I fell into a tourist trap in…Miami

I fell into a tourist trap in…Miami

The Everglades, Florida

When you go to Miami, you must visit the Everglades and take an airboat tour, they said; it’s amazing, they said; you’ll see loads of wildlife, they said. So I went to the Everglades and I took the obligatory airboat tour – and I was disappointed.

Not with the Everglades. The Everglades, a giant 1.5 million-acre swamp commonly described as a “The River of Grass”, is beautiful, and even though I’ve seen some truly spectacular sites on my travels, I was blown away by what I saw here (more of that later). The area is home to hundreds of different types of birds, 40 species and mammals and 150 species of trees – but it’s probably best known for its alligators. For these alone, it’s worth a visit.

It was just the iconic airboat tour that I thought was a bit “meh”.

If you are in Miami or Miami Beach, the Everglades are an easy, hour-long drive from the city, so you can hire a car for the day and drive yourself, as I did, or take an organised coach tour. There are several different routes into the park, we took Highway 41 because it was the closest to Miami Beach.

Along the route, as you approach the Everglades National Park, you’ll see lots of outfits offering airboat tours, which are not allowed to operate within the park itself – read on and you’ll see why.

Hubby and I stopped at Gator Park, only because it had been recommended by the concierge at our hotel. With storm clouds gathering in the distance, we were hoping to hop on a boat asap, so we were relieved when the woman at the cash desk said the boat would leave in about 10 minutes. Twenty minutes later we were still waiting. What we were waiting for was a small coach-load of other tourists to arrive. By the time they did, the storm was almost ready to crack over our heads.

About 40 of us were herded on to two ‘airboats’, which are flat-bottomed vessels powered by a giant fan at the back. At first, the boat glides almost silently through the grass and the only noise is the click of everyone’s cameras as they attempt to capture a heron on a branch in the distance, or a floating stick that looks a bit like an alligator, but then the guide tells you to pop in the earplugs you were given at the start, the fan kicks in, and the noise is horrendous.

We raced along a wide stretch of water between the rushes for about 90 seconds, then the driver cut the engine and once more we drifted along. Although we spotted the odd bird in the rushes, I’m pretty sure the sound of the engine would have scared away most of the wildlife. After a minute or two, we rounded a bend and, in the distance, something bobbed along the water towards us.

“Here comes Jumper,” said our guide, and we all leaned out to take photos. “Hands in the boat, there’s a reason she’s called Jumper,” shouted the comedian.

Jumper the gator in the Everglades

As if powered by remote control, Jumper swam within a few inches of the boat, before taking a right turn into the long grass.  That was cool, but a few seconds later the fan kicked in again and we headed back to the jetty. The heavens opened just before we reached dry land.  As we all tried to scramble off the boat, the guide/comedy genius shouted: “If you’ve enjoyed the tour, exit by the right, if not, turn left (into the water). If you’ve enjoyed the tour, my name is Chris, if not, it’s Pete.” I’m not sure what I’d call him if we met again.

Desperate to avoid the rain, hubby and I ran to the nearest shelter and accidentally ended up at the site’s alligator show. I say “show”, but I’m not really sure what it was. About half a dozen alligators were lying in an enclosure, so still they looked like plastic imitations, a warden arrived and prodded a few with a stick, then gave one or two a hunk of meat. Then he produced a giant frog from a box, grabbed me out of the audience to give it a kiss (why, who knows?), and that was it.

All in all, the Everglades Gator Park experience wasn’t awful and it cost only about $25 each, but I left wondering what there was to rave about and worried about the impact of those damned noisy boats on the park’s ecosystem. I wanted to see the Everglades of James Carlos Blake who wrote:

If the devil ever raised a garden, the Everglades was it

We decided to drive further along Highway 41 and into the national park itself. I’m so glad we did.

We stopped at Shark Valley, where there’s a 15-mile long paved route around a section of the park, with an observation tower at the half-way point. You can take a tram tour, which stops at the observation tower, or hire bikes* from an outfit at the back of the onsite visitors’ centre, and ride around the route.

Every tree for miles around was filled with birds. It was one of the most mesmerising sites I’d ever seen

We parked the car and hired bikes, which were a little basic but cycling along the path we saw swamps so full of alligator we got tired of pointing them out. Heron, that we’d only seen from a distance on the airboat, flew alongside us as we cycled along; we saw a turtle at the edge of the path.

And when we reached the observation tower after a sweaty hour of puffing and panting, the view was spectacular. Every tree for miles around was filled with heron, bald eagles and egrets, the sound of birdsong was incredible and I could have spent hours watching them fly so close to us we could almost touch them. It was one of the most mesmerising sites I’d even seen.

Best of all, there were no airboats to shatter the peace.

Our bike ride took about three hours, it was quite strenuous in the May humidity, at times I thought I might not make it all the way around (take lots of water, I glugged gallons,) but it cost only $27 each for the bike hire and it was worth every drop of sweat and every cent.

So, go to the Everglades, go on an airboat tour if you want to tick off one of the iconic attractions, but make sure you don’t miss Shark Valley if you take Highway 41.  Oh, but try to avoid a bike ride in the late afternoon, which is when most thunderstorms happen – we nearly got caught in another one during our ride, which was pretty scary as we were out in the open for much of the time and I wouldn’t have rated our chances in a lightning strike! Check the weather forecast before you go.

*Helmets and baskets are available for hire, as are children’s bikes. It’s not possible to reserve bikes, it’s first come, first served; you will need to show ID.

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