In the 1820’s artist and naturalist John James Audubon lived for months in the Everglades, surviving mosquitoes, to paint in painstaking detail and breathtaking artistry its many bird species. The Everglades is a vast subtropical wetland and collection of coastal ecosystems including freshwater marshes, tropical hardwood hammocks, pine rock lands, extensive mangrove forests, saltwater marshes, and seagrass ecosystems. The abundance of wildlife, both subtropical and temperate species, is found nowhere else in the United States. Yet vast changes since Audubon’s day have made the Everglades accessible and has threatened its very existence.
Go southeast from Naples on a two day, ten stop, 200 mile drive, Naples – Everglades City – Flamingo – Florida City, for both a land and water exploration of the national park, an overnight in a 1920s sportsmen’s club and remnants of old Florida surviving in the Smallwood store, now an historic museum. You can view gators on boardwalks around mangrove islands and dine on them at Camellia Street Grill or Mutineer Restaurant. If time and energy allows, canoeing or kayaking is always a popular activity around Flamingo City. A winter drive, before family crowds and mosquitoes, is a fine time to explore this continent’s river of grass.
The Ochopee Post Office on the Tamiami Trail, US Route #41
By 1928 Tampa and Miami where connected by a paved highway. The final stretch through the Everglades of the Tamiami Trail was an engineering marvel that took a grueling 13 years. Yet it also took a business mogul to bankroll the road’s completion. Barron Gift Collier made his first fortune in advertising by the late1890s when he was in his 20s. A believer, like Henry Flagler, that an entrepreneur is more than just one fortune, he built an empire including street cars, newspapers, hotels and shipping. His vast Florida real estate holdings had convenient access off the Tamiami Trail.
Although I-75 provides a quicker route today between the gulf and Atlantic coasts, the Tamiami Trail is still the road for exploring the northern ecosystems of the Everglades and Everglades City. The Ochopee Post Office, zip code 34141, is considered to be the nation’s smallest. It’s more a symbol of Everglades survival. A former farm shed, it hurriedly became a replacement after a 1953 fire destroyed the nearby post office. Its compact one person space serves the multiple needs of a diverse rural population. It’s a favorite tourist photo op and postcard mailing station along the Tamiami Trail.
Eagles nest, Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, US #41 Tamiami Trail
Recovering from extensive 20th century logging operations that built fortunes and devastated the eco system, this region off the Tamiami Trail is protected as both state and federal lands as well as Native American reservations. Stop and walk the boardwalk at Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk provides visitors an elevated winding path through a dense cypress forest. A quietly flowing stream is home to gators while the dense forest is alive with the calls of hundreds of bird species. A bald eagle’s nest, continuously used since 1991, sure enough had an occupant this past January.
Museum of the Everglades, Everglades City
Just three miles south of the Tamiami Trail on CR 29, Everglades City was carved out of the wetlands and mangrove forests by the same hands that finished the highway. Mr. Collier’s road led to a landscaped modern community designed to be the headquarters for his Florida holdings and the seat of Collier County. The Museum of the Everglades, on the National Register of Historic Places, is an homage to a late 19th century experiment in creating a perfect company town.
This 1927 Florida craftsmen building was once the laundry for Barron Collier’s Rod and Gun Club. Its own survival through devastating hurricanes that all but destroyed Everglades City is history itself. Fine exhibits and videos are to be seen inside on the artistic pre-Columbian native American culture and the succeeding Seminoles, African and European inhabitants that shaped the modern Everglades.
Pelicans, Everglades National Park Boat Tours, Everglades City
Everglades National Park protects the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. It was naturalist and park advocate Marjory Douglas who coined the phrase “River of Grass.” The Department of Interior has vetted concessionaires within the national park system for many decades. The Everglades National Park Boat Tours offer leisurely 90 minute tours of the surrounding ego system known as the ten thousand islands. Dolphins frequently play with the ship while a park volunteer offers in depth information on the natural world the group’s gliding through. Multi hour canoe tours and overnight camping stays can all be arranged.
Allegator, Camellia Street Grill, 208 Camellia St., Everglades, FL
Everglades City was left for dead many times since devastating hurricanes in the 1950s elevated nearby, and safer, Naples to be the seat of Collier County. Yet there’s an old Florida charm to the mostly raised houses, the commercial fishing boats plying the waterways through the ten thousand islands and the remnants of Barron Collier’s model company town. It’s being rediscovered.
A couple new houses are being constructed and in an attractively colorful and ramshackle waterside structure, Camellia Street Grill is bringing the occupants of Naples to enjoy relaxed old Florida cuisine yet with upscale presentations, live music and stunning sunsets. The sauteed alligator and grilled grouper salads are not on the average south Florida waterfront restaurant, but Camellia Street Grill is well above the average. Lunch and dinner are equally enjoyable but bring bug repellant for after dark.
Ted Smallwood Store, 360 Mamie St., Chokoloskee Fl
When Ted Smallwood built his general store in 1906 he used lob-lolly pine, a wood so hard, now rare and endangered, the structure has survived a century of hurricanes. The store was built on stilts out into the water so that fishing and cargo boats could pull right up. Smallwood’s served the needs of a widespread and water bound group of pioneer residents and Native Americans in the ten thousand islands. Just a few miles south of Everglades City, the Smallwood family still owns this relic and lovingly preserves it as a museum, now on the National Register of Historic Places. For a small admission, one can wander through the remarkably preserved store and browse hundreds of items that where the necessities of life in the past century.
The Rod & Gun Club, Everglades City
Before advertising mogul Barron Collier built the Tamiami Trail and Everglades City, he had become enamored with the healthy outdoor sporting life the Everglades provided. In 1922 he purchased an earlier club on land that would become part of Everglades City and constructed the area’s most exclusive sportsmen’s enclave, the Rod & Gun Club. Collier’s elegant club hosted presidents, international celebrities and sportsmen for over 50 years.
Restoration after a disastrous fire, and under its second owners, the Bowen family, the Rod & Gun Club has maintained a gracious Southern style for newer generations. Cocktails in the lounge while sitting in the deep leather couches, stuffed trophies hanging on the wall, followed by dinner on the long screened veranda or in the high ceilinged dining room while boats glide up to the dock, is still a part of life at the Rod & Gun Club. An overnight in one of their comfortable rooms will provide quiet sleep.
Gator on the Anhinga Trail, Royal Palm Center, Everglades National Park, Florida City, Fl
It’s a 100 mile drive from Everglades City to the Royal Palm Center entrance of Everglades National Park outside Florida City, Fl. The Tamiami Trail gives way to routes south into Florida’s lush produce and citrus growing areas before reentering the national park outside of Florida City. After visiting the park’s Royal Palm Center spend at least 90 minutes strolling the boardwalk through the Anhinga Trail. Named after the bird that dramatically spreads its wings to dry in the sun after fishing, the trail winds its way through ecosystems teeming with wildlife and more than a couple alligators quietly napping in the warm sun.
Flamingo, Everglades National Park
Flamingo is the end of the trail on the 38 mile park road from Florida City. Once a small fishing village at the end of the ten thousand islands, before its incorporation into the national park, the town was blown off the map by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The park rebuilt dock facilities that serve private boats, tours, canoe and kayak rentals.
The park headquarters is in a surprisingly modern, elevated structure that provides beautiful views of life on the surrounding shallow water. An informative welcome center and a small cafe round out human life at the end of the Everglades. Although the Flamingo Lodge was destroyed in 2005, the park has just started rental of an experimental structure, the Flamingo Eco-tent. Designed in a joint venture with the University of Miami School of Architecture, the eco-tent is easily disassembled and stored in case weather and water level dictates. It also helps protect from the park’s most pesky animal, the mosquito.
Mutineer Restaurant, 1 Southeast 1st Avenue, Florida City, Fl
Florida City, on US route #1 at the gateway to the Florida Keys and the Everglades, has a number of national hotel chains for overnight stays and one recommended restaurant. The Mutineer Restaurant ought to satisfy many tastes. An outdoor terrace with music and videos is fine on a warm casual evening. Inside the bar has a requisite number of large screen TVs covering all sports events but with the volume nearly off and a good blend of music playing over a sound system modulated to allow conversation.
An eclectic dining seating area has a pirate motif, but the menu is anything but cartoonist. Excellent grilled meats, fish and seafood are combined with culinary prowess in such dishes as a sushi grade grilled tuna with seaweed salad. Mickey Brown, the enthusiastic manager, will most likely drop by your table and impart local lore as well as advice on area attractions.