With all the hype around the 10th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, I thought I would give you an alternative view to the scene here in South Florida. Not one to follow the hoards from chi-chi opening to chi-chi party, I decided to do probably the most un-cool thing imaginable and drive two hours south to Homestead, home of the eponymous Speedway, Rodeo and Air Reserve Base, and the gateway to one of this country's greatest National Parks - the Everglades.
Comprising over 1.5 million acres of subtropical wilderness, the area known as the Everglades began as Royal Palm State Park in 1916 but did not officially become a National Park until 1947. It made news headlines in 1992 and again in 2005 when the area took direct hits from Hurricanes Andrew and Wilma respectively, both storms causing massive devastation. But on this November day, early in the region's dry season, the temperature was a mild 75 degrees and skies were brilliant blue - perfect for touring this marvelous park.
With only one afternoon and not quite sure of what to see and do, I consulted the knowledgeable volunteers at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center located just inside the Park entrance. Armed with a map and a list of suggestions I felt confident that I could get a pretty good feel for the Park and its special attractions even in a short time. The adventure was about to begin!
First stop was the Royal Palm Visitor Center where I parked the car and hoped that the huge vultures lurking nearby would not really be as vicious as the posted signs warned (they weren't). Close by was the beginning of the Anhinga Trail, a half mile loop of raised boardwalk that passed over crystal clear water that was just the opposite of how I thought swamp water should look.
The trail is named after the anhinga bird, quite a large waterbird with a swan-like neck that is plentiful in this area. There were also many snowy white egrets and ebony black crows. But what we had all come to see were the alligators and we were not disappointed!
I was walking along the boardwalk with my eyes open for a sighting when I noticed a very unusual looking log in the water. Sure enough it was a big alligator quietly watching and waiting for lunch. A little farther along and a little tiny baby turtle was crossing the walkway. Still farther and there was a "teenage" alligator sunning himself beside the path.
He drew a few spectators but no one was going to get too close!
At the end of the Anhinga Trail is the Gumbo Limbo Trail, another short loop that passed through a tropical hardwood "hammock" filled with lush vegetation. Gumbo limbo is an indigenous tree that features an unusual reddish brown bark. Other native trees included Spanish oak, palms, mangroves and cypress but what was most remarkable about this forest were the bromeliad plants that had attached themselves to the tree trunks and branches and were thriving on their adopted "parent".
A short drive away was Pa-hay-okee Overlook, another short boardwalk trail that leads to a "treehouse". From this elevated deck visitors can see for miles and truly appreciate the vast expanse of sawgrass growing in freshwater sloughs (pronounced "slews") and prairies interrupted only by hardwood tree islands or "hammocks". It was an impressive sight.
Although many of the trees looked dead, it turned out that these are deciduous cypress trees and they naturally lose their needles and look this way during the dry season.
The next stop was the Mahogany Hammock Trail, another short loop but this one was like walking through a jungle. Here the plant life was so dense that huge trees that had fallen over and could barely been seen with all the new growth that had taken over.
Finally I came to the end of the road, the Flamingo Visitor Center and Marina, a 38 mile drive from the entrance of the park. This was the most developed area of the park but facilities were limited. I enjoyed a snack of trail mix sitting on a dock watching manatees frolicking in the water and hoping to glimpse a crocodile. Unfortunately it was too late for a boat ride but I had already seen and learned a lot of new and interesting things. The sun was getting low in the sky and it was time to head back to the urban sprawl of Miami Dade but with a totally new appreciation for the Everglades and its remarkable ecosystem.
I leave you now with a nifty bit of information that I'll bet you didn't know. How can you tell the length of a grown alligator without actually measuring it (a rather dangerous proposition)? I'll tell you! The number of inches between the eye and the tip of the snout is roughly equal to the number of feet between the snout and the tip of the tail. One of those surprising facts that just might come in handy sometime!