Miami and Fort Lauderdale offer so many activities that boredom is never an option. But that doesn’t mean you also shouldn’t explore further afield. The subtropical landscape in South Florida is unlike any other in the United States, which you’ll quickly realize on a day trip to the surrounding regions. Here are the sojourns to add to your list.
Discover the River of Grass
The Everglades, nicknamed the “River of Grass” by native tribes, is a complicated web of wetlands ecosystems comprising sawgrass marshes, cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, mangrove forests, pine rocklands, coastal prairies, and tidal estuaries.
Visitors can access Everglades National Park – which houses indigenous flora and fauna such as the Florida panther, the American alligator, the saltwater crocodile, and more than 360 varieties of birds – via a couple of official entrances. If you’re staying at the Home2 Suites by Hilton Florida City, which neighbors the park, stop at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center for information about ranger-led slough slogging, kayaking and canoeing, fishing, geocaching, and other opportunities. At this entrance, you can access several popular hiking/biking trails and paddling sites, including Pine Island and Flamingo, as well as the Nike Missile Base.
Biking enthusiasts adore the other entrance at Shark Valley Visitor Center off Highway 41/Tamiami Trail, where there’s a 15-mile paved, circular path called “the loop,” to pedal. At the halfway point, the huge Shark Valley Observation Tower allows visitors to observe some of the park’s largest alligators, which hang out in the deeper waters. But whether you pedal, walk, or take the two-hour guided Shark Valley Tram Tour, rest assured you will see plenty of alligators soaking up the sun on the hot pavement or swimming in the canals, as well as other wildlife hanging out in the hammocks.
The other way to see the fascinating topography of the Everglades and the species that live there is by airboat. Airboats can skim over very shallow waters at high speeds, but also can linger at a standstill for wildlife watching. You can find airboat ventures all along Tamiami Trail. But if you’re staying at either the Hampton Inn Ft. Lauderdale-West/Pembroke Pines or the Home2 Suites by Hilton Miramar Ft. Lauderdale, head to Everglades Holiday Park for thrilling and informative tours, led by longtime guides who know where the largest gators lurk and the biggest birds roost. The park also features gator wrestling shows, safe encounters with up to five different animals and their handlers, and a presentation by the Gator Boys Alligator Rescue team, who remove and conserve those “nuisance” alligators who have wandered too close to civilization.
Swim with Wildlife
If you really want to get away from it all, drive down to divers’ and boaters’ paradise Biscayne National Park, which is 95% water. Filled with South Florida history, both natural and manmade – check out Stiltsville, houses built in the 1930s in the middle of the sea – the park is ideal for those who love nature and being in it. Dive deep or snorkel to follow the underwater Maritime Heritage Trail, paddle or boat out to Boca Chita Key (which features a historic lighthouse), or picnic and camp on Elliott Key.
Just south of Homestead, the Upper Keys – including Islamorada and Key Largo – feature a completely different panorama. Go simply for the scenic, sea-level drive, which is unlike any other, or for the off-the-grid lifestyle that those who live here enjoy. In Islamorada, swim with dolphins, sea lions, or sharks at Theater of the Sea, then celebrate with a meal at Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana Bar. Or charter a deep-sea fishing trip with Key Largo Fishing Adventures, then return to have your catch cooked at the Lazy Lobster Seafood Restaurant (where you can also sample rock lobster in two dozen different styles). Top it all off with key lime pie at the famous Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen.