Get Out of Town: Everglades City by Su Byron

As “cities” go, Everglades City is a dot on the map. This tidy, quaint village in Collier County is home to about 700 year-round denizens—and a vacation mecca to thousands of visitors from around the planet, including eco-tourists, adventurers, fishermen, hikers, bikers and photographers. They come for one simple reason. The city is smack dab in the middle of a vast stretch of unspoiled Florida swampland—the unique Everglades ecosystem. If you want to be an eco-friendly tourist destination, it’s all about location. And Everglades City has got it.

To the north, it’s just a short drive to Everglades National Park, the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve. To the west, the Gulf of Mexico and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, a protected chain of untouched islands and mangrove islets, stretch away like an Impressionist’s glittering dream. You might want to pinch yourself, because it’s not a dream. If you want to get back to natural Florida, Everglades City is the place to go.

Everglades City serves as a base camp for close encounters with this natural splendor. In this subtropical paradise, you can kayak through mysterious mangrove tunnels, hike through mucky swamps, bike alongside freshwater marshes, groove on the ghost orchids you heard about in “The Orchid Thief,” and catch glimpses of all sorts of native critters, including bear, panthers, turtles and (natch) gators. Love to fish? Snook and tarpon abound, and there are guides who know the best spots and are more than willing to show you. Here’s just a sample of what you can experience . . .

Ways to Explore 

Everglades Adventures offers guided kayak tours of the ’glades. You start up the peaceful mangrove tunnels of Turner River, then delve deeper and deeper into a mystical, primordial landscape where herons, anhinga and other graceful water birds perform water ballet, ospreys and eagles glide nobly overhead, and gators and turtles peek from hidden perches. Bring a camera! evergladesadventures.com

Feel like sweat-powered exploration? Naples Bicycle Tours provides top-notch biking and walking tours. A certified Florida master naturalist will expertly guide you through cypress swamps, freshwater marshes, wet and dry prairies, and rare, tropical hardwood hammocks. Your guide will also point out rare and endangered plants, native orchids, hardwood trees, herbs and bromeliads. Nature provides the splendor; the company provides high-quality bicycles, Nikon binoculars, water, snacks and an after-ride drink. naplesbicycletours.com

To really experience the Everglades, you’ve got to do an airboat tour. The area is packed with seasoned companies—but here are two to start with: Jungle Erv’s Airboat Tours is owned by Erv Stokes. Born and raised in these parts, Erv knows every inch and cranny of his beloved glades. As you gaze with wonder at creatures near and far, he’ll regale you with tales (some tall) of the area’s history and folklore. 804 Collier Ave., Everglades City; jungleervairboatworld.com

Captain Doug’s Everglades Tours are helmed by Coast Guard-licensed captains, who are equally schooled in Native American history and natural fauna and flora. At tour’s end, the company offers a photo of you holding a baby gator. 200 Collier Avenue, Everglades City; captaindougs.net

With more than 300 species of birds in the Everglades, birders can spend weeks pursuing their passion. Everglades Area Tours offers power boat and kayak tours for birders and photographers to hard-to-reach places. If you can pull yourself away from looking upwards, you might also spot dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and alligators. evergladesareatours.com

The Everglades is ideal fishing country and Captain Brandon Acosta of Everglades City Fishing Charters will take you on your dream fishing trip. For an inshore adventure, explore the backcountry of the Everglades National Park and 10,000 Islands where you’ll find, depending on the season, snook, redfish, trout and tarpon. Acosta also offers offshore fishing treks where cobia, grouper and tripletail thrive. evergladescityfishingcharters.com

Everglades City Boardwalk was built in 1984—and rebuilt in 2005, after Hurricane Wilma blew it down. This rambling boardwalk takes you through a primordial mangrove forest and a thriving estuary, teeming with wildlife. On any given day, you’ll spy (from a safe distance!) snakes, gators, manatees and a colorful panoply of flying creatures. The kids will love the daily gator shows and Chickee huts built by local Native Americans. 239.695.2800

Where to Stay

For oodles of Southern hospitality and upscale comfort, the celebrated Ivey House Bed and Breakfast offers 29 spacious rooms and two cottages. The property also includes an 11-room lodge, which was originally created for the workers who built The Tamiami Trail—now repurposed for contemporary eco-tourists. Their customized eco-treks include kayaking, hiking, camping and other expeditions for groups of all sizes. iveyhouse.com

The Rod and Gun Club has harbored such luminaries as Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Jack Nicklaus and Sean Connery—but it hasn’t lost its old-world, laid back ambiance. Built before the Civil War, this historical landmark is in the heart of Everglades City overlooking the natural drama of Barron River. The cottages, simply outfitted and clean, are scattered about the property. The on-site restaurant serves up frog legs, gator, soft shell blue crab, key lime pie and other local delicacies. Bring the fish you caught that day, and they’ll cook it up for you. evergladesrodandgun.com

Where to Eat

You’ll return from your swamp adventures with a healthy appetite. Fortunately, Everglades City offers a mouth-watering choice of restaurants. These include Camellia Street Grill, which boasts flopping fresh pompano, kingfish and snapper—just off the boat. Show up at sunset to dine on the deck overlooking the Barren River and Technicolor sky. 239.695.2003

City Seafood is another area favorite; folks swear by its delectable stone crabs (in season). This casual, waterfront eatery also offers up gator, conch, frogs legs, and Florida shrimp and lobster. Bring your ice chest; their seafood market is just next door. This is also the place to stock up on souvenirs, including gator teeth necklaces, gator claws, and plenty of T-shirts and gear. cityseafood1.com

If You Go

Everglades City is situated on Highway 29, 15 miles south of Interstate 75 (old Alligator Alley), and four miles south of Highway 41 (The Tamiami Trail). It’s about 140 miles south of Venice.

Originally published in Venice Magazine.

Photo from Manatee.de