Of all the destinations on our road trip, our scheduled stop in the Everglades was the one we were most excited about. All that wildlife, right? Bronzed airboat guides wrestling alligators, right?
Well, not exactly. For some reason, throughout our airboat tour, my jaw clenched from the herky-jerky ride and the roar of the airboat engine pounding in my head, I kept thinking of Tobias from Arrested Development. You know, Tobias, the nevernude.
Because for me, this experience would be remembered as the Neverglades. If you want to go someplace completely devoid of wildlife, I highly recommend our airboat tour: no birds, no alligators, no creatures of any kind except for a handful of tourists and our stocky airboat pilot with his vast array of tasteless jokes and a massive skull tattoo on his forearm. I really wanted to ask about that tattoo, but did not want to risk a breach of etiquette while stranded in the middle of a mangrove with a guy who looked like he has bar fights for breakfast.
There are a number of airboat concessions in the Everglades. Ours was recommended by the concierge at our hotel in Naples and gets excellent reviews. It just wasn’t what I was expecting. I hadn’t done my homework. Should you ever have the inclination to spend an hour with the sound of a thousand industrial fans scrambling your brain cells, here are a few things to know:
1. You can access Everglades concessions from the east (Miami), the West (Naples) or south (Homestead). The western entrance was recommended to us and seems to offer a greater variety of options closer to the entrance.
2. Take an airboat ride if you want to see mangroves and have your stomach flip over because your pilot wants to show off his navigational skills. Do not expect to see wildlife.
3. Time of year is apparently to be considered. Our Captain (and believe me, I use that term loosely) explained away the absence of wildlife by saying that late May, “before the rains start” is the worst time to be there because the salt content of the water is higher than normal and the animals go elsewhere.
Later in our trip, we learned that there may be another reason why you don’t see wildlife in the Everglades: PYTHONS! In the last dozen years, escaped or released pet Burmese Pythons have challenged alligators to be king of the Everglades food chain. Evidence is disputed, but some believe that the “python invasion” is responsible for the fact that 99 percent of Everglades raccoons have vanished and that Marsh rabbits and foxes have completely disappeared.
Our stomachs eventually settled down after the airboat ride and we realized it was time for lunch. Everglades City is not a hotbed for dining experiences, especially off-season when many establishments seemed to be closed. Luckily, we found great grouper sandwiches at The Seafood Depot, which doesn’t look like much from the outside, but has a charming “Old Florida” cabana terrace overlooking the river. It ain’t fancy but the service is excellent and you’ll be greeted by an enormous stuffed alligator in the lobby, so there’s that.
It was here that we remembered our hotel concierge in Naples had slipped us a piece of paper with directions to an area she called Turner River Road. “In case you want to see more alligators,” she had said. (“More”, in this case, being a euphemism for “any”.) We dutifully set off in the hazy mid-day heat and after about a half-hour drive saw several cars parked by the side of the road and groups of tourists standing on the bank of a river that parallels the road. We were in the Big Cypress National Preserve and this is where you want to go to see alligators! We counted at least a dozen of them cruising in the water and basking on the riverbank.
In addition to the alligators, we saw egrets, osprey, double-crested cormorants and plenty of turtles and fish. Oh, and fire ants. I thought I had walked through a patch of nettles only to look down and see my feet covered with biting ants. Ouch! Don’t wear open-toed shoes!
I was tired, hot, sweaty and bitten up by fire ants, but I had finally “bagged” my alligators. It was a good day! Well, except for that persistent ringing in my ears from the airboat ride. Our work here was done: we’d put the check in the box for The Everglades and could head to our next destination: the Florida Keys.