If you wanted Mickey Mouse, you're in the wrong part of the Sunshine State - the Florida Everglades is a genuine wilderness
are located in south Florida, between Miami on the Atlantic coast, and Naples on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Sunshine State. Now a national park, the Everglades borders, and is enlarged by, Big Cypress National Preserve. Together, they offer more than a million and a half acres of genuine, primitive wilderness.
Known as ‘grassy water’ by early Native Americans, the Everglades is in reality a wide and shallow river that, technically at least, flows. It moves a full mile every four days and seems to be perfectly still.
The mangrove swamps and complex network of canals and creeks are home to an extraordinary collection of flora and fauna – offering glimpses into a seemingly prehistoric environment adjacent to some of the most sophisticated ultra-modern communities in the western world.
The Everglades harbours some 350 species of birds and 200 species of fish, attracting anglers, birdwatchers, photographers, hikers and cyclists as well as families and other nature lovers. Herons, egrets and fish-eating ospreys are among the most prominent of the area’s diverse birdlife.
The top attraction is the alligators but, unusually, crocodiles can be found here too. The combination is unusual in that alligators live in freshwater and crocodiles prefer saltwater. With both types of water within its borders, the Everglades is the only region in the world where they co-exist.
Visitors don’t have to work too hard or stray too far to find nature putting on a dazzling display. On a trip to the Everglades in February one year, I was strolling along a path when a frightened woman ran by, warning that there was an alligator ahead. Sure enough, a large gator had chosen the middle of this path for a siesta.
Alligators tend to shy away from people but it is best to take no chances; the animals are not supposed to be fed, but this sage advice is frequently ignored. The result: alligators now regard people not as meals per se but as a source of handouts, and they can get too close for comfort.
My near-miss non-encounter with the gator occurred not in some remote unspoiled depths of the park. It was within sight of a ranger station. This station was also adjacent to a clear shallow pool that was rapidly evaporating. In these desperately overcrowded conditions, larger fish were effortlessly gobbling up smaller ones. But the larger ones in turn – in fact, all of the fish - were prey for ospreys that swooped down for an easy meal. Sometimes, these magnificent diving birds got two for the price of one, snagging a fish with a smaller one already in its mouth. Nearby, an alligator lazily took it all in, occasionally turning its head to catch a frog.
The ranger stations are excellent starting points: they have organized walks and talks, and provide tour maps allowing you to go off on your own.
Spice of life
There is plenty to do as well as see. Airboat excursions are perennially popular. These distinctive boats – with their large vertical fans at the rear - are available at numerous locations throughout the park. Guided by experts, they explore creeks and inlets that you otherwise would not know about or couldn’t find, or that would be too dangerous for you to explore on your own.
If you prefer your own company, you can rent a canoe, kayak or rowboat. Angling for tarpon, snook, redfish and bass is also popular and easily arranged.
The Everglades, which used to reach north to Lake Okeechobee in central Florida, is now about a quarter of its original size. It is still threatened by development; it is still undoing damage caused by unwise rehabilitation projects begun in the past. Matters are not helped by invasive plants and animals that threaten the local ecosystem. Burmese pythons, as their name suggests, are not native.
Fortunately, my Everglades experience did not include an encounter with a python, probably an abandoned pet or descendant of one. Nor have I ever seen a panther, which is native to the region. It is almost certain that you won’t either. They are shy and scarce, and their numbers are declining. But plenty of birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians remain to put on a good show.
Where to stay
Several hotels are located in the park itself - like Everglades City Motel
, located within the National Park on the northwestern corner. These hotels tend to be modest, but for more dining and accommodation choice, and more upscale choice at that, there is plenty on offer in Naples
. Both cities are within easy day-trip distance of the Everglades.
Where to eat
Rod and Gun Club, Everglades City: upscale rooms and grub.
Casita Tejas, Honestead (just east of the Everglades): good food, service and Mexican food.
Robert Is Here, in Homestead, is a massive fruit stand, gift shop, grocery and advice centre – and a local landmark.