find a better world of weirdness than the Miccosukee Indian Village (Rte. 41, 18 miles west of Rte. 997; 305/223-8380). The concept—a living museum to the Miccosukees, who fled to the Everglades during the 19th-century Indian Wars (and run the place)—is just dandy. The reality: concrete paths bordering concrete-walled "pits" of alligators; an arena where a Miccosukee brave in Nikes wrestles a gator by poking him with a big stick; and spartan chikee shelters where Miccosukees demonstrate native crafts. Don't leave without a hello to the "Movie Star Gator," a 100-year-old 1,200-pounder named Tiny, who won a role in the 1976 movie Joe Panther. (Tiny was barred from the big wrestling scene after he crushed a stuntman's ribs; he was replaced by a rubber body double.)
Everglades Outfitters 775 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 941/262-8117. Sensible swamp fashion: pocket-happy vests, SPF 30 shirts, Supplex nylon hats.
Tommy Bahama's 1220 Third St. S., Naples; 941/643-7920. Pandan bags and imitation-horn magnifying glasses for stylish adventurers.
Corkscrew Swamp Nature Store 375 Sanctuary Rd., Naples; 941/348-9151. Where the National Audubon Society sells binoculars, field guides, and the "Birder Buddy" swamp vest.
World Wide Sportsman 81576 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada; 305/664-4615. The water-repellent twill safari hat and storm-gear luggage are musts.
mail and female
In 1953, when the Ochopee (pronounced "oh-chop-ee") post office burned down, the town cleaned out an old tomato-farm shed, moved the mail there, and instantly propelled the new Ochopee Post Office (Rte. 41, four miles east of Rte. 29; 941/695-4131) to celebrity status as the nation's smallest. Not a day goes by that a tour bus doesn't pull up here. An Everglades City native who has been working the counter for 16 years, postmaster Naomi Lewis welcomes visitors inside, one at a time. She reports that although there's a PANTHER CROSSING sign out front, she hasn't seen a cat in a decade.