Ramble coast to coast through the fantasies and realities of South Florida
South Florida. Palm trees frame postcard views of boats slicing through blue-green water as swooping birds cry overhead. Miles of mucky grass, once derided as worthless swamp, shelter an incredible range of wildlife, from the elegant (great blue herons) to the fearsome (alligators). A three-day trip, especially during the relatively bug-free winter, reveals the splendor and fragility of the subtropical beauty. An extra day can add the breathtaking vistas of water on every horizon.
Morning: Head south from Miami to Convoy Point, headquarters of Biscayne National Park. Arrive early to watch the sunrise over Biscayne Bay. Picnic areas overlook the sparkling, aquamarine water that covers 95 percent of the park. Explore Biscayne’s four ecosystems: mangrove shoreline, the bay, the northernmost Florida Keys and a coral reef.
Afternoon: To view the gorgeous fish and surreal formations of the reef, you can stay dry (glass-bottom boat) or get wet (snorkeling or scuba diving boat tours). Other boat trips let you snorkel among the bayfront mangroves. Or you can rent a canoe or kayak and wander on your own. (Guided canoe and kayak trips take place January through April.) The park also offers fishing and camping, as well as immense numbers of birds and the rare American crocodile.
Evening: Linger along the jetty trail for one last chance at spotting a manatee. Then browse along Krome Avenue in Homestead, just west of the park. Check out the artist studios, galleries, sculpture garden and performing art space at ArtSouth. Stay at the vintage Redland Hotel in Homestead.
Morning: Take a slight detour on your way to Everglades National Park, and stop at the sprawling Robert Is Here fruit stand in Homestead for an education about tropical fruit, park tips, a fresh-fruit milkshake and maybe a Key lime pie to go (closed September and October). Drive north on Krome Avenue/State Route 997, turn left on the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) and travel 18 miles to the park’s Shark Valley Visitor Center. The two-hour, naturalist-narrated tram tour gives you a great sense of how the Everglades—a very wide, shallow, slow river—works.
Afternoon: Continue west on the Tamiami Trail to Collier Avenue, and then south to the park’s visitor center in Everglades City. Try a grab-and-go lunch around one or more of the naturalist-narrated boat tours through the mangrove maze known as Ten Thousand Islands. You’ll encounter abundant birds, probably some alligators and dolphins and maybe even a manatee.
Evening: Have dinner at the Rod and Gun Club in Everglades City. The dark-wood main lodge transports you back to the 1930s, when ambitious developer Barron Collier used it as a hunting and fishing retreat for the powerful and privileged. For cozy Everglades City lodging, try The Ivey House Bed & Breakfast, which also rents canoes, kayaks and camping equipment and leads guided canoe/kayak tours.
Morning: See the Everglades by airboat—it’s like roaring along the water in an open-cockpit airplane. Speedy's Airboat Tours, across the street from The Ivey House, offers hour-long trips (bring earplugs and a jacket). Lunch on seafood at the waterfront Camellia Street Grill (closed June through September). Then take Collier Avenue north to the Tamiami Trail, and head east to Big Cypress National Preserve’s Oasis Visitor Center.
Afternoon: Big Cypress Preserve safeguards the heart of Big Cypress Swamp, a vital water source for the Everglades. From December to April, rangers lead a fascinating mix of wildlife walks, canoe trips, bike rides, campfire programs and even a night boardwalk stroll. Just east of the visitor center is a must-visit: Big Cypress Gallery, which features ethereal black-and-white photographs of the preserve and other Florida landscapes.
Evening: A stunning experience awaits if you can spare one more day. Fly to Key West from Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers. For a romantic old town guesthouse experience, stay at Island City House Hotel—three historic, lavishly landscaped buildings.
Morning: Catch the 8a.m. ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park. The Yankee Freedom III runs about $170 for adults, and includes admission to the park. Fares also include breakfast and lunch, snorkel gear and a tour of Fort Jefferson.
Afternoon: You’re way out in the Gulf of Mexico, almost 70 miles from Key West, on seven tiny, sandy islands. You can snorkel, fish, tour Fort Jefferson (an 18th-century fort where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned for treating Abraham Lincoln’s assassin)—or just listen to the birds and waves and contemplate the vast sweep of water that surrounds you.
Evening: Back in Key West, catch the freewheeling circus of street performers and artisans who salute every sunset at the Mallory Square dock. Then cap off your trip with a delicious dinner at Conch Republic Seafood Company at the Bight (the historic seaport).
Transportation: Miami International Airport is larger, closer to the parks. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood is less crowded and is served by discount carriers Southwest and JetBlue. On the Gulf Coast, all major airlines fly into Southwest Florida International near Fort Myers.
Accommodations: The Redland Hotel in Homestead, Ivey House in Everglades City Island City House Hotel in Key West. Activities: Before you go, visit nps.gov for more ideas about specific park activities and schedules of events. Winter is the busy season in these parks, so it’s best to make reservations ahead of time.
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